2019’s Rising Stars in Advising

The 2019 class of Rising Stars in Advising has been selected by the Employee Benefit Adviser editorial team after a month-long process resulting in 20 standout benefits advisers and consultants who are being honored this year. These young advisers span in age from 26 to 35 years old, and represent a new generation of leaders from around the country who are tackling the issues of wellness, healthcare and new benefits offerings with new perspectives.

Listed in alphabetical order below, here is this year’s class of Rising Stars.

Share your thoughts on social media using the hashtag #EBArisingstars19.

Christopher Caldari, Corporate Synergies
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Age: 26

What is your boldest prediction for the benefits advisory industry?
My boldest prediction for the benefits advisory industry that we will see a strong shift to next generation consultants. With current consultants moving out of the market due to retirement, this will present a huge opportunity for younger professionals to move into an exciting field.

What is the key skill to possess to thrive as a benefits adviser?
The key skill to thrive as a benefits adviser is commitment. Whether it is commitment to finding new benefit strategies, or commitment to securing the best overall cost structure for a client’s renewal, it is important for an adviser to stay focused on the goal. One more key skill is using the tools that are right at your fingertips. For example, I use social media to make introductions to employers, and in doing so I grew my book of business dramatically. It’s a new twist on cold calling.

What should leaders in the benefits advisory business do to attract the best talent?
Leaders who are looking to attract top talent in the benefits advisory business should focus on creating an environment where consultants have the freedom to perpetuate their own style of selling while, at the same time, providing a foundation of support that allows that consultant to achieve his or her long-term goals.
Michael Clark, Oswald Companies
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Age: 27

What is your boldest prediction for the benefits advisory industry?
Private insurance networks will continue to create a positive disruption in the industry. They will become more accessible to employers and provide members alternative solutions to standard healthcare arrangements. These models will include centers of excellence that are determined through quality and cost. As CMS clarifies healthcare transparency rules, more and more hospitals/providers will engage in price wars driving the price down. Also, I believe reference-based payment structures will continue to pick up momentum in 2019. This will also become apparent in the pharmacy world and change the way members purchase their prescriptions.

What is the key skill to possess to thrive as a benefits adviser?
Curiosity and grit. To be successful in this industry you have to have a thirst for knowledge. Our business is always evolving. New regulations, technology, strategic alliances, all are changing the healthcare landscape for our clients. Even more important, I think to be great at anything in life, you need to have grit.

What should leaders in the benefits advisory business do to attract the best talent?
Create internship programs with local universities to help attract the right people. Once the right people are on the team, it is key that firms have the ability to provide consultants with the resources necessary to drive strategy for their clients. On top of that, I can't stress enough the importance of culture.
Meredith Colbert, Alliant Insurance Services
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Age: 34

What is your boldest prediction for the benefits advisory industry?
It may not be the flashiest of predictions, but I'm hopeful that we'll see a significant uptick in preventive care utilization within the industry. Thanks to recent employer focus on actionable data, improved health literacy and a shift from biometric screenings to onsite preventive care visits, we should begin to see improved preventive care compliance figures. Really smart employers are also introducing preventive care time-off policies to remove the barrier in appointment scheduling, especially for the hourly workforce.

What is the key skill to possess to thrive as a benefits adviser?
The key to thriving as a benefits adviser is a refusal to be complacent. It's easy to get comfortable, but the constant willingness to challenge the status quo is what paves the way to successful client experiences.

What should leaders in the benefits advisory business do to attract the best talent?
Leaders in the benefits space should focus on creating entrepreneurial opportunities and encouraging leadership at every level in order to attract top talent. Candidates who excel as benefit advisers are naturally drawn to environments where individual talents are highly valued and flexibility exists.

Read more about Meredith here.
Ben Conner, Conner Insurance
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Age: 34

What is your boldest prediction for the benefits advisory industry?
Employers are beginning to trade comfort for results, which means everything is on the table: networks, wellness, funding arrangements, etc.

What is the key skill to possess to thrive as a benefits adviser?
It's hard to boil down to one because there is no silver bullet, so I have two: business acumen and toughness.

