From the December 2010 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

December 1, 2010

What Good Leaders Already Know

Leading an effective advanced planning team--or your practice--isn't that different from leading in the corporate world

As I’ve stated in previous columns, advanced planning for affluent families requires a detailed discovery step to even reach the point where discussions about solutions can take place. Those discussions, which are most properly conducted with an ad-hoc team of appropriate professionals, can run smoothly leading up to comprehensive solutions and documents. Or, they can get stuck in the muck of egos and interpersonal politics, taking much longer to arrive at something resembling consensus. Most advisors have probably experienced more of the second variety, and they can relate many stories of the one member who derailed the team proceedings with his own need to control meetings. A team of experienced advanced planning collaborators, however, works thoroughly and efficiently, even as members engage in deep debates about the appropriateness of various solutions to particular client goals.

Leaders vs. managers
One central factor of successful teams is intelligent leadership, which is distinct from good management. “The leader’s job is to mobilize, focus, inspire and recharge the energy of the team they lead,” says Tony Schwartz, president and CEO of the Energy Project and the author of “The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working: The Four Forgotten Needs That Energize Great Performance.” “That’s as relevant if you have three people in a group as if you have three thousand. The qualities of a great leader are found first in the qualities of a great human being.”

Schwartz identifies four capacities for leadership that have direct applicability to advanced planning teams:

1. Leaders recognize strengths in others that they don’t necessarily see in themselves.

An estate attorney in New York with excellent interpersonal skills—and patience—was particularly good at explaining wills and trusts to less sophisticated clients who typically didn’t deal with financial and legal matters. An advisor who worked with him on client solutions greatly appreciated these strengths since he often had to explain the legalese and its implications to other clients when another attorney prepared the documents. Another way leaders demonstrate this capacity is by mentoring junior professionals, noting when they’re ready to observe and perhaps even participate in advanced planning.

2. Leaders understand what drives others to a higher mission and sense of personal fulfillment.

Leaders are emotionally intelligent and know that how they make people feel directly influences how they perform. One extreme example is the efficient, but insensitive office manager who barks instructions to the staff, but doesn’t understand or even recognize the resentment this approach creates. In an advanced planning group, a leader acknowledges the contributions of each member to show that they’re valued.

The higher mission is often satisfied by the long-term financial security and risk reduction a good plan can provide for the client’s family and from fulfilling admirable philanthropic goals.

3. Leaders provide a clear vision of success and enlist everyone’s talents to achieve it.

No one likes to be micromanaged and a conference room filled with professionals with driven, Type A personalities is no place to start. The head of a small, but well-connected planning practice tried to dictate to the people in his firm and outside partners how they should do their work, in effect giving them assignments that he would then assemble into a plan. He was possessive of his clients and shared the minimum information. Rather than getting collaborative solutions, he essentially hired skilled professionals to do piece work. Not surprisingly, this approach always led to strife and short-term working relationships. In a well-functioning team, members can express their views in an atmosphere that also encourages debate and allows for some wrong turns on the path to the right solutions. A leader who clearly defines the deliverables from each person, then gets out of the way, creates a productive atmosphere that encourages active engagement.

4. The best leaders demonstrate balance—for example, vulnerability with strength or confidence with humility. “Great leaders don’t feel the need to be right, or to be perfect, because they’ve learned to value themselves in spite of shortcomings they freely acknowledge,” says Schwartz. “In turn, they bring this generous spirit to those they lead.”

Leadership and collaboration
In terms of advanced planning, the qualities of superior leaders include good collaborative skills. Interestingly, technical expertise is less important than personal chemistry for successful collaboration. In fact, one study (“The Ideal Collaborative Team,” Mitch Ditkoff, Tim Moore, Carolyn Allen, and Dave Pollard, 2005) found that candor, courage, timely follow-through, listening, and self-management were more significant drivers of collaboration than were high technical skills or training. It went on to describe good collaborations as being like marriages that run through similar peaks and valleys of connectedness with team members who understand the essential nature of group dynamics and are willing to endure turbulence while emphasizing creative thinking.

Good leaders also know when their instincts are truer than the other members of a group and when to maintain a dissident view. A successful financial planner from Long Island would produce the shortest possible plans and list of recommendations. He knew that almost all of his clients, many of whom were small business owners, would look at the plan once and never again—and they would only agree to proceed if they fully understood how it worked. His colleagues often had stories of detailed financial plans sitting unsigned in their clients’ desk drawers. He understood his clients and was a great listener. When the more analytical planners in his office and estate attorneys would suggest complex and probably better solutions, he knew his clients well enough to say when they wouldn’t sign off—and a pretty good plan that was signed and implemented was better for the client than a more comprehensive unsigned one.

Creating value by connecting
Advisors and other professionals are always looking at ways to define themselves and their services that differentiates them from their competitors. Many focus on technical specialties, credentials, or experience. Advisors create value, and therefore, potential differentiation, when they show an elevated ability to connect on an emotional level with clients and with the members of a team.
The same emotional competencies that are important in advisor-client relationships also come to serve the leader of an advanced planning team:

1. Demonstrates integrity with honest, consistent communication.
2. Shows client-service orientation by focusing on the client’s point of view.
3. Exhibits concern for quality and order to maintain clarity in the planning process.
4. Believes in teamwork and a collaborative approach.
5. Operates with self-confidence and belief in own abilities to meet the challenges of delivering results.
6. Acts to achieve goals of high personal performance and surpass them, while still taking prudent risks.
Source: Morally and Emotionally Competent Financials Advisors Deliver Superior Client Service and Portfolio Performance, Lennick Abermann Group, et. al., 2007

Given the recent turmoil in the financial world and challenges to the client-advisor relationship, “the human qualities are more critical now than ever” says Schwartz. “People are inspired by personal connections to others—not by a list of rules or processes or promises.” Inspired people are more productive, too. If you feel truly valued by a leader, then you don’t have to spend a lot of energy thinking or justifying your own value. We’ve all worked with colleagues who have low self-esteem and are compelled to over-compensate for the significance of their contributions.

If you don’t feel that need to seek proof of your value, you’re freed up to use your energy in a more focused way, notes Schwartz. ”If you ask a person how he or she feels when they’re performing their best, they’ll come up with the same set of answers: ‘inspired, positive, focused, engaged, energized and excited.’”

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