In my May 9 blog, “Dealing With the Difficult: Employees, Clients, Referrals…,” I talked about some of the hard decisions that owner-advisors need to be prepared to make if they want to grow their businesses: handling difficult employees, clients, referrals, strategic partners and vendors. That’s not to say that firm owners have to tackle these hard decisions — some people just aren’t comfortable with that kind of confrontation. As I wrote: “Sometimes growth just isn’t that important to an owner-advisor. But if it is, then they are going to have to do the things that make growth happen.”
Unfortunately, in our experience, that list doesn’t include all the hard things that owners need to do to successfully grow their business. There’s another whole category of what might be called “strategic” decisions that many firm owners have a hard time getting their brains around.
We’ve found that most very successful advisory firms do all or most of these things — while not so successful firms do only couple or none of them.
Here are five key strategies that we get the most pushback on from firm owners:
1. Trusting employees. It may be because most owner-advisors don’t have business management training or much in the way of experience managing people, but we find that most firm owners are inclined to micromanage their employees. This has two effects on their business — and both of them are bad. First, as their firms grow and they add employees, most firm owners lose touch with how their business actually runs day to day. So when they have a heavy hand in how their employees do their jobs, owners are usually directing them to a job that doesn’t really exist anymore. Obviously, that’s not optimum.
Perhaps more importantly, being directed how to do a job down to small details stifles the initiative of the employee. Again, as businesses grow, employees see things that owners don’t. Good owners realize that their employees are their best source of information about their firm — and their best source of ideas about how to make it better. So let your employees figure out the best ways to do their jobs, and listen carefully to what they tell you about what’s working and what isn’t.
2. Maintaining an employee focus. Back in 2010, we published a white paper detailing our “P4” program, which is designed to make advisory firms more employee-centered, through Pay, Perks, Preparation and Productivity. P4 is based on the insight that successful business leaders in every industry realize their success largely depends upon the success of their employees. Advisory firms are no exception.
Yet no matter how large their firms have grown, most owner-advisors still cling to the notion that they are the “star” and everyone else is their supporting cast. There’s nothing wrong with that — as long as you don’t want your business to grow beyond your own ability. But in growing firms, owners need to realize that their impact is shrinking and the impact of their employees is growing. So they need to support their employees as much as they can, especially in the key areas of incentivized compensation (Pay), benefits (Perks), training (Preparation) and the tools they need to succeed at their jobs (Productivity).
3. Investing in professional training. In my 15 years as a consultant to independent advisory businesses, the average firm has grown from a couple hundred thousand dollars in review to well over $1 million. And most firms want to continue to grow, usually at an increasing rate.
While it’s almost always good to attract new clients, the real key to firm growth is to have enough experienced senior advisors to handle the increased workload. In 2014, we launched our “Diamond Teams” program to systematically turn young advisors into seasoned pros as quickly as possible by having them sit in client meetings practically from their first day on the job. Most owner-advisors resist giving young planners this early exposure to clients — that is, until they realize their younger advisors become ready to handle their own clients (expanding the firm’s capacity) in only a few short years.
4. Letting employees help with marketing. In November 2014, we wrote a feature story for Investment Advisor about how to turn an advisory firm into a marketing machine. We realized that the most effective marketing comes from existing clients’ interactions with firm employees and advisors, thereby boosting their referral rates dramatically. So we created a program to formalize the marketing message of an advisory firm and then train everyone in the firm on that message and how to use it.
As you might imagine, most owner-advisors were skeptical that their employees could help attract new clients. Yet when they realized the cost savings of an in-house program versus a professional marketing program, many agreed to give it a try. As referral rates skyrocketed and acquisition costs fell, more and more firm owners saw the light. As it turns out, properly prepared advisory firms themselves are their own best marketing program.
5. Letting employees help grow the business. While they are more popular today, it’s still not an easy sell convincing owner-advisors to create ownership tracks and succession plans for younger advisors. The simple fact is that you can’t grow an advisory firm very much without adding senior advisors who can work with their own clients. And you can’t attract and keep good senior advisors (or junior advisors, for that matter) if you don’t have a formal path to firm ownership. More firms are offering them, and it’s still not that hard for an experienced advisor to open their own firm.
Today’s firm owners have to realize their cost in time and effort to take a young advisor right out of school and train them to be an experienced advisor. One of the biggest keys to advisory firm growth and success today is retention of their senior advisors. And, in most cases, to do that, you’re going to have to make them partners.
As I said, each of these strategies is essential for growing a successful independent advisory firm today. Yet most owner advisors resist making these changes to their firm. We usually find that if we can just get owners to try one or two them, they usually see the light pretty quickly. Those who do soon find that they have a huge advantage over those firms that don’t.
— Read “The Rainmaker’s Reign Is Over” on ThinkAdvisor.