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Taking A Team-Based Approach To Building A Successful Practice

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If you oversee an insurance or financial planning firm that expects its advisors to be one-man shows, managing everything from prospecting to client care, then it’s time to revisit the business model. Reorganizing the advisors into teams, wherein job functions are divvied up based on the advisors’ skills and interests, will produce far superior results.

Patrick Ungashick, a chartered financial consultant and executive vice president of White Horse Advisors, Atlanta, Ga., delivered that message at GAMA International’s LAMP 2008 conference, held here earlier this month. Titled “Building High-Performance Advisor Teams,” the presentation served as a case study of best practices applied by Ungashick’s firm and detailed in the GAMA Foundation’s latest research.

“Clients increasingly need expertise that no one individual can credibly provide,” said Ungashick. “To ask advisors to do everything ignores the reality that individuals have strengths and weaknesses. When we ask advisors to be great prospectors, marketers, empathizers, planners, technicians and service providers, we’re asking them to do the impossible. They may become good at all of the above, but, almost certainly, they will become great at none.”

Expecting advisors to be a jack-of-all-trades reduces productivity and job satisfaction, he added. To the extent they devote their efforts to tasks in which they’re lacking (or don’t like), advisors deny themselves of time to focus on work at which they excel. Also, as they add new clients to their Rolodexes, advisors find it more difficult to service existing clients.

There is, too, a compliance issue. When multiple advisors carry out the same tasks, such as periodic reviews of IRA accounts, but each does so in his or her own way, then compliance systems have to be set up to accommodate the different methods, said Ungashick.

The various drawbacks of requiring advisors to go solo in all facets of their practices speaks to the value of creating multi-functional teams, with each team member performing one or two tasks in which the individual excels. White Horse Advisors, says Ungashick, endeavored to transform its own division of labor 3 years ago, modeling its efforts on best practices that the GAMA Foundation incorporated this year into its new Systems for Success research report, “Building High-Performance Advisor Teams.”

A chief focus of the initiative: determining where advisors’ proficiencies lay and pairing them with individuals holding complementary skills. Said Ungashick: “The next time you have a one-on-one meeting with an advisor, ask two questions: ‘What do you want to do more of on a daily basis? And what do you want to do less of on a daily basis.’

In executing the makeover, he added, Whitehorse had to address other questions that are major topics of the GAMA report. Among them: how to launch, manage and maintain the advisor teams; how to track team performance; and what roles to assign to field leaders overseeing the teams.

Ungashick noted, for example, that White Horse needed to determine whether advisors would be free or required to consult a specialist, such as a long term care professional, when a case called for such expertise. (The firm chose to make it mandatory.) The company also had to decide whether the teams would be organized according to market focus, seniority, job function or other parameters.

Opting for the functional model, White Horse organized its advisors into teams of 3: a “finder” and “binder’ who excels at prospecting for clients and closing the sale; a “grinder” who is technically proficient at developing the insurance or financial plan; and a “minder” who is “way off the charts on the empathy scale” and serves as the client relationship manager. Each member on the team, Ungashick observed, has at least some variable pay tied to a customer satisfaction-based bonus plan.

This functional division of labor, he said, is nothing new in the corporate world.

“Most other types of businesses have already figured how to divide work among people holding business development, sales, production and customer service responsibilities,” said Ungashick. “If we don’t run our business like a business, then it won’t perform like a business. This is not revolutionary, but it’s a very different approach for many of us in financial services and face-to-face distribution.”

Those insurance and financial services firms that adopt a team-based approach can expect multiple dividends. In addition to enhanced productivity and performance, he said, the team model can also help boost employee retention by making each individual in the practice more dependent on others for their continuing success. And by lending uniformity to similar job functions in an organization, the approach also permits increased career mobility for individuals desiring to move from one team to another.

Ungashick stressed that success in adopting the team model will hinge on execution. To that end, he counseled attendees to develop teams in a systematized fashion, customize the teams to suit the particular structure and culture of the practice, and clearly define responsibilities and processes with written job descriptions and other documentation. He also advised them to hold weekly meetings to review performance, establish a rewards and recognition program and manage expectations.

“We told our advisors as we went down this journey, ‘Gang, we’re going to make some mistakes, so be patient. If we’re headed down a path that doesn’t work for you, let us know.’ We encouraged healthy communication right up-front.”


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