Back when the financial services industry was focused almost exclusively on product sales, the process of “training” new employees was relatively straightforward: either new hires were able to learn to sell enough to survive and build a book of business, or they didn’t… and moved on to do something else. However, as the industry has evolved into a more sustainable, advice-centric model, advisory firms are discovering that, unlike most other professions, there aren’t many standards when it comes to training new entrants to progress down a (well-defined) career path into the profession.
And in the modern era, the stakes are higher when it comes to training new advisors. As while in decades past, firms didn’t put much into training new advisors (beyond basic sales training) and therefore didn’t have much to lose if a new advisor “didn’t make it”, modern advisory firms trying to develop a new advisor to be able to manage ongoing relationships (for ongoing revenue) have to incur far more salary expenses until that new advisor develops the necessary skillets to be a productive member of the team.
Accordingly, advisory firms that are looking at steady and ongoing growth are increasingly focusing on developing a repeatable in-house training program, or “boot camp”, to accelerate a new advisory hire’s learning curve to get them through that process faster. Where systematization reduces the cost to the firm if the hire doesn’t work out. And in the extreme, can actually make newer employees so valuable, so quickly, that the firm might even assume that participants will actually move on to another firm at the end of the program and still be successful.
Yet, while a training program is certainly better than none at all, perhaps more important is inculcating into the firm’s culture a “Growth Mindset”, which fosters an environment that encourages learning and talent development, seeks out challenges, and understands that improvement is impossible without failure. Which is especially important in the advisory profession, where new entrants into the field might have a good amount of technical knowledge, but can only learn the (arguably more) important interpersonal skills through experience.
The real key to the Growth Mindset, though, is simply recognizing that if growth is natural, employees can learn anything they need to learn to be successful, as long as they have the right attitude that they can learn it in the first place. Which means it’s crucial that the firm itself is characterized by an attitude of, “I may not be able to do that now… but I can learn how!”
Ultimately, the key point is to realize that adopting a Growth Mindset can be an invaluable step towards helping an advisory firm better educate, retain, and grow a team that sets high expectations, challenges team members throughout the firm, and gives positive reinforcement, not in the context of innate personal ability, but against a backdrop of a process fosters their long-term success and reinforces the firm’s culture.
If you haven’t ever listened to the Kitces podcast with Elissa Buie from Yeske Buie on resident programs – it is worth a listen. The Yeske Buie resident program is designed assuming their next-generation advisor will turn over, and that alone makes it interesting. But a more salient point should not be missed, either: how Yeske Buie has taken the time to develop a “boot camp” program to send their residents (and actually, all-new hires) through in their initial months at the firm.
You may be thinking “why is that so revolutionary” – but I ask you, do you have a new hire program in place? And if you do, does it work for your firm? Or are you still struggling with questions like “How on earth do you train them?” and “Why aren’t they happy just having a good job?”
Today’s blog will take a deeper dive into this idea of developing a boot camp/new hire program, with a little help from the research by Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D., on Growth Mindsets. As a professor of undergraduate financial planning students, and as a consultant to financial planning firms on human capital programs – I see a connection between Dweck’s work, Yeske Buie’s innovative program, students' needs, and somewhat common firm questions about hiring and retaining talent that I am excited to share.
The Growth Mindset And Learning Cultures
One of the biggest challenges that advisory firms face when hiring is the “wait” until that new hire is trained, developed, and actually “useful” (and profitable) to the firm. At best, paying the new hire’s salary for a period of time while they learn on the job is expensive – and can feel wasteful (at least compared to just hiring someone who already has the skillset) – yet ironically, few advisory firms have effectively developed a training program to get their new hires through this process faster. Though arguably the starting point is not just the training process itself, but how to instill a “growth mindset” in the firm that makes it an environment conducive to learning and talent development in the first place.
To begin with, it is probably helpful to know what exactly a “growth mindset” is, and where this idea comes from. The growth mindset is a way of teaching, learning, and thinking, developed by Carol Dweck, Ph.D. Her research and findings have been repeatedly documented and replicated in a variety of settings. Which has validated not only that the approach really works, but perhaps even more compelling, that students, teachers, parents, companies, and employees really enjoy what having adopted a “growth mindset” brings to them personally and in their learning/working environments. In other words, a growth mindset approach both helps to develop team members and makes team members happier to be developed!
The simplest example of those who employ a growth mindset are those that say “I can’t right now” (implying “but I can learn!”), as opposed to those that just say “I can’t” (implying “and there’s no way I’ll be able to learn how”). And the same goes for the bosses or the teachers – do you simply believe your employees “can’t” do tasks they can’t do, or do you believe that they simply “can’t right now” because they haven’t grown and learned to do them yet?
In essence, Growth Mindset individuals believe that not-knowing is temporary, and when one adopts this mindset, it allows them to stop getting caught up in current ability (or lack thereof) and instead turn their focus to learning. And through this letting go of those initial expectations of (impossible) perfection, the research actually shows that individuals will start to do things like seeking out challenges, and not seeing failure as failure – because they are just focused on learning and growing. As the great inventor, Thomas Edison, once said, “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Having a growth mindset may be particularly important for new hires, though, because – let’s face it – new jobs are hard, especially in financial planning. For instance, studies in both the US and Australia have documented that financial planning students have technical skills, but that other skills like interpersonal skills or office skills were actually rather difficult for new hires to learn.
