Meghan Wilke grew up in rural Nebraska raising Quarter Horses and competing in equestrian events at a national level with her brother and sister. Because of the sacrifices her parents made and the hard work they exhibited, she discovered what it meant to dedicate her life to a sport.
It’s these lessons that taught her what it means to really win (and lose.) When it was time to get serious about college, she found herself wanting a career that made her feel a specific way, but couldn’t really decide which major would put her on that path.
Wilke is the third generation in her family to work in financial services; both her grandfather and father specialized in banking. It was her dad that showed her the “feeling” that she wanted out of her career. She knew she wanted her children to hear people say how much of a difference she made in their lives, like she heard so many clients say about her father.
Naturally, she thought she would follow in the footsteps of her father and pursue a career in banking, but it was he who helped give her the nudge she needed to pick a career as an insurance agent in 2007, instead of banking. For the first two years as an agent, Wilke felt like she was “being pushed through a brick wall,” especially at the age of 21 where it took a lot of persistence to get clients to value her advice. She believed after her first client unexpectedly lost her husband that the advisor path was the best career in the marketplace and continues to believe that in her role today.
After a few years in an advisor role Meghan began expressing an interest in leadership and her career took her to a recruiting role in an agency at Mutual of Omaha. What she learned after that was that it’s possible to be in love with a career.
After two years of changing candidate’s lives and falling deeper in love with the financial services profession, she assumed a role in the home office. This role took her back home to Nebraska where she was able to focus on raising the bar for talent acquisition in financial services. She believes in loyalty, treating candidates like a customer, and that her contribution to providing financial security to the next generation is accomplished through high selection standards. She has built a team that makes her better and continuously challenges everyone around them to disrupt the status quo. The war on talent will not be won without a fight and she’s got the best possible people by her side to win that war.
Wilke and her husband reside just outside of Omaha with their two daughters, with whom she started a toy drive for families in her area. She was a 2017 National Board Member for WIFS, has presented numerous times with GAMA on recruiting and how to lead a multigenerational team, and has served on GAMA committees since 2010.
She recently took the time to respond to the following questions for this week’s Women’s Insurance Network Producer Profile feature.
You grew up raising Quarter Horses in Nebraska. How did this influence your professional career?
It influenced me in so many ways personally and professionally that shape who I am inside and outside of the office. First of all, it taught me about the grind. To win you have to be able to work harder and smarter than your competition, but just to play you have to work harder than most.
I grew up in the country and my after-school activities weren’t riding bikes or dance classes, they were chores, and we’re not talking household chores either (because I also had those). We scooped manure, groomed, exercised and fed the livestock. In an effort to be somewhat normal, I also participated in some high school sports so this meant that I would go from practice to chores.
The second way it influenced me was by teaching me a lot about politics. Sometimes when you were the best in the ring you would win, sometimes you wouldn’t. There were always ways to be seen as a fan favorite and that was how I learned how to network, read a room, find the most influential people in an organization, and manage my own personal image.
The third and probably most important lesson it taught me was how heartbreaking it can be to lose something you’ve dedicated your days and nights to achieving. I didn’t have to learn this when I failed the first time as an advisor. I learned to evaluate my effort and then learn from my mistakes. Today, I fail constantly. Sometimes it’s because I didn’t put in the effort, but more often than not it’s because I didn’t put the effort in the right places. This business is incredibly hard and making mistakes is the only real way you know that you are trying hard enough to succeed. I’m glad I got plenty of practice in failing from my upbringing. I wear my mistakes like a badge of honor, just like I did the number of times I got bucked off a horse. If you can still keep count of them, you’ve got a long way to go.
Both your father and your grandfather made a career in banking. How did this impact your decision to become involved in insurance and financial services?
Honestly, the only real clarity I had about my adulthood was that I wanted to be a mother and I wanted people to remember me for how I changed their lives for the better. When I was approached to be an advisor, my initial response was, “I’m really bad at math.” After an initial meeting at Starbucks with a field manager, I called my dad. Just like my fellow millennials, I go to a parent to reflect prior to making any important decision.
