Executive Chairman & Founder, Roy C. Ballentine, CLU, ChFC, CFP®, was featured in the October 2017 issue of Inside Information by Bob Veres. In the article, “Power Practice Management”, Roy discusses twelve of the most valuable things he’s learned about management and leadership.
Power Practice Management
Synopsis: Roy Ballentine shares some of the most important things he’s learned while building one of the best-managed wealth management businesses in the country.
Takeaways: Define what your firm does in a 30-second description, and then make key decisions based on what you said. Learn to develop leaders, and recognize that retaining employees means creating a great work culture.
There are a handful of wealth management firms that are informally competing to be the best managed firm in our profession, and Roy Ballentine’s Ballentine Partners, in Wolfeboro, NH and Waltham, MA is certainly high on that list. Ballentine is founder and executive chairperson of the firm, and is one of very few founding advisors who has managed to move out of the day-to-day management of clients, rainmaking and CEO-ing activities to other roles in the firm.
In his keynote presentation at the Insider’s Forum conference in Nashville, Ballentine told the audience that this hasn’t been an easy path, and it doesn’t have a logical termination point. “I joke inside the company that I’m working really hard at becoming a has-been.” he said. “I’m trying to make myself completely dispensable. The way I have chosen to go about that is to hand off everything I was doing, and do other stuff that adds value that nobody has been doing up to now. But,” he added, “then there is a dilemma. Every time I succeed in finding something that adds value, the response of my partners is: that’s great, but now you need to stop doing that and teach somebody else how to do it. So I have to do that, and then I have to figure out: now what am I going to do? I have to keep reinventing myself.”
Ballentine shared with the audience 12 really important things that he’s learned while creating and tending his highly-successful firm, and his immediate caveat was that he’s made a lot of mistakes over his career, and his partners and his team are responsible for either identifying or helping him to identify many of the points he will be making. He also said that almost everything he learned was the result of being willing to experience failure. “Our first attempt to solve a problem or make a new idea work may not meet with success,” he said, “but every failure presents a new learning opportunity. Failure is valuable because it is only through failure that we actually learn anything.”
After those caveats and admonitions, Ballentine delivered a presentation which caused audience members to gasp and take deep breaths at the end—and then come up and congratulate ME for inviting him to the lectern.
So what did he learn and share that got such an overwhelmingly positive reaction?
1) Every company needs an effective, actionable plan to achieve your goals.
“What is your ultimate goal for your practice?” Ballentine asked the audience. “You might conclude: selling your practice to a third party,” he said. “Or arranging an internal succession. Or perhaps transforming the practice into a family business. Maybe some of you plan to die with your boots on and leaving your practice to somebody else as their problem.”
In all of these cases, you should have a plan. Ballentine suggested that everybody ask themselves seven questions about their current plan—assuming, of course, that they have one.
1) Have you defined a goal, one that you can clearly articulate and are fully committed to now?
2) Do you have a concrete, actionable plan to meet that goal?
3) Is your plan written down in a comprehensive manner?
4) Does your plan include a timetable? And a financial projection of some sort?
5) Have you shared your plan with the senior members of your firm—or, better yet, your entire team?
6) Have you developed metrics that you use on a regular basis to measure your progress toward your goal? Or, asking this another way: how are you keeping score?
7) Are you satisfied with your progress?
If you’ve been scoring yourself, Ballentine proposed that you give yourself a pat on the back if you answered “yes” to 5 or more of the questions. He, himself, can only answer “yes” to five of the seven, but he’s working on the other two.
Suppose you scored a 4 or a 2. For those audience members, Ballentine asked an interesting question: If you were working with a client who you knew needed a plan, and you posed these questions to the client, and the client had to answer “no” to most of them, what advice would you then give to that client?
Put another way: are we, as planners, actually following the advice we would give to a client in similar circumstances? If not, should we be?
2) We should clearly define: What does your firm do? (And not just for the reasons you might think.)
