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The Successful Retirement Plan Advisor: The Power of Passion

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It has taken almost 14 years for my team to see the hard work we’ve put into building a financial education business finally reach national scale. There was no financial education industry when we launched the first independent, unbiased financial education firm in 1999—there wasn’t even a term “financial wellness” in the workplace. Today however, the industry has exploded.  The term “financial wellness” seems to be in nearly every retirement and benefits manager’s vocabulary. More inquiries about our services are pouring in than ever before.

While many who hear of us might think we’re an overnight success, we’re  not (if you ever want a lesson in humility, take a time machine back to 1999 and call major corporations saying you sell financial education services). The reality is that we started this business years too early. What got us to where we are today had less to do with our vision and more to do with out passion.

This deep-seeded passion is something I also see in many of the successful advisors out there. These are the advisors who, as a result of their passion, achieve true success  across every area of their business. They are able to hire and retain a highly capable and enthusiastic team of professionals who are deeply committed to their company’s success; develop strong client relationships that lead to word-of-mouth referrals for more business;paid speaking engagements and other public opportunities that seem to fall into their lap; and build a reputation of true commitment to excellence with every individual client they service.

We’ve all seen instances where someone takes their passion too far, leading them to make abrupt, reactive decisions that ignore obvious signs of disaster. This is probably why the idea of being passionate can be dismissed as just an emotion when it comes to our work—it appears to conflict with reason in some people’s minds. But when passion is triggererd there is an actual, measurable neurological effect in our brains. The caudate nucleus, which is part of the human being’s primitive reptilian brain, and the areas associated with dopamine and norepinephrine production are set off when we express passion.

Many studies have found that when these chemicals (which are associated with pleasurable activities) are present when we work, it improves our ability to communicate, overcome challenges, identify opportunities, receive and effectively implement negative feedback, and persevere in the face of setbacks.

That’s why it should never be overlooked or dismissed. Simply put, passion can be the key differentiator between having a thriving, “ahead of the curve” business and a mediocre one.

Kathleen Kelly, co-founder of Compass Financial Partners (a member of Retirement Partners Group which is a network associated with LPL Financial) is one entrepreneur who has achieved this type of success. She has an unfaltering commitment to her passion and as a result, is not only a recognized expert in retirement plan success (many of you may even know her personally or know of her), but she’s also helped to position Compass Financial Partners as a PLANADVISER 2013 Top 100 Retirement Plan Advisers recipient, among other industry recognitions and accolades. Today Compass advises over $2.5 billion in assets for both its direct- to-client services and plans as of April 2013.

From the beginning, Kathleen and her partner George Hoyle have brought their personal philanthropic mindset to its mission. They have made it a point to keep the individual plan participant—even when dealing with large plan sponsors—at the core of why they are in business. At the end of the day, they believed that’s what it was all about. Not surprisingly, many of their clients shared the same mindset.

Kathleen has been named one of’s 300 Most Influential Advisors in Defined Contribution and has established a name for herself in the industry, being a recognized key member of several national councils/boards including the Retirement Advisor Council, the Principal Financial Professional Advisor Council, the Transamerica Retirement Solutions RIA Advisory Board and others. Needless to say, her passion for helping people achieve true retirement success began years before she’d even known she would be managing a firm.

Kathleen Kelly’s Principles for Success

There are some key principles Kathleen has shared with me that she feels have been drivers for the firm’s success. Yes, they require some passion, but they are true drivers of success anyone can implement:

Principle 1: Hire people who are passionate, treat them like family and don’t ever hire just to fill a position

One of Compass’ key differentiators is that its entire staff, from its plan advisors to employees in office positions, is highly credentialed. Not only does hiring only highly credentialed employees help differentiate Compass from other firms, it helps them find the truly passion-driven go getters who will carry out the firm’s mission with conviction—if you’re highly credentialed in something, you’re likely very passionate about it as well. Though it sometimes takes the firm a year or more to hire for a position, simply because management won’t settle on anyone who isn’t the perfect solution for the firm’s needs and culture, it leaves them with a tight-knit group of employees, each of whom are experts in their fields. Moreover, hiring people who know the ins and outs of what they do is crucial for staying ahead in a competitive industry. 

I can personally attest to why Kathleen’s hiring strategy works. We put CFPs who want to become educators with our firm through a rigorous seven-step hiring process. We test their knowledge, personal values, qualities and ability to be flexible in our untraditional work environment. As a result, we end up with highly passionate employees who truly believe in what we do (who else would be willing to go through four different role-plays and three interviews to get a job?) plus very low employee turnover. 

Principle 2: Share Your Passion With Your Co-Workers

Hiring passionate people is not the end of the story. Truly successful leaders foster passion by conveying their own passion to employees. Studies show this has a direct impact on employees’ perception and behaviors when they feel their leader’s passion aligns with their own. Melissa Cardon, a professor at Pace University in New York and her colleagues have found there are three entrepreneurial identities which are triggered by different passions in business: 1) the inventor identity, who is driven by activities that involve identifying, inventing and exploring new opportunities; 2) the founder identity, who is fueled by activities that involve establishing a venture for commercializing and exploiting new opportunities; 3) the developer identity, who is driven by activities that nurture, grow and expand a venture once it’s been created.

Not every employee has entrepreneurial qualities, but identifying where each individual’s passions lie and placing them in roles that allow them to work to them, will drive success.   

Principle 3: Extend Your Influence Through Networks

If you approach your business this way and maximize your networking opportunities with both your existing relationships and those you’re building with prospects and partners, you can do far more than you’d be able to accomplish on your own. With a circle of influencers, you’re able to motivate large groups of people into buying your vision: starting a movement with critical mass that snowballs and ultimately cements your firm as an industry leader. 

Kathleen Kelly has spent years doing exactly that. She’s built relationships with industry experts in both her immediate field and those outside of it that add value and insight to her business. As a result, she’s been able to identify trends early on in what her clients are seeking—hearing them from other vendors they work with and gaining insight and information she would otherwise never have. Not only has she used this knowledge and insight to develop services that better suit her clients’ needs, but she’s been able to make a name for herself as an expert in her niche and across multiple areas of concern for her target market.

In the end, there’s only a certain amount of passion we can cultivate within ourselves;  some simply have more of it than others when it comes to their line of work. Regardless, following best practices like the ones Kathleen and her firm follow can drive true success across all areas of our businesses.

Those who put real fervor into their work simply enjoy the journey more.        

Read more profiles of Successful Retirement Plan Advisors by Liz Davidson of Financial Finesse.    


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