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Feb 19 2020 / Round the Table Magazine

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10 staff members in 2 years

Birkel explains what he's doing to reduce turnover, frustration and stress.

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WHEN THINGS go smoothly for a long time, it’s easy to lose sight of how you got to that point of stability.

Stuart J. Birkel, CSA, LACP, had spent more than a decade with the same assistant, who came to feel like part of the family for the 13-year MDRT member from Norfolk, Virginia. Yet when a years-long conflict between his longtime assistant and his business partner’s assistant led to both of the administrative staff members leaving the practice, Birkel suddenly found himself needing to fill a position he hadn’t dealt with in ages.

Two years and double-digits worth of attempts later, Birkel almost can’t believe how many false starts he has endured in trying to replace the employees who left.

Several great hires quickly left for other jobs, from environmental consulting to attending veterinary school to handling digital marketing for a car dealership. Several others lasted only a few months because of their performance, including one who seemed promising but proved to be argumentative and controlling, once even responding, “We don’t need to get Stuart involved” when a client merely asked her to pass along a “Hi” to Birkel.

“It kind of deflates you,” he said. “We’ve tried to refocus and go, ‘Let’s stay positive; this too shall pass.’”

So how has Birkel, whose practice primarily deals with life insurance, investments, and annuities for retirees and business owners, emerged from this period with two strong assistants off to a great start in their first four months? These changes have set him and his staff up for more success moving forward:

New understanding of personality tests

Birkel has long used optimizehire.com as a way of vetting candidates, setting a minimum total score required to move forward in the application process.

Yet his experience with the assistant who wouldn’t even pass along a “Hi” taught him to pay more attention to the candidate’s results in individual categories. For example, if you have a total score of 70 but score only 56 on emotional stability (as this person did), that is a red flag.

More patience

Previously, hires were made within a couple of months, more so because any person was needed to tackle the accumulating service work than because the right person had been found. Birkel extended the recent interview period to four months to guarantee he found the best people.

Increased communication and training

On a basic level, that means touching base with staff several times per week to check how things are going. It also means that Birkel strives to remember how much new staff members — who have less experience than previous employees — might not know.

That includes expressing positivity about good performance and all that there is to learn, and ensuring he more consistently invites staff into his office to learn something (such as when a policy can pay for itself through dividends).

“It’s taking time out of my schedule to do that, but it’s like a slingshot effect,” Birkel said. “When you pull that rubber band back, it might take longer, but when it shoots out, it will go farther than if you just tugged at it a little bit.”


Part of the conflict that began this challenging period, Birkel recognized, came from one assistant working for him and the other working for his business partner, with little crossover and significant feelings of territorialism.

Now, the two assistants in place are being trained to help on all insurance- and investment-related facets of the business to prevent any feelings of resentment, competition or being siloed.

Adjusting policies

Over the years, Birkel’s longtime assistant asked for increased vacation time rather than pay increases. At the time, Birkel was happy not to reflect the raise in a weekly rate.

Yet by the time his assistant accumulated as much as three months off at a time, the changes no longer seemed sensible. Moving forward, Birkel will strike a balance between pay increases and smaller time-off adjustments.

Better commitment to an incentive program

Part of the aforementioned support means sticking with Birkel’s program that asks staff to identify three places they like to eat, three places they like to shop and three things they like to do.

When Birkel wanted to acknowledge someone for their help while he attended an MDRT meeting, he was able to purchase a gift card targeted to her interests. “Our staff does so much that allows us to take time out of the office,” he said. “They’re putting out fires, so I want to have ways to reward them.”

Taking care of himself

Historically, Birkel has taken off every other Friday, but he found himself getting away from that as turnover continued to be an issue. For the last five months, he has gotten back to this practice and found himself feeling far better about work-life balance.

“Oh, man!” he exclaims, looking through records of staff who have come and gone and reflecting on this period in his life. “No wonder I’ve had so much anxiety and stress going on.”

Contact: Stuart Birkel sbirkel@ft.newyorklife.com