From the January 2011 issue of Research Magazine • Subscribe!

January 1, 2011

Positive Psychology

Kirk Hulett focuses on leadership and motivation.

KIRK HULETT
SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT, SECURITIES AMERICA, OMAHA
WHAT MAKES HIM TICK:“There’s a bit of a natural teacher in me. I greatly enjoy breaking down a complex concept into something simple.”

Kirk Hulett’s burning curiosity about what makes people tick in the workplace ignited an impressive career. The foremost beneficiary of that achievement, apart from Hulett himself, of course, is Securities America Financial Corp. He joined the independent broker-dealer as human resources director fresh out of grad school 16 years ago, a masters in industrial/organizational psychology in hand.

Today, at age 40, he is senior vice president of strategy and practice management for the Omaha, Neb.-based firm.

From his title, you know that Hulett wears a couple of hats. He is, for one, the firm’s chief strategic officer and leader of its human resources services; donning the other hat, he coaches affiliated advisors — of which there are 1,900 — on how to turn their practices into more profitable businesses.

“What I like best is working with the advisors and helping them implement positive changes. It’s very satisfying,” Hulett says on the phone, in his naturally friendly radio voice. (During school, he once worked part-time on-air.)

A powerful speaker at industry conferences, like those held by the Financial Planning Association, he has authored two books: Hiring to Grow and Managing for Performance.

A recognized innovator, Hulett came up with the idea for a Sales Assistant Advisory Board and SA’s Sales Assistant University, both supporting the profession as vital to a smoothly running practice. Eighteen months ago, he developed www.advisorpod.com, packed with an ongoing series of business and practice management webcasts that he and a colleague produce, write and host.

“Kirk has a great mind that motivates and inspires,” says Jim Nagengast, Securities America’s CEO.

“He’s terrific at helping leaders become better leaders. Because of his psychology background, he approaches the industry from a unique perspective. He really has helped develop the firm’s strategy.”

Even so, if Hulett had his druthers, he’d “get more wisdom-through-experience sooner.” Actually, he began walking that path at SA right away. Within just a few years of joining at age 24, he was doling out advice to FAs on how to run their businesses.

Because of his youth, however, some advisors challenged him. “But what I was talking about were things that I myself was experienced in at our firm: hiring, training, managing staff,” he recalls. Thus, by establishing himself as an expert, he was able to “get around the age issue.”

Nowadays, Hulett finds himself, increasingly, helping FAs beef up their marketing campaigns.

“The financial crisis led a lot of advisors to say, ‘I really need to re-strengthen my marketing muscles.’ They had allowed them to atrophy. Now, because they aren’t bringing in enough assets from referrals to make up for the loss from the recession,” he says, “they have to get out and market again.”

Similarly, a drop in asset level has gone so far as to prompt some FAs to question their business model. “They say, ‘That was too easy for me for too long….Now I need to get new strategies,’” Hulett notes.

Much of his consulting work centers on coaxing FAs to think of themselves as CEOs. “They’re independent advisors but also business owners. They have to run their business like a business, and become managers and leaders,” he says.

On the corporate side, Hulett takes care of HR services and training for Securities America and, as chief strategist, formulates plans that he measures and monitors year-long. Also, his team of five administers the BD’s popular Practice Management Loan Program, in which it lends advisors up to $500,000 to help them acquire other practices. Now the firm has arranged for a regional bank to kick in an additional $500,000 in financing.

Today’s No. 1 challenge for broker-dealers? According to Hulett, it is “the ability to maintain a strong margin so they can reinvest in their firms and be rewarded for the risk of being in this business.” An allied hurdle is “the increasing regulations that they must interpret and deliver to advisors. It’s very expensive and complex. If you don’t do it right and have a slip-up, you can find yourself in trouble.”

A native of tiny Lyndon, Kan., Hulett was working on a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Washburn University when he took a part-time job to pay tuition. Almost instantly, at age 19 he became project manager on the multi-million-dollar renovation of an old office building housing the Department of Revenue for the State of Kansas. The gig would determine his career focus.

“Some employees weren’t used to change and didn’t want any,” he recalls. “And here was this kid coming in telling them, ‘We’re going to tear out the walls.’ A lot of people were extremely upset. But that intrigued me, and I got very interested in why people behave in different ways in the workplace.”
At the same time, he was taking a class that turned him on to the industrial/organizational wing of psychology, which applies psychological and social science principles to behavior on the job. He earned his masters of science degree in the discipline at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Hulett came aboard Securities America in 1994, when the decade-old BD had only 84 employees, 1,100 affiliated advisors and was doing about $80 million in annual revenue. Now the firm boasts 400 employees, 1,900 advisors and $500 million in revenue.

“Things have changed a lot!” Hulett says.

Well, some things never do change. Take the top two issues FAs grapple with: “How to be more productive to break through a ceiling of growth and, on the other end of the spectrum,” Hulett says, “how to get more balance between work and personal life.”

In the first, “advisors can’t get past a certain point because they’re not able to adapt new behaviors and new business models.” In the second, “they’ve become very successful, but the business is overwhelming other aspects of their lives.” Anything here sound familiar?  

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