Hannah: Well thank you so much for joining us Cheryl.
Cheryl: Hannah, it’s a joy and a delight to be with you today.
Hannah: We’re going to get more to your story and how you got to where you are but I just want to jump right into this idea of a career path and how you guys have really developed this out at Abacus. Can you describe what your career pass looked like for your employees?
Cheryl: Hannah, thank you. We have I think in my mind probably three career paths at Abacus and then they have permutations and branches at each level for each career path. But we basically have three types of employees who come in the door and they’re usually on one of three tracks. That’s operations, so they may come in as a client source administrator that does all the paperwork and support work for a client and that person may evolve over time. That’s definitely a rule that we have and that would include our chief operating officer and our office manager. Then we have a role for investment advisors and that person typically comes into the organization and begins to do support work for the investment team, whether that stock analysis, portfolio administration, and over time they go into a portfolio manager for individual clients all the way up to chief investment officer for the firm.
Then we have a cohort that is on the financial planning track and those are the individuals who come in who are seeking to be financial advisors who are either achieving their CFP designation or already have and they typically do all of the financial planning advice that’s not investment-specific. They come in as a support advisor, they may come in as a client service advisor and jump over to financial planning. Sometimes people come in as an investment advisor and jump over financial planning so there’s no necessity to stay on a track. But on the financial planning your goal would be all the way up to principal relationship for a client, head of financial planning team would perhaps be another goal. Every three of those categories you have the possibility to become a shareholder and we have had individuals on all of those tracks become shareholders in the organization over the arc of time.
Hannah: How many employees do you have to give people a concept?
Cheryl: Right now we have 24 full-time equivalents and that includes some interns who are in college working part-time.
Hannah: Then how many of those 24 are shareholders?
Cheryl: There are four current shareholders including me and there are four more individuals we have made an offer and mapped out a plan for them to become shareholders by the end of 2018.
Hannah: I’m looking at this document right now that we’ll have in the show notes for people walking through the career path. How long before somebody becomes a shareholder?
Cheryl: Hannah, great and just for the audience at Abacus we call this the leadership pipeline and actually got the idea from our management coach of many years, Kathleen Bollerud who gave us the book, The Leadership Pipeline. It’s a very long, dense book meant for leaders at General Electric or Amazon but we condensed it down into something that’s useful for a much smaller organization. As you just noted I would say when you come to Abacus as a brand new employee with little experience in the planning world I think it takes you about three to five years to become a great investment advisor, a great financial advisor, a great operations person. I think part of that is … I don’t know if you’ve ever heard the concept deep smart? Sometimes people note from Malcolm Gladwell’s book 10,000 Hours to Mastery but it is this concept that it takes 10,000 hours to become good at anything.
Whether you’re a ballet dancer, a pianist, a financial advisor, so much of what you have to do is just experience and shoe leather. No matter how smart or talented or gifted you may be out of the gate she’ll have to put in the time for mastery. That’s that three to five years to get yourself to that level. That’s where we look at the basic level one. You can notice a real difference in people here after three years. There’s light bulbs start to go off every day going, “Oh, that’s why I do this, oh, that’s how this connects to that.” Then the next five to ten years is for people who are developing additional skills to become what I call a world-class advisor, a world-class manager, and beginning to build the skills to become a world-class leader. If you think about it there’s basic work habits that most of us have like get to work on time, write a nice letter.
Things that we learn in college but we don’t have the workplace practicality. That’s that first three to five years, getting your own work done at a high-quality level. That next five to ten years are starting to get that work done through other people and so that takes a whole different skill set. As you move up the ladder as a financial advisor you may have a client service administrator and support advisor working with you. How do you make sure they know how to manage up, how do you know how to manage them effectively so as a collaborative team you’re effectively servicing the client. You and I can imagine that’s a whole different skill set than just doing a great job as a financial advisor. Then the third level, that ten plus years is becoming a terrific leader, someone who can move the whole organization forward or your whole division forward.
