It’s Not All About You

It’s Not All About You

For smooth growth, put the firm before yourself.

Jeff Fishman, a financial advisor in Los Angeles, started his firm in 1995 and was feeling pretty good about where it was going for the first decade or so. Originally a lawyer, he’d built up a name for himself in tax and estate planning, but seemed to hit a wall about five years ago. His success was a double-edged sword. Clients, both old and new, wanted to work with Fishman directly, not the associate planners he had brought on board. While flattering, it also kept him from growing.

What Fishman had to do was make the practice less about him and more about the group. He needed to transform the firm's reputation away from himself and toward the business of JSF Financial—an experience in humility that not all advisors handle as well.

For any entrepreneurial advisor who started his or her own firm, the challenge is the same: You have to allow the organization to spread its wings and create a reputation that depends on more than just your prowess. That means bringing on board a team of other professionals your clients trust, ones who work well together and can communicate the broader strengths of the firm to an outside audience. It also requires a fair amount of patience.

Of course, there are other reasons to move past a founder-focus. It might be a matter of finding a way to take a break. Perhaps the founding advisor is planning on selling the firm to a partner and retiring. Some high-net-worth clients prefer to know there is a team taking responsibility, and not just one person. After all, “you can’t be a full service financial planning firm if it’s all about one person,” says Fishman.

For firm founders looking to step away from the spotlight, or get off the stage altogether, these tips may help:

Start with your organizational chart. Figure out who is, or should be, on the team. “You look at your group to see who you need if you want to grow,” says Suzanne Muusers, who heads Prosperity Coaching, an advisor consulting firm. “Do you have the right people in the business and are those people in the right seats.” That might mean delegating new tasks to different staff members; in others, it may point to a need to hire new people or create new opportunities for existing employees.

Over a period of several years Fishman hired three planners, each with a slightly different experience in some aspect of financial planning.  At every client review meeting, depending on the account’s needs, he’d bring in a different colleague. A client with a particular mortgage problem would see the firm’s real estate expert. Another person with portfolio management questions would meet with the investment management specialist. Sometimes, Fishman wouldn’t attend the meeting at all.

Don’t Meet Clients Alone. For first-time clients, Fishman tries to figure out during a preliminary phone call what issues are important and what associate should be included in the first face-to-face meeting; in some cases Fishman himself decides he himself doesn’t need to be there at all.  

At the meeting, Fishman may spend about 15 minutes alone with the client and then invite the right associate in. After that, the two will continue to team up together. Other advisors simply explain in the first meeting that they have other associates, what they do and how clients can expect their relationship to proceed.

Then make ongoing client review meetings a group affair. “You always need a team approach when it comes to reviews,” says Muusers. That means having at least one other team member with you to emphasize that you’re not the only one in charge of the account. In general that should be the same individual every time.

It’s a little trickier for existing clients who may be used to working only with you. “You have to go through a retraining process,” says Muusers. For example, depending on the situation, you might need to explain to clients that, from now on, another associate will handle certain issues. That doesn’t always sit well with high-net-worth clients who will only be satisfied working with the founder, and in those cases, advisors may need to stick to the status quo. “Sometimes you have to let it go,” she says.

Create a team focus. “You have to make sure everybody’s on the same page and there’s a constant information flow,” says Fishman. About six years ago, he introduced 45-minute Monday morning meetings for the entire staff. Every quarter, he goes out to lunch with each of the firm’s four departments; he also makes sure there are quarterly inter-departmental lunches and meetings for department heads. Then, there‘s a strategic planning meeting in January, with a follow up in July.

Compensation, of course, is another element in creating a team focus. Introduce bonus goals including both a personal and firm-wide element. Of course, it’s not something you need to tell your clients about. But if you want the rest of your staff to convey a genuine team spirit to the world, you need to provide appropriate compensation that reinforces such behavior.

Change your marketing. Don’t spring anything too quickly on clients. Have a communication plan in place letting accounts know that you’re moving to a team approach. You can do that via snail mail, email, in-person meetings—whatever works best.

Promotional materials, of course, are important—especially your web site. There are plenty of firms where the founder’s picture is on every page, and the “about” page is just about him or her.

While the website for Columbia, SC-based Abacus Planning Group features a large photo of founder Cheryl Holland on the front of the site, she has begun to re-arrange how the information is presented. Click on the “People” section and you’ll see thumbnail pictures of all 23 people at the firm, including two interns, listed alphabetically, not by hierarchy, including Holland herself.

Another important step: Change all content from first to third person. “You don’t want to emphasize the ‘I’” says Muusers. Your section about personnel should include each team member’s picture, responsibilities and background.

At Abacus, Holland makes sure, for instance, that she’s not the only one interviewed by reporters. Instead, she schedules interviews with individuals according to their area of specialty. What’s more, a monthly five-minute spot on the local NPR station features one of the firm’s 11 CFPs and CFAs. Holland used to do every show herself, before hiring a coach to help her advisors learn how to prepare and be interviewed on their own. “Now people say, I heard Abacus on the radio, when it used to be I heard you,” she says. Holland also spreads out assignments for a monthly article in a community financial newsletter among her staff, usually having the piece tied to the NPR interview.

Fishman redid his firm’s promotional materials to emphasize its array of services, not his savvy. “I let clients know they were getting a team with a wide financial skills set,” he says. “I made a tremendous effort to communicate that I’m just one human being and we have an entire firm at their disposal.” Today, assets are about $550 million, and the firm has had 20% year over year revenue growth over the past five years.

Rename the firm. Changing the name will help change the focus of your firm. But it’s not an easy task; you’ll need to go through a lot of red tape with compliance and regulatory agencies.

The easiest approach is the one taken by advisor Kristine Hartland. She started in 2002, with just two assistants, but “I knew we wanted to grow and it would be easier if the name wasn’t tied directly to mine,” she says. Her firm, Largo, Fla.-based Peace Wealth Management, has about $80 million in assets. Similarly, Holland, who started her practice 15 years ago, consciously came up with a neutral name. “I realized that people who come to a firm for service were reluctant to use anyone who didn’t have the same name as the founder,” she says.


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