“This may seem like a really simple question, and easy to answer.” said Ballentine. But in his experience, it’s extremely difficult for wealth managers to give a concise answer. Sometimes the explanation will last 15 minutes, and anything past the first minute will have tested the patience of any new person you meet.
“My goal is to get it down to 30 seconds or less,” Ballentine told the group, “and I’ve got various versions that get me there. But,” he admitted, “this is still a work in process for me and for my partners.”
Why a 30-second time limit? Interestingly, Ballentine sees this not primarily as a marketing issue (although it will certainly benefit your marketing messages), but as the guiding principle of your management decisions. “Being able to answer that question concisely forces us to get down to just one main idea,” he said, “and hopefully that one main idea is the primary driver for everything you do. It should become the central focus for the management of the practice.
If we can get down to one main driver for the practice,” Ballentine continued, “it simplifies the decision-making process around the allocation of resources and energy within the practice, because then we can focus on that one idea and make sure we are implementing that one idea as well as it can possibly be implemented.”
Why is that so important? “Every choice to expend resources on something else that is not the main driver of the practice means that those resources are not available to be used ON the main driver,” Ballentine told the group.
3) Values and culture are extremely important.
You’ve probably heard about the importance of “culture” before. But what, exactly, is “corporate culture?”
“I define corporate culture as an accumulated system of beliefs, values and behaviors that people in an organization are expected to adhere to,” said Ballentine. “That system has two very important components: 1) the espoused values and behaviors and 2) group norms, values and behaviors.”
What’s the difference? The espoused values are what management says SHOULD happen. The group norms determine what ACTUALLY happens when management is not looking.
“One of the worst things that can happen in an organization, in my opinion, is to have a significant misalignment between the espoused values and the group norms,” said Ballentine. “Things get even worse when a misalignment occurs either due to the neglect or the complicity of the organization’s managers.”
Ballentine proposed that an important part of being a leader of your firm is to make sure that your espoused values and group norms are in perfect alignment. “Achieving that alignment is not easy,” he warned. “It requires constant vigilance on the part of the leaders, and each member of the leadership team must be prepared to do a critical examination of his or her behavior against the espoused values.
“Further,” he added, “because employees are finely tuned antennae that can easily detect any disconnect between the boss’s espoused values and how the boss actually behaves, employees have to be encouraged to speak up when they spot a misalignment. Any inconsistencies between espoused values and actual behavior have to be promptly identified and corrected, and a leader should be prepared to apologize publicly to the group or an individual team member for any instance where the leader’s behavior has deviated from the espoused values.”
4) CEOs have to make sure that they’re developing leaders at every level of their firms.
“A partner and leader’s job is to create more leaders,” Ballentine told the audience.
How do you do that? Some steps are obvious. You want to hire people who have the potential to become leaders. You have to make an investment in training. You’ve been told to create career tracks for your staff, and you can establish a leadership pipeline in your firm where people understand where they are on a path to leadership responsibilities.
To that, Ballentine adds the more challenging responsibility: “to provide very effective mentoring for our rising stars.”
What’s the difference between “very effective mentoring” and the encouragement to succeed that younger professionals generally receive? Ballentine illustrated by citing an advisor who has hired a potential star and leader named Jennifer. When asked how he trains Jennifer, the answer was: “Jennifer knows my door is always open, and she can come to me at any time with her questions.”
Ballentine proposed an alternate strategy similar to the one he follows at Ballentine Partners. “I said to him: Imagine that you went to Jennifer and made the following speech to her: Jennifer, I’d like to allocate at least an hour of my time per week to you, indefinitely, and that time will be yours to use in any way you wish. My hope is that you and I can use that time to help you advance your career. Your job will be to set the agenda. I may suggest some topics, but it would be your time to use as you wish.
I want to do this for you because I believe you have real potential to go far, and I want to help you do that.
If you like this process, we can continue this for as long as you wish.
“That,” Ballentine told the group, “is very different from an open door policy.”
In his own firm, Ballentine has personally adopted six rising stars who, he says, are making really good use of that hour per week. “And it has been a great growth experience for me,” he added, “because they keep stretching my limits.”
