Back in 2005, the owners the Atlanta-based financial advisory firm Polstra and Dardaman made the conscious decision to focus on growth.
They changed the name of the firm to Brightworth, the better to build a brand around the company and not its founders. And they put a career progression process in place for all new hires; advisors, as well as support staff, could rise through the ranks at the firm, taking on greater responsibilities and, perhaps one day, become a partner and equity owner.
Today, all of the firm’s five new partners have climbed that ladder, including the head of client service administration. “There's no question about it. That process has contributed enormously to our growth,” says Ray Padron, president, COO and one of the firm’s three managing partners. Assets have tripled, to nearly $1 billion.
A practice’s growth depends on a lot of factors—investment strategy and good client communication skills among them. But as much of a cliché as it sounds, the most critical asset is the people. And good, hard-working advisors and support staff don’t just appear out of thin air and they don’t stick around forever because they like the office coffee.
The primary reason why employees leave their firms is because they don't see what their next step will be, according to John Nersesian, a managing director of Nuveen Investments in Chicago. The result: You need to introduce a clear system for career progression, one that helps your staff develop new skills and rewards them for taking on new responsibilities. That’s easy for big firms to accomplish, but even smaller practices can find ways to do it.
It is time-consuming but not optional. "If you don't devote time to this, if you say this isn't important, if your people feel the boss doesn't have a vested interest in their own success, it's a matter of time before they begin to look for other opportunities,” says Nersesian.
For Caleb Brown, a partner in New Planner Recruiting in Athens, Ga., it’s all about attracting the best entry-level talent, which means taking into account the particular needs of so-called “Generation Y” or “Millennials,” those born from approximately 1985 to around 1995. Just entering the workforce, this is a group that, according to Brown, wants to move up quickly—or, more important, to take on increasingly challenging work, with more responsibility, as soon as the old stuff gets boring. “Having a career path is a key component when dealing with Gen Y,” he says. “I hear, ‘Caleb, I want a place where I can grow’ all day every day.”
The key is presenting newbies with a solid career map, with job descriptions for each successive level and the specific skills and qualities that need to be mastered in order to get there. Ultimately the track should include a clear final destination point: the opportunity to be made a partner.
Take Regent Atlantic Capital, a Morristown, NJ-based client of Brown’s that introduced a formal career track about 10 years ago. Analysts at the $2.4 billion AUM firm come in with little or no experience; most are studying for, or have already taken, the Certified Financial Planner exam; do a lot of data entry and research—some are even sent to find client’s old stock certificates; and sit in on client meetings.
The next step up is financial advisors who typically have three- to eight-years of experience. These employees work more closely with clients. They may assume overall responsibility for their clients and share some responsibility for bringing in new business.
The final prize: Partner and an ownership stake. Five of the firm’s nine partners and five of its 13 wealth advisors have come up through the established ladder since the system was introduced. What’s more, the track serves as an important recruiting draw. “It’s one of the clear differentiators for us,” says J. Brent Beene, who joined the firm in 2005 as a financial advisor in large part because he liked its career path. He became a managing partner three years ago.
Higher compensation with each step is a vital part of the path. “The main thing is to provide incentives for the behavior you want,” says Brown. If, for example, you value customer service, create a customer satisfaction survey and make that a component of pay. If you need detailed financial plans, make that the hurdle. Regent’s goal is to attract people who want to be partners, so there is a dual profit-sharing system. All employees share in some portion of profits, but partners get a portion of a second pool maintained for them.
Sherri Stephens takes a different approach. She has ten employees and oversees $300 million at Stephens Wealth Management in Flint, MI. Two years ago, with the help of her B/D Raymond James Financial Services, she hired a consultant to put in place a career track for her staff. There are no specific career progression levels but rather a review process through which she evaluates her employees across eight pre-determined goals; getting a new certification, and communication with the wider team among them. She then pays a bonus and moves staff up the compensation ladder depending on their ability to achieve those objectives.
Stephens takes into account whether they even want to become partner. “If your goal is to have an ownership stake, we work with that,” she says. “If you want the ability to get clients and share in the revenue stream, we give you the ability to do that, instead.”
You need to build in room for people’s idiosyncratic ambitions and strengths. Brown points to a practice owner who hired a novice a few years ago with an eye towards grooming him to work with clients. It soon became apparent that while the advisor had top-notch technical skills and insights, he was awkward and nervous with clients, frequently making mistakes in meetings. The upshot: They ended up changing the path, giving him more responsibilities for client services and support.
Similarly, Khc Wealth Management Services, an Overland Park, Kansas, firm with about $280 million in assets, has a defined path for advisors who don’t want to be rainmakers. “Sometimes you get a really good financial planner who just isn’t interested in developing new client relationships,” says Matt Starkey, who started out as a financial planning associate and became partner in 2002. “Those people also should be able to grow professionally.”
Regardless of the pathway, you need a mechanism to move qualified employees along. At Regent Atlantic, advisors have a twice-yearly review with an assigned supervisor. They also meet monthly with a more senior member of the firm who acts as a coach, talking not only about areas that need improvement, but also how to go about make them better.
Defined career paths aren’t only for advisory staff. “I see few support staff happy just staying a receptionist,” says Missy Escribano, director of education and partner relations at Raymond James Financial Services, who runs educational programs for branches. “Everyone wants to do more.”
In some cases, those career progressions may not be as defined, but still can lead to promotions and greater responsibility. At Brightworth all senior staff, including non-advisory employees, can become partners. Other practices encourage and help pay for continuing education for support staff, teaching them to work with wealthy households or put on client events. At Raymond James, an advisory council of 20 support staff from different practices meets regularly to propose plans for new programming.
On the other hand, United Capital, an RIA aggregator with about $8 billion in assets, puts every job in a particular category, with at least two or three levels for each grouping. A client services assistant, for example, can become a client services manager and then a senior client services manager. And every employee has his or her own development plan.
Of course, whatever the system, you can expect to tweak it over time. About six years ago, Khc changed regular reviews from annual to quarterly. “If we’re checking in every quarter using measurable activities that need to be accomplished, you’re more likely to make progress,” says Starkey.
Other changes require more of a leap of faith. Regent Atlantic, for example, has increased entry-level advisors’ responsibilities. Beene points to an analyst who recently sat in on three meetings with potential clients, working with them directly to transfer accounts and request documents. “Ten years ago, that never would have happened. Clients relationships are so precious,” says Beene. “But we’re able to see when these people are capable of more and our clients clearly enjoy working with them.”
Especially for advisors, moving from one level to the next is likely to take at least several years, if not more, and it can be 10 years before advisors are ready to deal with clients and bring in their own business. That’s something you need to make clear. While there’s no hard and fast rule for exactly how long it should take, you need to provide a framework with a realistic range for the amount of time advisors can expect to be at each level. “They need to know, it takes work to get up to each level,” says Brown. “And if employees are being challenged, they’ll stay.”