The cream of the crop. People hear that phrase and they know it signifies the best. Individuals and organizations tagged as the cream of the crop stand out from the rest.

The designation doesn’t come easy. Professional sports provide a good example of how difficult it is to be considered the cream of the crop. Hundreds of thousands of high school boys play football. Roughly 10,000 can earn Division I college scholarships. Only about 1,500 of those can find a spot on a professional roster. Fewer than 4,000 of the tens of thousands of kids who play high school basketball will earn a college scholarship at the Division I level. And only 450 of those can sit on an NBA bench at any given time. Only 150 are named starters on any given night. That’s a brutal process of attrition.

The world of financial services operates roughly the same way. More than one million men and women make a career in the business, with roughly two-thirds of those being captive. Of the remaining 400,000, only a small percentage are highly productive, says Tyrone Clark, president and CEO of Centennial, Colo.-based Brokers Choice of America ( www.brokerschoice.com ). Clark’s contemporary take defies conventional wisdom: the old 20/80 rule is obsolete, he claims.

“Four to 7 percent of producers do 80 percent of the business,” Clark states.

That’s the bad news, at least for the 93 percent of producers not in that company. The good news is that the traits that separate the elite from the others are simple enough to identify. The better news is that these traits can be acquired by senior advisors who want to step up their game and move to the upper echelon. We talked to industry professionals, who provided their insight and expertise.

Passionate

Trying to rank the importance of the traits highlighted in this story would be as futile as arguing about the exact order of the 10 greatest players in any sport across different eras. No single list will satisfy everyone. One trait common to top producers, however, kept emerging, either as “one of the biggest” or “the most important.” That trait is passion.

Passion isn’t as simple as liking one’s job. To really succeed, advisors have to be zealous about what they do, which is helping seniors. They have to be disappointed to miss work.

“Advisors have to live, sleep and eat this business,” says Bo Johnson, MSM, chief marketing officer and principal at Financial Independence Group Inc. ( www.figmarketing.com ) in Charlotte, N.C. “They have to have a passion for helping people with their financial future.”

Dr. Harry Olson calls passion the most important characteristic elite advisors possess; it drives them to want to make a difference.

“When people carry their business to a sense of mission,” says Olson, president of Maximum Potential Inc. ( www.harryolson.com ) in Owings Mills, Md., “that gives them the push they need on days they may not want to get out of bed, or during market downturns.”

Ethical

Every producer in the game probably knows someone or knows of someone who skirts the rules, doesn’t always have clients’ best interests at heart, and manages to get away with it. Those people, fortunately, are in the minority, and their time in the industry is probably shorter than longer. Advisors who take ethics seriously and exhibit their commitment to being ethical on a daily basis are most likely to last long and flourish, because people talk.

“Ethics is a vital component to [advisor success] because your reputation catches up to you quickly in a positive way,” says Jeff Kopitz, co-founder and president of the San Diego-based National Ethics Bureau ( www.ethicscheck.com ), adding that a negative reputation catches up to people, too. “A positive reputation starts to snowball in the form of referrals.”

A negative reputation is more like an avalanche, especially in smaller environments. Plenty of advisors work in small towns and rural areas where everyone knows everyone.

“You only have one reputation,” Johnson says. “If you mess up once in a small town, you’re done.”

Lip service to ethics won’t get the job done, beyond the short term. While one’s commitment to ethics might be difficult to make tangible, longevity speaks volumes about one’s principles.

Up to speed

Technology continues to change at lightning speed, and more people get comfortable with new advancements every day. Advisors who don’t keep up are bound to be left in the middle of the pack. Kopitz says the best advisors are with the times. In other walks of life, they might be called hip. They use radio shows, e-newsletters, Webinars, podcasts and anything else at their disposal to communicate with clients and prospects. Johnson says the industry experiences a paradigm shift every seven years, so advisors have to be open to change; they have to embrace the latest and greatest marketing and sales techniques and the best technology.

Those who do look for the latest software can use it to run the mundane tasks a business requires while they are doing what they do best: helping seniors plan the rest of their lives.

“The best advisors,” Kopitz says, “are always changing with what’s working.”

Positive self-image

For many, the picture of a salesperson is tainted by the image conjured up by the used-car-salesman stereotype. Even sales professionals can be swayed by that negative connotation tied to their chosen profession, despite their knowledge that what they do is important, that it makes a difference in people’s lives. The best advisors, according to Olson, ask, “How do I see myself?” They ask, “Am I a seller of products, or am I a life changer?” “Am I an educator?”

“As people see themselves, that’s how they act in life and in their career,” Olson says. “The top people define themselves as life changers. They don’t see themselves as product pushers.”

The stronger one’s image of himself as a life changer, the more likely he is to project that image and the more likely people are to see him in that light.

Great talker, great listener

Johnson said great advisors have the gift of gab – “In any sales arena, this is very important” – but he was quick to clarify that part of that gift is knowing when to shut up and listen. Even middle-of-the-road advisors will be able to talk a good game, but will they know when to listen, and listen with a purpose?

“Part of the gift,” Johnson points out, “is being able to use what you hear.”

Kopitz agrees. He says top producers have trained their ears to hear what clients say, and they understand how that translates into hopes, fears, dreams and reservations. A professional who twists a client’s words to fit a particular product or a preconceived plan isn’t listening for the cues he needs. He is only using one aspect of the gift of gab – the one that should be used sparingly. To advisors who have grown in their career and become great, “client concerns should stand out like a sore thumb,” Kopitz says.

Only when those concerns are clear can an advisor’s ability to talk about solutions be utilized fully. No matter how great the plan and an advisor’s explanation of it, if a person isn’t fully engaged he isn’t going to do business, Johnson says. Full engagement can take some time.

When working with seniors, the ability to listen – and talk – must be accompanied by patience because, according to Olson, “seniors don’t move as quickly as some others,” and that can test advisors.

“You have to be willing to educate in a shepherding way,” he says. “The bottom line is an emotional connection.” Olson’s thoughts echo Johnson’s assertion that people must be fully engaged before they will do business with an advisor.

So the gift of gab, despite its seeming commitment to talking, is a delicate balance between speaking, listening and patience. The advisors who reach that elite plateau have figured it out: Sometimes the best gab session doesn’t require much talking at all.

Teammate/cheerleader

Johnson says he works with and talks to many senior advisors in his capacity at FIG, and the great ones have something not many people think about. Top-level advisors, he emphasizes, have someone as a cheerleader, whether that person is a wife, husband, assistant, life coach or business coach.

“That teammate,” he says, “no matter who it is, is the reason they get out of bed every day.”

Johnson’s reason for wanting to be the best he can be is his daughter.

This list of attributes is by necessity limited (see sidebar for more). Twenty different advisors, sales coaches, industry executives and consumers would have 20 different lists, many of which would contain some of the same traits. What are presented here are traits some advisors may not have considered, twists on some commonly thought-of traits and a requisite discussion of ethics. Without any of these, advisors risk missing the upper echelon. With only these, advisors likely won’t reach the top either, but this list gives readers the push they may need to examine their strengths, their weaknesses and their areas for improvement.

There are more than 1 million financial professionals out there. Some of them were born with the characteristics to be great, but most weren’t. Most of the greats in any profession were made, not born. Being a great advisor is no different.

“All of these traits are attainable,” Olson says. “It just depends on how far you have to go. Some people come by them naturally; some have to work harder. If advisors know what they are shooting for, it is easier for them to target their energy and attain results.”

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