5) The key to retaining clients is to retain key employees. Therefore employee retention is a paramount issue for wealth management firms.
Is there a secret to retaining key employees in this highly-mobile environment, where your employees are highly-employable elsewhere? Ballentine suggested that we ask ourselves why people—generically—change jobs.
“According to a recent survey of 10,000 people who changed jobs,” he said, “the top three reasons were:
1) Lack of opportunity.
2) Dissatisfaction with the senior leadership of the firm.
3) Dissatisfaction with the work environment or organizational culture.
“In other words,” Ballentine said, “the way I interpret those three points, people don’t leave their jobs. They leave relationships.”
Notice that compensation was not among the top three reasons for job dissatisfaction. It’s certainly important (Ballentine said that it routinely falls fourth or fifth on the list), but Ballentine said that, in his experience, people show up for work every day because the combined package of what you can offer them—of opportunity, leadership and organizational culture—is a better alternative than anything else that they’ve found elsewhere.
“They keep coming back if they believe they are doing meaningful work, they are part of a winning team led by someone who is worthy of their respect, and there are opportunities to learn and grow,” said Ballentine. “Everything we’ve discussed so far has led up to this: the importance of a strong organizational culture, creating career opportunities, and having leadership in the firm that takes an active interest in the personal development of each member of the team.”
6) Business development should be everyone’s business.
Ballentine told the audience that the lack of business development and sales skills is one of the things holding back the growth of a lot of RIA firms. So how did he address this issue?
“In 2007, if you had asked me: what percentage of Ballentine Partners’ new business came in through me, the answer would have been: about 95%. Today,” he said, “the answer is nearly zero. Back then, our business development team was basically me. Today, if you want to attend a Ballentine Partners business development meeting, you’d better show up early and grab a seat, because by the time the meeting starts, there won’t be any seats left in our largest conference room, because the biggest room won’t hold all the people who want to attend the meeting.”
Yes, this includes administrative staff, and sometimes, Ballentine told the group, administrative staff members actually run the meeting.
How did he make that happen?
“We experimented with a lot of different approaches,” Ballentine admitted, “and what finally clicked was: we took one of our rising stars, one of those people I talked about earlier, and put that person in charge of business development.”
But here’s the key difference. “We told him that his job was actually not to do business development,” Ballentine said, “but to figure out how to teach other people how to do business development.”
This person was empowered to invest heavily in training and coaching until the firm had achieved a critical mass of people who had proven themselves successful at developing new business. “The more people in the firm who learned how to do business development, the more other people WANTED to learn how to do it, and then figured out how to do it,” said Ballentine. “It took eight or ten years for us to achieve that transformation, but the flywheel effect worked.”
7) As part of your management activities, create a financial dashboard for the firm and let your team know how you’re doing.
Ballentine Partners has developed half a dozen metrics that the partners believe are the best way to measure how the firm is performing financially, and they share those metrics with the entire company during quarterly meetings. “Some of the things we measure are: our win/loss ratio on prospect situations, and why we are winning or losing,” Ballentine explained. “We share the cost of producing a dollar of client revenue. We share the growth of book revenue, the revenue run rate, and our operating revenue.”
During those quarterly presentations, the partners also discuss their corporate strategy and what they’re doing currently with regard to implementation of the company’s strategy. “That,” Ballentine said, “helps remind everyone in the firm of the role they play and why it is important.”
The beneficial results, he said, are more engaged team members, and a much easier negotiating process when it comes time to discuss compensation and bonuses, because people have more contextual information to understand the decisions the partners are making in those areas that are so important to them personally.
8) Create a culture of compliance around cybersecurity and regulatory matters.
To understand what Ballentine means by a “culture of compliance,” imagine two firms. Firm A takes a rules-based approach to compliance. Everything about compliance is reduced to a set of rules, and the employees are required to follow them. Compliance is regarded as a burden that the firm must bear.
