I never expected that what I learned in Catholic grammar school and at a Jesuit university would be applicable in the world of business. But after 44 years working in financial services, I believe that Catholic and Jesuit values are not only good for the soul and society but can be good for the bottom line, too.
I started my career in financial sales and eventually became a senior executive at a Wall Street firm and then a major life insurance company. Both organizations faced a similar challenge: very high turnover. Around 80 percent of sales representatives leave within four years. A major contributor to that abysmal retention rate is the substantial amount of rejection from potential clients that sales reps experience, especially early in their career. Even minor improvements to this turnover rate would have a substantial impact on a company’s bottom line.
But for that to happen, there needs to be a major shift in the sales culture. Traditionally, sales representatives have been primarily motivated through commissions, extra vacations and bonuses—that is, financial incentives that reward individual achievement. There has been little emphasis on the positive impact that financial professionals can have on the quality of life of their clients. The focus is instead on how much money the sales representatives could make.
I believe that Catholic and Jesuit values are not only good for the soul and society but can be good for the bottom line, too.
As a result, there is a low perception of the trustworthiness of the profession by the public. For example, a 2016 Gallup poll asked respondents to rate the honesty and ethical standards of people in various professions. They rated nurses (84 percent) and police officers (58 percent) as having “very high” or “high” ethical standards. Stockbrokers and insurance salespeople, in contrast, were given a “very high” or “high” rating by only 12 percent and 11 percent of Americans, respectively. Only members of Congress (8 percent) and car salespeople (9 percent) were considered less honest. It was my impression that industry leaders were not particularly concerned about this lack of trust among the U.S. public. So in 2012, I wrote a book, Living a Life of Significance, in which I highlighted the impact that certain financial professionals had on real people. In this way, I hoped to show how the Jesuit principle of being “men and women for others” could not only inspire public trust in the financial services sector but inspire sales representatives to find deeper meaning in their work.
I think deep down inside everyone wants to live a significant life, to have mattered, to be remembered, to be loved. Rabbi Harold Kushner writes: “Our souls are not hungry for fame, comfort, wealth, or power. Those rewards create almost as many problems as they solve. Our souls are hungry for meaning, for the sense that we have figured out how to live so that our lives matter so the world will be at least be a little bit different for our having passed through it.” What might financial services look like if there were more emphasis on the impact of our work on our clients?
Adam Grant, a psychologist and professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, studies how people find meaning at work. He found that those who consistently rank their jobs as meaningful have something in common: They see their jobs as helping others. In a survey of over two million individuals across 500 different jobs, those who reported finding the most meaning in their careers were those in service jobs, including members of the clergy, teachers and people in the medical profession. Medical professionals promote physical health. The clergy promote spiritual health. Educators promote social and mental health. And financial services professionals promote financial health; thoughtful financial planning can protect a family in the event of catastrophic circumstances and provide independence and dignity during retirement.
What might financial services look like if there were more emphasis on the impact of our work on our clients?
To transform the culture of financial services, we need to tell those stories. Stories connect with us, animate our reasoning processes, give us permission to act, give us pictures of what we aspire to be. Statistics don’t inspire people to do great things. Stories do. The authors of the Gospels are our storytellers. The art of storytelling in financial services needs to be revived.
Take, for example, the story of a young, single mother who lived with and was the sole support of her elderly parents. One day, she was severely beaten during a robbery. Thankfully, she had a life insurance policy with something called “living benefits,” which allowed her to access $400,000 to help pay her medical and rehabilitation expenses and to keep her family intact. I spoke with the sales rep who had sold this woman life insurance, and he described a feeling of transcendence upon learning that his work had provided this family with some measure of security during an extremely difficult time. That certainly beats a trip to Bermuda.
Recently, a financial planner I know worked with a woman who had gotten divorced after 35 years of marriage. She had never paid a bill in her life and was terrified of what her future held. The planner reassured her that she had the resources to maintain her lifestyle and provide for her grandchildren. After their meeting, she said she was able to sleep soundly for the first time in nine months.
Putting others first is at the heart of the Catholic faith. I believe that when sales reps are inspired by a higher purpose, they are better able to persist despite the experience of rejection that is inevitable in the financial service sector. I don’t think that “making their calls” is just something sales reps do. Each time they pick up the phone, they are reaffirming their faith, faith that they do something significant. Faith doesn’t make things easier, but it makes things possible.