Change in our industry is almost fast enough to give some advisors whiplash. From continued volatility in the financial markets to new technology, products and services, as well as regulatory and compliance requirements, staying abreast can feel like a full-time job. But by devising and joining training programs, you and your team can best stay on top of industry developments.

Any education program should be planned and consistent, and should include studies for you and work the team does together. A hit-and-miss approach will yield only hit-and-miss results, resulting in valuable time lost.

Educating yourself

To get going, consider joining an expert study group - a formal support group of advisor peers who work together to succeed together. The best study groups are part technical training, part sales and marketing training, and part brainstorming. They can be valuable places for motivated financial advisors looking to exchange skills, knowledge and information on how to attract, serve and retain affluent investors.

Another highly effective method of learning is to enlist the help of a professional coach or consultant. (Full disclosure: My firm, CEG Worldwide, coaches financial advisors.) Coaching programs go beyond more traditional seminars by helping advisors implement specific strategies within their firms - bridging the gap between knowing what to do and actually doing it.

To find study groups or other programs that would meet your specific needs, ask for recommendations from your wholesalers and the top people at partner financial institutions. And, of course, ask your peers in the industry for their thoughts.

You can enhance your knowledge by pursuing high-value credentials. Most designations by themselves deliver little perceived value to affluent clients, but the process can be highly valuable.

You'll want to choose only the programs aligned with your specific goals and market - such as CFP or chartered financial analyst. The first part of the CFA program, for example, gives a detailed overview of the investment market and examines many issues from a technical perspective. The second part deals with equity research, which also may be valuable to some financial advisors.

Some advisors might consider the IMCA designation - Certified Investment Management Analyst - offered in partnership with the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. While rigorous, it is not up to the level of the CFA, making it appropriate if you want to go the extra mile in understanding the technical side of investing, but don't need the CFA.

Don't overlook industry associations. Many of the industry's professional groups - the FPA, NAPFA and IMCA - have annual national and regional conferences and e-learning programs in specific areas. Many of these may be worthwhile.

Team-building through education

To provide your clients with elite-level service, you must provide your staff with elite-level training. Too many advisors pay lip service to this idea, but aren't willing to invest the necessary time, money and energy to make it work.

But by training team members to think creatively, play multiple roles and take the initiative, you will be rewarded many times over.

You may be able to take advantage of a few industry events sponsored by firms with whom you work. But to transform your practice into an organization focused on the needs of the affluent, you must take responsibility for providing the specialized knowledge your staff needs. There are three great ways to do this.

Cross-train your staff

Staff should be able to handle the responsibilities of everyone on the team. If all your team members receive robust and intensive cross- training that encourages them to take the initiative, at least two things will occur.

If one team member is late, ill, absent or on leave, operations will continue to run smoothly and you won't be forced into an inefficient and energy-sapping emergency mode that inevitably will detract from your role as the rainmaker.

Second, consider that the vast majority of successful problem-solving revolves around determining the right question. If you train your staff to think for themselves and to focus on what the real problem is, then you and your clients are far less likely to end up frustrated and stymied by ineffective attempts to answer the wrong question.

Keep in mind that when you give team members the responsibility and permission to try new things, they will inevitably fail some of the time. When that happens, you must be understanding, patient and supportive. If you disproportionately reprimand your staff after they fail at something new, you can be sure that they'll never take the initiative again.

Turn learners into teachers

The best way to learn something is to teach it. Team members who know they will be responsible for conveying important information to the group will consistently work better and with more focus.

Regularly assign team members periodicals to read and report on. One staff member might be assigned to read Financial Planning and, another to Barron's and a third to The Wall Street Journal. The periodicals assigned should depend on the staff member's specific role.

Technology-focused team members might regularly report back on technology-oriented periodicals, while investment-focused team members should read the literature in that area. As the rainmaker, you should read the most crucial information sources yourself.

At weekly meetings, assigned readers can give your entire team the major takeaways and distribute copies, or provide summaries or links to the articles. The key here is to require a high standard of teaching.

When you get started, meet with each staff member to go through the periodicals they've been assigned. Point out the kinds of stories and ideas that you think are interesting or important, and perhaps provide a topic list. Properly managed, such assigned reading and reporting sessions become ongoing training exercises.

It will help team members understand the firm's practice while focusing them on their specific roles. Also, you'll have an office clipping service that will keep you informed while substantially lightening your own reading and research load.

Focused learning

Every month, host focused, one-hour meetings that address important issues and challenges. To sustain interest, each meeting should be a mix of lecture, discussion and Q&A.

Examine each area of your business to determine the specific skills, knowledge or experience you or your staff must acquire. Regardless of whether it's your education or your team's, make sure to focus on precisely those issues that will yield the greatest results.

John J. Bowen Jr., a Financial Planning columnist, is founder and CEO of San Martin, Calif.-based CEG Worldwide, a global training, research and consulting firm for advisors.

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