That’s a completely different skill set. I always liked to say when I started developing this with the team and we began to build it together and trust me, it was very rough, don’t worry about it, looking elegant and finished. I realized immediately, “I am super good at basic work habits and I’m pretty good at leadership skills.” But I was terrible in the middle. I did not have any good management skills. That was a great aha for coaching that I needed to get better at something. I would say most shareholder offers come to individuals sometime between their seventh and tenth year with us. Then at that point if there are things they’re not doing that they need to do to get there we’re saying to them, “You can become a shareholder but these three things are missing.” And they have that runway to get those things accomplished.
Hannah: What I like so much about this is this career path document that you have is so clear and lays out, these are the skills that you need, these are the behaviors, this is the reading, these are the resources, there’s little confusion on what your expectations are.
Cheryl: And Hannah may I just comment in on that because for young planners listening or maybe young planners in firms with older planners like myself, for us, for those of us who began a profession when it was really a nebula in the universe of possibilities, we forged our own career path. So anybody who was in the organization was like, “Well can’t you just figure this out? Do what you need to do and you’re going to get there.” That was not helpful to people. That’s helpful to entrepreneurs maybe but it’s not helpful to everybody in your organization. It took me a long time to figure out that it’s not a weakness for people to need a clear path. So thank you for pointing that out.
Hannah: That’s such a great perspective. For the listeners who are in jobs right now that they may love the financial planning work but there are no career paths, there is no next step for them. What would be your advice or your thoughts or perspectives on that?
Cheryl: I would answer that in three ways. First I would say there are always possibilities. So, one possibility is… are there ways to enhance skill sets while you’re on this job, the jump to where you want to be? For example you might be very good at planning but taxes aren’t your strength and your senior partner’s strength is taxes, maybe get your Enrolled Agent so you have a designation but you’re also learning to strengthen your tax skills. One is to just enhance the skill set you have while you’re working with the organization you’re working with to move to the next firm that you’re going to work with and make yourself a more attractive candidate. The second thing is to go to that person and say, “I have this idea. I would like to grow this area of the firm and I’ll take all the risk and here’s my plan and I’ll split revenue with you.”
Or however you need to say to that person, but come up with something that you know will move the organization forward. But it’ll be on your shoulders and your risk-taking and ask that person’s, not their permission but their blessing and their support to move forward. I think that’s certainly a lot of what I did on my first job. I was always going to the primary shareholder of the organization saying, “I think we should do this or that.” I think it was fine as long as I did all the work. Which was fine with me at the time. So, I think that’s a secondary. I think the third thing is what’s wrong with going out on your own? You and I know it’s scary and risky and there’s a lot of reasons not to but if it’s not working with you in your current organization… take the jump. It’s never too late to do that, never too late.
I think you would have to be probably over 50 where you would have to say, “What’s my runway here?” Not in your own eyes but in the eyes of clients. If it doesn’t seem very long take some young people with you or have an early plan to get young people in the organization so that people see there’s sustainability to what you’re doing. Some people don’t care about that. We just merged with a firm in another town in South Carolina with an extraordinarily talented planner in his early 70s. His plans weren’t going to go anywhere. When he left that was fine with them, but they went to work with him until the very last moment, until he could no longer serve them. Not everybody’s looking for sustainability in their current organization.
Hannah: Yeah, but I do think that’s an important point that some people really are looking for that. Which is an advantage for younger planners.
Cheryl: I mean now when we have a new client come in the door I am careful to pair them with three generations if possible. They’ll get the gray hair, they get the senior… the middle person is doing the vast majority of the work and then they get the younger planner who’s learning but that person can see, “I’ve got the possibility to be here for 34 years if I need to be. Even if that person isn’t here they know we’re working effectively to have that multi-generational support system for the client.
Hannah: Do you have those conversations with the client or is it just more of a show, don’t tell?
Cheryl: We’ve always been very transparent about that and probably around the time I turned 55 people started asking more bluntly. We’ve always published our succession plan in our newsletter, randomly we’d go over it internally once a year as it’s changed over time. We had an inquiry recently that said, “Yes, thank you for meeting with me but I want to meet with the younger people who are going to be serving me directly.” I think there’s a savviness that people are bringing to the table now to be aware of that.
