Over the past few months this column has focused on the importance of continuing to build your business -- in good times and bad -- by sticking with "offense" activities. One of the most important things you can do to stay positive and keep things moving in the right direction is to surround yourself with successful people, and there's no better way to do that than to become part of an expert study group.
Regardless of your previous experience with study groups, there are a number of very good reasons for you to become part of one now. Consider, for example, the volatility of today's markets, the changing needs of aging baby boomers and the wide diversity of newly available products and services. With so much to stay abreast of (let alone master), an expert study group can be invaluable in helping you to stay at the leading edge of creating and offering value to your clients.
Moreover, CEG Worldwide research and numerous anecdotal reports from advisors in our coaching programs confirm that highly successful advisors are more likely to be members of expert study groups than are advisors who are less successful.
Expert vs. Non-Expert
Having determined that you do in fact want to join an expert study group, your first and perhaps greatest challenge will be to find one. That is, while you might find a regular or non-expert study group, true expert study groups are not only much more desirable, they are much more difficult to locate. There are four key factors that set apart the true expert study group.
The first factor is the degree of structure that characterizes the group. You want to join a group that is highly structured, that creates and follows clear agendas, and that meets according to a regular schedule. Ideally, an expert study group will have 12 to 15 members -- we recommend a minimum of eight -- and will meet one to two days, three or four times a year. So, for example, look for a group that meets one day four times a year, or two days three times a year. Meetings should be determined a year in advance; that is, in the 2nd quarter of 2009 the group should be scheduling its meeting for the 2nd quarter of 2010.
Generally, meeting venues rotate through, with one member being responsible for providing an office conference room or setting up a hotel meeting room. Although meeting in a hotel incurs an additional cost, the advantage is that there will be no distractions or interruptions -- none of the members will be running out of their conference room to handle emergencies -- and meetings will be more focused and productive overall.
The second distinct characteristic is the use of interactive training methodologies. You want to join a group that uses an interactive educational approach, one that encourages or requires a high degree of membership participation. That is, you want a group that innovatively challenges and brings out the best both in yourself and in the other successful advisors you are surrounding yourself with.
Third, expert study groups regularly make use of outside presenters. Study groups that don't bring in outside presenters are less likely to be successful because they require the members of the group to constantly develop new materials to be shared. As a result, these groups become inward-looking rather than outward-looking and fail to stay on the cutting edge. So look for a group that frequently retains outside experts to make presentations, share ideas, catalyze effective brainstorming and develop concrete action plans.
Finally, true expert study groups focus on best practices and building and growing outstanding business. In distinction, non-expert study groups frequently focus on products. Compared, then, to non-expert study groups, true expert study groups will generate more and better ideas and approaches, along with frequent sharing of success stories on how to build better businesses.
The Right Group
If at all possible, you'll want to join an existing group rather than form your own. Importantly, don't let geography limit you; that is, the group that you join does not have to be local to you. In fact, in most cases expert study groups work better when the members are not from the same geographic area. Geographic diversity lessens the possibility of competitive tension between members. When members are not concerned about competing for the same clients with someone who has a nearby office, they are more likely to share success stories and it's easier to build greater group camaraderie.
Finding the right group will likely take some substantial time and effort. Ask successful advisors you admire if they belong to or know of any expert study groups. Check with professional associations to find a list of expert study groups and search the Internet for possible matches. When researching and evaluating potential groups, consider the following seven criteria.
First, you want a group that focuses on helping members build a world-class business, not one that focuses on specific products and other minutiae. Second, the group's members should show a willingness to establish breakthrough goals, rather than incremental ones. For example, you don't want a group where the typical member says he or she wants to increase revenue by a mere 10 percent. Third, you want a group whose members are motivated to change and grow.
Fourth, you want a group whose members are open-minded, forward-looking and entrepreneurial, not one whose members are resting on their laurels and preaching about their past successes. This open-mindedness should, for example, embrace learning from businesses that are not connected to the financial services industry. It's far too easy to become myopic and think we can only benefit from best practices in our own industry, but nothing could be further from the truth. You want a group whose members think of themselves as entrepreneurs first, and as financial specialists second.
Fifth, you want a group whose members are willing to take risks, both in openly sharing and in implementing new ideas. Sixth, there should be a willingness among group members to help each other out and create genuine group cohesion. Lastly, there should be an inclination and ability to make clear commitments. When a group member commits to an agenda item such as developing materials, that member must really follow through. There must be a universal willingness to contribute and the ability to make clear commitments, follow through and deliver.
You may have to look long and hard to locate a group that satisfies these criteria. So when you do find the right group, do whatever it takes to beg, borrow or steal an invitation. And don't be surprised if you are accepted at first as a "provisional" member who has to prove himself or herself. In fact, the group you join should have some hurdles. It's kind of like the old Groucho Marx joke: You wouldn't want to be in any expert study group that would immediately accept you as a member.
Why should you go through such great efforts first to find, then to join, such an exclusive expert study group? Simply put, it's very mentally and emotionally draining to be in our business, especially in markets like these. The natural tendency in such times might be to retrench, to look backward, and to try and consolidate, but that's exactly the opposite of what it will take to substantially improve your business and move it forward.
All of us need a place where we can re-energize and recreate ourselves in powerful and profitable ways. By finding and joining (or, if absolutely necessary, creating) the right expert study group, you will gain a group of supportive movers and shakers moving in the same direction that you are. Successful expert study groups provide the focus, the energy, mutual support, mentoring, new ideas and leading-edge opportunities that will enhance your future success.
Patricia J. Abram is a senior managing partner with CEG Worldwide in Florida; see www.cegwordwide.com.