Three years ago, Dave Malleck realized he needed professional help. A principal with Raymond James Financial Services in Dallas, Malleck had been so drilled into the day-to-day running of his practice that he could not make time to carve out the long-term, strategic view he knew was necessary if the business were going to grow. The logical solution to this problem was to hire an outside coach for advice.
After using the coach for group sessions, for meetings with his three-person administrative staff and for a battery of one-on-one talks, Malleck devised a five-year plan, an overall mission for the practice and a much-improved communication style. He also started working a four-day week — something that has come in handy, now that he has a seven-week-old baby. Revenues in Malleck's practice have increased by between 40 percent and 50 percent per year since he started his coaching sessions, compared to his previous 12-percent annual growth.
Coach It Away
Hiring a coach is not an easy decision. It means opening up to an outsider and questioning basic assumptions. And coaching does not come cheap. Annual fees start at $5,000 and can range as high as $50,000. But if you are an advisor whose practice is stalled, the money could prove to be well spent.
“You don't want to wait until you're ready to retire to finally figure out how to do things right,” says Fritz Brauner, an advisor with The Brauner Company, in Foster City, Calif. “With a coach, you get an outside perspective that helps you figure things out a lot quicker.”
The need for that perspective may be particularly urgent these days, especially for advisors. Indeed, in today's highly volatile market, with increased regulatory scrutiny and competition, you probably need a helping hand more than ever. “I have clients who tell me they've never felt this kind of pressure before,” says Judith Glaser, a business coach with Benchmark Communications in New York City and author of Creating We: Changing I-Thinking to WE-Thinking and Building a Healthy Thriving Organization (Platinum Press, 2005).
What, exactly, is coaching, anyway? Let's start with what coaches are not: shrinks. Instead of addressing clients' unresolved childhood conflicts and internal turmoil, they work on matters pertaining to professional growth, suggesting actions that will help them achieve their goals most efficiently. Sessions often take place in one-on-one discussions, usually on the phone, but may also happen in group settings.
Advisors seek help from coaches for a variety reasons. Not surprisingly, many would like to increase production. Others like Eric Brotman, who heads Brotman Financial in Timonium, Md., are setting up their own practices and “want to do it right from the start.”
Two-and-a-half-years ago, Brotman hired a coach when he was considering leaving a partnership to strike out on his own. His coach not only helped him decide whether to make the move or not, but also how to hire employees, to build a team and to focus the business. Over the course of 18 months, with his coach's guidance, Brotman zeroed in on which clients were the most profitable and enjoyable — it turned out he least enjoyed engineers, architects and other analytical types — and “fired” over 100 accounts. Result: Revenues have quadrupled since 2003.
Sometimes the decision to hire a coach does not come from a rep but from the firm. For instance, newly promoted advisors with little management experience often end up being sent to see a coach for some remedial work.
I'm Talking to You
Communication and delegation may be the two toughest issues reps deal with. Brian Dixon, an advisor in Springfield, Mo., is typical. He hired a coach seven years ago to help him take his personal production from around $100,000 to more than $250,000. To get there, his coach suggested he pinpoint his primary skills — working directly with clients — and let the rest of his staff do everything else. That, however, was something he had had trouble doing before. So, on his coach's advice, he took steps to train his staff in administrative tasks he used to do himself. For example, he started gathering information during first meetings with clients in a form that made it easy for his assistants to input the data into a computer — a job he had previously done himself.
Coaching work often includes office staff. Six months ago, Rick Happle a rep with Raymond James & Associates in Tampa, Fla., hired a new person to do financial planning, but feared the rest of his staff would feel slighted. So, he hired a coach to help him avoid that problem — and to help get the most out of his new employee. That meant holding a series of staff meetings, starting with a two-hour session to talk about their goals for the firm, followed up by individual coaching with each staff member, for the first three months. Discussions focused on the individual's goals and how they fit in with the firm's overall plan. Now, they meet sans coach every Monday and Friday to make sure they're all on track, with a quarterly meeting with the coach. In other cases, coaches start their work by asking all staff members to take personality assessments, to help them figure out how best to communicate with each other.
Expect more sessions — and more work — in the beginning. Brotman says, at first, he would call his coach twice a day with an urgent problem — staff members who couldn't get along, say, or a difficulty in making payroll. There also were monthly staff meetings. Now, team meetings are held once a quarter, and Brotman runs them himself. The coach moderates an annual “planning summit” and holds one-on-one phone sessions with Brotman as needed.