What should leaders in the benefits advisory business do to attract the best talent?
Build a culture that communicates the tremendous opportunity that exists in the insurance industry and serves its workforce with the delivery of meaningful and challenging work.

Read more about Ben here.
Michael Hart, American Fidelity
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Age: 35

What is your boldest prediction for the benefits advisory industry?
I have two. First, in the next five years worksite benefits will be disrupted by billing facilitators who will connect with payroll departments that do not want to deduct employee benefits. Second, voluntary benefits as we know it will look different in five years from now. Besides DI and Life insurance, we will see an umbrella ancillary plan that covers cancer, CI, HI and accident instead of where there are now four different options.

What is the key skill to possess to thrive as a benefits adviser?
Adaptability and passion. If you cannot adapt, you die in this market; and if you don't have passion, you will burn out. It's very simple.

What should leaders in the benefits advisory business do to attract the best talent?
Build a culture that shows how you truly operate your business. When you look to attract great talent, ask yourself, "What would I want if I came to work for my own company?" Lead by taking care of your employees, and they will take care of your clients.
Joe DeBello, Chepenik Financial
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Age: 32

What is your boldest prediction for the benefits advisory industry?
Specific to retirement plans, I think we've already seen and will continue to see a major shift in plan design to help accommodate and ease the burden of growing student loan debt that most college graduates are carrying into the workplace. I also see legislation and solutions being brought to the table for the so called gig economy (I.e., Uber, Lyft) and the lack of benefits available for this growing population of our national workforce.

What is the key skill to possess to thrive as a benefits adviser?
I think there are three key skills that any benefits adviser must have to truly differentiate themselves and be successful. You have to always bring new ideas to the table and have the courage to implement them. In addition, you must be able to effectively communicate in easy-to-understand terms and not our industry jargon. Last, but most important, hear, don't listen. What I mean by that is to truly grasp and understand what your client is saying and not just wait your turn to discuss your newest idea. This will lead to more meaningful discussion and much more positive outcomes for all stakeholders.

What should leaders in the benefits advisory business do to attract the best talent?
Allow your team leeway to make decisions and challenge the status quo and be creative. Whether it's food truck based enrollment meetings, or fun and engaging client events that challenge what's considered the norm, all of these new and creative ways to deliver content and education will offer opportunities to differentiate themselves in an industry that tends to be homogeneous.
Matthew Hansell, Cross Border Benefits
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Age: 29

What is your boldest prediction for the benefits advisory industry?
My bold prediction is that U.S. advisers who are doing a great job with their clients domestically will lose clients/prospects because they don’t have the necessary relationships with a next generation adviser in Canada. U.S. advisers who gain these relationships will have an unfair advantage in a largely underserved marketplace.

The traditionally stable Canadian market is seeing pressures similar to those in the U.S. from high-cost drugs and greater and more complex disability claims. More than 25% increases are no longer reserved for companies that took the bait of a marketing discretion. U.S. head offices are demanding better strategies that yield long-term sustainable results. And they are turning to their U.S. advisers for answers.

What is the key skill to possess to thrive as a benefits adviser?
“Seek first to understand, then be understood.” — Stephen Covey

“The future belongs to those who can hear it coming.” — David Bowie.

Embodying these two quotes will help you find the right innovation for the right client at the right time. This is how we added 70 new clients in 2018.

What should leaders in the benefits advisory business do to attract the best talent?
Look for attitude over aptitude. You can foster, nurture and mentor people to have the right skills if they have the right attitude. It is much more difficult, if not insurmountable, to change their attitude. The right people are, as Patrick Lencioni says in “The Ideal Team Player,” humble, hungry and smart. Bill Belichik has said that Tom Brady isn’t a natural athlete, but he more than makes up for it.
Nick Hendricks, The Benefit Company
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Age: 31

What is your boldest prediction for the benefits advisory industry?
The fee for the service reimbursement model will be completely replaced by a narrow network capitation fee coupled with incentives for improved outcomes. Close behind the change to reimbursements will be discounts and networks as we know them today. One has greatly damaged primary care in the U.S. and the other perpetuates the status quo. Regulatory change will create a paradigm shift in how large networks leverage pharmacy profits and insurance carriers will seek other ways to monetize their business. Employers are the ultimate payor for unsubsidized healthcare in the U.S. and will thus be the driving force behind change. The U.S. will have fewer than 200 independent, privately held employee benefit advisory firms of $5M or greater by 2025, and these nimble firms will enjoy organic growth far superior to industry norms.

