If you´re a financial advisor — whether highly experienced or relatively new to the profession — you probably originally landed your position thanks to very specific skills and aptitudes you possess: your knowledge of markets and finance, your acumen with numbers and projections, and your calculated understanding of risk taking and rewards. In short, you’ve mastered the hard skills of the profession through a combination of raw talent, education, training, and on-the-job learned experience.
Yet there might be a different set of essential skills that you rely on more than you realize. What about your ability to adapt and deal with change, conflict and even crisis? These skills may, in the long run, influence your success even more than your knowledge of the ETF market. As the saying goes, you can't always control what happens, but you can control how you react. By developing your soft skills — from self-awareness to empathic communication to cultivating authentic connections — you will be well poised to weather downturns with equanimity.
More importantly, you’ll bring your whole self to the proverbial table: it's only by fully engaging your own potential that you will harness the collective power of what your clients and your colleagues have to offer. As any coach who wants to build a great team knows, teamwork starts with the individual. Here are a few simple focus points for an inside-out approach to building the kind of soft skills that make for productive, satisfying and ultimately successful work relationships. (For more, see: Key Steps to Building a Great Financial Planning Practice.)
As the British writer Ian Maclaren famously said, "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." As an adviser, you are intimately involved in an aspect of your clients´ lives — money — that for many people rivals love and death as the most challenging and stressful issue they confront. Whether the client at hand is building tremendous wealth, trying to protect limited assets, or attempting triage on a financially disastrous event such as divorce, illness or job loss, your role is to support the client´s well-being in a financial capacity. To do so, you must consider and remain open to the client as a whole person. Awareness of and respect for your clients and your colleagues as human beings — rather than as means to an end for your own career — is absolutely essential if you want to build lasting, meaningful and productive work relationships. (For related reading, see: Management Tips from Top Financial Advisors.)
As Polonius says in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “This above all: to thine own self be true.” In a postmodern digital age where individual identity is influenced and impacted by the unquantifiably complex forces of technology and globalism, such iconic advice is easy to quote but challenging to follow. In recent years, the field of business psychology has become the battleground for competing theories on how best to harness self-knowledge.
One predominant theory was first popularized in Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton´s 2001 book Now, Discover Your Strengths, based on a Gallup study of over two million people who achieved career success. Their theory? Essentially, that in the workplace you are as good as your greatest strengths: by focusing primarily on cultivating the strengths you identify, you’ll achieve optimal success. (For related reading, see: How Financial Advisors Are Leveraging Social Media.)
However, critics of the book have warned that the ability to honestly evaluate one’s weaknesses is crucial to not only individual, but organizational success. One notorious example? The spectacular failure of the Enron Corporation in 2001 was a result of a few top leaders prioritizing strengths and successes while ignoring and obliterating weaknesses at the expense of truth. As top executives such as Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling refused to honestly acknowledge individual and organizational problems and turning a blind eye to trusted colleagues’ expertise and wisdom, the company´s shareholders, clients and employees were ultimately compromised.
Honesty Really is the Best Policy
If the financial world learned anything from the disastrous consequences of hubris that brought down the economy in 2008, perhaps it was this truism. After all, Bernie Madoff´s weakness wasn't his faculty with numbers, investments or markets: it was his lack of empathy, character, honesty and direct communication. (For related reading, see: Financial Advisors Are Feeling Cyber-insecure.)
So unless your goal is to join Lay and Skilling in the dubious club that makes up Time´s “Top 10 Crooked CEOs” hall of fame, you probably already prize honesty as a top workplace value. While your ability to communicate with your clients — which means, of course, being as adept at listening as you are at speaking and writing emails — remains perhaps the most important soft skill in a financial advisor´s arsenal, remember that communication must be grounded in ethics. Smooth talk may get you clients, and even, for a time, financial results. Yet neither will be long lasting. (For more, see: Financial Impacts of Workplace Bullying.)
