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Leading to last: Growing an advisory firm so it will continue on

The value of strategic planning must be deeply engrained in the firm's culture

Feb 28, 2019 @ 4:13 pm

By Kelli Kiemle and Cecilia Williams

Over the past decade, succession planning has become an increasingly potent issue for many RIA firms — including ours. According to Fidelity's benchmarking study, 60% of RIAs either have no succession plan or have one that isn't ready for implementation.

As 30-something managers and directors at an evolving advisory firm, we're committed to building our leadership skills to continue to growing our advisory firm to last through many more decades.

We recently completed one of the most rewarding and challenging experiences of our careers — a two-year leadership and business management program, G2, created by The Ensemble Practice specifically for the advisory industry. This article touches on several of the key things we learned about creating an advisory practice to last, starting with this critical observation: "Team leadership" is not an oxymoron.

You're only as good as your team(s)

Leadership is all about leveraging talents. This is a fundamental truth for both the teams you manage as well as your management team of peers. We all have different skill sets, and in our industry, the organizational transition to agile teams is proving to be a prosperous way forward from the solo adviser model.

For example, we all know that being "great at sales" is both a gift and an art; owning that is often generational. Many firms' first-gen advisers are wirehouse and broker-dealer veterans, for whom selling is second nature. Many millennials (like us) haven't had that exposure. Mature advisory firms have established books of business, but to stay competitive, selling needs to be encouraged and pursued in creative directions firmwide.

It's a matter of balance. Sure, excellent client service generates referrals and also paves the way to solid succession transitions with clients, as advisers are groomed to take over client accounts. Yet all client-facing advisers and associates should be supported in seizing selling opportunities and cultivating promising relationships.

Leaders never rest. We're striving to set the right example for the associates we manage; equally key is making available meaningful mentorship and coaching opportunities.

Here at our firm, we offer a formal mentorship program. Every new associate has an internal mentor who helps ease them into the culture and offers perspective. Coaching is a separate investment. All our professionals have access to an outside business coach to advise them on growing in their profession.

We also, very deliberately, take the time to listen. In the process, we gain new ideas and perspectives. Our firm has instituted an "innovation director," a revolving position that serves as an open door to great suggestions. After a recent associate suggestion, we added a monthly yoga class for all associates to attend. We hired a yoga teacher who comes into our office for an hour on a Friday to teach us relaxation and stretching techniques.

Ultimately, we've learned to think and behave like owners of our firm. It's not just a matter of gaining the skills to evaluate the opportunities that show up; it's also having that appetite for creating those opportunities ourselves.

(More: 5 principles that set apart top-performing advisory firms)

Strategize, strategize, strategize

Leadership and management are very different beasts. As managers, we often get stuck in day-to-day responsibilities. But as leaders, we're constantly pushing ourselves to reach for specific goals.

We understood the value of strategic planning before participating in G2, but we came away with a renewed appreciation for how deeply this must be engrained in the culture. We've learned that carefully building a plan is a team enterprise. Communication with all associates, gathering consensus and generating excitement are essential. Everyone needs to know and feel great about our vision.

The strategy should be as specific and drilled down as possible. We all need goals we can measure quantitatively, and the means to make ourselves accountable. It's also critical to determine what not to focus on for the year(s) to come. That means prioritizing: fixing like a goshawk on which objectives make sense at present. We evaluate frequently and explore fearlessly when we fall short. If necessary, we'll adjust the strategy, but only after much discussion and feedback.

A final observation: Pursuing knowledge alongside leaders from other advisory firms? Invaluable. We learned about their firms' winning practices, and these peers are now great sounding boards for testing our new ideas in the real world of our firm.

In addition, working with them on projects for the program reinforced how we all contribute different strengths. Those teams that could figure these out early on and capitalize on them were able to divide and conquer — and achieve superior results.

(More: How continuing disruption drives sustained success)

Kelli Kiemle is director of marketing and client experience at Long Beach, Calif.-based Halbert Hargrove, and Cecilia Williams is the firm's director of investment operations and CCO.

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