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Profiles in Leadership: Great Leaders Use Both Sides of the Brain

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One of the biggest challenges I am faced with as a constantly developing leader is finding balance between my left- and right-brain thinking. What I mean is finding the way to get both hemispheres working together so that I am able to make the best decisions and tap the best skillsets for the specific situation at hand. This is tremendously difficult—I believe it may even be a lifetime battle for me. But it’s also extremely important to truly effective leadership—something we’ve only really begun to recognize over the past couple of decades.

An MIT study released last month found that entrepreneurs tapped both sides of their brain when successfully playing a game of strategy; Dr. Mary Lou Décosterd, author of Right Brain/Left Brain Leadership: Shifting Style for Maximum Impact, argues that the most effective leaders are those who can fluidly shift their leadership style in specific circumstances where one side of the brain might attain better results than the other. Being such a “hybrid” leader who possesses more than just one leadership style has become the latest trend in the management world. 

Someone who I believe has mastered this approach to leadership is Bill Chetney. You have probably heard of him—many of my peers and the professionals I come across recognize him as one of the founding fathers of the very large (and growing) 401(k) advisory industry catering to plan sponsors. That is because throughout his 25-plus years in the business, he’s done more than most do in a lifetime. In 1991, Bill’s entrepreneurial endeavor, Reliastar Financial Corporation, designed one of the very first open-architecture 401(k) plans. He then went on to successfully launch the nation’s largest 401(k) advisory firm, National Retirement Partners, by purchasing highly successful retirement plan advisory businesses to create a powerhouse which included not only the country’s top advisors but a wealth of shared resources and knowledge to help them scale their practices. By the time he sold NRP to LPL Financial three years ago, the company was advising on over $40 billion in assets. 

Today, Bill has accomplished yet another major industry milestone as executive VP of LPL Financial Retirement Partners, the broker-dealer’s retirement plan-focused division and umbrella to over 1,500 LPL advisors.  Working with a highly talented team, Bill spearheaded LPL’s Worksite Financial Solutions program which is changing the way the industry approaches participants’ retirement preparedness. The program does something that has never been done before, on a mass scale, to deliver holistic advice to American workers. 

It combines unbiased behavior-changing education with advice delivered through a combination of in person sessions and managed accounts, and a service designed to help employees transition into and out of their plans so they don’t cash out their retirement savings when they switch jobs. 

The program is designed to shift the minds of advisors, plan sponsors and their participants around what retirement education should look like and help participants achieve retirement security with more holistic, personalized, ongoing retirement guidance designed around the principles of behavioral finance. At the more tactical level, Bill’s goal is to enable top-performing retirement plan advisors to take their businesses to the next level through the use of the Worksite Financial Solutions program, as well as other programs LPL has available to acquire new and larger plan sponsor clients.    

(Disclosure: Financial Finesse is the firm responsible for the financial education component of Bill Chetney’s worksite financial solutions program.  We intentionally separate editorial and sales efforts, but our working relationship has provided a perspective that we might not otherwise have. ) 

If we are to also be successful leaders like Bill, we need to shift our perspective of what it means to lead. Like most great leaders, Bill is more focused on overcoming the next challenge than reflecting on his past successes. It took a series of conversations and interviews with both Bill and those who know him best, but my team and I ultimately peeled back the layers to identify the most important drivers of Bill’s success—which are tips that I believe can benefit all of us who lead.

Principle 1:  Recognize Patterns and Timing 

Successful leaders seem to possess two traits. The more obvious one is an innate ability to see ahead of the market and spot the opportunities for providing an unmet need. The second trait, sometimes overlooked, is having an expert understanding of timing—jump too soon into a market and it could kill your business; jump too late and you’ll be behind the leaders. 

Being able to see ahead of the market is more of a right-brain skillset—we tap this side of the brain’s ability to think outside the confinements of current structure and envision new ventures. Being able to understand timing, however, requires left-brain thinking, where confinements of structure and extrinsic factors are considered, such as what others will think of the service or product and how it can actually be sold. 

