As an independent financial advisor, it’s sometimes easy to get tunnel vision and focus solely on the bottom line. It's your livelihood, so, naturally, you’ll want to devote a great deal of time and energy into strategizing about new ways to maximize profitable growth.
But along the way, independent advisors frequently overlook or underestimate the importance of supporting strategy with culture-building because it seems too “fluffy,” something that isn’t core to the business, or maybe it’s just because culture is hard to define. But actually, culture wins and keeps clients.
Have you ever done business with a company just because you like the people and how it feels to shop, dine or fly with them? I have! And, I think most everyone else does too. Building and maintaining a strong culture is perhaps the best way for any business to achieve its long-term goals, since a positive, reinforcing environment boosts not only employee retention but also a great client experience and, as a result, client loyalty.
And that begs the key question: How do firms build a strong culture and, perhaps most importantly, maintain it over time? That was a topic of a best practices session during the most recent CONNECT 2016, HD Vest’s annual advisor conference, in Washington, D.C. A good first step, attendees decided, was engaging team members directly, with a “Climate Assessment”: asking them a series of penetrating questions and requesting honest answers. Consider:
- If someone asks you what it is like to work at the firm, what would you say?
- If you could change one thing about working here, what would it be?
- What would tell a friend who was thinking about being a client? What would their experience be like?
- How can the firm better communicate our culture to clients?
This exercise not only demonstrates that you value everyone’s opinion (by itself a culture-building exercise), but it allows you the opportunity to convert the input you receive into positive, actionable changes within your own firm. Here are four ways to do that—we call them “cultural builders”:
1. Model the behavior. “Do as I say, not as I do” is hardly a good way to run a business, particularly a financial services firm, which relies on multiple complementary parts working in unison to create a great experience for each client. Think about the expectations you have for everyone on your team. Then perform an honest self-assessment to rate yourself in those areas to determine how you compare. Whether it’s being punctual, adhering to a dress code or something more subjective like always putting the client first, the leader needs to be the role model demonstrating the behaviors that are the firm-wide expectation.
2. Take every opportunity to emphasize your vision for the firm. Communicating about how your business is performing is naturally important to the members of your team, but even more important than that, is spotlighting what kind of business you aspire to become—two years, five years or even 20 years from now. This means determining how you want to articulate the true long-term vision of your company and routinely finding opportunities to talk about that vision with your team, even as you celebrate the day-to-day wins you all achieve together in the business.
3. Establish regular, one-on-one meetings with your team members. Meet with each member of the firm on a regular basis to catch up on relevant business or important client matters, to provide recognition for and offer feedback on how each team member is performing. Everyone needs frequent feedback, whether it is positive recognition for a job well done or corrective feedback to ensure the individual is staying on track from a performance perspective. As a practical matter, these meetings should promote more engagement and help ensure more operational efficiency. But they should be a priority for other, more strategic reasons as well. As the leader, your team needs to know that you are dependable and care about their well-being, and when meetings get canceled frequently for whatever reason (no matter how valid you believe it is), it could be interpreted as signal that the person is not valuable to you.
4. Address performance and attitude issues immediately. Few people enjoy confrontation, even many type-A personalities who run their own firm and have a “take charge attitude.” But when misconduct or poor job performance is allowed to fester, other members of the team are forced to endure bad behavior, fill in where there are performance gaps, or both. When that happens, it sucks the good energy out of your firm and whatever sense of culture may exist begins to deteriorate.
Though conceptually culture is somewhat elusive and difficult to define, it’s pretty easy to tell when an advisory practice possesses a strong one. Basically, it’s the practice's collective values, principles and personality.
Clients can sense it every time they visit the office or meet with their advisor. It’s the feeling that no other practice could possibly provide the same experience or level of service. And in these cases every member of the team senses it too.
Sure, a leader with bright tactical mind and ability to create a strategic, forward-looking plan to meet growth goals will always engender some level of respect. But those things in vacuum won’t compel people to stay around when times get tough. A positive culture, carefully and thoughtfully cultivated over many years, on the other hand, will accomplish just that.
Dawn Drewitz is a Senior Business Consultant at HD Vest Investment Services.