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How to create a culture of success at your firm

Successful firms intentionally cultivate a culture that provides support and opportunities for their employees to thrive, their businesses to grow, and for their clients to become advocates

Aug 7, 2014 @ 1:00 pm

By Adam Birenbaum and Michael Nathanson

success, culture, recruitment, employees, advisers
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As wealth advisers, we spend our days elbow deep in portfolio management, estate planning, market analysis and other endeavors important to the financial success — and ultimate satisfaction — of our clients. Yet more goes into building a truly exceptional client experience than an adviser's individual expertise or experience. Successful firms intentionally cultivate a culture that provides support and opportunities for their employees to thrive, their businesses to grow, and for their clients to become advocates for the teams that advise them.

Building this “culture of success” (and reaping its benefits) relies upon advisers' committing to four key elements — attracting, developing and retaining top talent; embracing a fiduciary-based, client-first philosophy; building a robust infrastructure; and creating a growth-oriented organization poised for financial strength.

While these are not new concepts, a deeper examination can help you develop your culture of success.

1. Attracting, developing and retaining top talent

If the end goal is to create an unparalleled client service experience that is supported by a deep bench of skilled financial professionals, it should not be surprising that securing and developing a team of bright, motivated employees is among the key strategic priorities facing our industry today. In this context, successful workplaces typically share four key attributes as applicable to their personnel base:

A thriving, service-oriented culture. Substantial research — both scientific and anecdotal — supports the notion that employees whose connection to their work surpasses their day-to-day duties are happier and more motivated than those who come to work and simply “keep their heads down.” Ensuring that a team is cohesive and engaged requires an internal system that facilitates professional development and allows opportunities to contribute to the firm's overall strategic goals. This means continually and systematically touching base to measure the level of direct connection employees have with their company's mission and goals and providing ample opportunity for those employees to celebrate each other's achievements.

An active and purposeful recruitment plan to help plan for growth and succession. Good advisers become indispensable partners to their clients. These relationships are nurtured carefully — sometimes over many years — and it can be hard to think about anyone other than the team meeting those needs. But reality tells a different story. If success has brought with it growth opportunities, then investing time in developing a purposeful recruitment marketing plan will amplify the level of service that can be provided to clients. On the flip side, for advisers with an eye on retirement, while also focusing on maintaining their practice, the goal of finding the next generation of talent who will continue to build on the success of the existing team will become paramount.

High-performing employees developed through customized development plans, continuous feedback, continuing mentorship and meaningful career advancement. Even after carefully recruiting a talented team, helping it reach — and exceed — its potential will be beneficial to personal job satisfaction and the ultimate client experience. Provide employees with meaningful, structured connection opportunities with both with their peers and their superiors to ensure that they remain committed to the firm's culture of success.

Clearly defined opportunities for all employees to advance and for key employees to acquire equity in the firm. A capital incentive program can be an important incentive for key employees, particularly those hired for leadership roles. Throughout the organization, however, giving all employees the opportunity to advance the level of their responsibilities, compensation and professional development by following a clearly understood career path means that they will be both intrinsically and extrinsically motivated to help the organization — and by extension themselves — succeed.

2. Embracing a client-first philosophy

It sounds simple, but a fiduciary-based, client-first philosophy is surprisingly hard to find in an industry largely dominated by commission-first approaches to investment management. Such a client-centric philosophy is a key differentiator that when truly embraced throughout an organization will set it apart from the pack. Perhaps the best way to keep the emphasis on clients is to establish a well-defined, well-articulated set of client experiences that are understood by every member of the team and that are designed to be delivered consistently across every area of the practice. Regular follow-up and review of these experiences, as well as the materials that support them, will ensure that the organization maintains a strong, respected brand that represents its value proposition. Evaluating the experience from the client's side of the table, and creating and implementing new processes and materials that reflect that analysis, will create confidence among clients and cohesion in the organization.

3. Building a robust infrastructure

As technological advances make it easier than ever for clients to seek investment advice from algorithms instead of advisers, helping clients quickly access the information, expertise and solutions they need becomes a critical way to add value to clients' lives in ways that cannot be offered by computers. Although some clients may never fully realize the intricacies of what goes on behind the scenes of the business, integrated systems and processes enhance and support the entire service experience, for new clients to those clients who become the organization's biggest advocates.

Some advisers may be reluctant to invest a sizable sum into financial planning and portfolio management tools but finding the right tools amplifies an organization's ability to deliver comprehensive solutions to clients' most complex problems. And relentless focus on data integrity — through automated daily, weekly, monthly and quarterly data reconciliation and accurate and streamlined billing processes will help support growth in all areas of the practice. It also will bolster client and employee confidence in an industry in which confidence is valued at a premium.

4. Creating a growth-oriented organization

While creating a culture of success requires a laser focus on providing an unparalleled client experience, building the financial strength necessary to nurture that experience is key. It will allow the organization to create the type of opportunities for growth and career advancement necessary to attract and retain top talent, and it will be the key to being able to weather the storms of years like 2008 and 2009. It also will allow the organization to make the investments necessary to strengthen itself in and for the years to come.

In the end, those organizations that are successful in building a culture of success will find that they are best qualified to address the increasingly complex, dynamic demands of clients, employees and the wealth management industry generally. These organizations ultimately will attract the best talent, adopt the best approaches, create the best infrastructure and find the best orientation for the future.

In this sense, creating a culture of success is the surest path to breeding the type of long-term, sustainable success sought by all.

Adam Birenbaum is chief executive of Buckingham and BAM Advisor Services. Michael Nathanson is chief executive of The Colony Group. Buckingham and the Colony Group are part of the Focus Financial partnership.

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