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How 'Tough Love' Prepped Erinn Ford to Lead Billion-Dollar Firms

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Tough love is something Erinn Ford learned at a young age, despite her folks owning their own RIA, Pacific Financial.

Ford, now president and CEO of KMS Financial Services, recalls that at one point in college when she was short of funds, her parents told her to “figure it out” by herself, which she did by selling her books back early and eating ramen noodles.

“The last thing on my mind was joining the family RIA,” she told ThinkAdvisor. But after graduating with a communications degree from the University of Washington back in 1992, she couldn’t find a job and turned closer to home.

She knew there was an opening for a receptionist and asked her parents if she could work there for a year. The answer: She needed to apply like everyone else, as well as get a Series 10 and a Series 24.

“I quickly learned I was the only candidate who had those requirements, … but it taught me you have to earn the right,” Ford said. She got the job, and she hasn’t left the business since.

She was at the family firm — working all parts of it, from back office to front — for 22 years when, in 2012, Cetera Advisors did an “representative introduction agreement” (akin to an acquisition), and she ended up working for the firm (which today has $30 billion assets under management). She was named vice president of advisor relations, and two years later she became president.

In 2018, she moved to KMS largely due to wanting to devote more time to her two teenage daughters. “I was traveling 120 plus nights a year … and KMS was this beautiful combination of being able to be back in the hometown, only 12 miles away from the office … and being able to fulfill a succession need at KMS for both the president and CEO who are retiring,” she said.

KMS is a Seattle-based advisory firm with $16 billion in assets under administration that’s part of Ladenburg Thalmann, which was recently bought by Advisor Group.

Despite the tough love she received from her parents, Ford’s 82 year-old-mother stands out as her role model. “She was such a pioneer because she started in the business in 1975 — talk about a male-dominated profession,” Ford said. She remembers the impact that situation had on her career, but her mom had it even harder, she adds.

What did she learn from her mother that has helped her in advisory work? “The way that she would deliver hard messages or hard information, so whether it was about regulation or change that the advisors needed to go through, she always did so with honesty as well as compassion,” Ford explained.

Her mom also dedicated herself to the profession by volunteering for organizations. “She had a work hard, play hard mentality, so she taught me not only how to have fun along the way, but how that creates special and meaningful experiences. Because when we serve independent business owners, it makes them feel important [which they are],” the KMS leader shared.

What have been your biggest challenges?

When I went to Cetera, the challenge was really how to find and have confidence in my voice in a much bigger organization. You learn to adapt and really lead more by influence vs. directly by being able to walk down the hall and talk to your colleagues or your employees.

Valerie Brown, the CEO at the time, had a very positive impact on me because she gave me [a charge to lead] not just within Cetera. But even more broadly, she asked me to lead a few enterprise-wide [projects].

And [that] was really [when] I gained my confidence, and learned in this new environment of opportunities that [I should] always draw from core values and beliefs and always stay true to that.

It goes back to when you think about our entire profession, the point of value creation is when an advisor sits across from a client. I have always been a leader who made sure that we honor what happens at that moment and that informs our strategy.

[Another challenge] was listening to and honoring intuition. … I would say the challenge in building that confidence has been ultimately something that we all continue to learn. …But it was having that confidence to be more EQ (emotional intelligence) driven that has really influenced the way I connect to and relate to people.

What’s the best advice you received?

In 2014 when I had been promoted to president, I became involved in these strategic coaching programs. … And I would say the best advice of my career really came out of a process in that program, which is really to reflect on what your strengths are and continue to build on those.

So much of my career I tried to focus on my weaknesses and shoring them up. And this program has a discipline process where you actually go through a number of assessments. … And then you synthesize this information. … That advice allowed me to see that I want to really focus in on where I’m strong, but then bring a team around me in the areas that I’m not as strong.

It was really that advice, to [use] a disciplined process, to really be self-aware and understand where I am, and then allow others to come in and around me and build a team that had complementary strengths. A lot of times you look for people who [follow your thinking] instead of what would make a more diverse team? I’m such a fan of diversity.

Who are your favorite authors or social media leaders?

My favorite authors are definitely Brené Brown and Simon Sinek. Even if you aren’t tied to this industry, I like the way they think and talk about leadership, especially including the EQ, more of the right brain.

From an industry standpoint, and someone who’s always had an impact on me, and I enjoy how he thinks and how he writes, is Mark Tibergien.

[I also highly recommend] following the Strategic Coach on social media. I try to read at least one book a quarter specifically from that coaching program.

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