From the November 2008 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

November 1, 2008

In The Game

How the objective voice of a coach can clarify goal setting and help you accomplish those goals

"Basically, I felt stuck," recalls Matthew Keeling, a planner at Keeling Financial Strategies, in Mashpee, Massachusetts. "I knew what I wanted to do. I knew what I wanted to accomplish. I just didn't know how to do it; and if I did know how, I wasn't motivated enough to follow through," he adds. Most advisors who have hired an executive coach identify similar reasons for taking the step. "Once you start to hit certain levels of success, it's important to get focused on your goals," explains Christopher. P. Jordan, president & CEO of LEXCO Wealth Management, Inc. in Tarrytown, New York. "A coach can get you focused on how to manage time and set an objective."

Besides clarifying goals and the paths that lead to them, seasoned coaches can also offer the perspectives gained from working with other advisor clients. "My coach only deals with top-producing financial advisors and those that have built major businesses--people just like me," notes Jordan. "He's worked with people who have been through similar situations."

For Mark Finke, regional director for Genworth Financial and managing partner of Mengel, Surdyke, Murphy and Finke, a wealth management practice in St. Louis, Missouri, it was refreshing to be held accountable by an outside party and "get some different viewpoints from someone that didn't have an axe to grind inside the practice." Finke took a look around and realized it wasn't uncommon for the "best" to work with a coach. "We're in an industry where there are a lot of top performers and some pretty strong personalities. Even the best professional athletes in the world have coaches and we saw we were missing the boat," he says.

Finding Good Help

Like many challenges, the act of hiring the coach--actually making the effort to do it and trusting that the coach can help you--is most of the battle. And finding the right person for the job may be the hardest part of that effort. Coaching is the second fastest growing profession, according to Doug Gray, vice president of Learning and Development for Rich Campe International, LLC, a company that provides coaches for hire to executives, such as financial advisors. "That's because people can say they are coaches, get a business card, and that's all they need to look like a professional. So, buyer beware--there are a number of charlatans," he adds.

Most advisors and coaches agree that the way to acquire a professional, trusted coach is via referrals, since the best advisors typically share the best coaches. "That's how I met Ray," recalls Jordan, who has been working with Ray Sclafani, president and founder of ClientWISE in Tarrytown, New York, for the past two years. "I knew Ray when he was with AllianceBernstein and I was always impressed with how they did their client acquisition business. It was a natural fit when he started his own company." Getting the word out about your need for a coach can help, too. In Keeling's case, his coach, Doug Gray, found him. "I had met a group of independent consultants. One was a coach and we chatted and exchanged information. I mentioned that I was in need of coaching," Keeling remembers. "Doug reached out to me after speaking with our go-between."

"Most clients find me through referrals," admits Gray. However, for those that do not plan to get a coach through a referral, he suggests using the International Coaching Federation (ICF) in order to find an accredited, trusted professional. (See sidebar below.) "The ICF upholds a strong code of ethics and conduct around confidentiality and client service," Sclafani agrees. "All our coaches are members of ICF and two-thirds are coaching at certification level." Advisors seeking aid should make sure to do their homework before selecting a professional. "Go to the IFC Web site and search by specialties, interests, or experience," Gray suggests. "You may want someone who has been an advisor or someone who has been in corporate financial services...and you may not." Gray adds that an advisor should select three to six prospects, and send them each an e-mail or call directly. "Ask for a 30-minute sample coaching session. Most will provide that complimentarily." Gray says this "interview" should be used to assess how good of a match you make. "Find someone who has expertise, who has energy you like, and who will help you in the way that you need--some [of us] need to be pushed and others need to be supported."

Developing a Relationship

"The [coaching] process begins for us before someone even becomes a client," Sclafani points out. "We put them through a specific process first to understand what it is they want to achieve--they have to be growth oriented and demonstrate a real curiosity to want to learn and be open to feedback." Sclafani says the interview allows both sides to be clear about the main business purpose for engaging an executive coach. "We sat down and had a few initial meetings to assess my reasons for getting a coach," Jordan recalls. "Ray then asked me a series of fact-finding questions designed to highlight my goals." From there, the two laid out a timetable--how they would work together on a month-to-month basis, and what each could expect out of it. "That was the best way for us to lay out the process up front," Jordan says.

When it comes to actual coaching time, Jordan says he and Sclafani usually take a couple of hours to talk. "What's really critical is the preparation," Jordan notes. "If I'm going into a coaching session, I organize topics in mind that I want to cover." Both agree that meetings are about formulating long-term plans, and then working through issues that come up while trying to achieve those goals. "Usually, I'll say 'This is what I'm struggling with, here's what I've done, and here's what I think. What's your objective view on this?'"

