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Performance Coach Tells Advisors How to Get in the Zone

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The market has been booming, so clients can’t complain. But how come advisors are feeling flat and frustrated? Negative thoughts plague them — indeed paralyze many — preventing them from even trying to invigorate their businesses.

That’s the puzzling word from New York City clinical psychologist and performance coach Alden Cass, in an interview with ThinkAdvisor. Fifty percent of his clients are financial advisors, both wirehouse reps and independent RIAs.

(Related: Why Are Advisors Feeling So Blue? A Psychologist to FAs Explains)

It isn’t Donald Trump’s alarming tweets or the Russia investigation that’s got advisors down — that’s just noise to them, says Cass. FAs are frustrated because a significant lack of new assets has meant they’re earning less than expected, according to the psychologist.

Cass, 41, is well known for his pioneering research on male brokers in the 1990s. It showed they had four times the incidence of diagnosable major depression as the general population. The most severely depressed? Reps making the most money.

Cass’s international clientele includes FAs employed by Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley and UBS. His Innervisions Psychological Services and Competitive Streak Consulting offices are in Midtown Manhattan, and he also does discreet coaching at isolated tables in restaurants, on boats and at clients’ beach houses.

Right now, Cass — author, with Brian F. Shaw and Sydney LeBlanc, of “Bullish Thinking: The Advisor’s Guide to Surviving and Thriving on Wall Street” (Wiley 2008) — is helping to motivate advisors by urging them into “the optimal performance zone,” just as he does with his athlete clients.

Gearing up for fall, all FAs can likely benefit from this approach; and in the interview, he discusses his techniques.

ThinkAdvisor recently interviewed Cass, on the phone from his East Side office. He stresses: Advisors need to believe they have a unique purpose in the lives of investors. Here are excerpts from our conversation:

THINKADVISOR: How’s business right now for your advisor clients?

ALDEN CASS: They’re struggling to bring in new assets. Many are treading water. They’re apathetic. Investors aren’t as willing to try out new advisors and are staying put with whomever they’ve trusted in the past. There tends to be a sweet spot where markets are less-hot yet not bearish when people are more willing to try out new advisors.

Are FAs waiting for the other shoe to drop — a correction?

Nope. But they’re frustrated they haven’t been able to take advantage of the markets going well. Their clients might be doing well, but these guys get a lot of their money through new assets, and their performance is also measured and based on that. That’s where they’re spinning their wheels.

Market strategists and the consumer press insist that a correction is imminent.

The strategists aren’t the ones that impact advisory clients’ decision-making. The market is booming for investors. They’re not really fearful of a correction as much as the people in finance are.

What’s at the root of FA apathy?

They have bearish thoughts, like: “It’s never going to get better. What’s the purpose of my going to work? There’s no reason to get up and go to the office.” Within those thoughts are cognitive errors — flawed thinking, also known as thought disorder. They’re using all-or-nothing words like, “I can never bring in new money.” “Never” almost sets up a person for a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure.

How do such thoughts affect an advisor’s success?

Bearish thoughts paralyze you by making you not want to go to work or put in the extra effort to do what it takes to build your business.

And bearish thoughts are what advisors have now?

It’s what’s underlying the disillusionment advisors feel about the growth of their business.

What illusion did they have?

That, based on their prior performance, earnings and lifestyle, there would be a lot more money being disbursed by investors into the market and that they wouldn’t be struggling so much to make ends meet.

What else can cause cognitive error?

Most of my advisors are basically perfectionists who tend to obsess over failure to a high degree and get impacted emotionally when things go against their expectations. When the expectations and realities don’t align, the repercussion is emotional, and they need help to build up emotional discipline.

What burst the advisors’ bubble of expectation?

The money stopped flowing from the clients. It’s much harder for them to bring in new assets — and that’s where they make their money.

Shortly before the election, you said that your advisor clients, mostly centrist Republicans, were amused by Donald Trump’s ways. What do they think of him now that he’s been president for more than six months?

Many continue to perceive him as a reality show. But by the same token, they’re not impressed with the progress. They’re still waiting for tax reform. That’s going to be a big part of the barometer they use to determine his success or failure. They’ll grade him after a year, not after six months.

How do you help advisors who can’t get motivated to do what’s needed to be successful or when something doesn’t go well?

I try to get them into the “optimal performance zone” to feel more in control, become more aware of how they’re feeling and be more mindful. All that helps them to gather more assets.

How does an advisor get into the “optimal performance zone”?

It has three elements. One is trying to improve cognitive resilience and have the right mindset and attitude. This is the ability to bounce back to normal performance [in the wake of] setbacks, like losing a client or having an investment go against them.

What’s the second element?

Developing an awareness of where they fall on the emotional spectrum and how that impacts their psychological state. This includes negative emotions such as anger, anxiety and frustration. At the other extreme is irrational exuberance and overconfidence. I teach them how to temper and manage those emotions.

Anxiety can obviously impede growth.

People are typically surprised to know that, on a scale of 1 to 10, anxiety at about five or six is optimal for performance of a complex task. So I teach advisors to keep their number in the middle.

What’s the third component?

Routines and rituals. I try to get them to master “deliberate practice” [based on the 10,000-Hour Rule], which Malcolm Gladwell wrote about [in his book “Outliers”]. For example, one of his tenets is to do the hardest task first.

What about rituals?

They help you become more confident. Rituals are commonly used by athletes to reduce anxiety. When you do them consistently, [they help] you believe you’re going to be successful. For instance, some of my advisors say a prayer every day or drink coffee at the same place every morning.

Though clients may not be seeking new advisors, FAs can still ask existing clients for referrals. How do they overcome fear of rejection?

They need to develop conviction, not only in themselves as an advisor but conviction in the products and services they offer, and how they will benefit clients’ lives and give them more certainty for the future so they can meet their retirement goals. Being in the “optimal performance zone” helps develop conviction.

Do your advisors worry about the Labor Department’s fiduciary standard rule?

Just from an administrative standpoint. They get very bogged down with compliance issues, which have become much more daunting than in years past. One of the top things they have headaches about is feeling overwhelmed by emails and paperwork, which also make it much more difficult to get new assets. It creates a sense of powerlessness.

How do you help?

Teach them how to organize their lives around task management. I have them create three lists every night before leaving work: a hot list — things that are essential to do the following morning; a lukewarm list — things to do if they get to them; and a cold list — what can be done down the road. This helps them deal with the bombardment of emails and crises with clients.

What can deter this effort to prioritize?

Waking up and checking emails, and finding some that upset you. That’s a reactive thing to do. In the morning, you should be doing something that’s proactive, like yoga, running or going to the gym.

What other therapeutic philosophy do you impart to advisors?

I help them learn to savor successes more than sit with their failures. A lot of advisors tend to obsess over failure way more than they savor their daily successes. I teach them to work to live, not live to work. They need to be sure they’re diversified in their lifestyle habits so they don’t burn out from overwork.

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