From the November 2006 issue of Research Magazine • Subscribe!

Yearning for Learning

"That's the last test I'll ever take!" How many of us have said just these words after finishing a required licensing exam? Unfortunately, if you desire great success, that's exactly the wrong attitude to take. As human beings it's perfectly understandable that we don't want to feel compelled to continuously learn new things. However, not only are all businesspeople required to keep learning, but particularly in our industry, things are constantly changing. Roughly half of the products and services we provide for clients today weren't even invented 10 years ago, and the rate of change is still accelerating.

As part of their core value proposition, successful advisors purposefully keep up with what's new and know it cold -- so their clients don't have to. How, then, can we best live a life where we're constantly having to upgrade, both personally and organizationally? The key is to consciously -- even enthusiastically -- embrace new learning, rather than resist it. We must embrace change -- turning ourselves into learning individuals and our firms into learning organizations -- so that we both love to learn and learn how to learn better over time. The following three strategies can help you achieve these goals.

Robust Cross-Training

For your staff to provide you and your clients with world-class service, you must first provide your staff with world-class training. Many advisors pay lip service to this idea, but aren't really willing to invest the necessary time, money and energy. But by training team members to think better, play multiple back-up roles, and take the initiative, you will be rewarded many times over.

Consider The Container Store ("TCS"), which specializes in selling storage containers and systems to help simplify people's lives. (Note that helping affluent clients to simplify their lives is also a big part of what successful advisors offer.) TCS's philosophy is on the order of "half times two equals three." That is, it has half the staff of competitors, pays them twice as much, and gets three times the productivity per employee.

This is all made possible through TCS's tremendous commitment to training. While the industry average for first year full-time employees is seven hours of training, TCS gives its first-year employees 235 hours of training, over 33 times as much! Does this training pay off? One indicator says yes: While the industry average turnover rate for full-time employees is 120 percent, TCS's is just 8 percent.

TCS has found a way to have ordinary people do extraordinary things, something you can achieve as well. If each of your team members receives robust and intensive cross-training that encourages them to take the initiative, two things will occur. First, if another team member is late, ill, absent, or on leave, operations will continue to run smoothly and you won't be forced into an inefficient and energy-sapping "emergency mode" which inevitably will detract from your role as the client-facing rainmaker.

Second, consider that the vast majority of successful problem-solving revolves not around finding the right answer, but in determining the right question. If you train your staff to think for themselves and to focus on what the real problem is, then you and your clients are far less likely to end up frustrated and stymied by ineffective attempts to answer the wrong question.

You'll also need to train yourself to welcome the attempts of staff members to anticipate needs and take action. When you give team members the responsibility and permission to try new things, they will inevitably fail some of the time. When that happens, you must be understanding, patient and supportive. If you call someone out on the carpet after they fail at something new, you can be sure that they'll never take the initiative again. The bottom line: Pay your staff well, train them intensively and continuously, expect more from them, and support them both when they succeed and when they fail.

Distributed Learning and Teaching

To efficiently deal with the ever-expanding and potentially overwhelming onslaught of industry-relevant information, you can assign different staff members specific periodicals to religiously read and report on. One staff member might be assigned to Research, another to Barron's, and a third to The Wall Street Journal. The periodicals assigned will depend on the staff member's specific role, i.e., technology-focused team members should be assigned technology-oriented periodicals, investment-focused team members investment-focused periodicals, etc. As the rainmaker, read the most crucial information sources yourself.

The best way to learn something is to teach it; a staff member who knows he or she will be regularly responsible for conveying important information to the group will almost certainly do a better and more focused job. At a once-weekly meeting, the assigned reader can then give your entire team the Reader's Digest version of key articles (and hand out copies if desirable). But the real key here is to require a high standard of reading and reporting. Start out, then, by sitting down with each staff member to go through the periodicals they've been assigned. Point out the things that you think are interesting or important, and perhaps provide a topic list.

While the Internet can be useful here -- the person assigned to The Wall Street Journal can have keyword searches established so that relevant articles are directly e-mailed to him or her -- it's better to avoid the plethora of online blogs, streaming webcasts and other sources of online financial information. Instead of trying to swallow the entire electronic ocean, simply take advantage of the Internet when it makes sense. Far too many people waste far too much time online, a trap you and your staff should avoid.

Properly managed, such assigned reading and reporting becomes an extraordinary ongoing training exercise. It will help team members understand your overall practice while focusing them on their specific roles. In effect, you'll have an internal clipping service that will keep you informed while substantially lightening your own load.

Read 'Em and Keep

Find a way to make the important information you read -- including business books as well as periodicals -- available to you and other staff and firm members down the line. Advisors in CEG Worldwide's coaching programs can usually name the last business book they've read, but few can state the three most important points from that book. Why? It's easy enough to read something, but hard to do something about it. People read valuable materials all the time, but then lose this value because they don't draw action steps from it. It gets put into their brain through reading, but soon enough it just disappears from the brain, down time's drain.

So, as you read a book like Jim Collins' Good to Great (2001), highlight text or make margin notes to indicate specific sections that you feel are important. Then give your highlighted or annotated materials to a staff member, who in turn can transcribe your notes and create a computerized file to be distributed or referred to later. Make sure to indicate action steps that flow from the materials and that directly impact your business. If you feel strongly enough about the material, schedule a meeting to discuss it. By ensuring that you'll come back to what's important, you'll ultimately be turning your yearning for ongoing learning into increased earnings.

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Patricia Abram is a senior managing principal with CEG Worldwide, a research, training and consulting firm.

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