Hannah: One of the things that’s just so great about Abacus is you have such a clear and unique vision and mission and it just … I was talking to somebody before this interview and it’s just the essence of who you are and who your company is really shows through. How did Abacus get started or what was your story or what created Abacus?
Cheryl: Well I’ll say three things for any young planners that may be helpful or new planners, not necessarily new young planners. I worked with another organization which was transitioning to investment management only and I had a powerful belief that wealth creation and wealth preservation and peace of mind require both excellent investment advice and excellent financial planning advice. I don’t know how you decouple them. So I thought I’m just going to go out on my own and do it the way I would like to do it, and I didn’t really have a great growth plan or any plan at all. I wanted to do it in that way. I did know as a woman that I needed office space because so many people made an assumption that I was going to work out of my bedroom and go my own happy little way. So I did get office space and we had a card table and a desk, that was about it.
We had a big plan and so out of that, first thing I did was… I wanted to be a holistic planner. Very devoted to that. The second piece was the notion that, I guess the way to say it would be, we always wanted the clients to think of us as a group so it was not going to be the Cheryl Holland Show. So I did not name the firm after myself. I have learned that lesson both from my old organization where it was named for my former boss and people would call him, want to talk only to him. I thought to myself, “I don’t ever want to be on the hook that way.” Then my husband who was the young partner in an architecture firm, the firm’s names were three of the senior partners’ last names and what were they going to do about the last names of the junior partners? I realized that was a catch 22, there’s no way to win that.
So I thought if we had just a corporate name we could avoid all of those challenges. From day one we did not want to be the Cheryl Holland Show and we communicated that broadly. Then finally for just … I’m just eccentric and quirky and I never shied away from that. I realize people enjoy that. We had a solar eclipse party and we had over a hundred people here. We had so much fun, we had water balloon toss for the planetary system lined up and you had to toss the balloon through Pluto to get certain points. We had two-year-olds and 90-year-olds, we just had a wonderful time. And so embrace your own self and how you show up in the world. People are going to be attracted to that and people aren’t going to be attracted to that, but the good news is you’ll have a very firm culture. People either hate it or they’ll love it, you’re either in or you’re out and there’s nothing wrong with the people who don’t like it.
They just think we’re weird. So we have laugh club, we have a leader in the firm, Eddie Kramer. He leads us in laugh club and it’s really where we all do these laugh exercises. When new people join the firm it’s a good test if they enjoy laugh club or they survive it we know they’re going to be good for the long-term. If they walk away shaking their head which you can imagine they would that’s okay too, we’re just a little too weird for them.
Hannah: What is this laugh club?
Cheryl: We saw this, we had a strategy day a long time ago and our facilitator brought this video of a man in India, a physician and he realized that he did not have the resources to heal all the people in his community that had physical and mental health problems. But he thought if he could make people laugh every day that would also be a healing power. So he started something called laugh club and there’s a routine you go through and things you do to force yourself to laugh, but then it becomes contagious and you’re just hysterically laughing and you let go of all that stress and worry and concern and just five or ten minutes of laughing every day, which we don’t do it that often, can be very healing. Now of course science is showing there’s some realism to that. Some fact-based evidence, as we like to say.
Hannah: You said this is a YouTube video we can watch?
Cheryl: Yeah. I’m sure you can look it up, it’s called laugh club.
Hannah: Laugh club.
Cheryl: It’s called laugh yoga. In fact there’s a laugh yoga university, laughteryoga.org for health, happiness and world peace. There you go. There’s Abacus.
Hannah: That’s great. How long has Abacus existed?
Cheryl: We’re getting ready to celebrate our 20th anniversary next year.
Hannah: When you started Abacus did you have the vision that you would have these 24 employees and …
Cheryl: Absolutely not, no. Absolutely not. I had a vision that I wanted to do what I loved every day and I love two things. I love the brainwork of analyzing a tax return and looking at a portfolio, and I love listening and talking with people. And so to have a job where I get to do both every day is a gift and a blessing. And so that’s what I wanted to do. When I got my first handful of employees both of whom became shareholders I knew pretty quickly I was going to have to grow the firm in order to create a path for them. So, growth is truly about being able to provide the resources and paths for employees. I also think growth … I can’t think of any negatives to growth so far for clients. I think our clients have better advice now than they did 20 years ago.