Though most advisors place a premium on one-on-one coaching, many actually prefer the group approach. Brauner participates in two such programs. One, called Strategic Coach, runs full-day sessions for large groups once a quarter. Each time, Brauner and his fellow participants discuss a series of concepts, and then break into smaller groups. The other is a series of 10 one-hour conference calls led by financial advisor Ron Carson, covering specific topics each time.
For Brauner, groups are better because he welcomes input from a large number of people. When he recently mentioned that he was hiring a new salesperson whose work would include a lot of telephone work, group members suggested he do the first interview over the phone, since the employee would require especially effective telephone skills. Similarly, when Malleck discussed new ways to find clients, one fellow broker suggested he throw dinners for referrals from clients worth more than $1 million. He recently won a $6 million account through one such event.
Malleck's coach, a former broker himself, works only with financial advisors. Whether your coach is a generalist or specialist is one of the key factors you need to consider when coach shopping. Brauner has chosen to work with two coaching programs because each provides a different focus.
Where to Find One?
Referrals, of course, are the best way to locate a coach. Brotman had been in a networking group for six years before he started working with his coach, who was also a member. Malleck heard about his through a friend, then attended a three-day workshop to check him out. Another good source of coaching candidates is the International Coach Federation (coachfederation.org).
Still, even the best coach won't be much help unless you're willing to work at it. You can't expect a quick fix. And there usually is homework in between sessions, often for both you and your staff, and it can be time-consuming. That's something particularly challenging for advisors working in a pressure-cooker environment. Glaser, for her part, finds that her clients who are financial advisors are particularly likely to avoid their homework — not out of laziness or from a lack of commitment, but because they simply dodn't have the time.
Those who make the time to work on the coaches' teachings find it rewarding. Brotman recalls a time when he had to sort through all his clients to see what types of categories they fell into. It was a long process, but essential to the refocusing of his practice. (One result: He discovered he had eight cardiologists, which led him to concentrate his practice on certain types of professionals, among other criteria).
You also have to keep it up. Some coaches say that clients often start dragging their heels after 18 months. Another potential stumbling block is your staff. If you're including your team in the process, it's likely they may balk at first, fearing the information will be used against them. Brotman's coach addressed that problem by dealing with it head on, explaining in early conversations that staff members should feel free to speak frankly with her and that she would make sure their discussions didn't impact their jobs. At the same time, of course, once people open up, you may learn some unpleasant things. Brotman says he realized there was not only a lack of respect among staff members for each other, but that they resented him for micro-management.
Lastly, you also have to be willing to listen — and accept advice and criticism. Malleck recalls a number of times when he bristled at his coach's suggestions, only to find afterwards that the recommendations were on target. For example, after he and his staff took personality assessment tests, his coach suggested that one sales assistant, who was starting to do more customer service work, should stick with her old duties — an idea that Malleck initially disagreed with. But, he tried it, and after just two weeks, he realized the office was working a lot more smoothly.
Says Malleck: “You have to check your ego at the door.”
CHOOSING A COACH
Widespread use of business coaches is a pretty new phenomenon. Given the fact that they do not have to be licensed in order to practice, you need to be careful when choosing one. Here's what to know before shopping:
Look for training. Coaches often have a background in management, business, psychology or some of each. That's fine. But, since just about anyone can hang out a shingle claiming to be a business coach, it's helpful to hire one with job-specific training. There are now about 30 outfits that do such work and are accredited by the International Coach Federation (coachfederation.org) and close to 300 in all worldwide. If a prospective coach didn't go through a training program, he should at least have enough years of experience for you to feel comfortable about his expertise.
Certification is a must. Best is to find someone who has been certified from an accredited school or an association like the International Coach Federation, the Worldwide Association of Business Coaches (wabccoaches.com) or the International Association of Coaches (certifiedcoach.org).
Don't trust pie-in-the-sky guarantees. As with any service, you can never be sure just what the results will be, and neither can your coach. So be wary of people who make a lot of promises — especially before they've become familiar with your situation.
Write out an agreement that lays out expectations. Your coach should produce a written understanding with such things as fees, length of sessions and a minimum amount of time you'll work together.
Ask for a free session. Any coach worth his or her salt will give you an initial session gratis, so you can see how well you might work together. Says Daniel Martinage, executive director of the ICF, “If they don't agree to that, then that might be a matter of concern.”