Don’t Revert To Pre-Pandemic Control Structures – ‘Let Go To Grow’ By Decentralizing And Supporting Your Professional Advisors
Before COVID, many advisory firms used management structures like the ones we might have seen in the 1980s. Experienced, professionally trained and licensed advisors who joined these firms found that they were expected to clock in at 8 a.m. and clock out sometime after 5 p.m. Their priorities were set from above. To go to the doctor, or to go to their kids’ sporting events, they had to request permission from either the firm owner or, at larger firms, a manager.
COVID changed this.
The pandemic tore down the 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. day. It turned supervision on its head, since firm leaders couldn’t see what their work-from-home advisors were doing. During the COVID era, hidebound, high-supervision cultures transformed into cultures of professionals, with the sort of autonomy and job ownership we associate with doctors or lawyers.
And yes, clients typically received good service – in many cases, improved service. Especially during the pandemic’s early days, we witnessed a massive empowerment of advisors in terms of their scheduling and decision making to accommodate clients.
But, three years after the start of the pandemic, we’re seeing firms beginning to reverse those changes. Spooked by revenue pressures arising from the past year’s market turbulence, they’re taking back decision-making power from advisors and re-imposing rules about where and when they must work.
From Herbers & Company’s vantage point, history is repeating itself. That’s the exact opposite of what we’ve learned from the period between 2009 and 2012 about growth during turbulent times within advisory firms.
What The Past Can Teach Us
Professional cultures are well known to firms that adopted them long before the pandemic. From 2007 to 2010, we conducted a three-year research study called “P4 Cultures: The key elements to building great businesses and creating great employees” on self-managed, professional advisory cultures. During this time, firms that had professional cultures averaged nearly three times the organic revenue growth versus those that didn’t, and significantly less turnover of advisors.
What is a professional culture? In our study of these cultures, we found commonalities. The firms designed and implemented their human capital programs in the same way, with four key elements all working cohesively in one system. The four pillars of these cultures are as follows:
- Preparation: A leadership commitment to providing a supportive and flexible working environment that facilitates advisors to be self-managed. In other words, leadership was committed to letting the advisors decide how and when they worked best to serve their clients.
- Pay: Thoughtfully designed career tracks connected to compensation models that give advisors a clear pathway to success. And tying incentive structures to team revenues or service to garner referrals, rather than individual production or business development.
- Perks: Lifestyle benefits that provide advisors with autonomy in decision-making on how they want to live their lives. After all, if the advisors are unable to take care of themselves, how do they have the energy to service clients at their best ability?
- Productivity: Technology to help advisors work faster and smarter and spend more time talking with clients, giving recommendations and responding quickly.
Eyeing a post-pandemic future, we are now beginning to see firms turn back the clock: Step by step, they’re re-imposing traditional, top-down management models, instituting lessened autonomy and rolling back flexible cultures. According to our findings, that’s exactly the wrong thing to do to foster sustainable, long-term organic growth.
Organizations should double down on expanding these programs for the benefit of growth, just exactly what we witnessed in the 2009 to 2012 time period. These cultures today might be called hybrid or virtual cultures, but from our perspective they go deeper than that. They are best described as professional-advisor cultures.
The Rise Of Professional Cultures
When times are tough, loosening an advisor’s ability to serve clients how and when they need to opens the door to better service. The autonomy and flexibility results in meeting clients’ needs at the right time. In doing so, it spurs growth through referrals. Top-down control may feel reassuring in a crisis, but it’s a major handicap for long-term growth.
How does a firm build a professional-advisor culture in a post pandemic world? It doesn’t start with compensation structures or HR-type benefits, like unrestricted vacation or the option to work from home for a certain number of days each week. Building cultures, especially professional cultures, begins with a commitment. Leaders of firms must first accept a role of protecting, inspiring and supporting their advisors, rather than tightly controlling them. The first step is preparation.
Decentralized Scheduling Structure
What does the operating model of a professional culture look like? It begins with time. Professional cultures don’t operate around what firm owners and managers need. Instead, it operates around what the client base needs, and trusts the advisor to control those needs – including their own schedule – to serve accordingly. It doesn’t matter where advisors work or how they work. What matters is they get the work done.
Let’s say a firm serves business owners who need to meet with their advisors at night because their days are hectic, or nurses who are available early in the morning after their night shifts. If the firm has professional advisors who choose to do the work at convenient times, it will be able to serve those clients better. Of course, most clients will want their services during regular business hours, but professional advisors have the flexibility to serve clients inside or outside that window – as opposed to operating with bank-like rigidity.
Support Rather Than Control
By nature, professionals are self-motivated because they have professional and ethical licensing requirements at regulatory organizations far more authoritative than their employers. As the shift to professional-advisor cultures has unfolded, leaders have had to let go of controlling how an advisor serves and instead ask their advisors what support they need to serve better.
The goal of leadership becomes identifying and providing guidance rather than dictating tasks. That assistance can range from operational support such as taking paperwork off advisors’ plates, to providing help with schedule coordination and removing additional responsibilities such as trading.
More importantly, it includes being there for them and encouraging them to take care of their health, take breaks and ask for help from their teams. Being protective of talent requires a leader to allow space for advisors to decide what’s best for them and the clients they serve.
Decentralized Decision Making
It’s not enough to develop a flexible scheduling structure, top-notch support and encouragement, even if these give your people the ability to operate outside of the office 100% of the time. Without the delegation of decisions, these improvements won’t fully benefit your business.
Advisors need the power to make decisions, such as how a client wants to communicate, how to respond to a client question and how to run a client meeting. There are boundaries within a firm’s client experiences, but not so rigid that an advisor cannot customize recommendations to individual client needs. Without decentralizing such decisions, your professionals will spend time being employees who only take orders and don’t think for themselves.
In a service-based industry, professionals are the most pivotal resource. Firms that regress now to cultures that rein in rather than empower are choosing to sacrifice the considerable future growth those individuals can help create today. Over the long term, unlocking your firm’s full growth potential can only be achieved by doubling down on professional-advisor culture. Treating advisors like professionals is a good start, so you must let go to grow.
Angie Herbers is managing partner of Herbers & Company, an independent consulting firm serving the financial advisory community for the past two decades.