Hurricane Katrina triggered this most recent reflection. My dad and stepmother have lived on the Mississippi Coast for the past 20 years. Now in their late 70s and mid-80s, they were content with the sleepy, humid summers and balmy winters after having spent most of their lives in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
Katrina changed all that. Not only was their home destroyed by winds and floods, their town of Pass Christian was virtually obliterated. Yet, after being unable to communicate with the outside world for almost five days, they navigated out of that horror and migrated back to Michigan to live. While somewhat traumatized, they basically handled the change with a glare at Mother Nature and a determination to start their lives over again. How did they learn to cope like that?
My grandparents survived the rape and pillage of Belgium by Kaiser Wilhelm’s ruthless army during which my grandfather was badly blistered by mustard gas. For his valor, he was awarded the Croix de Guerre by his country, but my grandparents decided it was time to make their way in a more peaceful land. Together, with their young son, they emigrated to the United States to create a new life but retained their view of disciplined child rearing.
That son, my father, was raised to be tough enough to survive bouts of malaria, and hand-to-hand combat against fearsome Japanese soldiers in the jungles of New Guinea during WWII.
Upon his return, he married and raised three children. He had high expectations and a quick temper, but a looser grip on discipline. Six months after I was born, he lost my mother during the great polio epidemic in 1952. My brother was also stricken at that time but grew strong enough over the years to serve in Vietnam where he was badly wounded emotionally and physically. My second brother was weakened by chronic asthma. In spite of the rough start to our lives, we learned lessons about perseverance and respect and making lives better for others.
I’m not telling you about “The Travails of the Tibergiens” to elicit sympathy or applause, but as I reflect on each of these episodes I can’t help but think that in a sense, hardship often is the rite of passage that shapes each person’s view of the world.
The relevance of this ramble on pain and suffering to financial advisors is recognition that in this business, many people have endured deprivation to make it the profession it has become. Unfortunately, there is an unconscious tendency on the part of many advisors to expect their employees to suffer as much as they did to make a living before they can be awarded respect and opportunity.
I have talked to many people in this business who grew up poor, or who had failed partnerships, or marriages that have been strained and broken because of their single-minded focus on building a practice, or who have not saved enough for their own retirement. I recall a favorite saying of my dad: “If you’re looking for sympathy, you’ll find it in the dictionary between s**t and suicide.” While his spelling was a bit off, and his guidance on this subject a bit crude, his point was that we all suffer, yet we all make decisions on how we will respond to the challenge. Many abhor the idea that people they hire will have it easier than them; others will see this as an opportunity to teach.
As an example, I recently met with a group of advisors who were furious about the culture of entitlement that in their mind has been bred into their employees. Those of us who are baby boomers can hear the words of our parents in this tirade. These advisors unanimously agreed that their young staff did not appreciate all they had to do to build their practices, just to earn a living. They believed that until their staff suffered the same degree of personal anguish as the founders, they would never be great advisors. They certainly would not be worthy of consideration to be partners in the firm. “We want them to be seen, not heard. Quit complaining about pay and opportunity and just do their jobs!”
One of my younger staff consultants, Lisa Simonson, who was participating in this meeting observed: “It’s interesting that every advisory firm we consult with feels their staff needs to go through some rite of passage. I wish you would realize that more suffering is not going to create a better business. I don’t think you should resent people for living off of what you created, or learning from what you learned. Maybe it would work better if you help them to grow by capitalizing on your experiences and their energy.”
Of course, we were all taken aback by her bluntness (a characteristic of Generation Y) but it forced them to think. Why is it that we feel our employees, or our successors must suffer as much as we do in order to appreciate what they have? Further, why do we think that our employees need to suffer at all to be effective in this business?
Much has been written and said about the differences in generations, especially the gulf between the baby boomers and Generation Y. Angie Herbers, who also writes a column for Investment Advisor, has led the charge in stirring up rebellion against the patronizing and oftentimes patriarchal behavior of advisors towards their staff. Her argument in simple terms is that once a person has earned a degree in financial planning, they are ready to work with clients and expect to be compensated for that expertise.