At the time, I was in college studying organizational sociology with absolutely no clue how that would help me achieve one of the two things I envisioned for myself: changing lives for the better. I was in a sales role, which is where I was discovered, and was extremely young. I was making a decent income in my role and finding a career wasn’t on my radar at all.
The way my dad positioned the financial advisor role to me was one that I would end up repeating thousands of times to candidates who were considering a position. He told me that there were a couple of people his age who were on the insurance and investments side of financial services and their lifestyles were much better than his was as a bank president. The sacrifices they made early in their career by giving up income stability were exchanged for benefits later in their career, like more stability, residual income and, most importantly, freedom to design your ideal lifestyle.
The only question I needed to answer was: Where do I want to make my sacrifices, in the early years or in the later years of my career? But the next thing he said probably gave me the nudge I needed because it helped me with the understanding that most people don’t succeed in the role. He told me that whether I succeeded or decided it wasn’t for me that any future employer would respect my time spent in an advisor role, as long as I didn’t quit too soon and I always did what was right for the client. He has been one of my biggest cheerleaders ever since by encouraging me to continue grinding it out for as long as it takes to be a champion.
When was it that you knew for sure that the advisor career was right for you?
I’m not a crier. In fact, I probably show too little of my vulnerability in the workplace. But in my early 20s I cried at work, hard, for the first time.
I got a call from a client while driving from one appointment to the next. She was very upset, hard to understand, and looking to me for help. She had become a client less than a year earlier and had just got a moment alone in her home after losing her husband very unexpectedly. They were in their early 40s and had young children and a relatively new mortgage. She knew that we had a plan in place, but still needed my reassurance that everything was going to be OK. She called and said, “I just don’t even know where to start, what to do next, Meghan, how do I do all of this?”
I cancelled my afternoon appointments and rerouted myself to her house. I’ll never forget the feeling I had when I walked in her front door. She was empty and lost and saw me as the guide that would somehow provide her the direction she needed to get through this loss. I had never been more scared in my life. The whole drive over I was flashing back to the fact-finding appointment, the protection we put in place, the budget they committed, and hoping and praying that I did enough. I didn’t have her client file with me, but on her kitchen table was the binder that I gave her with her profile and all the policy information.
The instant I saw her face, I realized that she needed me that day for so much more than the claims process. She needed a hug and she needed paper products because there had been a million people at her house, so thankfully I brought toilet paper and tissues. More than anything though, she needed someone who would tell her the truth. The truth was that she was going to be OK, but she wasn’t going to be great for a while.
The family relied on the husband for a lot more than just income, and while we replaced a lot of that and bought her the time she needed to figure out how to manage without him, there was unfortunately not a dollar amount we could have insured to replace the love that he gave to them. The truth was that losing a spouse hurts like hell, but losing a father hurts just as much and she was going to have to figure out how to put on her game face sometimes to lead her children through the grieving process.
I managed to sit with her that afternoon and walk in the shoes of an advisor with only the lump in my throat. I took all of the financial concerns away from her and spent the majority of the time listening to her and offering support. When I left that day, the tears began to fall so fast that I had to pull over, cry it out, and then regain composure before I could safely drive. I had never cared about anyone that wasn’t a friend or family member more than I cared about that client that day.
It suddenly dawned on me that the second thing I wanted out of life (changing lives for the better) wasn’t about me at all. It wasn’t that I wanted people to tell my kids about how they couldn’t have made it without me, it was that I wanted to be given the opportunity to be a part of people’s lives in the moments where it really matters. When people open up their lives (or now careers) to me and let me in, giving me the opportunity to be a part of their journey, I am truly blessed.
Tell me about your path with Mutual of Omaha and how you started in advising and ended up in talent management.
My path with Mutual of Omaha started as a recruiter in the Phoenix office. I actually said no to the recruiter position a few times before accepting it. The idea of leaving my clients hurt; it felt like abandonment. I was not at all interested in working on a salary and I really didn’t have any interest in living in a place that doesn’t have snow. I talked about it a lot, with tons of people, and really had to look to myself to make the decision.
