The following is an excerpt from the October 2016 edition of Bob Veres’ Inside Information, a newsletter for those in the financial planning profession, and is reprinted here with permission.
The outlines of how [financial planning firms can] emerge from the sea of sameness are becoming clear: you want to better define who you work with. You want to better define and articulate your service package.
Perhaps most importantly, you want to reenergize your own professional career by bringing some of the passion back. As Littlechild said, the best way to do that is to bring your firm back to what you envisioned originally, and also remove the drudgery from your workday. If you can achieve absolute engagement, your business life will become a powerful differentiator and attractant all by itself.
An even clearer example of absolute engagement and advisory firm differentiation emerged from a remarkable TED talk at the Insider’s Forum conference. Rick Kahler, of Kahler Financial Group in Rapid City, SD, told the audience that he was on a journey to create a “Conscious Company” which, he said early in the presentation, would have powerful, positive impacts on its employees and associates, its clients, and ultimately the world.
Later in the presentation, he described it as “financial planning 3.0.” The explanation you read here was taken from the presentation and a followup interview on the topic.
Kahler is a pioneer of financial planning 2.0, AKA life planning, and has spent 20 years immersing himself in financial psychology. “Over those years,” he told the audience, “I’ve learned that there must first be an emotional awakening before there can be the assimilation of knowledge. And before we can help facilitate the awakening of our clients, we must emotionally awaken ourselves.”
This, he said, involves self-awareness, self-management, motivation, empathy and social skills—attributes which can just as easily apply to advisors who are absolutely engaged.
The killer question is: where do you go to get improvements in these key components of emotional intelligence? The traditional answer might be therapists or spiritual counselors. But what if the answer was: the place where I work?
That, in a sound bite, is the definition of a conscious company—what Kahler called a Deliberately Developmental Organization, or DDO. It is also the definition of the ideal organization to facilitate positive change in clients. If everyone in your office is in the habit of helping to transform each others’ lives for the better, what habits do you think will be applied, routinely and reflexively, to clients when they walk in the door?
“Awakening clients to their possibilities and potential, and to help them emotionally relate with money, starts with having awake, conscious organizations,” Kahler told the audience. “That means we need them to employ conscious people. I would suggest,” he continued, “that in order to awaken the emotional well-being of our clients and the world, we need to find ways to routinely enhance the emotional and physical well-being of our employees.”
Later he elaborated: “To create organizations with cultures where people can wake up and become conscious human beings, we need to retool our companies, and our cultures, to deliberately support and equally value both our colleagues’ careers and their personal development. I’m suggesting a culture where everyone in the company—and this includes the owners and leaders—has a chance to develop. A DDO culture,” he added, “is developing written policies, programs and procedures that support self-improvement. It is about sustaining happiness in their personal and professional lives, and it is an attitude of supporting one another.”
How, exactly, do you make this happen? Kahler referenced Littlechild’s session, talking about how an engaged advisor will have engaged relationships with clients. But his goal is to go one step beyond simply engaging the founder, to having the entire firm be engaged—with each other in the workplace, and also with clients.
“Not everyone is a good candidate for working in a DDO,” he told the audience. “You need to attract people with a commitment to being awake. These are people who are open-minded, emotionally vulnerable, grateful, teachable, humble, exquisite listeners and responsible—and then create a culture that will support the deepening of these qualities.”
The culture is built around what Kahler called supportive policies and procedures—and at Kahler Financial Group, that includes commitments that every staff person signs onto. Examples include:
-I commit to knowing myself authentically and completely.
-I commit to regarding every interaction as a learning opportunity.
-I commit to letting go of defensive postures that inhibit rapid learning.
In addition, the company provides an unlimited 50% educational reimbursement for approved personal development workshops, plus a $500 match for personal development expenses; the latter can be used on individual and group therapy sessions. There’s also a matching $250 annual allowance for personal fitness, for gym memberships and attendance at the yoga studio.
“We also allow people to take time off to go to therapy and exercise, so they can do that during the day,” Kahler added. “They can also study during the day, and we’ve had several enroll in the CFP curriculum. The feeling is: you know what your workload is. You’re the master of your time and productivity. If it is helpful for you to do that here, and you’re caught up, great. If you want to work at home, and it’s easier to work at home on case files, great.”
The DDO organization also schedules regular “check-ins,” where people on staff report what’s going on in their lives—and in those check-ins, Kahler has heard about personal relationship and financial issues. “It seems like the unwritten rule of American business is that you leave your personal life at the door,” he said, “let’s all put on our happy faces when we come to work, because God forbid that people see that we have weaknesses.”
The advantage of the check-ins is that they help explain situations where a worker suddenly has assignments fall through the cracks or seems under unusual stress. “If I know the backstory of what’s happening in their life, then I have a little more compassion and maybe a little more control about what to do about it,” Kahler said.
Exhibit A for this personal development environment is Kahler Financial Group’s director of financial planning, Sarah Swantner. Swantner originally joined the firm as an ex-engineer, having worked for eight years at Hewlett Packard. Naturally, her initial assignments were analytical, and she achieved her CFP under an earlier education policy. Eventually, she became interested in getting a counseling degree, and began taking classes at the local university—logging $20,000 a year of expenses in the process, $10,000 of which was paid by the firm.
Today, Swantner has received verbal approval to create what may be America’s first state-sanctioned internship in financial therapy, a step to becoming a certified financial therapist. The experiential training is weekly workshops, for Kahler Financial Group staff members, on financial therapy. Eventually, Kahler envisions Swantner leading group sessions where clients—and, perhaps, individuals who don’t qualify as KFG clients—in money therapy exercises.
The moral of this story is pretty simple: the profession needs to identify another visible point of differentiation from the brokerage reps and others who are posing as professionals in order to further a sales agenda. The old differentiators no longer work for a variety of reasons, and in the age of robos, it’s unlikely that consumers are going to flock to financial planners to get superior investment performance.
At the same time, the numbers are telling us that many founding advisors—and their firms—have flatlined, perhaps because of burnout, or a diminished enthusiasm for the type of work they find themselves doing, or a seemingly-intractable gap between the firm they have and the one they once envisioned.
These forces are already driving the profession to an evolutionary leap. The best differentiation, and the best outcome for advisors and their staff, is a reimagination of the firm and its service model, and a more satisfying worklife—leading to what Littlechild called absolute engagement with your professional life and your clients. Clients who are absolutely engaged are going to see a clear difference between you and your firm and the brokerage office down the road.
I happen to think this new idea of a Deliberately Developmental Organization represents at least a hazy picture of the endgame of this powerful trend, the place where the profession will eventually arrive. A firm that empowers and enriches the lives of the staff will be better at empowering and enriching the lives of consumers—and will almost certainly be a magnet to attract the best talent in a competitive marketplace.
Not everyone will have the courage to embrace the DDO concept—or, for that matter, the vision and willingness to reimagine their firms. But the Insider’s Forum presentations, in aggregate, seemed to give us an arrow toward the next stage in the profession’s development, and that arrow points to a brighter, more profitable, more engaged, more fulfilling, more interesting future for all of us.
The excerpt above was used with permission from Bob Veres, editor of Inside Information. It represents just a portion of the October 2016 issue. This publication is one of the best trade newsletters in the financial planning field. Bob has extended a three month free trial to his newsletter for readers of this blog. You can click here to go to the 90 day signup page. Enter “InsideTrial” into the discount code box.