Jordan recalls a situation he brought up with Sclafani. "A local radio station wanted us to do a weekly lunchtime financial show. We went through the process of looking at timeslots, meeting with the program manager, looking at cost structure, and talking about sponsorship." Eventually, Jordan realized it wasn't right for him or his business when he worked through it with Ray. "We're not looking to cast the world's largest net [to get] clients; we're much more focused," Jordan explains. "We focused on business expansion. I have numerous employees and now we've branched into eight different locations. A lot of it was managing people, managing growth, and managing client acquisition while still servicing existing clients."

ClientWISE coaching engagements are at least six months long and include 20 coaching sessions. "We have a ClientWISE conference center and each client receives a confidential PIN number so they can call in," Sclafani says. He also mentions that there's a great deal of debate in the profession about whether to coach in person or over the phone, and notes that there's plenty of research at the CEO level suggesting that face-to-face interaction is more effective, "but I think that can be distracting." Sclafani blames it on the physical dynamic of connecting, shaking hands, looking around the client's office, and noticing what each is wearing. "If you dial in, you have 50 minutes focusing on exactly what's going on without these distractions," he explains. "Our clients are paying us for results and a highly productive session." Conducting sessions over the phone also helps ClientWISE retain better talent and not worry about shipping coaches all over the country, according to Sclafani.

Defining the Agenda

"Coaching may be the only time in an advisor's day when he can pick his head up from the business and work on the business," Gray says. "Most advisors are not good at picking their head up and working on the systems and their business and that's what coaching is for." Gray says that the meeting frequency will vary by client, but is usually around three 45-minute sessions each month. "Much of the time it's over the phone because it's easy for the advisor to close the door, tell their assistant they have a 90-minute call, and then talk to the coach for 50 minutes and spend 40 minutes doing some work."

Keeling and Ray worked together for a full year. "Initially, there was a fairly long interview where Doug asked me a lot of questions about my business, where I wanted to go, what my strengths and weaknesses were, how I wanted to approach the business, what kind of clients I was looking for, etc.," Keeling recalls. Based on that, the two had three coaching sessions a month for three or four months. "The first few were used to set up plans for the specific actions I could take. It was helpful because Doug had worked with other financial planners before and was more specific, throwing out ideas that worked with other people. It wasn't all theoretical," Keeling says.

According to Gray, most people will define their agenda with a coach, whether it includes bringing on an assistant, growing their assets by a specific number, or penetrating a new vertical market. "That series of initial conversations are about helping the advisor to get the tools that they need to get great, and then the advisor solves his own problems--that's the distinction between coaches and consultants," Gray points out. Keeling agrees, "It has been extremely helpful to me and I don't think Doug necessarily told me anything that I didn't intuitively know if I'd really thought about it. He was just reinforcing the things that I already knew that I was either suppressing or didn't want to do. He got me to do things I knew I really needed to do but without his accountability, wouldn't have done."

For Keeling, it was about how to market without ads and seminars, but rather through contacts and other professionals. "We set up various game plans for how to do that. Once we had done that, each session was broken up into two parts: an accountability piece of 'What did you do that you were supposed to do and what were the results, and why didn't you do what you said you were going to do last time?'" notes Keeling. "Then the second half was setting up for the next week or two--what specific actions to take." Keeling says the coaching sessions and preparation for the sessions added quite a bit of time to his work day. "I tended to do the work on certain days, like spending all of Friday afternoon working on the coaching stuff. It probably took about four hours or so a week, but it was very specific, targeted actions, not just floundering around. I accomplished quite a bit during that time."

First-Rate Results

The shared characteristic in each advisor's coaching success was motivation. Jordan's firm revenue is up 10% from this time last year and he attributes the increase to his sense of purpose, as well as a coach that held him accountable. "Someone that clearly isn't motivated can go out and get a coach, but may still be disappointed," Jordan explains. "It's like getting a personal trainer, but having no motivation to do the exercising--you won't get results just because you have a trainer." Jordan continues to work with Sclafani. In fact, Sclafani says that 92% of clients renew for an additional six months. "It's a very high return on the investment; some renew three times," he says. (For more on returns on investment, see the Compensation sidebar.)

Keeling points to motivation and accountability as well. "The hardest thing is that I was pushed out of my comfort zone on a lot of things, but it ended up being very worthwhile," he says. His personal business is up 58% over last year. "I did one year with Doug and toward the end it was really more of a counseling session. He had gotten through to me on how to approach things and what to do," he notes. "My hope is that I get to a point fairly soon where I need to look at some time organizational issues where I don't have time to deal with all the business that's coming in. We're getting there, so I will look to be coached on that as well." Gray says the average client sticks around for 18 months, and several have come back. "But coaching is about helping people get the tools they need and then have them leave us," he says. "I encourage all your readers to really push for results. It's not about a series of friendly conversations--it's about results; it's business," Gray concludes.

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