Hannah: I think that’s such a key … When I talk to young planners at their firms and the frustration of not having a career path it’s: Does a firm owner really want to grow? Because if they don’t, maybe there isn’t a career path there.
Cheryl: I think that’s true and I think that’s a conversation you just have to have, and have to say, “Are you planning to grow? If you are can we talk about my role in creating that growth and sustaining that growth and if you’re not planning to grow how should I think about my future?” That’s a scary conversation to have but you don’t want to waste their time or your time because there may be someone out there who doesn’t want to be in a growing firm. They do want to come to work every day. We’ve had team members like that, brilliant, talented, empathetic team members who did not want to be in the hurley burly chaos of a growing firm.
Hannah: With your employees do you have them … Are they in a growth … I don’t want to say quotas. But do you have sales metrics that you put on them or how does that work?
Cheryl: We do a completely different approach and I would recommend everybody read Philip Palaveev’s new book, G2. Because it talks about this issue in his book similar to the way we think about it. That is we require young advisors to have activities so we fully expect them to go to a charitable event where we might have a table and meet a new colleague. We fully expect them to be doing activities that might get a press release related to them like finishing their chart of financial analysts or their CFP. We fully expect them if we have a networking event to show up, to make a connection, to take someone to lunch within that accounting firm that we invited to come over. But I think it’s very difficult to say to a 25-year-old planner for the firm that has really a $3 million minimum and is really working more with the five to $10 million client, bring in business.
But I do expect them and so does our business development team leader, and he works with each of them to create a personal marketing plan. So the expectation is you have a marketing plan that is appropriate for your skillset, your stage of development, we fully expect you to execute and complete that plan and exceed it where possible. So my own personal marketing plan is completely different than someone who’s just started within the firm. But everybody has one, we’re expected to complete them so you will not get your full raise if you do not complete your personal marketing plan.
Hannah: That’s really interesting. So everybody’s doing the activities that could potentially bring in business?
Cheryl: That’s exactly right. The difficulty is, and every organization’s different. We are fortunate in that the phone still continues to ring with amazing client possibilities. But a lot of it has to do with people are out doing activities so they’ve met someone, they know our brand, they’ve known that individual for a long time and attorney knows the work we do for other clients and therefore we get the referrals in are still our strongest piece. Very little of what we do is going out and bringing in business in the way I think you would think about it traditionally. Again we’re known, I think this is the other important thing about doing things that are true to yourself. We’re known in the creative world so we’re very well-known in the music, art, anything to do with the creative class we have a very strong presence.
I’ve been on a lot of national volunteer boards so we get business from those organizations because I’m on the investment committee and people trust me and then they trust the organization. Because of 20 years we have very deep roots with the top CPAs and attorneys in town which is normal for an organization. But you have to remember those relationships were built from a time I was about 35 until now. I think if someone in the firm starts building their relationship with the people their age when they get to my stage at 50, 45, they’ll start to get those referrals because their colleagues and their peer professionals are going to be at the stage they can also refer over that business. So yeah I think you have to have patience and patience on both sides.
Hannah: You talked about being known well in the art community and the creative community. Was that just a natural expression of who you were when you started or how did you develop that image, or how did you develop when you started? Maybe that’s-
Cheryl: Yeah that’s not even our… Our niche is we’ve always worked with … Our niche, our focus is on closely held business owners and families with shared wealth. So those families may own real estate together, they may own a company together but we realize in South Carolina wealth comes not from Fortune 500 companies, it comes from people who have their own companies or inherited real estate, that kind of thing. Sorry, that’s our niche. But I think what happened was because my husband’s an architect, my in-laws are gifted musicians, we started personally … I realized I’d have Abacus write a check, it’s my money but we get the brand of Abacus out there for the Phil harmonic, for the Contemporary Art Center, for the Rothko Show at the museum. And so we started building and that’s where people with money go.