What is the key skill to possess to thrive as a benefits adviser?
Confidence, complemented by other skills such as project management, innovation and communication. The confidence I am referencing is the willingness to boldly create raving fan clients by charting a unique course, losing any fear of bringing up new ideas to CFOs, CEOs or other senior HR leaders. In fact, if you are not told no often, you might consider whether you are bringing innovation and insight to the table for a client’s consideration. True alignment with a client’s best interest will support a willingness of existing clients to serve as a reference to prospective clients.

Want a confidence builder? Be utterly open with clients, consistently educate them and create an environment where you can call each other out (politely) when mutually agreed upon expectations are not met. Partners leave it all on the table.

What should leaders in the benefits advisory business do to attract the best talent?
Ensure your company’s purpose includes helping people prosper, both internally with co-workers and externally with clients and their employees. What we do helps people. It’s a noble profession. People want to know their work makes a difference.
Amy Kinsman, Cafaro Greenleaf
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Age: 28

What is your boldest prediction for the benefits advisory industry?
As healthcare continues to be the forefront of employee benefits, health savings accounts (HSAs) will become more advantageous for both employers and employees. The industry will take on a more holistic approach to benefits, and we should expect to see employers redefining their benefits around the demographics of their organization.

What is the key skill to possess to thrive as a benefits adviser?
Communication and continued education. It's important to keep up with industry regulations and opportunities and keep our clients informed.

What should leaders in the benefits advisory business do to attract the best talent?
Be able to show the positive impact you're making at employer level and employee level. Be fair, honest and passionate about what you're doing day in and day out. Provide opportunities for individuals to learn and grow within our industry.
Edwige Ligondé, Nielsen Benefits Group
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Age: 33

What is your boldest prediction for the benefits advisory industry?
It's clear that there is a greater search for several streamlined options with healthcare -- single payer system, multiple employer plans, associations or the like -- you name it. I believe the idea behind it is to band together and lower the overall general healthcare spending. I see the industry becoming significantly more streamlined to give individuals and employees easier access to affordable health coverage. So, then what happens to advisers? I just know that we have a duty to our clients, to help them be the best employer they can and be an employer of choice. Even if sourcing health plans is no longer the core focus of what we do, we still have the ability to educate consumers and assist employers on their benefits package.

It’s also inevitable there are changes in the demographics and generations in the workforce. Millennials and Generation Z are looking for perks, looking for a positive experience and looking to buy in to an employer that has a purpose and an engaging employee experience – consequently allowing for a more positive quality of life. We have to adapt and change to what these generations are looking for and right now, perks are relevant, on demand healthcare is relevant and achieving it digitally is imperative.

We are working with generations where technology is all they know, social media is all they know. Artificial intelligence is coming; it’s already here. I believe we as advisers need to find ways to leverage these technologies to streamline efficiencies for HR and for employees. How can we use it to not only help, but also to educate?

However, the role is surely transitioning. What we do now, and what we will do in the future is looking exceptionally different than what it has been in the past. I feel as though the days are gone where employee benefits are your run-of-the-mill medical, dental and vision plans. Employers are seeking a partner to help them enhance the employee and employer experience, relationship and overall culture. It is much less transactional and much more partnership focused these days, at least that is what the employer clients need and deserve.

Being a benefit adviser is no longer a "here's your renewal" or transactional type of relationship but a partnership weekly, monthly, quarterly and a strong partnership, one that continues year after year.

I believe consultants are here to stay. I’ve been impressed with what a lot of advisers are accomplishing with their offerings and initiatives -- may it be captives, voluntary benefit and education strategies, you name it. All of this is for the greater good and amalgamating all these ideas will consistently help everyone.

What is the key skill to possess to thrive as a benefits adviser?
It’s difficult to break down to one key skill. There are three skills and traits that I find to be effective to help a benefits adviser thrive in their career.