There were a couple of factors that got me to say yes. First of all, I saw the impact to the client moving from just my efforts as an advisor to being multiplied by the people I was able to attract to the career. I could have an even bigger impact, if I did it right. Second, I saw the potential to be a champion. Our industry has a shortage of young talent in the field management role, just like it does in the advisor role, and I had a feeling I could be disruptive and that people would kind of like it. I started to find success in recruiting, then moved to conducting the training class, then added some coaching and case design for new advisors to my role. I morphed into a leader in the office by being relentless with my desire to help others grow.
My desire to help others grow wasn’t limited to those advisors I was able to recruit, though. I got a lot of satisfaction out of becoming a career coach for candidates, who most of the time weren’t a fit for the opportunity. I enjoyed referring them to other opportunities, following up to see where they landed, and staying in touch with them as they found success.
I ultimately made a name for myself within the organization and was moved to the home office, where I’ve been since 2012 in a couple of different roles. In my role today, I get to work with an amazing team who supports our career agency distribution in their efforts to recruit and select advisors for the organization. I am extremely privileged in that I get to have my hands on a lot of different strategic projects, ranging from growing talent in new or emerging markets to what important milestones we need to help our advisors hit during their first five years to maximize their development and put them on a path for success.
It is extremely exciting to me that I am influencing the next generation’s financial security by helping our organization design a talent acquisition strategy that sets us on a path for success. I plan to be legendary in this space, and while I may make a lot of mistakes along the way, I’ll do whatever it takes to leave my mark on talent acquisition in the industry.
Are you seeing more and more women applying for advisor roles and do you see the caliber of applicants in general increasing?
Goodness no, I do not see more and more women applying. Really, you don’t see many people applying on their own accord anymore (or at least not the ones we want.) The candidates we want we specifically target. I leverage key partners like LinkedIn and target people who share similar attributes to our more successful advisors and we push content to them regularly to gain them as a follower and then ultimately gain their loyalty.
Because women share a lot of the same attributes professionally as our more successful advisors, they are a large part of the target. I know this may come as a huge surprise to many of those who took the time to read to the bottom of this article, but I am constantly challenging my colleagues and industry friends on the future of targeting women and young talent. As a millennial female with 10 years in financial services I can firmly say that I do not want the reason I’m hired to be because I’m young and female. If an organization recruits me because they “don’t have enough women” I figure there’s probably a pretty darn good reason for that.
Instead, I want our candidates to hear that they would complement our organization because of a specific skill or characteristic that they bring to the table. I think that your organization can influence the caliber of candidates by elevating the value proposition. Talent acquisition is a very fluid space and you should always be prepared to challenge the status quo. Just about the time that you are comfortable in understanding everything your organization does to add value to your candidates, the candidates expect more.
The challenge we face in financial services is that we sometimes take a while to recognize the need for change and we always move at a glacial pace to make the change happen. This has over time put us behind other industries when it comes to attracting talent. Too often I hear people using an apologetic tone when discussing what it takes to attract the right people to the advisor role. The advisor role is an integral part of our communities and I will always fight to win the war on talent so we have the best. I refuse to accept defeat when we lose talent to medical device sales or pharmaceutical sales or the tech industry, for instance.
We need to keep up with all that they do to create environments that the young and talented people want to join. I’ve learned that just believing the advisor role is the best in the biz isn’t enough; you have to be ready to fight for it and put your money where the talent is.
- Editor’s Note: If you or someone you know has an inspiring story to tell, please reach out to email@example.com. And as always, we welcome your comments below.
Emily Holbrook is a former Editor in Chief of National Underwriter Life & Health and Retirement Advisor magazine. She has covered the financial, risk management and insurance industries for more than a decade, with her work appearing in Risk Management, National Law Review and Huffington Post. Emily graduated with dual degrees in Finance and English and worked in the financial industry as a fixed income trading administrator and analyst before becoming a full-time writer and editor. Emily now owns her own writing, editing and content strategy company, Red Label Writing. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on LinkedIn.