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4 Steps to Building Effective Training Programs for Associate Advisors

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What You Need to Know

  • The most effective way to ensure the loyalty of younger colleagues is to demonstrate how much the firm cares about them and their careers.
  • Effective training programs are built around personal and professional development, exceptional service and managing expectations.
  • If an associate advisor doesn’t understand the big picture, they’re likely to be less effective as part of a cohesive whole.

The future of every advisory firm rests on its ability to retain talent. And the most effective way to ensure the loyalty of younger colleagues is to demonstrate the extent to which the firm cares about them and their careers.

One of the most impactful ways to do this is by creating an in-house training program to transition associate advisors into senior advisors. Building a path and a process to advancement can not only instill loyalty but also develop productive advisors who ultimately will help your firm grow.

Effective training programs are built around four elements: personal development, professional development, exceptional service and managing expectations. How the training is imparted is as important as the subject matter itself.

It needs to be consistent and ongoing — a senior advisor can’t compress all their technical and client communication knowledge into a few cram sessions and expect others to absorb it. People grasp information as we need it to perform our jobs. If information appears irrelevant or useful only in the distant future, it will not be retained, and the trainer ultimately will be disappointed.

Teaching paradigms are important, too. Many senior advisors see associate advisors in a student role. That’s somewhat true — they’re learning as they go. But the professor-student model isn’t the right one in a business setting.

Instead, your job is to be helpful — and equally professional — to your junior ­colleague. They already have professional accomplishments and development, and your job is to help them build on that foundation. Let’s look at the four areas to focus on in a training program:

1. Personal Development

This refers to transitioning trainees to a more independent lifestyle. Client service associates without professional education and licensing generally serve in a supporting role. But young advisors who have a pertinent educational background and licenses are professionals. Thus, they have a different code of conduct. For example, it’s their responsibility to show up quickly when a client needs help, and to take care of their own personal and professional needs independently to be able to help others.

The industry has a propensity to take young associate advisors and make them nurses, as it were, before they can be doctors. Even if they already have their CFP, they’re made to slog through years of support work before they can talk with clients. That’s a good way to create dissatisfaction, whereas treating these colleagues as professionals — like young doctors in residency — is a key component to keeping them.

Another result of personal development training should be the team member building relationships with colleagues of diverse backgrounds. They should develop resiliency through the achievements and setbacks of being in the business. On a related note, personal development includes the ability to identify and manage exhaustion, ­isolation and anxiety, and to create a space that promotes well-being.

2. Professional Development

This includes understanding the elements of financial planning and investment management, and where the advisor fits in the client-experience continuum. If an associate advisor doesn’t understand the big picture, they’re likely to be less effective as part of a cohesive whole.

Another element of professional development is narrowing one’s focus to the most effective practices. New associate advisors often want to do a bit of everything related to serving clients, but a good advisor training model can show them how to narrow their focus to the areas that need their attention most.

It’s important for developing advisors to recognize barriers to their professional growth, and a common one is uneven expertise in different topics. An advisor might be great at retirement planning but uncertain when it comes to advanced issues in estate planning or tax planning, for example. Thus, it’s essential to recognize the need for targeted development.

Finally, associate advisors need to understand the most effective ways to rise in an organization. The best way to fast-track promotion is to build interpersonal skills, both with clients and colleagues. It’s often thought that mastering technical knowledge is the key to moving up, but without the ability to clearly convey empathy, understanding and caring, technical skills won’t take young advisors far.

3. Exceptional Service

This consists of developing several important intangibles. Among them is a respect for office and virtual office etiquette and the agreed-upon set of behaviors that reflect respect among clients and other team members.

It’s also critical to develop understanding of clients’ lived experiences to meet them where they are. Putting oneself in a client’s shoes is one of many skills that associate advisors can learn from observing the nuances of how their more experienced colleagues work with clients. The most exceptional service occurs when advisors authentically care about clients, which is also something young advisors can learn and solidify from observation.

An underappreciated element of service is understanding how to talk with clients about the hard issues such as divorce, retirement and death. Obviously, these issues arise regularly when dealing with retirement and estate planning, and they require a careful combination of compassion and understanding of life experiences that they themselves might not have. Finally, exceptional service includes managing social presence, which encompasses in-person events as well as social media.

4. Managing Expectations

As early as possible, young advisors need to start internalizing the mindset of a professional in terms of high accountability and an ability to manage time efficiently. Associate advisors should be empowered to assess their own performance; the goal is for them to follow an internal gauge to determine how they’re doing, rather than relying on feedback from higher-ups.

Young advisors who learn early how to resolve conflicts between what the client wants and what the client truly needs produce greater advisory talent. The ability to deliver this kind of tough love in a polished and respectful way is a big part of evolving into a confident senior advisor.

It should be clear that the training I’m describing involves more of an ongoing mentoring relationship than a classroom approach. Training should occur no less than monthly, and ideally more frequently, and should continue for no less than three years.

Keep in mind that creating a culture in which new advisors can learn from one another is invaluable. Too often associate advisors are isolated from more senior advisors in the office, when bringing them together would speed up their learning. Professional friend groups, inside and outside the office, can be powerful learning and idea-sharing forums to aid in development as well. Firms should also support young advisors by sending them to conferences where they can develop their professional networks.

We’re in the middle of a pivotal time in history, when thousands of unhappy young advisors have left their jobs. Leadership style and firm values can be a big advantage in retaining your talent. Creating a culture to support associate advisors’ advancement within a firm sends a message about how those younger colleagues are valued and trusted — and that is perhaps the most powerful retention tool.


Angie Herbers is an independent consultant to the advisory industry. She can be reached at [email protected].