They also go to sports but to think about that, who’s most likely to be at those events, people who have wealth. And so, it just became a virtuous circle for us. And we’re known for that. I don’t know if you know this but my husband designed our office and in fact he spoke at the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors this fall, conference on designing office for an advisory firm so when you come to our office it feels creative and interesting and our personal art collection is here, or a lot of it. It’s just kind of a, things we love to do we wove into our business. Again it’s back to the authenticity. Everybody’s different like I can imagine if you love beekeeping or gardening or sailing or your local sports team or you’re a big Texas Tech fan, all those things you can weave that into the way you present yourself.
Hannah: You build relationships with people. It’s harder to build relationships with brands but it’s a lot easier with people.
Cheryl: Absolutely, that’s exactly right. If you drive by our office, one of my big fantasies and I’m sure this will super appeal to all the men on the call, was to have fresh flowers in the office every week. Once we could achieve that here’s the virtuous circle. We have a beautiful office front that’s almost all glass and it’s lit beautifully at night until a certain time when the lights go off and we have these fresh, amazing flower arrangements from our local flower farm and people that don’t even know us find out that’s where we were. Like, “Oh, I love that building. I love driving by there.” So again there’s this tie-in that … So building your brand is 24-7 and it’s not like you have to be conscious about it, you just have to reinforce it and redo it and be consistent all the time. But I can imagine if you’re a planner with a new office would you have the local …
If you lived in Melville Alabama would you have moon pie sitting out on the desk every day? I don’t know but you do something that people knew when they came they were going to have this wow experience.
Hannah: I love it that your advice is to lean into that rather than be, I don’t want to say stuffy, but that is the word that comes to mind.
Cheryl: No, be quirky with it. One of the things to think in your minds and what did you love best of something new you ever got? I’ll give you another example, we’re maybe getting too far afield. But one of our team members found these beautiful baskets that are hand-woven by women in Africa, they’re small baskets maybe about eight inches by five and they have a top. They’re called blessing baskets and they have a little card where the woman who made them. Now when a client is ill or has a big celebration we all write a note and put that in the basket and send it to them. The baskets are like $18. So much nicer than a get well card. It has to be for, but clients go through these tremendous life cycle events so ways of commemorating that better are unique to you, that they feel special, that you’ve really given some thought to them. That’s what I would be going for.
Hannah: It’s making me think about my own clients right now.
Cheryl: But I love the language. My love language is gifts so that’s where I’m going to lean in. Other people’s love language are different things and so just think about how you express yourself from the world and run with that, is what I would say.
Hannah: So looking at your website which I just love the language on your website, that’s just what always draws me to your website. So anybody out there should go check your website out. But one of the things you say is we’re the Abacus Planning Group and we create abundance. How did you get there, what’s the essence behind that?
Cheryl: That’s a two-part story. When we were, Tracy Beckes who’s our coach of 20 years had worked very hard to focus us on our one-page business plan. As you know on the one-page business plan you have to have your key missions statement on there. We thought and thought and thought about it and I thought, “For clients coming here what are they seeking? It’s all over the map, they’re seeking more time, deeper relationships, more money, less stress.” And so it’s the word more, they want more but it’s not all about the consumer material, financial world. And so abundance just fits perfectly, the abundance, you can have abundance with very little financial resources and you can have no abundance with tremendous resources. We want to attract people who are seeking abundance. Having said that Alex Chastain, who’s one of our shareholders, is going through the Schwab executive program and she’s reading a great book called Practicing Positive Leadership.
It talked about abundance in the book and she said, “But you know I don’t know that everybody here, abundance resonates with them.” She had this brilliant idea of having each staff meeting having a different person in the firm tell their abundance story. What does abundance mean to you? I wish I had videoed them and then we could put that on a website next to each person’s photo as part of their website overview/bio. But most people start saying, “You know I’d not thought about her or I wasn’t connecting but once I began to look inside and think about what we do at Abacus or what I enjoy doing, here’s my abundance of joy. It came naturally for everyone. So not only do we have the origin story of abundance but each of us has their own story of abundance and why we love working here. Very powerful outcome.
