For most adults - and for advisors in particular - learning doesn't end when you get your diploma.

Even if few people actually want to go back to the academic grind full-time, there's a strong case to be made for staying in school, metaphorically at least.

You may need continuing education credits for various certifications. And you almost certainly should advance your professional knowledge and experience in various ways to make clients more satisfied, and make your business operation better and more profitable. I deeply believe that, over the long run, the only sustainable competitive advantage your firm has is the ability to learn and evolve faster than your competition.

There are plenty of ways and places to go back to school, of course - training courses, webinars, even Financial Planning articles that carry a continuing education label. But for now I'm going to use a recent experience with a world-class institution: Harvard Business School.



I got my M.B.A. at Harvard back in the late 1970s. Before I went to grad school, I often faced difficult problems (at work or even back in college) with the response, "Show me the problem and I'll give you the answer."

But Harvard, which uses the case method in virtually every class, was an eye-opener. As a student, I read three or four cases every day. There were no defined problems, and no specific questions: We had only facts, figures and commentary from which to draw conclusions.

All Harvard Business School cases come from actual events, but names and other facts are disguised. Most of the time, you didn't know how the actual situation turned out until the case was over.

When I read my first cases, I had no idea what the problem was - let alone how to generate a solution. Yikes!

What we found is that solving a case is much like working in a business. Real-world business problems aren't obvious; they aren't served on a platter with a few study questions. Indeed, business problems are often very hard to perceive if you've never experienced them.

The challenge can be even greater for financial advisors, most of whom are not trained to work effectively with others in solving complex business problems - whether technical, organizational or behavioral.



So, what did studying hundreds of cases and discussing them with other students do for us at business school?

I think I learned two important lessons there:

*When you've figured out the problem, the answer is usually obvious.

*The more people who work on the problem together, the better the solution is likely to be.

I recently had the opportunity to go back to school to study the Harvard way. Harvard business administration professor Boris Groysberg led a one-day class specifically for other financial planners and professionals from a fund company.

We received the cases to study about two weeks in advance, and were told to prepare answers to several accompanying questions - none of which, it turns out, revealed the actual issue at the heart of the case.

The first case, about managing high-performance individuals who are "difficult," had clear ramifications for those of us in the advisory business.

According to the details of the case, the employee in question had a one-year performance review that showed extraordinary production, making him a superstar performer - but he was seriously deficient in teamwork and office conduct.

His boss had promised him a significant promotion depending on his measurable performance, and he had exceeded his goals by a wide margin, increasing revenues to the firm by more than $75 million in his first year. However, the manager didn't believe he was promotable because of his behavior and attitude.

There were other factors in the case, but the professor quickly asked us: Who would fire the star and who would promote him? Seven (including me) said we'd promote him; 41 participants were ready to fire him.



The professor then engaged us in discussion and helped the class review the issues. We were asked whether we had ever worked with someone who was difficult. (Who hasn't?)

We were asked to use his evaluations and other points in the case to prepare his performance review. We even conducted a mock review in class - which went terribly, just like the actual review.

We then learned what happened to the real individual at the center of the case. Because of his stellar performance, he went directly to the president of the company and discussed his situation. He asked for one thing: never to have to speak to his current supervisor again.

The company president agreed to the request, and assigned the high performer to a different manager - who in turn helped him improve his behavior and attitude. He stayed on, continued his stellar performance - and was promoted the following year.

As it turns out, about 85% of the class - made up of very experienced, smart, successful planners and fund professionals - got this case dead wrong.

Where did we fail? Most participants said that if the star didn't fit the firm's culture, he should be let go - even though he made an immense impact on the company's bottom line. They didn't recognize that the real problem might have been the star's immediate supervisor, who clearly did an ineffective job of communicating with his rising star and managing his behavior.

Most participants based their decision to fire on the inability to clearly see the problem, which stemmed from a lack of training.



Could this happen in your firm? How would you even know you'd made a mistake?

Business coaches, consultants, researchers and educators all look for problems they can solve - so that they can help business owners and executives recognize and deal with problems before they occur, or in their earliest stages, before they significantly damage the business.

Several business books can help you recognize problems, learn skills for managing relationships, and help you foster change and growth in your own organization. A few I recommend are: The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything by Stephen M.R. Covey; In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America's Best-Run Companies by Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr.; and The Innovator's Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book That Will Change the Way You Do Business and other books by Clayton M. Christensen.

As a financial advisor and a business owner, you need to learn to think like a coach: Actively look for problems at your own firm - because only then can you truly start to find solutions.



Glenn G. Kautt, CFP, EA, AIFA, is a Financial Planning columnist and vice chairman of Savant Capital Management, based in Rockford, Ill.