First, the hunger for learning and being innovative. The benefit industry has transitioned to offering non-insurance related services and benefits. We need to stay at the forefront of this while also being a proactive partner with employers.
I’ve always been a believer that insurance can be taught; however, I’ve learned that empathy is underrated. Having empathy is a key driver for several successful people. We need to put ourselves in our clients' shoes and invest in their success. When they succeed, we succeed.

Last, the simple act of listening. What do your employees want? What do your clients want? Do we really know? I strongly believe that showing your clients you are listening to them and then you deliver, you will build a long-lasting relationship.

As a benefits adviser, I believe these traits are significant and if someone can stay true to those traits, everything else will fall into place.

What should leaders in the benefits advisory business do to attract the best talent?
Practice what you preach. As an organization, your number one asset is your employees. If we are coming up with creative strategies, robust technologies and initiatives to recommend to clients, why not bring those ideas in-house? It will be much easier to have your team buy into your story when they believe in what you are doing or perhaps even have experienced it. If you take care of your employees, they will turn around and take care of your clients.

Additionally, find talent with an interest in challenging the status quo of traditional benefit offerings and in finding a purpose in what they are doing each day.

Last, get feedback from your team. Let them share their ideas and allow them to be heard. Challenge your staff to answer questions about what they would do if they were an employer. I understand that not everyone wants to be a CEO of a company, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have great ideas.

Read more about Edwige here.
Jessica McCool, NFP
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Age: 29

What is your boldest prediction for the benefits advisory industry?
Employers will seek out alternatives to the broad solutions we see today with partners who focus on value-based care. From managing chronic conditions and specialized pharmacy solutions to personalized voluntary benefit programs, employers will have more partners at the table than ever before. It is our job as the consultant to ensure we provide access to innovators in these various spaces and take a forward-looking approach to anticipate client needs. We do this through analyzing and aggregating data so I predict the future of our industry will become much more data driven, even more so than it is today.

What is the key skill to possess to thrive as a benefits adviser?
They have to be a lifelong learner. The industry is constantly changing, whether it's new players in the chronic disease management space or the ever-changing laws, regulations and compliance concerns that apply, or don't apply. I'm very fortunate to work for NFP, whose breadth and depth of expertise is extensive.

What should leaders in the benefits advisory business do to attract the best talent?
Provide an opportunity for them to work with a mentor, someone senior to them, someone to bounce ideas off of, discuss concepts with in-depth and just learn from. This will help create an employee who exhibits citizenship behaviors and boosterism because they've been given invaluable support at a level unavailable to many young professionals.

Read more about Jessica here.
Joseph McGinty, Ideal Benefits Group
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Age: 32

What is your boldest prediction for the benefits advisory industry?
An industry mostly dominated by Generation X and baby boomers will continue to attract younger and more tech-savvy advisers as the workplace tips over to a 50% millennial workforce in 2020. Industry specialists will thrive as benefit generalists, or those jack-of-all-trades kind of advisers, will begin to fade. The partnership between technology specialists and industry specific benefit advisers will be essential to ushering in a new wave of innovative technologies streamlining benefits education, enrollment and utilization to the ever growing diverse and remote workforce.

What is the key skill to possess to thrive as a benefits adviser?
I think the key skill to possess to thrive in our field is the ability to adapt and be ahead of the curve for our clients. We run our business with the motto of "get comfortable with being uncomfortable." It's extremely easy to continue to do things the way they've always been done. However, who is that good for? Keeping ourselves, and in turn our clients, updated with the latest industry trends and assistive technologies allows us to keep our edge and ensure long lasting client relationships.

What should leaders in the benefits advisory business do to attract the best talent?
Nothing replaces outworking the room and creating a purpose for each individual. The most successful advisers I've had the privilege of working with all have a clear purpose, which creates a sense of personal worth and pride in what they do. This leads to high-end customer experience, referrals and business growth.
James McMillan, BHC Insurance
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Age: 32

What is your boldest prediction for the benefits advisory industry?
As the push for a government based health care system increases, companies will shift their focus to voluntary benefit plans to remain competitive in employee recruitment.

