I recently asked a friend who has run a successful independent financial advisory practice for the past two decades how he felt about the continued regulatory pressures and potential for further industry consolidation.

His response: “The regulatory environment is always in a state of change, and that’s an issue that the right kinds of resources can help many advisors address. Consolidation is a different story, because that has the potential to change the culture of your broker-dealer. And culture matters a lot more than many of the so-called industry experts might think.”

There’s certainly no question that in recent years industry analysts have tended to focus on practical points of differentiation between independent broker-dealers: the quality of advisor-facing platforms, the effectiveness of technology tools, and the variety and cost of financial product selections.

While these are obviously important considerations for any independent advisor, the culture cultivated by the broker-dealer is the one component that can either drive growth or hold it back.

The following are the service-based cultural drivers that independent advisors should consider very carefully when comparing independent broker-dealer platforms:

1. Does the firm go beyond “lip service” when it comes to independence?

Independent advisors not only want to have full control over the fate of their businesses, they also want to be part of a home office culture in which upholding independence is an inherent part of a firm’s DNA. And while nearly every independent broker-dealer claims to value independence, that doesn’t always happen in practice.

Not all firms, for instance, provide dedicated support and coaching in a range of critical areas that tend to drive the long-term success of an independent advisor’s business, including practice management resources and access to specialists whose sole job is to help you better utilize the technology available to you. Nor do they empower advisors to make a handful of important choices that speak to the essence of what it means to be independent – including something as crucial as selecting the right business model for their practice.

Without these types of support programs or internal mores in place, independence is just theory.

2. Is the firm truly candid with its advisors?

Nothing is more crucial to a successful relationship than trust. Yet over the past decade, the industry as a whole has witnessed a trend toward national conferences for advisors becoming ‘pep rallies’ rather than forums where a meaningful exchange of ideas and best practices can take place.

While advisors certainly appreciate it when a member of management speaks glowingly about them from a stage, more important is having year-round access to those same leaders. What advisors really need is the ability to dial up a decision maker at any time and have a candid, one-on-one conversation about their practice and what systems, procedures or enhancements can be put in place at the broker-dealer level to better support it. 

How would you describe your firm’s willingness to meet individually with advisors or in smaller groups? How frequently does this happen, and what do the discussion agendas typically encompass? The answers can say a lot about whether the firm supports a culture of candor with their advisors.

3. Does the firm provide support when the unexpected happens?

It’s no secret that the financial advice industry is heavily regulated, that the markets are never entirely predictable, and that client relationships—despite an advisors’ best intentions—can sometimes be challenging to manage. As such, sooner or later independent advisors may encounter certain unpleasant surprises, ranging from thorny business issues to regulatory challenges. 

Advisors thinking of affiliating with a new independent broker-dealer shouldn’t hesitate about asking advisors already with the firm whether they experienced any such issues over the past decade.

If so, how has the firm responded to these concerns? Did it feed off a culture of constructive support to help advisors resolve them when they happened? And, finally, was there a feeling of true partnership in the face of these adverse and unexpected issues?

For too long, advisors have seen their broker-dealer affiliation primarily as a numbers game, focusing on tools and resources, while being far too willing to discount the value of culture. But more and more, advisors realize that they should view the relationship with their firm this way. 

While the practical opportunities and challenges will always be there, an independent broker-dealer’s culture can make the difference between success and failure for advisors seeking growth on their own terms.

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Todd Kinart is president and CEO of SII Investments, Inc., an independent broker-dealer that is part of National Planning Holdings, Inc., (www.nationalplanningholdings.com,one of the nation’s largest independent broker-dealer networks, supporting more than 3,500 independent financial advisors across the country.