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Why Do You Exist?

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A former colleague of mine who now develops strategy at one of the U.K.’s leading wealth management firms introduced me to Simon Sinek’s book, “Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action.” Check out Sinek’s excellent 10-minute TED Talk on YouTube and you will understand my excitement. I use his book as a powerful catalyst to ask every advisor I meet about their “Why.”

  • Why do prospects come to your firm and why should clients stay?

  • Why do employees join your firm and why should they stay?

  • Why do you believe your business exists?

These questions prove difficult for many. Most tend to answer with features and benefits, emphasizing what they do rather than who they are. Rather than talk about the communities they are connected to, they share the solutions they provide. We all tune out when we hear a predictable, generic plug for a business. Almost every advisor’s website says something like, “We provide comprehensive wealth management tailored to your needs.” Truly yawn-worthy, don’t you think?

Sinek believes that great companies don’t lead with the specific what and how, but with an unyielding belief in their purpose and their mission. He said, “People don’t buy what you do, but why you do it.”

Reading Sinek’s book reminded me of Vidal Sassoon’s old tag line, “If you don’t look good, we don’t look good.” At that time, the company believed that everyone has a right to look his or her best, and they created offerings to help accomplish that goal. Unfortunately, they have since been taken over by a corporation that seems to believe its only purpose is to sell haircuts and hair products.

Consider the businesses you patronize most frequently. Why did you choose them? Why have they remained compelling? Do you get a special value or vibe from them? Have they connected with what you believe? Sinek cited Apple as an example, stating that they are a computer company just like other computer companies. What makes them such a powerful force is their core belief in challenging the status quo in everything they do. They want their people to “think different.” You don’t hear them talk about power, speed or size. In fact, their products look quite similar to others on the market. Yet try to get near an Apple store on a weekend.

When I polled the leaders in my firm about companies they love, their answers ranged from Zappos to a local restaurant to Nordstrom. Interestingly, none of them mentioned their own financial advisor or the bank they use. Rather, they shared a positive visceral reaction to the qualities they appreciate in a business. As one of my colleagues put it, “It’s all about how they make me feel.” According to Sinik, this attraction drives behavior that seems to defy logic, data and facts.

Most financial advice businesses are doing the same thing the same way, which makes differentiation hard to come by. Advisors often claim not to have any competition, but they are missing all the people who have opted not to call them. Still focused on the “what and how” instead of the “Why,” these organizations fail to inspire people to join them.

Why do prospects choose not to do business with you or even consider your firm? What makes them pause and say, “It just doesn’t feel right”? If you don’t know why you do what you do, how will your clients?

Among the many advisory firms I have visited over the years, vivid positive and negative experiences stand out in my memory—and I wasn’t even a client or prospect. Some advisors had my name on a welcome sign and a receptionist who came around the desk to greet me. They had bone china cups and espresso machines, a pantry filled with fresh fruit, professionally produced handouts and clever presentations. Other firms had unkempt offices, a receptionist who didn’t know who I was or why I was there, bad coffee in paper cups and a staff who moped around in various grumpy poses.

It is interesting to think about the lasting impression that these first impressions made on me, but superficial elements by themselves do not engender loyalty or passion if the rest of the messaging fails to resonate with the target client. Prospects want to connect on a deeper level.

Several years ago we did a study about women and investing. One of the most frequent comments went something like this: “My advisor doesn’t teach me anything. He talks down to me.” No wonder statistics show a tendency for women to leave their advisors once the husband departs. It seems that many advisors do not try to help their clients be financially literate, better informed or more in control of their decisions.

Personal Capital provides a good example of a firm that is connected to the “Why.” This digital advisory firm started three years ago and already has surpassed $1 billion in AUM. The company’s CEO, Bill Harris, believes the purpose of their business is to simplify financial lives through technology and people. Clients take control of the communication with their advisor, helping them feel in control of their financial destiny. If they want to connect via FaceTime at 8:00 p.m.—not a problem. How about a monthly Skype, online chat or phone call? OK, OK, OK. Personal Capital believes that the interaction with one’s advisor should be on the client’s terms.

Advisors who connect with their “Why” articulate their purpose clearly. For example, they may express their mission as one of helping individuals make an impact with their investments, build wealth to spread wealth, or take control of their personal financial lives.

In his book “The E-Myth: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It,” Michael Gerber describes how entrepreneurs not only survive but thrive. He shows how very few successful business owners are driven by the desire to own or operate a company. Most times, they started because they had an idea that could change the world, enhance the lives of others or tap into their passion. Not one of the successful entrepreneurs he interviewed said their motive for starting a business was to make a lot of money.

Advisors have many business drivers to choose from, but perhaps the most profound motive is the desire to impact the lives of others. You have an opportunity to translate your mission—why you do what you do—into a compelling draw for both employees and clients, in a way that truly separates your firm from every other financial solution provider.

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