We’re not done, not everybody’s told their abundance story yet but we’re enjoying ourselves along the way.
Hannah: My goodness. I can imagine if you really, as a millennial, if you connect with somebody’s purpose or mission statement like that I would imagine that you probably don’t have much turnover.
Cheryl: You know it’s interesting. I think we don’t have too much but I tell you what’s happening with what we’re struggling with is the fact that people do want to stay but they want to get engaged to the person in California or their husband gets a job in X or their wife gets promoted to this cancer lab somewhere else. And so they want to stay, and how do we make all that work? It’s an interesting conundrum that we’re working on that we don’t seem to quite know exactly how to make a virtual … I think 25% of our team members are virtual now.
Hannah: Oh wow.
Cheryl: Yeah. So, we’re new age workforce without quite knowing how we got here. How do you develop a career when you’re virtual? How do you develop management and leadership skills when you’re virtual? I think those are all possible things but it’s an interesting journey we’re on.
Hannah: One of the things on your website, you list out your core values on your website for your clients to see. The one that stands out to me is that “embrace change” is one of your core values. The whole working virtually sounds like that. How do you create a culture that embraces change?
Cheryl: Well it’s interesting because I don’t know that I’m the strongest person in the organization to reflect on that but I’m working on improving my change acceptance. I think any of those cultural values, if you don’t state them they’re definitely not going to happen. So there’s that and then what happens is any one of those cultural norms, there’s been a time period we thought, “That’s not who we are, we’re not actually living that norm.” The leadership team will take ownership and say, “On a scale of one to ten we rate ourselves a six and a half and the organization rates us a seven and we need to be a nine or a ten. How are we going to get there?” What’s really interesting Hannah is it takes two or three years when you were falling short as an organization, you start to think, “I think we need to change this and we need to do this differently and let’s listen to feedback from people.”
It takes a long time to move that organization from a seven to a nine. It just does. But I think on the embrace change we have always been that way and we have to be that way. I think the thing that’s been a struggle for us is as you get bigger and you have more team members it’s harder. The beauty of being a young new firm is it’s easy to change software, or it’s easy to change service models. It’s just easier because you have less baggage. But luckily people here because we have that embracement they push for it and expect it and they hold you accountable for that. They’re not going to get away with, “I like what we’re doing now” ever.
Hannah: That’s really interesting. Your employees hold you accountable for embracing change. How does that work within a company?
Cheryl: As you can imagine we’ve already been talking about people who follow their stagnant organizations it’s hard to tell the boss what you really think. And so we do two things, we have a 360 review every 18 months. Everybody in the organization gets rated by everybody else that they know well enough to rate. We rate them on the cultural values and then some other leadership attributes. If I got a low on embrace change and then I get some comments on that then I always share my peer review with the leadership team. It’s posted without security in our document management system so everybody can see it if they want to go to the trouble. Then I go over it with the other leaders, the other shareholders. Then I make a commitment to improve whatever I’m weak on.
Hannah: This 360 degree review, what is that?
Cheryl: We hire our corporate psychologist and he constructs a survey that basically you go in and on a scale of one to seven I think it is you rate each individual on about 25 different attributes. And then you make open, written comments on things they do well and things they need to improve. That’s all confidential and private and then everybody in the firm gets their report back. Our corporate psychologist comes and goes over it with that person and then their supervisor goes over it with them and then they effect goals for improvement. In their performance review they have to say, “Here’s how I’ve improved on my peer review and what I’ve been doing to get better.”
Hannah: So people are very honest in that feedback. Is it anonymous?
Cheryl: Oh yes. It’s anonymous. This is the brutal reality of that, we always tell people the first year you’re always going to get great, everyone loves you because you’re new. The second you get is a little more honest and then by the higher up the ladder you get the more honest again. For what it just does because everybody’s aware of you and secondly everybody needs you to be on your A game. They can’t afford for you to be weak in something. Also it’s their one way to say something to you that they may not be comfortable in saying it in person.
Hannah: I love it how you have your just as public where anybody can read it in your firm. It seems brave of you.
Cheryl: I have this saying, I always want a gin and tonic. I don’t even drink them except when I get my peer review.
