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What we learned from judging the Visionary Leader Awards

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The most amazing thing about crisis is how beauty emerges in the aftermath. Most of the world has been living through fires and floods, pestilence and economic collapse, extrajudicial killings and righteous protests by thousands.

Mark Tibergien
We sought to create legitimate filters that would register in the minds of readers and the industry, writes judge Mark Tibergien.

Amidst this backdrop, the financial services industry has found ways to be a constant for clients, employees, regulators and shareholders. People stayed home to perform their work. They relied on mobile apps and video conferences to engage with others. Some sought financing in fear of not surviving a prolonged period of uncertainty. Others sought ways in which to transform a profound negative experience into a relative positive approach to doing business.

Meanwhile, Financial Planning asked Dasarte Yarnway, founder of Berknell Financial Group and me to scour nominations for their first annual Visionary Leader Award, to determine who had the best idea for transforming their business, impacting the industry or serving their clients. Dasarte brought the perspective of a millennial practitioner and entrepreneur, while I brought the view of a weary old recently retired curmudgeon whose mother could have been the mother of invention. We were coached by the editorial team at Financial Planning.

It was remarkable how clearly the top candidates emerged so quickly from these independent points of view.

We strived to create legitimate filters that would register in the minds of readers and the industry. It was remarkable how clearly the top candidates for the award emerged so quickly from these independent points of view.

Financial Planning's Visionary Leader Awards

Several key ideas stood out:

  1. How did the coronavirus pandemic influence the idea?
  2. Was the solution temporary because of social distancing, or did it have the legs to be permanent?
  3. Was it solving a problem that should have been previously addressed in contingency planning, or an idea not previously experienced or contemplated?
  4. Was it scalable?
  5. Could it be replicated?
  6. Did it produce a measurable outcome?

We all found ourselves drawn to innovations that would make a lasting impact on the business of financial advice; or that fundamentally improved the client experience. There were product ideas, of course. And clever technology innovations that had some shine to them.

And frankly, there were ideas that seemed less like innovations and more like patches on a leaky roof during a rainstorm.

While we were pleased by the great ideas submitted, several teaching moments also were spawned in the process. For example,

  1. Is your business truly prepared technologically to function remotely for an extended period?
  2. Is your business culture strong enough to function remotely even if there is not a forced lockdown?
  3. Are virtual happy-hours and Zoom meetings adequate for the long-term?
  4. Did any gaps in your offering to clients appear that help clients to focus on risk as much as on return?
  5. When you realized that investment performance was not the only thing, did it change your idea about your engagement process, your reporting, your success metrics and what you communicate?

Plato usually gets the credit for the quote, but it took a more articulate writer in Benjamin Jowett to translate Plato’s "Republic" into more flowery words, “The true creator is necessity, who is the mother of our invention.”

In the same vein, investing, planning, reporting, developing people, building a business are established concepts. Those who can translate foundational notions into ideas with great impact are those whom we thought should be credited for true innovation.

For these reasons, we the judges deem the state of the financial planning business to be in good hands. Strategy and structure, people and process will serve as the cornerstones of this profession as it enters its next dynamic phase. What transpired in the 10 years since the Great Recession has been astounding. What will transpire in the next decade should be equally breathtaking. From these submissions alone, we can expect to see a greater focus on the way in which clients make choices; how risk management will become a more common theme in both firm and client engagement; and how leaders of advisory businesses think about the legacy they leave behind as entrepreneurs, innovators and human beings.

Some have said I timed my retirement perfectly. This experience tells me I may be a decade early.

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