From the September 2012 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

August 21, 2012

Shedding Some Skin: Advisor Growth in the Year of the Snake

Author and illustrator Kate Seredy said, ‘kill the snake of doubt in your soul … and mountains will move out of your way’

According to the Chinese Zodiac, the year 2013 is the “Year of the Snake.” People born in the Year of the Snake are said to be clever, calculating and deliberate in planning to achieve their goals.

Some of us are attracted to snakes because of their swift movements and silky, regal bearing. Others are repelled by snakes because of their perceived threat. Those who find the way of the snake appealing may choose to emulate their stealthy methods to advance their businesses. Others may wait to see if and when the snake rears its ugly head.

In recent years, the financial advisory business has experienced the fallout caused by evil snakes who struck silently and with cunning. Regulators and their sponsors have intensified their scrutiny. Clients and prospects are more wary. Prospective employees are avoiding the profession. Many people have come to view our profession as dangerous.

These challenges mean that a multitude of advisory firms now find their strategy drifting alongside rising costs, with little momentum propelling them toward building an enduring business. Yet take note: Some advisory firm leaders have adopted the positive traits of the clever snake, moving quickly and decisively to capitalize on the new opportunities—for the good of their business, not to the detriment of their clients.

Native Americans are said to view the snake’s shedding of its skin as a sign of rebirth. That is a good metaphor for the coming planning season. It is time to shed your worn, wounded perspective and look on your business with fresh eyes.

How will you prepare for the Year of the Snake?

As summer draws to a close, we gear up for the coming year. Enlightened firms prepare for their autumn planning sessions by gathering data about their business, their clients, their competitors and outside forces such as elections and economic trends. This information impacts how good managers run their practices and serve their clients in the year ahead.

The most effective strategic planners focus on the four cornerstones of business success: growth, risk management, process improvement and human capital. While advisory firms have recovered, generally speaking, from the horrors of five years ago, most have not taken the opportunity to look much further than the coming quarter to create transformative change.

Let’s examine the planning process to identify some potential incremental improvements in the Year of the Snake.

Growth

Most advisors accept that the current organic growth environment for client portfolios is low. They assume, therefore, that revenues derived from asset management fees will also be relatively low. In many cases, the rate of withdrawal by retired clients is also putting pressure on revenue growth. Meanwhile, advisor productivity is declining, due to the greater attention devoted to compliance and client handholding.

So, how can you re-energize your entire team around a single new initiative that could help your business grow at a faster rate? First, narrow your focus. There is no need to embark on multiple initiatives, especially if you and your staff have little time to spare. Look to see if there is a niche inherent in your client base, or a seminar idea that you could repeat multiple times, or recruiting opportunities that may stimulate revenue growth. Sometimes small, incremental steps done exceptionally well can produce a better outcome than taking on too many ideas at once. What is that one great idea you can commit to—and excel at executing—to drive results?

Risk Management

It has become painfully obvious that no segment of the retail advice population is immune from the diseases of greed, sloth and pride, let alone the other four deadly sins. For some advisors and their firms, the costly penalties include jail time and big fines. For others, the reputational damage is equally grave.

Anyone running a financial services business needs to recognize that risk management is not just the role of the compliance department. It is a vital component of firm culture. How do your people behave when you’re not looking? Do they take shortcuts? Do they take the time to confirm that wire requests were actually made by the client? Do they make risky decisions without consulting somebody more experienced?

Unfortunately, just having rules does not always keep advisors out of trouble. Rules have little impact on behavior if the firms themselves have not inculcated their people with a culture of safety, but prefer to operate on the margins instead.

Even if everything important we and our colleagues learned we learned in kindergarten, we should not assume that all the teaching moments in an advisor’s career were wholesome and based on the best interests of others. You must ensure there is an understanding and awareness of good and bad behavior both inside and outside of your business.

Process Improvement

Much has been written in recent years about how the business has changed for most advisors. This change is especially evident within the actual process of providing financial advice—from prospecting, to onboarding clients, to delivering financial plans, to executing transactions, to producing quarterly reports. Again, look at your process through fresh eyes.

Each step in your procedure has a manual and custom component, but still occurs frequently enough to be systematized. If there is one area in your business that consumes a lot of time, or is fraught with errors or quality issues, which would it be? Shine heat and light on that one key area. How could improvement in that area impact your growth and profitability?

Human Capital

For many advisors the endeavor of recruiting, retaining and rewarding people contains their greatest joy and greatest anguish. To see the look on a person’s face when you select them for the job, or help them to achieve a personal goal, or pay them a substantial bonus is very gratifying. To reject a qualified candidate, or deliver a tough performance review, or explain that the firm cannot afford to pay them even a little bit more is truly distressing.

Meanwhile, compensation costs are rising because of the lack of qualified talent. Many individuals are choosing alternate careers or are being recruited by competing firms in need of experienced help. This puts pressure on both the firm’s margins and the environment of trust that you hope exists. Will your valued advisors stay for the opportunity you provide or leave for the cash?

Survey your team to find out what’s important to them and how they feel your firm is performing against those expectations. Human capital is one of those areas where our job is never done. It is always best to begin with the expectations and perceptions of the people who are helping you build a business to last.

This fall, shed your old perspective and slide into a fresh point of view. Choose one initiative that could make your firm a compelling place to work. Is it your opportunity for personal growth, for example, or the fact that you have found a more efficient way to do things? Maybe your X-factor lies in the fact that you don’t take the kinds of dangerous risks that other firms take in order to grow. Whatever your choice, calculate your strategy and make a deliberate plan to achieve your goal.

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