Firm B has fewer rules, but the concept of fiduciary behavior is deeply embedded in the firm’s culture. Team members in the second firm understand that compliance is an integral part of fiduciary behavior, and compliance is embraced because it is deeply embedded in the firm’s culture and core values.
“Which firm,” Ballentine asked the audience, “do you think will have the more effective compliance processes?”
The culture of compliance requires a commitment at the top to certain high ethical standards and values, a chief compliance officer who is committed to not getting bogged down in the minutia of rule-makings, and perhaps most importantly, it requires a concerted effort, through education and discussion, to link compliance requirements to the concept of fiduciary behavior.
“One of the ways that we do that is to seize upon little things that occur during the ordinary course of business that create teaching moments,” Ballentine said, “and give us the opportunity to talk about the importance of compliance.”
9) Mistakes are inevitable, so you should have a plan for them.
“I’m talking here about the sort of mistakes that could have consequences for whoever commits the mistake and possibly for the firm,” said Ballentine. “We’re talking here about BIG mistakes, where we might need to compensate the client.”
Ballentine assured the audience that making a mistake, by itself, should not be regarded as unethical. But failing to properly deal with the consequences of a mistake can potentially fall into the unethical category. “Given that mistakes are inevitable—at least, they certainly happen in my firm—and some have serious consequences,” said Ballentine, “our philosophy is that it would be really good to have a plan for dealing with them, rather than having employees make up their own solutions in the immediate aftermath of a mistake.”
Ballentine Partners, along with behavioral psychologist and business coach James Grubman, have devised a training program which goes by the title: “A Proper Apology,” which is required yearly training for every member of the team, including all the executives of the firm.
“Team members learn, in that training session, that if they follow our protocol, they have a very good chance of surviving even a serious mistake, and possibly even flourishing afterwards,” Ballentine told the group. “If they fail to follow the protocol, they will be removed from the team—and we explicitly state that during the training session, to make sure that everybody understands.”
The proper apology follows defined steps:
1) report the mistake to management, so the firm can muster its resources and plan its response.
2) Inform the client of the mistake and what you’re doing in response to it;
3) If the client is harmed, make the client whole; and
4) After dealing with the immediate consequences of the mistake, engage in an analysis to figure out how to prevent a similar mistake from occurring at some point in the future.
“If you look at the literature on mistake management, which is mostly in the medical field,” Ballentine told the audience, “one of the things that patients who have been harmed by medical mistakes care the most about is what the doctor, medical professional or facility is doing to prevent similar mistakes from occurring in the future. We know that is something that clients care about,” Ballentine continued, “and we communicate that with them explicitly.”
10) Listen to find out if you’re wrong.
Ballentine asked the audience if they have, as he too-often has, caught themselves carefully planning their eloquent response when somebody else is talking. “I find when I’m doing that,” he said, “that I’m not really listening to what the other person is saying. Leaders,” he added, “are really good at persuading other people to follow them, and persuading people that they’re right, but sometimes not very good at listening.”
Ballentine said that when he does take the time to listen, it’s an opportunity to change his point of view for the better. “It may require that you adopt a different mindset,” he warned, “but it may also help you prevent mistakes.”
11) Find three things you, personally, are really good at, and get everything else off your desk.
“Imagine,” Ballentine proposed, “how great life would be if you were able to spend a high percentage of your time doing the things that you are uniquely qualified to do, and that you really enjoy doing.” When he first tried to imagine it, his first thought was: that will never happen. “But then I realized that if I start heading in that direction today, maybe I can get at least partway there,” he told the group. “And if I don’t start heading in that direction, I am never going to get there.”
Ballentine showed a slide with three overlapping circles: 1) the set of things that are really valuable to get done, 2) the things that he really enjoys doing, and 3) things that he happens to be highly competent at doing.
Where the circles overlap, where an activity meets all three conditions, is where you want to create your workday.
“I hear a lot of questions from people who have reached the point I have come to in my career, on how to prevent burnout,” he said. “What I have found is that by finding the center of these three circles, that problem, for me, has gone away. I actually look forward to going to work each day.”
