For Jeffrey Thomasson, founder of Oxford Financial Group -- the largest firm on Financial Planning's 2013 RIA Leaders list -- smooth waters mean its time to rock the boat.
One of the things thats become really [important] for us is to create crises, so that we dont have to wait for a crisis to force us to make decisions, Thomasson says of his Carmel, Ind.-based firm, which now has close to $11 billion in assets under management. (The 2014 RIA Leaders list will appear in January.)
Human nature being what it is, when you have two or three really sensational years in a row, you start to rest a little bit on your laurels," he says -- "and when your best friend is the stock market, it makes you look a lot smarter than you deserve.
Thomasson says Oxford uses several strategies to creatively destabilize the firms culture and prevent complacency. Here are 11 that he recommends:
1. Watch your tolerance for bad behavior. The financial disaster that happened in '08 and '09 is a memory, and you have a tendency to potentially lose your edge a little bit, Thomasson says. As a result, he says firms may "tolerate performance and behavior, like a manager or a staff person [who isnt working out] or a bad hire or a process or a technology deficiency." Consider firing or reassigning those individuals and rethinking the process problems, he adds.
2. Identify strengths and weaknesses. Create a regular schedule to examine three things you are good at, and three you are bad at -- and have the entire firm do the same. To pick on myself, Thomasson says, I have to annually or biannually reexamine those things. Just because I carry the CEO title doesnt mean Im qualified to be the CEO the way I was 10 years ago. It may mean that Ive got to suck it up to bring in talent from the outside to coach me or our senior management team. That extends through the firm, he says -- Oxford asks everyone "to reexamine their job responsibilities [annually] and move some things to the top of the list and move other things to the bottom of the list.
3. Change assignments. Reassign tasks within your firm so that those people who are best at certain tasks are doing them.
4. Become more friendly to change. This is a cultural shift, Thomasson says: The advisory industry is changing rapidly and your firm should, too.
5. Spot the saboteurs. Identify and address silent pushback from your team members that will impede needed change, Thomasson says. Discover which team members may be silently opposed to certain changes.
6. Hire coaches. Oxford works with multiple coaches,Thomasson says, but one is specifically focused on the top ranks. An individual coach works with certain senior people in the organization regarding their skill sets and their daily activities and their monthly activities -- kind of forcing them to self-evaluate for a full day every quarter, over a two- or three-year period," he says. "That has been very helpful to us over the years. We spend a lot of money on that.
7. Rehearse prospect meetings. Before sitting down with prospective clients or referrals, practice with team members. If you dont prepare to win, how are you going to win? Thomasson asks. Most people go to lunch with a prospective interview, or they use a Power Point deck. ... They dont find out what the person is interested in; they dont ask what have been their good and bad experiences before with wealth management firms. You have to rehearse those things because they dont come naturally in the meeting and you cant be spontaneous.
8. Focus on your conversational skills. During meetings with clients or prospects, make sure you avoid conversation killers like closed-end questions or interrupting a prospect. "When you ask closed-end questions, you get a yes or a no and learn little, Thomasson says. And avoid answering your own questions: If you answer a question before the interviewee can answer, then why did you bother to ask the question?
9. Encourage constructive criticism ... Thomasson says Oxford advisors frequently hold sessions to critique each other's performance after meetings with prospective clients are over. He suggests having each team person in the meeting tell the other team members five things they did really well and five things they did badly.
10. ... And dont take it personally. If you are insulted about the five things that you did really badly, you arent excited about doing it right the next time, Thomasson says. If you take it personally, it can create an edge in the relationship -- and it shouldnt, because we are all on the same team.
11. Remember the fundamentals. Especially in a time of prosperity, remember the basic guidelines of your investing and operating strategies and stick by them. Its a little bit like having a winning streak on a sports team," Thomasson says. "You have to work extra hard, make sure you go to the weight room every day and make sure you work on those fundamentals -- the way you were forced to during the stress of 08 and 09."
Oxford closes about 70% of the prospective client meetings it holds, according to Thomasson. He chalks up that success rate to the firm's focus on keeping skills sharp.
And he thinks the firms efforts show in its relationships with clients. I joke that everyone gets invited to the funeral, but only the trusted advisors come to the kids wedding, he says. The reason we get invited is because they like us.
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