From the C suite with Advisor Group's Valerie Brown: Everyone must contribute

The executive chairwoman expects staff at every level to 'show up,' and thinks diverse opinions lead to better results

Nov 17, 2018 @ 6:00 am

By Jeff Benjamin

Valerie Brown's status as a female executive in a predominately male industry is not lost on her. The executive chairwoman of Advisor Group, one of the nation's largest independent advisory firms, has never let people's assumptions about gender get in her way, but she does recognize the importance of striving for more diversity, both at her firm and in the financial services industry as a whole.

"I am delighted with the fact that 50% of our senior team at Advisor Group are women, and the company itself is 51% women," she said. "Now, our advisers are not at that level, but we have a lot of effort in place to start raising our penetration of these underrepresented groups in our adviser population. We're just scratching the surface on that and have a lot more work to do."

(Video with Brown: How Advisor Group is helping women in wealth management rise)

Prior to assuming her current position with the $190 billion Advisor Group, Ms. Brown served as CEO of Cetera Financial Group from the company's formation in 2010 until its sale in 2014.

Prior to Cetera, Ms. Brown was CEO of ING Advisor Network, where she also served as president for five years.

Ms. Brown references her undergraduate degree in engineering as an indicator of her results-driven personality, which means anyone working with her should expect to step up and deliver.

Jeff Benjamin: Tell me about your leadership style.

Valerie Brown: My leadership style is one of inclusiveness. When our leadership team sits down, the first thing I say to anyone who is a new member is that I expect everyone to show up like a general manager rather than a functional leader.

If you aren't contributing, the question is why, because I expect you to contribute on things that aren't even in your area of expertise as if you were a general manager.

Another element of my style is that I embrace diversity. I think strong, diverse opinions that may disagree with each other lead to much better decision making.

As a leader, I do appreciate and reward results.

It's also really important to ask people who work for you, what can I do to help you? What should I stop doing, what should I start doing?

JB: What kind of culture are your trying to foster at Advisor Group?

VB: I believe, and our team believes, culture matters a lot, and it doesn't happen by accident. Great cultures deliver sustainable great results. And at weaker cultures, you're always fighting against a lowering tide.

It's very difficult to get momentum increases if you don't have a strong culture. Leading by example is key.

JB:Where do you fall short as a leader?

VB: I am, by personality, very results-driven. And, I'm also, by undergrad degree, an engineer. And I haven't done engineering for years. But I chose that, so that should tell you something about me.

I think the biggest area that I fall short on is I am very task- and results-driven and need to constantly remind myself to be a better listener, focus more on the relationship side of our community than I naturally do.

JB:What qualities do you look for in potential hires?

VB: One is intellectual curiosity, somebody who is constantly wanting to learn, not only in the area of their expertise but wanting to continue to stretch their skill sets. A passion for our business is absolutely critical.

And finally, a person that recognizes it's the 'we' that wins, not the 'I' that wins.

JB:What are some of the things you won't tolerate in an employee?

VB: Politics. If you think about the cultural characteristics that we are embodying at Advisor Group, transparency is one of them. Playing the 'I' game, not the 'we' game, is how I translate politics. Not being transparent and straightforward, not saying what you mean. Showing up at a meeting one way and then after the meeting showing up a very different way.

JB:What's the hardest part of your job?

VB: The hardest part of my job has always been finding the right balance between the amount of energy, emotion and passion I put toward the team and customers I work with, knowing that there's only so much time and energy in a week versus my personal life. I've never been that great at balancing, and I wish I was better.

JB:As a woman in an industry made up mostly of men, what unique challenges have you faced?

VB: It's been quite a journey and one that makes me smile if I look back on it.

One of the challenges as the minority gender in this industry is that there is an ease that exists when you're working with people just like you. And to make certain that you're willing to adjust the way you listen to people who aren't just like you, it's hard.

I have often in my career been the only woman in the room. Being able to be heard and not right-out-of-the-box dismissed until you have to fight your way in has been the biggest challenge during my career.

JB:What kind of impact has the #MeToo movement had on financial services?

VB: #MeToo has helped facilitate a better sensitivity to acknowledging and embracing differences.

One of the things I've been very surprised and disappointed about with some of the revelations that have come out of #MeToo is that it is still apparent [that] really unbelievable behavior has existed at very senior levels at some companies in America.

I think #MeToo has given these darker segments of our business and professional organizations more light, and I think light is a very good thing.

JB:What are the biggest challenges facing the financial services industry?

VB: One that keeps me up at night is the aging of our population of advisers. Small independent businesses have not brought up as many young people into our industry as we need. I think that's one of the biggest challenges we're facing.

And part and parcel of that is ... if you go to any of our conferences, [you'll realize] we are not very representative of the population as a whole — from a gender balance, a color balance and [having] people of different ethnic backgrounds.

I think the way we have to tackle it is [to] look at our senior management. That is where it has to start because a lot of the draw comes from the people at the top, and if your senior team isn't reflecting what you want out there in the field, you have to ask what is wrong with this picture.

JB:What advice would you give to young people entering the financial services industry today?

VB: Be proud of it because you are going to make such a huge difference in people's lives. It is extraordinary, honorable work that is needed and necessary in America today.

And number two, keep learning, keep evolving and don't be afraid to challenge the status quo.

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