How do you move your daily activities into the center of these three circles? Ballentine recommended that you ask yourself three questions:
1) What work-related activities am I better at than most people?
2) Which of these activities are most interesting and energizing for me?
3) Of those activities, which are most valuable to my firm?
“Once you’ve answered those questions to your satisfaction,” Ballentine said, “the next step would be to announce to your team that this is your goal, and offer to give up everything that doesn’t fit the answers to those three questions.”
The response may not be what you expect. “I was quite surprised at the number of enthusiastic people who stepped forward, offering to take pieces of my workload off of my plate,” Ballentine told the audience. “That was a happy surprise.”
12) No matter what the size of your firm might be, the reality is: there is only one person whose behavior you can actually control. And that one person, of course, is you.
No doubt you agree with this obvious statement. So why does it matter? “One of its profound implications is that if you have a problem with someone in your organization, I believe the first place to look is in the mirror,” said Ballentine. “Because everyone around you is reacting to your behavior. If you want someone else to change his or her behavior, you have to begin by changing your behavior. Another aspect of that is that I have to take responsibility for the fact that I may, in fact, be part of the problem.”
Interestingly, this concept can be used to teach leadership skills to your rising stars. Ballentine offered the example of a steller performer and leader of a client team, who we’ll call Ann. She came to Ballentine complaining about a more junior team member, who we’ll call Bob. Bob, said Ann, is routinely delivering sloppy work, is habitually late in delivering that work, and sometimes responds to Ann’s requests by simply announcing that he is too busy to help her.
In this situation, Ballentine knew that other people in the firm had given Bob excellent evaluations. So the feedback about Bob’s performance was inconsistent, and Ann knew that.
“As Ann and I discussed the situation, I suggested to her that a first step in solving the problem needed to be her taking ownership and responsibility for the fact that the problem had occurred in the first place,” Ballentine told the audience. “She was actually offended by that suggestion. I could see her defenses go up immediately, and her response was: the problem is Bob, not me.”
Ballentine agreed that there was nothing overtly wrong with Ann’s behavior. “But,” he said, “I pointed out that if all she did was more of the same behavior that she had already engaged in with Bob, that there was actually no reason to think that her relationship with Bob was going to change for the better. And that maybe by changing her behavior, she could get Bob to change HIS behavior.”
Over the course of the next 30 minutes, through a series of questions and answers, Ballentine and his stellar employee worked out a plan to approach Bob in such a way that would not put him on the defensive. “She agreed,” said Ballentine, “to shift the focus of the problem from the people to the process.”
Success! By the end of two weeks, Ann reported that her relationship with Bob had improved dramatically. Bob was now providing her with excellent support and high-quality work. “As a result of that experience,” Ballentine said, “Ann is a much more confident leader, and a better team leader overall.”
This was widely considered to be a home-run presentation at our conference, and in fact some said it was one of the best practice management sessions they had ever seen. I want to add Ballentine’s answer to one of the audience questions. An audience member asked him: What are the three things that you, yourself, are good at, and that you focus your time on currently?
“The number one thing for me is: I love solving problems,” Ballentine answered. “The more complicated the problem, and the more it has so far defied any solution, the more I like it. The second thing that I really enjoy is the mentoring,” he added. “I just love working with people who have potential that they’re anxious to develop, and helping them develop it. And the third thing I enjoy is figuring out how to take a new idea and apply it to the practice in a way that will make us better. Constantly probing the edges of our practice to see what we can add, and possibly see what we can stop doing, because it is taking up resources from what we could be using to do more valuable things.”
In the course of his long, successful career, Ballentine has clearly applied his problem-solving skills and has tinkered with new ideas in his practice in a way that others can learn from. The result, as I said at the beginning, is one of the best-managed wealth management firms in the country, which is clearly still evolving just as Ballentine is constantly evolving his own role within it. If you can, reread this article once a year, and I suspect that each time you’ll find new motivation to move forward in your own business life.
The result: better investment portfolios than an advisory firm could create on its own.