Think Like an Athlete
While focusing on the upbeat may seem like a dangerously naive attitude, positive thinking does not mean wishful thinking. When we focus on the positive traits in ourselves and those around us while remaining grounded in reality, we tend to organize our actions around positive, actionable outcomes. Our imaginations are a powerful force: as any professional basketball player will tell you half the game is in the mind. If you like to shoot hoops yourself, you know that when you envisioning making that three point shot, you're more likely to make that three point shot. (For more, see: 10 Golf Tips to Help Investors Tee Off.)
The same is true when we interact with clients and colleagues. Focus on your commonalities and interests, and envision a successful interaction where shared goals are accomplished. Does this guarantee that every interaction will be a success? No, but it will make success all the more likely while focusing on building quality teamwork. (For more, see: 6 Ways to Learn to Love Your Job.)
As a potentially highly lucrative profession subject to cruelly unpredictable market forces, those seeking daily fulfillment and joy in their work probably gravitate towards fields other than finance. Yet just because the stock market is volatile doesn't mean you should be. By focusing on authentic connections with clients and colleagues, you can cultivate serenity, calm, and even joy in your work. (For related reading, see: FAs Should Factor Clients into Succession Plans.)
Connectedness, quite simply, is the feeling that you’re part of something greater than yourself. Human connectedness is correlated with longevity, happiness, health, and the success of relationships, from marriages to friendships to business partnerships. Psychiatrist Edward Hallowell has pinpointed three types of connectedness that are crucial in the workplace: internal connectedness, connections with colleagues, and connections with clients. Ask yourself at the beginning of each work week what simple, concrete steps you can take to strengthen your connections in each of those three zones.
One strategy on the client end? By holding meetings with clients where you aim to discover a more complete picture of their lives than simply their financial status, you’re more likely to build an authentic connection — as well as anticipate and respond to potential financial challenges. Such challenges, whether they provoke excitement or trepidation for your client, are rarely wholly disconnected from personal issues. (For more, see: Tips for Breaking the Ice with New Clients.)
Join the Team
Sports psychology is a helpful paradigm not only for your individual career goals, but extends — unsurprisingly — to working on a team. Yet no matter how many years you spent in the goalie box or on the pitcher’s mound, make sure to check any false assumptions you hold regarding what makes a great team. While growth and success are important measurement tools, they only tell part of the story: many great teams have experienced setbacks and losses that were ultimately crucial to their transformations into legendary success stories. That´s one reason that the mythology of the “underdog” remains so powerful, whether in Hollywood films or in real life. (For more, see: How to Train Your New Financial Advisor.)
And if your team achieves a colossal win? Bust out the cake and champagne: it’s time to celebrate. By celebrating successes, rather than moving on to the next business-as-usual workday, your colleagues will be more likely to happily put in the extra effort to reach the next milestone. Unfortunately, we’re not wired to prioritize success over failure. We have evolved towards survival, which means that biologically speaking, we are more apt to interpret our environment for potential threats than we are to kick back and enjoy a victory. Remain aware of the human tendency to weigh negative events more heavily than positive ones, and make a concerted effort to help your staff celebrate progress toward goals as much as you focus on solving problems or putting out fires. (For related reading, see: Company Size Matters: Job Search for Financial Advisers.)
The Bottom Line
Soft skills may be notoriously undervalued in a profession that prides itself on results, but that does not render them any less important. In fact, while the ethos of soft skill building is grounded more explicitly in human values rather than financial results, new advisers quickly find that their skill at interacting with clients and colleagues in an open, professional and positive way is absolutely crucial for producing just that: results. Don’t avoid conflict, as it’s an inevitable force in life as in business. Instead, tackle conflicts head on with a proactive, results-oriented attitude. Remember that an organization that lacks any conflict is an organization whose members are either too intimidated, or too disinterested, to actively participate. Connectedness is about celebrating successes as well as honestly accepting--and then being willing to change — personal and organizational flaws. And don’t forget the cake and champagne. (For related reading, see: Trends Challenging Financial Advisors.)