October 8, 2012

Advice for the NexGen Advisor: Be Yourself

At the risk of exposing all my professional insecurities, I am going to share with you a personal story in the belief that it will help you. Since the time I was 14 years old, I have been owning, selling and buying businesses.

Throughout this professional journey, I have had the privilege of having great mentors—wise individuals who gave me guidance on everything from what words I should use and not use to negotiate a deal, to what clothing I should wear and not wear, to how much I should drink and not drink, to sharing (or not sharing) my views on religion and politics. I was always told that at my age, I needed to always be proving myself, and if I let myself just be myself (wore jeans, took the tequila shots and made bad business jokes, etc.), it was going to be harder to get what I wanted. So as a result, I became what I thought I should be.

The interesting thing is that it worked. I wore the business suit, skipped out on the party and held my tongue. Instead, I opted to be bored in my hotel room, started using fancy words and just kept my mouth shut even when it took everything in me not to express my opinions. As a result, by following the traditional professional business conduct, I created a pretty good, positive cash-flowing business, and developed strong professional relationships. I got everything I wanted, right?

The problem is that I wasn’t happy. I earned everything I sought after but resented what I had. As one of my friends pointed out, what I created was “two worlds and two personalities.” The first was my personal world, where I was free to be wild, risky, brave, vulnerable, feisty silly me; and the second—my professional world—where I was reserved, intense, passive and compliant.

This split personality came to a head about two years ago when I was mentoring a few young advisors in their careers to do the same things I was mentored to do, fully knowing that I was likely helping them to create the same miserable predicament I was in. As a result, I decided to change my approach.

To change things, I went to my greatest mentor, my grandfather, who had built an international engineering business. He said: “The problem with you, Angie [and young people in general], is that you have the curse of unlimited potential. Along your professional journey, you are going to start believing you should be like everyone else. The difference between truly successful young people and those who never reach their potential is having the strength to just be authentic, and the courage to protect your brand.”

What I learned from him was that young people (and everyone else) have two jobs for their professional careers. The first is to have the courage to be yourself, regardless of what people think about you. Seems simple, right? It took me a little while (and I still struggle with it at times), but when I stopped caring about who I thought I should be and started being who I really was, my business grew 400% in one year.

Don’t get me wrong: I had people who were very offended by my proverbial potty mouth. But I also had people who appreciated it. I ended up finding strategic partners, clients and friends that opened up to me more, gave me better deals—and ironically, taking the tequila shot often worked in my favor. I attracted clients who were more like me and thus more fun to work with, which allowed me to just be me even more, and not to worry about it.

Secondly, and the step that is often skipped in today’s “be yourself world,” is that you also have to know how to “protect your brand.” You have a responsibility to yourself (if you own your advisory business) or a responsibility to your firm (if you work for one) to ensure that “who you are” doesn’t hurt the brand of the company you are building or helping to build. This means you have to know yourself, and your clients.

For example, I have an advisor client who prefers to get to know prospective clients over dinner and drinks, rather than sitting at a conference table. It’s who he is, and his firm is known for this untraditional approach and attracts clients who like it. too. But if you are working for this firm and think alcohol is the devil, you have a problem. You need to be true to yourself, protect the brand he created, and find a new job where you are able to connect to clients in a way you can feel good about.

The most important thing about my grandfather as a person was his pride in being an American. In his toughest times, and in a world of outsourcing, he ensured everything his company produced was “Made in the USA.” He will tell you this wasn’t what everyone told him he should continue doing. But he will also be the first to tell you that by not being like everyone else, he stayed true to himself and thus protected his brand.

Although he will never say this (humility is also part of who he is), I am certain he smiled all the way to the bank, and when he got there, he could honestly look in the mirror and say, “I am exactly who I want to be—and my business and my life is exactly what I want it to be.”

My advice to young people now is simply three things:

  1. Take only this advice and ignore the rest
  2. Be yourself. If you don’t know who that is, you need to go find out
  3. Be professional enough to recognize those times when what you are building or whom you have to be is detracting from who you truly are. If you recognize this problem, be responsible and courageous enough to make a change—so you don’t destroy your own business (or the one that someone else spent years creating) or yourself in the process.

(As a side note, my grandfather also said these principles work in developing fulfilling personal relationships, and being a father.)

I guarantee that if you do these three things you will harness all your unlimited potential; and achieve both success and happiness.

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