What is the key skill to possess to thrive as a benefits adviser?
Empathy

What should leaders in the benefits advisory business do to attract the best talent?
To attract the best talent in the industry, leaders in the benefit advisory business should focus on finding individuals with a passion for their fellow person. As an adviser, you are looked to by your clients as a trusted peer who will consult them with their best interest in mind. The person who is focused on making the next dollar is not someone who is focused on the client and their needs. If you truly take care of the client first, all the accolades will follow.
Marcos Morales, Gallagher
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Age 34

What is your boldest prediction for the benefits advisory industry?
Healthcare advancements will continue to change our industry.

What is the key skill to possess to thrive as a benefits adviser?
Sense of urgency and desire to learn.

What should leaders in the benefits advisory business do to attract the best talent?
Ambition outweighs experience.
Megan Runci, Hodges-Mace
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Age: 29

What is your boldest prediction for the benefits advisory industry?
Mergers and acquisitions/broker consolidation will continue into the near future. As M&A activity increases, so will streamlining and effectiveness of cost containment strategies in the employee benefits space. To accomplish this, brokers will need to utilize traditional and disruptive strategies. Traditional one on one employee engagement and education will become even more valuable to clients as disruptive strategies, such as narrowing networks, pricing transparency and advanced analytics are installed to increase better health outcomes and drive costs down. Regulatory uncertainty, new entrants to the market, increasing customer expectations and the gig economy will remain constant in the coming years. Benefits are the single largest expense for an employee each year (outside of buying a home or a car) so providing one on one support to assist employees in making the best decisions for them and their family will always be a top priority for brokers, clients and their employees.

What is the key skill to possess to thrive as a benefits adviser?
Partnership. Partnership is term I don’t use lightly, as it’s a relationship that evolves over time. A partnership isn’t written on a piece of paper; it’s a byproduct of trust and experience. Partnerships don’t work nine to five. They’re developed by understanding and listening to my brokers and clients, letting them know I’m on it, being open when they're open. A partnership is a symbiotic relationship where I complement the strengths of my brokers and clients to provide solutions and resources to fill the void when their weaknesses are exposed.

What should leaders in the benefits advisory business do to attract the best talent?
In order to not only attract the best talent but also retain them, leaders in the benefits advisory business should look for prospective candidates who believe in the culture and values of the organization to ensure long-term growth. The challenge in our industry is that because of a thriving economy, there are many opportunities for movement. To create this affinity, a company should ask itself, Is the customer at the center of our organization and is that reflected in our culture? I have been with Hodges-Mace for six years now, and I truly believe in the value we bring to our broker and client partners as well as enjoy the people I work with, which is what continues my dedication to the company.

Read more about Megan here.
Danielle Schweiger, Gregory & Appel Insurance
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Age: 30

What is your boldest prediction for the benefits advisory industry?
I think that as clients continue to seek transparency in their benefits costs, the industry will eventually shift significantly away from a commission based structure and into a fee-for-service model as the preferred method of compensation. It's important that the client feels that they're getting what they're paying for. I think that full transparency in a fee-based arrangement is what will ultimately be the standard.

What is the key skill to possess to thrive as a benefits adviser?
It's common for sales people to be talkers-- often just dumping information and data on a client or prospect, giving their elevator pitch or spouting the same narrative repeatedly. Thriving as an adviser requires listening to them with the utmost vigilant care and attention to detail.

One of the most important things I was told by the head of my department when I came to Gregory & Appel was that "you have two ears and one mouth for a reason: you should listen twice as much as you speak". That was such sound advice. Without hearing and understanding the client, there's not a relationship, and we all know that is key to being a trusted adviser of any kind.

What should leaders in the benefits advisory business do to attract the best talent?
Leaders in the industry can attract talent with everything that high performers want: flexibility, a positive culture, responsiveness, generous benefits, technology that works well, etc. However, I do think the industry often misses the mark on the concept of apprenticeship. Working in this field requires knowledge and skills that are often best learned through tacit experience, and not the kind you can get from standard sales training. Attracting talent is hugely important, but without the cultivation of that talent, even the best hires won't stick around for long unless they're taken under at least one set of experienced wings.
Scott Sherman, Gallagher
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Age: 33

What is your boldest prediction for the benefits advisory industry?
Organizations will use a single provider for their retirement plan, health savings accounts (HSA) and student loan benefit solution (including state 529 plan access). Momentum has already started the industry in this direction. The initial momentum coupled with the need for 401(k)-style investment line-ups will drive a single, integrated approach that makes sense for organizations and employees.