Hannah: We talked about succession plans a lot and some of these are really hard conversations. But if you’re not willing to have the hard conversation or to really get that feedback maybe you’re not ready for that leadership role.
Cheryl: I totally agree. One thing that we should do two hands post for everybody is we have something we called internally defense-o-meter, but it’s how open are you to change? It’s this wonderful scale of someone recommends a new idea, secretly you’re planning to undermine it tomorrow all the way to, “Okay, I may or may not agree but the group thinks we should do it. I’m going to brace 100%, I’m going to lead in every way I can.” Things sometimes, it’s good to just look at that and see where you are as a leader on a daily basis if you can. Especially when new ideas are presented.
Hannah: One are the other core values that you have is listening and on your website, I love it where you go to your website and most financial advisors have their services and that type of thing. Your first option is listening. I just love that focus. So, when you click on that it says “many financial planners and managers fail to truly listen and hear. Both are special skills at Abacus.” Can you talk more to that and what does it mean to really listen and hear?
Cheryl: Well I think listening is the gift you can give anyone and it’s a very difficult skill to master. This came about in, gosh, more than a decade ago we read Jim Collins’ Good To Great like many organizations do. We spent a long time thinking about what our hedgehog concept should be, meaning what could we be the best in the world at? Strangely enough we decided on listening, which I know doesn’t sound anything like what a financial advisory firm should pick. But we had been doing some training around listening and we began to see the power of good listening with our clients. And so we learned to be comfortable with silence, we learned to be comfortable with tears, we learned to be curious, we learned to ask open-ended questions and we found that clients often solved their own problems with much greater efficacy than we did without that skill set.
Then we had a team member leave and we always do an exit interview with those individuals. He said, “Abacus is really good at listening to their clients but they’re not always so good at listening to one another.” So we began to be more focused on that like when someone’s talking to you internally are you truly present, truly listening? They feel heard, they feel valued, they know that you’re listening to them. I think we found that we got much better as an organization, we have far to go on that or at least I do. But we also found we’re better parents, we’re better spouses, we’re better adult children. So it doesn’t just make us better at what we do, it makes us happier in our home lives. I would encourage each and every person to become a master at listening. You enjoy your job more because it gets so much easier, you can relax into it.
Clients begin to use you for all the right things. And yes the portfolio is important but I’m nervous about the markets and that anxiety is so much more important than what you’ve done around diversification. They know you’ve done a good job as a professional or your best job, they just want to be heard. They’re worried, they’re anxious, the world has changed on them.
Hannah: Where would somebody go to get better at listening?
Cheryl: We had someone come and work with us for a very long period of time, he just retired. Now we’re anxious about that. We’re thinking about how to do that. We teach modules in the office so now senior advisors teach that to support advisors or the operations team. We haven’t found an ideal outside resource. There’s some good articles I could send you that we could post that would break down the components of good listening. I’m sure there are some terrific videos for that that we could research together. Right now we’re teaching it internally but we know in our heart of hearts, have talked at the leadership level how we’re going to keep ourselves on the A team list for listening. I think that requires an outside coach or an outside resource to hold you accountable in ways you just can’t see yourself.
Hannah: That’s such a good point of we can’t see our own blind spots.
Cheryl: That’s why you have to do a 360. Everyone knows, I always try and think about it this way. If you had a mole on your back your best friend’s going to see it and say, “Hey, you need to get that mole checked out.” It’s the same thing for bad habits, bad behaviors, sub-optimal skill sets. Someone has to point it out to you. You need to know it, everybody else sees that mole on your back. It’s not a secret, it’s just you don’t know it.
Hannah: You make it sound so normal. I feel like that’s such a counter-cultural or counter-instinctive way of responding to criticism.
Cheryl: It takes a long time and I will say this is so fascinating to me. We have a process for giving critical feedback in the office and what’s fascinating and this may help people Hannah… is the way you learn to give praise is the first segment of giving critical feedback. You can’t readily give true, genuine praise that everyone deserves every day here. If I just stop to think two seconds as I walk around the office I’m just blown away by what people are doing. Do I stop and say, “Is that not enough, or write that down, not enough.” But the way you give praise is you point out something someone’s doing and then you say specific like, “Hey Hannah. I wanted to tell you thank you for creating this podcast for young planners. That’s amazing how you go about, the energy you bring, the homework you do, the thoughtfulness with which you give your questions.