Bill Chetney of LPL.Bill (left) has mastered both skills—he’s able to recognize patterns in the industry through what his clients, his peer, and his employees (and now, his network of advisors) are saying and doing in their individual areas of the market to spot opportunities. He also innately understands timing so that he is never too far ahead of demand, but never behind it, either. 

Even when it requires years of advocating your cause before you actually act on it, it’s often better to wait and time the market well, so you set yourself up as the leading expert in the area, rather than to sell something no one is ready for. Bill, for example, has spent the majority of his career stressing the importance of more holistic financial planning for participants. Before the recession, there was far less consensus from the industry and our clients that this was really necessary to improve participant outcomes since everyone’s portfolios were doing well. Today, however, it’s a very different picture and what Bill has been advocating for years is coming to light for the rest of us.

Principle 2:  Grow the Pie Rather Than Fight Over Slices 

In everything he does, Bill wholeheartedly commits to an important principle: Whatever new business, program or initiative he is building should benefit all parties involved.  Yes, he needs to see the financial benefit to his company, but he is also a believer that long-term success is not sustainable unless what you build makes others successful.  He would rather build something great with a lot of stakeholders that share in its success than play a zero-sum game where his gain is someone else’s loss.

This extends to his feeling about society and his own legacy.  When you look at what he has done throughout his career, including 401(k) enrollment meetings very early on as a young professional, he’s always kept in mind the “greater good”: the impact on the average American and their own financial security. He is passionate about leaving the world, the financial services industry and the average consumer of financial services better off than where they started.  

It is for this reason he has the trust and respect of thousands of advisors and literally helped shape the retirement plan industry into one that is much more productive than it was years ago. 

It may sound too good to be true—indeed, I’ve seen those who don’t know him well doubt the authenticity of his social mission—but reputations and results built transparently, over decades, do not lie.  

Of all three principles, this one is probably the most critical to long term success.  I follow it myself every day, and virtually every single successful leader I know approaches life the same way.  Zero-sum thinkers might win a deal, or get the better end of a negotiation but they can’t change hearts and minds, and they can’t scale their reputations and their leadership to achieve greatness. 

Principle 3:  Learn How to Relate to People

Since Bill started as an advisor himself, he is able to relate to his network of advisors better than most leaders do with their employees. Beyond relating to people, he recognizes how to best work with people on an individual level, based on their preferred frame of thinking.

This is hugely important because sometimes we need the people we’re working with to shift their own mindsets. Sometimes we need them to be more creative and defy boundaries to take risks for greater opportunity, while at other times we need them to stick to tactical plans in order to achieve very specific goals. Most of us don’t think in both frames of mind, of course, and while strategy and business development tend to come easier to left-brain thinkers, collaboration and innovation do not. 

On the other hand, get together a room full of right-brain thinkers (typically the very collaborative and innovative types) and you’ll never get anything done! Great leadership requires us to be able to relate to both frames of thinking, and not just our own preferred frame of thinking. When we are able to tap both brain hemispheres and the leadership styles that each side favors, we are able to lead people toward our visions with great passion, but also with greater chances of implementation—something that is nearly impossible when we approach our businesses from only one side of the brain. 

We can start making better leadership decisions if we first understand what motivates our individual employees, our peers and our clients. 

Though it’s broad based, start by putting each person you work with into one of two categories, either right brain thinkers who often tend to be intrinsically motivated, and left-brain thinkers, who typically are motivated by more extrinsic factors. An intrinsically motivated employee might prefer a flat management system where their feedback is encouraged and implemented as part of the company’s growth strategy; an extrinsically motivated employee might be more highly motivated by a new title and higher compensation. Once you have this understanding, train your brain to tap the best hemisphere for relating to individuals based on their motivators. 

There is no single recipe for great leadership, of course—that’s why through the ages there has been such a wide range of incredibly influential people, from Ghandi to Steve Jobs.  But identifying patterns in the market, creating new solutions and strategizing how to effectively reach and motivate people toward our visions so that they literally change and shape entire industries, requires different skillsets. 

It isn’t realistic to think we’ll master all of them all of the time, but it is realistic to learn how to tap the right and left brains when we need them for better leadership and it is very doable, if we’re willing to follow in the footsteps of leaders like Bill Chetney.


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