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The Successful Retirement Plan Advisor, Pt. 2: Profile in Success—Trisha Brambley

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This is the second in a five-part series defining success for retirement plan advisors by Liz Davidson, who as president of Financial Finesse has a unique vision of who the most successful retirement plan advisors are, and what they have in common.–Ed.

In my last article for AdvisorOne, I talked about the three most common traits I’ve seen in highly successful retirement plan advisors. Though unique in their personalities and businesses and how they operate those businesses, they all possess similar qualities that have led to their success. The advisors and industry professionals I see who are truly successful at what they do complement their vision with an ability to execute their vision brilliantly. They are often the ones who develop a practical and useful service and put the right team in place, leading them in a way that encourages and fosters creative, problem-solving thinking. They’re the ones who stay focused on the areas where they do their best work and they’re the advisors whose businesses are able to grow quickly because they don’t get held up by politics or operational processes that hinder the innovative processes. 

Trisha Brambley of Retirement Playbook Inc. stands out in my mind as one of these professionals. She not only possesses an ability to recognize market trends far ahead of most of her peers, but she knows how to execute on them by leveraging her acquired skills, expertise and personality traits.

Trisha (left) was not only a key member involved in implementing the country’s first 401(k) plan, working with its accredited creator, Ted Benna, but she spearheaded one of the first retirement plan advisory firms in 1995. She has been named one of the most influential advisors in the country many times in her career, including making the Top 100 Retirement Plan Advisors list four years in a row, Top Retirement Plan Consultant, and Top 300 most influential people in the retirement industry four times. She speaks on many national forums that focus on retirement plan issues, including the Profit Sharing Council of America and the Center for Due Diligence and served on the DOL’s ERISA Advisory Council for three years, preparing DOL recommendations on target date fund analysis, stable value issues and participant financial education. She even served as Vice Chair of the Council in 2008 and as Chair for the study of stable value funds in 2009. She’s done so much in the industry it would probably take me fifty more pages to get it all down on paper.

Today, Trisha is spawning an entirely new industry centered on unbiased consultative services to plan sponsors and non-profit organizations around finding and managing plan advisors. Separately, her firm provides sales training for plan advisors to help them better understand plan sponsors’ most pressing issues around their plans and how to address them. This business is another result of her knack for identifying niches she could completely own—areas that weren’t too crowded and could allow her to separate herself from other advisors the industry. Her approach has led her to succeed with nearly everything she does. At one point she managed assets totaling just under $2 billion during her career as an advisor. 

What Sets Trisha Brambley Apart

There are two key drivers to her success that I have personally learned from and successfully applied to our business, and that I believe every advisor should adopt, regardless of their business model:

Driver 1: Identify problem areas that aren’t being addressed by the industry and seek to be the solution.

Trisha has been able to identify what clients need and provide a feasible solution to them. Her latest endeavor, an independent firm, Retirement Playbook, is already turning a profit in less than a year and a half. Like 15 years ago when she launched her first business, and even 30 years prior when she joined Ted Benna on the first 401(k) plan, Trisha recognized what the industry lacked; she noticed no one was providing plan sponsors with an expert in the room to help them choose a plan advisor in the first place. Often , plan committees had an advisor but no idea what they did with their plan or what they should be looking for in an advisors.

Trisha was able to deliver a new kind of service that helped plan sponsors identify advisors through a rigorous search process that not only could hold up in a court battle around ERISA regulations, but also helped plan sponsors save in costs and put the best plan in place for her clients’ employee bases. She was able to do this through not only listening to her clients, but by seeing the trends in the industry early on, or as she calls it, standing at the bow of the ship. If you stand at the front, you’ll see all the waves before the other passengers on board. The key, however, is knowing what to do about them.

While Trisha has natural abilities here, there are some good lessons that any advisor can apply to grow their business:

Consciously looking for emerging growth areas and then matching those areas to their own strengths and expertise to determine how to refine their business models or products/services to stay ahead of industry trends. Admittedly, some people are better at this than others, but every single advisor can carve out the time to make this a conscious process.

Asking clients what they see as emerging growth areas, and regularly reviewing these conversations to identify patterns and trends in where the industry is going and what problems are not being solved that you, the advisor, are uniquely capable of solving (ideally at an attractive price and with strong margins).

Immersing oneself in the industry. It’s tempting to limit your focus to the business at hand, but if you do this too often you end up with tunnel vision.  It’s critical to find the time to go to conferences, network with peers and read leading industry publications.  Often, this can be done in conjunction with sales/marketing efforts—i.e., setting up appointments with prospects who are also attending industry events, using the opportunity at these events to recruit new employees that you need to add, or finding interesting data from publications you can use in your presentations to clients. 

In his legendary business book Built to Last, Jim Collins talks about what he calls “the genius of the AND”—that is, accomplishing two seemingly competing priorities by finding ways to combine them.  In today’s crazy world, if you aren’t accomplishing multiple objectives from virtually everything you do, you’ll end up working far too many hours, never achieving your goals, or both.

Driver 2: Determining the highest and best use of her time, and complimenting her skills by hiring and partnering with people who could round out her strengths, and in some cases, compensate for her weaknesses. 

One of the hardest things for any human being to do (let alone a very busy advisor running his or her own firm) is to view themselves objectively. Having spoken with and worked with thousands of advisors over the course of my career, my experience is that the vast majority fall into one of two categories: They underestimate their strengths because those strengths come so naturally that they don’t even see how unique their talents are and how valuable they are to building a successful business. Or they are blind to their weaknesses or misguidedly determined to do that dangerous thing that conventional wisdom tells us:  Improve thy weaknesses

All the latest research on human development from the fields of management, neuroscience and psychology is clear—we are very limited in our capacity to improve areas of weaknesses but nearly unlimited in our ability to leverage and continually develop and grow in the areas in which we are truly gifted.  Trisha innately understood this very early on.  She’s one of the few advisors (or entrepreneurs for that matter) that I’ve ever known to accurately and insightfully identify both what she does well and what she’s not good at—without ego or blind spots getting in the way. 

As a result, she has been able to focus her time on the things she does exceptionally well—identifying growth areas and opportunities, building relationships, setting vision and strategic direction and finding and mentoring an excellent team of people to execute on the direction.  And she has been able to effectively delegate tasks and projects to people who are more suited to perform them—without feeling the need to micromanage, something notoriously difficult but absolutely essential for success.

The lesson here is for advisors to take pains to peel back the layers and understand themselves deeply—what can also be called the good, bad and the ugly—so that they can fully leverage their talents for the good of their businesses and their clients. This also allows them to find excellent partners and team members to fill in on areas where they are not skilled.  None of us is truly effective alone; behind every single success story there is inevitably a visionary, a strategist, an executor and often a whole host of people there to lend their support and advice.  The key is knowing which role you are suited for and finding those people who can fill in the blanks. 

What Trisha has been able to do is quite incredible considering she’s done it with a small team at both her companies while having a huge impact on the industry. She’ll tell you that anyone can do this and she’s probably right.

To conclude, those who will stand apart from the rest in a space that’s become more crowded than ever do three things well. They listen intently to clients’ unspoken requests, they take chances on solutions to industry problem areas and they seek out the right kind of people to work with so that their businesses not only operate well but thrive.

We invite you to visit the Most Successful Retirement Plan Advisors landing page for additional content on this important subject.