Journeys to Leadership: How I Defined My Own Success as a Scratch Agent

Agency Operations, Agent Stories, Leadership, Personal Lines, Small Commercial Lines, Talent and Culture

My path to agency ownership wasn’t exactly glamorous.

Like many people in the insurance industry, I didn’t originally plan to do insurance. It started with an after-school job when I was 16.

Initially, I mostly did simple administrative tasks – opening the mail, filing, using the one computer that had internet to input applications. I was able to continue working at the agency while I took classes at the local community college, and I ended up getting licensed when I was 20. After that, I bounced around to a few different captive agencies.

Starting from scratch

I was working at a large captive agency when I had my son. At work one day, someone sent me a picture of him falling asleep while eating spaghetti. It tore my heart out. I decided that I didn’t want to work 60 hours a week and miss those moments.

So, in March of 2012, I quit and started my scratch agency, Sound Pacific Insurance. I started with nothing – no cluster, no group or aggregator, zero policies. I just found an office space and started writing.

More than a decade later, I can say that starting my own agency was absolutely worth it. I’ve built a business I’m proud of, and I’m able to attend all the school events for my kids and be home in time for dinner every day. Sometimes I work after I put them to bed, but I have the flexibility to show up for the big and the small moments.

Click here to read key insights Agent for the Future’s research on women in insurance agencies

As a female agency owner, I’m in the minority – research from Liberty Mutual and Safeco found that women make up 55% of employees in independent insurance agencies, but only 26% of agency principals and owners. I know firsthand that women can face unique challenges on the path to agency leadership, but I know that if I can do it, anyone can.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned along my journey.

“Luck” follows hard work

The first two years of starting my scratch agency were difficult. I worked really hard. I cried a lot. I wondered whether I’d made the right choice to be able to spend more time with my son.

At first, everyone said “We don’t appoint scratch agents.” But I didn’t take no for an answer. I just presented my business plan, showed the data on what I’d done and planned to do, and kept asking. That got me some appointments.

I believe that the harder you work, the luckier you get. Opportunities present themselves when you’re working hard.

Let imposter syndrome inspire growth

Like many professional women, I have struggled with imposter syndrome. At its core, imposter syndrome is fear. It’s focusing on your mistakes and shortcomings and wondering if you’re good enough, if you’re doing it right.

But emotions are rarely a call to action. More often, they are a call to reflect. Sometimes, imposter syndrome can show us where we need to grow, or an area where we’re not feeling comfortable.

To overcome imposter syndrome, I try to focus on the facts of what I’ve accomplished. In the beginning, that was things like, “I’ve been doing this for six months, and my commission is going up every month.”

It also helps to surround myself with other positive women who can relate to my experiences, give me advice and help lift me up.

Don’t shy away from hard conversations

Another agency owner once advised me to think about being a leader like being a mom. I could say some of the same things to my employees that I might say to my kids: “It’s not my job to be your friend. I have to support you and treat you with kindness. I have to understand your needs. But you don’t have to like me. It’s my job to teach you and hold you accountable.”

When I thought about it that way, I realized that if I’m not having hard conversations and holding people accountable, I’m actually not doing a very good job as a leader.

Accept the ebb and flow

Research from Liberty Mutual and Safeco Insurance found that women are more likely than men to say they are solely responsible for childcare and household management. And a McKinsey study found that while men take on less household labor as their careers advance, women’s household labor stays the same as they climb the ladder.

There’s a lot of pressure on women to do it all. But while women can do a lot, the reality is we can’t be everything to everyone. Sometimes, we have to choose where to focus our limited time and energy.

A friend of mine who is an executive used to hate it when I talked about trying to find the balance of work and life. She would say it’s not balance, it’s ebb and flow. Sometimes all my energy is going into work, and sometimes all my energy is going into kids. Very rarely am I equally giving energy to both.

Sometimes your growth goes a bit slower than you’d like because you’re focusing on your kids being little. Sometimes you work hard and sacrifice for a while to get to a place where you have more time for things outside of work.

Find your own definition of success

One of the cool things about the insurance industry is that there are many ways to build an agency. You get to decide how you define success.

If you want to be a one-woman show and just do it by yourself until you sell your book and retire, you can do that. If you want to grow your agency into a huge conglomerate, you can do that too. And the definition of success may change over time with the ebb and flow of life.

For me, success was being able to take six months off for maternity leave when I had my daughter. Success is leaving early to go to wrestling meets. It’s being able to take a personal day to take care of myself and knowing that my staff is perfectly capable of handling things without me. It’s creating a culture of well-being within my agency and giving employees unlimited paid time off so they can prioritize their families and things that are important to them outside of work too.

When I started that after-school job at 16, I never would have dreamed I’d be where I am today. My journey to leadership had its ups and downs, but it has been absolutely worth it, and I’m excited to see how my definition of success continues to evolve.

Elisha Cavanaugh

President, Sound Pacific Insurance

Elisha Cavanaugh started in the industry in 2000 and prides herself on making complicated policy language easy to understand for her clientele. She won the 2023 Agent for the Future award for Outstanding Female Agency Principal. Besides being a wife, mother, and visionary, she enjoys cooking, traveling and spending time with family.

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Christy Hogan
1 month ago

As a fellow female principal, I love your story Elisha! You touched on one of my favorite sayings by Thomas Edison – “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like hard work.” Great insight and advice!

Janett Maher
22 days ago

Thanks for inspire with you story

Jennifer Klages
10 days ago

Fantastic article. And I’m 100% sure you will never regret saying yes to YOUR success, Elisha! Bravo!

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