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Listen Up

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It’s important to listen to other people who have different experiences. Who look different from you. Who are younger than you. Who are older than you. Who speak a different language. Who go to a different church or temple. Who don’t go to any church or temple. Who live someplace else. Who have knowledge and skills that you don’t share. Who think differently from you, often because of those other different experiences.

These may seem like obvious platitudes, but most platitudes are grounded in truth, sometimes quite deeply. I think highly of myself. Maybe you do, too. I’m pretty smart, I’m well-read, I can spell really well. I can easily and quickly spot typos in manuscripts. I have other business and management skills, too. Really, I do.

But on a regular basis I am reminded of my shortcomings, sometimes directly (thank you, wife), sometimes indirectly (why didn’t I win that Neal award?), in formal documents like annual performance reviews (thank you, boss) and informally (why did I take that 3 train to Penn Station rather than the PATH to avoid yesterday’s train delays?).

I was reminded of the benefits of being a good listener on a recent vacation (a singing vacation, by the way) to Europe where through reading the local newspapers, watching local TV and talking to some locals I was exposed to a different perspective on the Greek euro crisis. One European I talked to said he thought that the Greek crisis was all about Germany trying to take over Europe economically, having been foiled from doing so militarily in World War II. Thinking that notion was a little batty, I asked another intelligent, well-traveled and well-read European to confirm my skepticism. I was a bit surprised when he responded by saying there were many people in Europe who thought very similarly. Hmm.

By chance I wrote two features in this issue whose angles began very differently, but which eventually complemented each other, specifically on the value of having a diverse workforce in an advisory firm (and any enterprise, for that matter).

Our cover story arose from a conversation with two graduates of Schwab’s Executive Leadership program, their mentors (or “nominating principals” as Schwab calls them) at their advisory firms and the leader of that program, Rick Schwartz. The graduates, Yonhee Gordon of JMG Financial and Adam Larson of Savant Capital, were thoughtful, serious people who while respectful of their elders (notably Marita Sullivan of JMG and Brent Brodeski of Savant) and committed to their firms also had different perspectives from their elders’ and spoke their minds. As well they should. The intent of the program is to help forge the next generation of leaders at RIA firms, not create clones of those firms’ founders. “You have to be open-minded” to benefit from the program, said Gordon during the conversation, while Larson said his self-confidence grew in interacting with the other members of the class. “This is the generation that will carry forward” those firms, said Schwartz, but also will be the “next risk takers” at their firms. You can find much more about the benefits of the program in the story itself, which is linked above.

The other feature story, “Advisors at a Crossroads,” began as part of a research partnership with Ray Sclafani but turned into an exploration of what Sclafani has learned in the 10 years since he founded his coaching firm, ClientWise. What I learned from him is that — here’s another platitude — what got the advisory industry to its current place is not what will bring it to its next phase. What is needed is for advisors to adopt a team approach to both attract and retain clients and the next generation of advisors — and use their skills, and women’s — in the years ahead. Veteran advisors would do well to build — and then listen — to their diverse workforces.

I’m glad I listened to those people. I hope you’ll be glad you read those stories.