What is the key skill to possess to thrive as a benefits adviser?
Curiosity. Genuine curiosity drives a willingness to listen, learn and create innovative approaches and solutions. More important, a curious benefits adviser listens to what organizations and employees need, anticipates needs and responds accordingly.

What should leaders in the benefits advisory business do to attract the best talent?
To attract the best talent in the benefits advisory business, leaders and organizations should be at the forefront of exploring new and trending benefits relevant to their employee demographics. Creating a unique value proposition helps attract the right talent with a passion for helping organizations and a desire to build a long and meaningful career. Equally important is onboarding newly recruited employees and offering them hands-on experience so they understand the real purpose and human impact of the work they are doing. We work in a dynamic field, where we get to help our clients become a destination employer by providing them with a comprehensive organizational well-being strategy and solutions so their employees achieve career, financial, physical and emotional well-being.
Dane Thorwaldson, Gallagher
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Age: 33

What is your boldest prediction for the benefits advisory industry?
There will be a dramatic shift in focus from technical benefits plan design and strategy to the actual communication to employee populations. The ability to design an efficient benefits plan and control a client's costs is table stakes these days; and clients should expect this from their adviser. In the next five to 10 years, the conversation will change completely. Today, 95% of strategy meetings focus on the minutia of plan design, and then in the last five minutes someone says, "Oh yeah, we have to tell our employees about this; I guess we'll send an email blast." Benefits is the second-highest expense for most companies, and yet almost none spend the time or resources to effectively communicate the value of those benefits to their employees. As the labor market continues to tighten, companies will have to come to terms with this.

What is the key skill to possess to thrive as a benefits adviser?
Empathy. If you do not take the time to understand what our clients are facing and what's keeping them up at night, then you cannot effectively advise them.

What should leaders in the benefits advisory business do to attract the best talent?
Stop calling it insurance brokering. We are solving some of businesses' most complex problems, and we need the brightest minds to help. We must change the vernacular to call it what it is.
Derek Winn, Business Benefits Group
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Age: 35

What is your boldest prediction for the benefits advisory industry?
The industry itself will continue to thrive as the problems that plague the system and employers will only become even murkier before they get better. As advisers continue to insert themselves at the intersection of payor relations and supply chain management, providers of healthcare will become more and more aware of our impact on the healthcare industry when it comes to everything from plan design to reimbursement.

What is the key skill to possess to thrive as a benefits adviser?
Extreme adaptation and the vision to make it happen are they keys to thriving in the industry. Keeping pace with change is enough to survive; however, adapting to address and create solutions around these issues is the key to thriving. Advisers have seen a massive change in terms of insurer consolidation, competitor consolidation, compliance changes and more. Those who are surviving have probably adapted somehow, but they really need to ask to what degree and how long it may last, since change begets change.

What should leaders in the benefits advisory business do to attract the best talent?
Leaders should really focus on what they are doing to create a culture that is open, transparent and flexible, and that lends well to individualism within their company. Almost everyone I talk to within the industry ended up here by accident, which means we all could have just as easily ended up someplace else. Today, a well-developed mission/vision statement and strong core values can be just as important to a potential recruit as a well-developed training program. Working to find and keep talent needs to be top of mind every day.
Chris Wolpert, Group Benefit Solutions
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Age: 35

What is your boldest prediction for the benefits advisory industry?
The increased adoption of user-friendly smart benefit technology and transparency into outcome-based healthcare access will eliminate the need for large provider networks by 2030.

What is the key skill to possess to thrive as a benefits adviser?
Grit. It takes courage and resolve to make your way through the wild west of post-ACA landscape.

What should leaders in the benefits advisory business do to attract the best talent?
Develop a turnkey automated marketing system that creates consistent opportunities with new prospects for producers.