In every organization, there are a few top performers who set the pace for everyone else. The Pareto Principle as a description has been so influential because we can see the evidence of it everywhere we go. In this article, we’ll explore what the top 20% of your colleagues do differently and what you can do to join them in the top tier.
I’ve been fascinated by the natural lifecycle of the successful Financial Advisor since I started working with FAs in the early 1990s. For the most part, advisors are self-taught—until recently, there was no degree program that prepared a student to build and manage an advisory practice. Because of this, the financial services industry attracts a wide range of highly motivated, creative and intelligent people who are willing to push themselves through a series of learning curves across a wide variety of skill sets. Over time, usually no more than a year or two, the many challenges involved in building a successful and sustainable practice push out all but the most driven and flexible personalities—those who are able to transform themselves into an effective advisor.
These two characteristics—drive and flexibility—and the concept of “self-invention” are so key to the future success of any advisor that they deserve a closer look. These are great personality attributes, but they are extremely fragile and difficult to sustain. Even before he begins his first job in the industry, the new advisor has been told that success requires constant activity: “It’s a numbers game.”
Interestingly, and in spite of the tons of advice they will receive along the way, most advisors learn that no one can accurately tell (1) which activities are going to lead to results, (2) how soon those results are going to accrue, (3) how to sort out the good activities from the better activities and (4) how to avoid the dead-end attempts. The first few years of every advisor’s career represent a grand experiment of trial and error followed by trial and success and the constant challenge of self-sustained activity.
Eventually a few advisors discover or invent effective methods, acquire some clients, and generate revenue. These are the advisors who maintain a high enough activity level for long enough to run into enough opportunities to establish their business. Dynamically, I have observed that these are the people who are driven enough to keep experimenting in spite of few immediate rewards, and who are flexible enough to back up and try again differently over and over and over.
In most organizations, no more than 20% to 30% are able to do this well enough to build an adequate income. Here’s the Pareto Principle again: 20% of trainees will be driven enough and flexible enough to succeed! The rest fall away, exhausted by a negative ratio between trial and error and unwilling or unable to maintain their investment. For me, it’s what successful advisors do about this negative ratio—and what you can do about it in your own business—that gets really interesting.
This is because the Pareto Principle isn’t finished: the next stage of the advisor’s lifecycle finds the surviving advisors sorting themselves out again. Observations over the past 20 years and across North America reveal that the majority of FAs “plateau” at a comfortable level of revenue and grow slowly, if at all, after achieving their first, moderate level of success. For most advisors in the “successful 80% group” who plateau, this occurs when personal income is high enough that the pain of continuing the trial-and-error and trial-and-success processes no longer feels worth the additional revenue those activities will generate. For many advisors this is a powerful, emotional experience of being caught between two extremes: the call of comfort versus the inspiration of future success. They can’t sustain activity in the face of the negative ratio between trial and error.
Interestingly, not everyone gets stuck in this way, and not everyone who gets stuck stays stuck. As the Pareto Principle predicts, the majority of advisors spend the bulk of their career managing a slowly growing or stable book of business. But observations over time reveal that the other 20% maintain their drive and flexibility. They aren’t satisfied with an average level of success and they aren’t seduced by comfort. Their self-concept requires them to continue the trial-and-error process and to continuously reinvent themselves. In fact, this group tends to accelerate their experimentation with new ideas.