Much has been written recently about how owner-advisors should position their firms for succession and how they can train younger advisors to succeed them. Some enlightened firms (including most of our clients) have created programs that “teach” junior advisors to be business owners. Many owner-advisors still don’t have the time or the inclination to train their successors, though, or simply don’t go about it very effectively.
That doesn’t mean that junior advisors at these firms (or firms in which the owners show no interest in selling to a successor) should give up on firm ownership or look for another firm. By actively preparing themselves to be firm owners, and demonstrating their increased business acumen, junior advisors can play a key role in their owner-advisors’ thinking about succession and in creating their firm’s succession plan.
The key is to learn to think like an owner, rather than an employee.
Lose Your Employee Mentality
Most junior advisors have never owned their own business. Consequently, they tend to think like employees. Because they’ve never had the owner experience, they don’t realize there is another perspective. Trust me on this one: Being an owner is a lot different. Remember when you graduated from college? Got your first real job? An apartment? A car? Even though you might still have had parents backing you up, remember the realization that paying your bills, showing up for work and staying out of trouble was all up to you?
Now, imagine if you didn’t have an employer, but you did have employees and family, all of whom depend on you. Not only that, but imagine if the only money that will come in today, tomorrow and every other day will come only from the work that you do and the decisions that you make. Finally, imagine that everything you have or want—your house, cars, vacations, kids’ education, health care, etc.—depends on your business. That’s how advisory firm owners see the world every day. Consequently, they see clients not as people with needs that have to be met, but as people who need help and will pay to get that help. The better you meet those needs, the longer you can keep the firm’s doors open.
That’s why an owner’s perspective is different. Everything matters more: the client services that the firm provides, the client services that custodians or BDs provide, overhead costs, investments in technology and more employees, the look of the office, the performance of employees, attracting new clients and so on.
An owner sees every issue from the perspective of “How does this affect the business?” To prepare yourself to sit in his or her chair, and to make those decisions, that’s how you need to see the world, too.
Work to Help the Firm
Business owners take the initiative to solve problems—they have to, since there’s no one else to rely on. What’s more, they look for problems that need to be solved, to make the business better. They don’t wait for someone to tell them to do it, because no one will.
So take a hard look, first at your job. How could your job be done better? More efficiently? More effectively? How could it help others to do their jobs better? How could it make a bigger impact on the success of the firm?
Then look at the firm as a whole: How could everyone work together better? How could client services be improved? How could the firm attract more clients? Perhaps most important, what else could you take off your owner-advisor’s desk, so he or she can do more?
What most owner-advisors really want (whether they know it or not) is someone who’s resourceful. They want someone who can be trusted to get things done, so they don’t have to do them or worry about them. If you can show your owner that you are that kind of person, you’ll go a long way toward convincing them you’re owner material.
Learn to Be a Leader
Firm owners are leaders, whether they want to be or not. The only question is whether they are good leaders or bad leaders. In our leadership programs, we work with firm owners and top employees to make them better employers by becoming better leaders.
Junior advisors also can prepare themselves to become better managers by developing these four skills:
Skill 1: Organize Yourself
Business organization revolves around a “strategic plan.” That is, setting out exactly what you want to accomplish and then taking the steps necessary to make that plan a reality. But a “plan” is only the beginning. It’s equally important to monitor the progress of a strategic plan, to address the challenges that the firm is currently facing and possibly redistribute resources to address those challenges. If you can learn to be organized in your job, chances are you’ll be organized when you run a business.
Skill 2: Manage Time Well
Leaders are conscious of how limited work time is and focus on using it efficiently. Our meetings start on time and end on time: Real leaders get there first, and they stick to the schedule. This trains people to put things on an agenda and to stay focused, to consider the task at hand, solve it and move on. It also encourages people to be decisive. It’s far better to make a decision and move on. If you make a bad one, own up to it and then try something else in the next meeting. When the meeting is over, finish it. If you get done early, finish early.
Skill 3: Be a Good Follower
One of the keys to being a good leader is allowing oneself to be led. Employees who won’t take leadership can hurt a firm. Coordinated effort—with everyone working together—is almost always more effective than disorganization. Taking initiative is a good thing as long as it doesn’t interfere with other people doing their jobs. We’ve even kicked people off leadership teams because they refused to follow the meeting structure. This is not the way to draw attention to yourself.
Skill 4: Learn to Listen Well
As a leader of your firm, one of your primary jobs is to get all your employees working hard to achieve the goals you set. Nothing is more motivating than letting them know that you value their contributions and their input—and nothing is more demotivating than making them feel that they are not important to you.
Seven Traits of Successful Advisors
While there are many differences between successful advisory firms and successful owner-advisors, we’ve found that most successful advisors usually have the same seven traits in common. While junior advisors aren’t usually in a position to utilize all these traits, they need to be aware of them, study their firm owners (to see what happens when they do or don’t do them) and then put them to use when opportunities arise.