What’s the common characteristic that most successful advisors share? It’s not their compensation model, or choice of custodian or broker/dealer, or even an entrepreneurial streak. No, when you talk to a successful advisor, about 20 minutes into the conversation you’ll often hear a statement like, “That’s what I’m working on with my coach,” or, “My coach thinks this is a good move for my firm.” Perhaps not ironically, the best advisors know they need help, and aren’t shy about getting that help, whether it’s how to create more capacity in their firms, or how to hire better employees, or how to serve more client families. But not all coaches are created equal, notes Ray Sclafani, a veteran of the financial services industry who launched his ClientWise coaching firm, based in Mount Kisco, New York, after spending 20 years at AllianceBernstein. Many people confuse coaching with consulting, or training, and that’s not a good thing, especially now when there’s been so much disruption in both the advisor business and among the clients of advisors and brokers.

Sclafani notes that “advisors are more ambitious than I’ve seen in 20 years–about adding clients, yes, but also about reframing who they are in clients’ eyes.” Sclafani sees “a tremendous amount of confusion” among clients, he says, “as to what my financial advisor does for me.” Such confusion spells opportunity for other advisors, of course, as well as a warning bell for advisors of those confused clients, so part of what ClientWise offers is a way to help advisors take existing client relationships and elevate and expand them, to help “redefine what wealth management is,” since the best advisors, he says, “provide both advice and guidance” to clients.

Sclafani has plenty of respect for advisors, respect he gained when he began selling to advisors at AllianceBernstein and quickly learned that “those advisors had much more knowledge of the capital markets” than he did. So he began at first to observe how the best advisors operated, and later built a database for AllianceBernstein that used the information he had gathered in marketing to advisors as the firm’s national sales manager, in building an e-commerce department at AllianceBernstein in New York in 1999, and later when he built the Advisor Institute, a practice management information clearinghouse after a year-long, countrywide tour sponsored by AllianceBernstein as part of a team that included Mark Tibergien, who was then at Moss Adams and who these days runs Pershing Advisor Solutions.

Upon founding his own firm, Sclafani spent the first four months, he recalls, interviewing 580 advisors with more than $250 million in AUM, eventually resulting in getting first-hand information on their practices from those advisors. But he didn’t stop there. Sclafani remains a fan of gathering and analyzing data from the advisors his firm coaches, something that the 17 coaches at ClientWise (out of a total workforce of 26) continue to gather through each coaching relationship, using a checklist each time they speak with clients that is then poured into the common database. “The more clients we have, the more coaches we have, the more data we have,” notes Sclafani, which after compilation and analysis, the coaches can feed back into their conversations with all their advisor clients: “Research is at the core of what we do–I want my coaches to know what the best firms do.”

That data, that knowledge, will come in handy beginning next month, when Sclafani begins to chronicle for Investment Advisor, the experiences of a new group of advisor coaching clients in a year-long column called The Coach’s Corner.

Your Agenda, Not the Coach’s

All ClientWise coaches have a minimum of 10 years coaching experience, are certified by the International Coach Federation (ICF), and all appreciate “the difference between training and coaching,” says Sclafani. “The advisors we work with already have had plenty of training, but if the advisor is coached more extensively, then the firm serves the client, deeply.” Many coaches–and advisors, for that matter–confuse coaching, training, and consulting, according to Sclafani. “In training,” he says, “the agenda is centered on the trainer. But coaching is not about my agenda.” Rather, coaching helps advisors “develop a clear vision, and to become masterful thinkers,” to help them become “the CEO of their own businesses.”

Moreover, Sclafani believes that “behind every good CEO is a good executive coach.”

“We don’t do ‘happy coaching talk’ with clients,” he says. Moreover, telling somebody “what the right idea is” to build a business “is not coaching,” he argues. Instead, coaching entails helping advisor clients come up with their own idea, based on their vision for themselves and their firm, which the coach helps to articulate and then implement, based again on that rich vein of data that ClientWise has gathered and continually updates with fresh data from its clients. “As coaches,” Sclafani says, “we have to honor what the client wants to do and when to do it.” He pares down the ClientWise approach to three steps. The coach helps the advisor to:

o Get clear: The coach listens to the client to form a clear vision of what the client wants to do, defining goals and objectives that are specific to the advisor’s practice.

o Get focused: The coach works with the advisor on an action plan to accomplish those goals and objectives.

o Get results: The coach monitors the action plan to ensure that the advisor is making progress toward achieving those goals.

Sclafani reports that the approach worked even during the markets and economic crisis of 2008-2009, when “we were building sustainable businesses with strong marketing communications departments,” including a program for its advisors to help retain clients.

By the way, Sclafani practices what he preaches: he has his own personal coach, who helped him set up his approach to guiding clients, and who helps him to get clear, focused, and achieve results.

Group Editorial Director Jamie Green can be reached via e-mail at jgreen@investmentadvisor.com.