When I was younger I had this football coach whom I greatly admired. You know that expression you sometimes hear athletes use about their coaches: “He or she was the kind of coach you’d run through a wall for…” Well, that was the kind of coach this guy was. He was a leader my teammates and I would have followed anywhere.
In the business world, you hear similar stories about leaders who get teams to coalesce and successfully move toward a goal. That got me thinking about financial advisors, and how in our line of work, leadership of that sort is not the norm. You hear many financial advisors talk about their commitment to serve their clients, but a commitment to lead their clients? Not as much.
In my opinion, service does not necessarily equate to leadership. Service may be a component of leadership, but it’s not all of it. To me, one of the key attributes of a leader is the capacity to help others see opportunity. The advisor for whom service is a priority wants to “keep the client,” whereas the advisor for whom leadership is a priority has the courage to speak some hard truths, even it means upsetting or potentially losing the client.
And then, unfortunately, every now and then we hear about the advisor for whom neither leadership nor service is a grounding principle. I recently read a story about a former running back who is suing a financial advisor for a few million dollars. At one time, the two used to be ‘best friends.’ I imagine that the athlete must have placed quite a bit of trust in the advisor in order to give him that amount of money. And then the advisor did what? He most certainly didn’t lead the client to opportunity; the only opportunity he saw was to enrich himself.
Back to the football coach… Was he a good listener? I don't remember. What I do recall is that I followed him not because of what he said but because of how he was. There are people in my life today that fit this description. It’s not what they say, but how they lead their life that inspires me.
My dad served in the United States Army as a helicopter pilot, flying “Hueys” in the Vietnam War and then for twenty years in the Army Air National Guard. He was also a high school math teacher for over 40 years. He could have rested on his laurels, his Silver Star, and various other service medals and accommodations. Instead, he taught us about getting a little better every day…about quality repetition, and that like it or not, you are only as good as your last performance. He is an example of a man who doesn't teach you with so many words, as much as he simply demonstrates with his actions.
Of course a good leader is and does so much. A good leader listens. A good leader empathizes. In our line of work, good leaders put themselves into their clients’ shoes. And when necessary, they go against the grain.
As a financial advisor, I lead when I set aside my own agenda. I don't want ever to convince my clients of anything. I believe that when we are leading, we don’t have a need to sell anyone anything. The fact is I have no idea what’s going to happen in the markets tomorrow, or the day after. But I do know that over the long term the market has historically trended up. The longer I spend in this business, the more business cycles I go through; bull markets and bear markets, upswings and downswings.
Just like a parent who can’t prevent a child from getting hurt, or tell them what will happen in their lives, there’s a level of control that I simply don’t have – a fact I must accept with humility. What I can offer is a certain amount of perspective based upon what I’ve experienced myself, and what I’ve learned from others. To me, that's leadership. It’s not providing all the answers (which I don’t have, anyway.) To me, leadership is giving my unfiltered and sincere perspective with the goal of creating an opportunity for somebody else.
When I’m introduced to a financial advisor, I perk up. I pay attention to what they do and to what they don't do. I engage the same skills I use to get to know my clients. I listen, and I try to figure out what it is that they care about. When it comes to advisors, I’m curious whether someone needs to be the center of attention. Is being recognized by their industry and peers a motivator for them? What drives their actions? In other words, I want to learn what is it that feeds them. Because you can learn a tremendous amount about what feeds a person.
In our line of work, there’s so much at stake. We are being entrusted with people’s dreams and aspirations, their future, and their children’s future. There is little room for corrective action. Finding the right advisor really can make the difference between success and failure.
Ben Beck is Managing Partner & Chief Investment Officer at Beck Bode, a deliberately different wealth management firm with a unique view on investing, business and life.