Getting Ahead: Building a Rocket Ship

4 min read

Most of my blogs are candidate-centric, but this one provides the secret sauce for all those who want to attract, hire, and retain top talent out there. This is for those who want to build The Rocket Ship.

Because Top Talent IS the fuel for the rocket ship.

So just how does one build a rocket ship of talent capable of taking one to the outer limits? It’s not as hard as you would think. As WDC’s top insurance recruiter, I have been there, done that. Have led the charge many times. And, trust me, it’s exhilarating to be a part of it. Your rocket ship will enable you to absolutely crush your competition. Don’t laugh. Have seen it happen. And it’s not pretty for the firm on the receiving end of losing their top talent to a competitor.

I break down the critical parts of the rocket ship:

Barriers to Entry: This is hiring qualified workers who don’t necessarily have a college education or certifications, but have the attributes (see below) or score high on the assessment/aptitude tests. These are typically candidates who have less than five years of work experience and haven’t quite found their niche yet – they are your undiscovered superstars of the future. If firms have the right awareness and process in place, they can scoop up young talent like this, paying huge dividends down the road.

Funny thing is that most hiring authorities couldn’t spot this kind of talent if it hit them in the face. They can’t take chances within the confines of a typical risk-averse HR department. They are unable to work outside the confines of a beautifully decorated resume. Their focus is experience, experience, experience. Not good.

Retention: When I discuss an opportunity with a candidate, one of their questions is always, “what is their retention like…?” It is true: All of my best and most successful clients have extraordinary retention. I just finished placing three account managers in a Virginia Beach-based insurance agency that had to replace three staff who had worked there for a combined 122 years! People aren’t stupid. They stay because the firm gives them a reason to. There are two specific large insurance brokers in the WDC/MD/VA who are notorious for high turnover. Now their reputation is so bad, they can’t attract top talent and the downward spiral continues.

Assessments/Testing: I have one particular client who has this very complicated and difficult assessment test that all candidates have to take at the front end of the process. Prospective candidates were telling me how hard this test was so I took it myself. I have an advanced degree and, yes, it was VERY difficult PLUS it is timed. But you know what? It nailed my strengths, weaknesses, and aptitude for certain positions. Scary stuff.

Assessment tests are carefully concocted by experts and they are deadly accurate. And, sure, this client may have lost some really, really good candidates, some of which, have gone on to successful careers with other clients, but the ones that we have hired? All doing well. Their skills and attributes are in direct alignment with the client’s corporate requirements, strategy, vision, and culture. Bingo. My retention percentage with this client for those working there for at least three years is over 96%. Industry average? 39%. I love this client. Hope they are reading this. Good on ya!

Attributes: Many of you know from previous blogs and podcasts, that I have a list of 12 attributes (email me for the complete list) that the most successful people have in their professions. Top Four: Determination, Insight, Intellectual Curiosity, and People Skills. There are eight others. The clients who hire on attributes more than skills and experience are the ones in the rocket ship right now.

Promotions: Organizations cannot be stagnant. And this is THE problem with small mom & pop firms. They are simply limited by the limited capacity of the firm. The hope is to grow from a paper airplane into a rocket ship someday, but the reality is this is very rare. Tough to pull off.

And if the firm is actually able to grow and you are in the right position to take the next step into the ownership ranks? This is when the son or daughter usually shows up from UVA and they inform you (usually with a smirk) that you report to them now. Oh well…you just flushed ten good years of your career down the toilet.

It’s why I don’t represent small mom & pop firms. The most upside I have seen with insurance brokerage firms are those between 15 – 100 employees and then just ride the wave.

I have one client who grew from 17 employees to 63 in five years and another that grew from 19 staff to 136 within six years. Do you think the candidates I placed there got promoted? Hell yes, they did.

Top-Down: I like to see senior promotions taking place within the existing senior ranks instead of from the outside – although this is where I make my money. This is always a good sign. Too much external recruitment is not a good sign and is usually a harbinger of bad things to come.

Velocity: This is something I pay close attention to. Velocity is how fast are people getting promoted. Are key employees stagnant because there is that one person who has been in the same leadership role for 20 years? These folks will leave your firm. Get creative. Move some folks around. Cross train that 20-year veteran. Give them something refreshing – challenge them. The point is that your fuel mixture for this rocket ship needs to be fresh and maybe even a little volatile.

Compensation: Many of you know that I do an annual salary compensation report sent to all my clients and, soon thereafter, published on my LinkedIn account. It’s instructive that my rocket ship clients all tend to pay their employees (and me) a little more than the others. They are not cheap. Did you find a superstar? Pay the man.

If you would like a copy of the latest 2022 Mid-Atlantic Insurance Salary Survey or the List of 12 Attributes, then just email me directly at

Warmest Regards!

Rob Houghton

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