“I’m just so impressed and honored that you asked me and delighted that you’re doing this for the profession.” I’m pointing out something you’re doing and then I’m giving you specific behaviors that you did that led to that success. You do the same thing for giving critical feedback. What’s amazing to me is I’m probably the worst in getting it here because I learned that so late in life. But the planners who’ve been here two or three years, they’re swimming in water. They’re so used to getting it they totally get it’s a gift.
Hannah: Do you have an example of what that critical feedback, doing it well would look like?
Cheryl: I think for me what I have to do is, I’m going to make up something. I’m looking at William who’s sitting next to me, but he does everything so well. I’m going to pretend William wears shorts to work on a professional day which he’s never done. But if I had to say to William, “William, on a scale of one to ten this is a one. But I need to share it to you that yesterday when Doctor and Mrs. Longacre were coming in they weren’t meeting with you. I know you had a half day. When you came over with shorts and they happened to see you it made me uncomfortable and reflected on the professionalism of the firm.” William, none of this is true. So you tell him on a scale of one to ten, this isn’t very important. But if it is you’re going to tell him it’s an eight so he’s sitting up straight thinking, “I’d better pay attention.”
Then just as if you were taking a video you point out exactly what happened. Then you have to tie the strategy for the firm, we are professionals, strategy for him, I want you to be a professional. Then you shut up and you listen. As he might say, “You know what? I totally agree with you. I had to take my grandmother’s car and I knew her car had a lot of oil and I didn’t want to get my clothes dirty and I wasn’t going to have time to get it done with this meeting and change, and blah blah.” That’s a perfectly good reason and we agree it won’t happen again. On the other hand he might say, “Wow, I had no idea this was important to the firm.” And then we can talk about what are we going to do in the future, what happens if it happens again and what are the consequences of that. Easy-peasy to do, sort of, in theory.
We have a one-page handout that we use for everybody to prepare when they have to give it. People usually ask someone else to role play with them. So I’m not comfortable telling William that I might say to Eddie, “Eddie, can you play William and let me pretend I’m giving you feedback before I go in and do it in real time?”
Hannah: That’s just the culture of your firm? That’s just the normal language that people speak now.
Cheryl: I absolutely think that’s true. I think there are people who create more psychological safety than others to allow for that but I think if you are hearing feedback in your performance review which is once a year for the first time, we have failed you.
Hannah: Looking at young planners what would be your advice for them as they enter this profession?
Cheryl: Be prepared for change. I don’t think what I do now every day is related in any day to what I thought I was going to be doing when I started. I don’t serve who I thought I was going to serve, my daily work has changed, there’s so many different ways that my life is different than what I imagined. So you have to be preparing for change, not just embracing it. You have to be preparing for it all the time. I think the second piece is just be patient. There’s a lot of shoe leather in 10,000 hours to mastery. So because you have the educational background and you have some experience, none of us are there yet. I fail every day. I make bad decisions every day and I have to be humbled by that and realize I have a long way to go to be where I need to be and the organization needs to be. So that’s just chew every step along the way.
The third piece I always say is invest in yourself. I mean that superficially as well as spiritually and intellectually, so superficially you need to go out and buy nice shoes if you’re a man and a good tie and a good belt and a suit, unless you’re working in a firm that’s just not required. For women professional tie or be very thoughtful about what you’re buying and invest in good, professional clothes. That’s your brand whether you like it or not. I think invest in your education so do the Enrolled Agent, take the CFA, go to the Family Firm Institute and take the Certified Family Business Advisor Designation which is a lot about listing and the softer skill set. I think finally take time for respite and refresh and reenergizing, whatever that looks like for you. It might be time with family, it might be time in your backyard, might be time hunting, might be time in church.
It’s different for all of us or a combination but I think those are the three keys to being long-term successful and long-term happy.