On the other hand, it still appears that employers are struggling to teach these skills as well. Caleb Brown, a financial planner recruiter and consultant, has also found that turnover is high for financial planners, driven in part by firms having high expectations of their new hires, but then failing to meet those new hires’ expectations for formal training from the firm. And unfortunately, at this point, there is no standard guide for how to teach and train new employees and keep them engaged. Which is perhaps not surprising since financial planners who found their own firms are already asked to be financial gurus, mentors, and therapists for their clients – so it would be hard, and nearly unfathomable, for them to also be experts at building teams, hiring, recruiting, and engagement! (Or at least unfathomable “right now,” anyway!).
But here is the beauty of the Growth Mindset framework: it relies on a system, and therefore you don’t have to invent the wheel. Specifically, in “The Growth Mindset Coach: A Teacher’s Month-by-Month Handbook for Empowering Students to Achieve,” authors Annie Brock and Heather Hundley discuss a process for fostering and developing the growth mindset… and it is pretty simple. Each month focuses on a different “mantra,” building on the prior one over 12 months. Some aspects of their 12-month program can and should be repurposed in financial planning offices, specifically, those that relate to: 1) setting high expectations, 2) challenging employees, and 3) giving praise.
Developing A Training Boot Camp For New Financial Advisors
To develop a “training boot camp” for financial advisors that inculcates a Growth Mindset, it’s first necessary to figure out both what the firm wants its new hires to do, who is going to help them do it, and that the environment around them is also supportive of these aims.
What Do New Financial Advisors Need To Learn?
Yeske Buie’s “boot camp” for their new financial planning hires takes place over 8 weeks and focuses on technical skills. Their residency program in general, though, spans two years, building on a strong technical foundation with exposure to teamwork and client meetings. Not all firms need to follow Yeske Buie’s model specifically, going from technical, to teams, to clients in a two-year time period. But it’s a good starting framework.
What is perhaps more important, though, is that by identifying up front exactly what their new financial advisors need to learn, Yeske Buie developed a repeatable and organized process, and both the managers as well as the boot-campers have an idea of the timeline and structure of the process.
For instance, an advisory firm’s boot camp (especially for a firm that does not want to just train advisors up before they leave, but instead retain them) might follow a flow over the first year of:
1) Two weeks of office basics;
2) 12 weeks of technical skills;
3) 9 months of interpersonal basics, and then beginning to interact more directly with clients.
Office Knowledge – 2 weeks
This section of an advisory firm’s “boot camp” may include relatively simple information, but it is important information nonetheless.
The starting point might be an introduction to all office teammates (have lunch brought in and have the new hire spend time working on a project with each teammate), setting up email and telephone, going over office policies, basic reviews of software, and having the new hire read about the clients that will be coming in for meetings in the next few weeks. This “startup” time allows you to welcome the new hire, but not overwhelm them as they get used to the office and their teammates and ask basic questions.
Once you get the office knowledge process in place, turn it into a user-manual. For instance, it would not be too difficult to put together a step-by-step tutorial on things like setting up voicemail and email. Once the user-manual has been created, you can let the new hire (and all future hires) work at their own pace.
Technical Skills – 8 to 12 weeks
This section of an advisory firm’s “boot camp” is a test of skills, but not in the sense of giving out pass-or-fail grades. New financial planning hires are increasingly likely to be technically skilled (thanks to the rise of increasingly academic CFP programs), but not always… and more than that, just because a recent student graduate can use a piece of software or can suggest a safe-spending rate, does not mean that they will do it the way “your firm” does it or that they will have full knowledge of the client’s goals or situation which could render a “textbook” answer incorrect in real life anyway.
As such, this section of your boot camp will last several months. In the case of Yeske Buie’s boot camp, their trainees do 50 tax projections, 15 estate plans, and 30 safe-spending projections. The list of projects may look different at other advisory firms, based on their own financial planning specialty and clientele, but the outcome is the same – run any and all basic technical work through the new hire. Over and over and over again. This gets the new hire lots of practice with your technology and clients, but also allows you (or a team member) to go over their work with them and give constructive feedback.
Notably, though, this stage is not just about delegating the “grunt work” to the new hire in order to save the advisor time. Reviewing the work and giving critical feedback is extremely important. New hires are going to do tasks incorrectly. Which should not a big deal; they are learning, and that’s why there’s a review process in place before their work goes out to a client. But making time for them and having them learn to get good feedback actually takes time during the training and growth phase. The time savings for that new hire’s good work will come… but later.
In fact, it’s advisable to put a weekly meeting or a bi-weekly meeting on the advisor’s calendar for these technical/training meetings to take place. This keeps the advisor’s schedule clear and indicates to the new hire that this is serious, that it is going to happen, and that they should come prepared.
And notably, repeating the training process will itself become a learning process for the advisory firm. After going through it a few times, common mistakes will start to be noticeable. Which provides an opportunity to make a video or write a training manual to solve that issue for future hires (or even have the new hire themselves put together the first draft of that manual, which itself is yet another training and development opportunity!). The more the common questions and concerns are written down, the better. It offloads some of the training work in the future, as other new hires will be able to learn to do it right the first time from these manuals, and not require as much feedback (or at least require less “how-to” feedback), which then leaves more time for the “why, where, and when” feedback which is perhaps more critical for their long-term development.
Inter-Personal Communication – Another 6-9 months
The third “boot camp” section centers around communication.
To some extent, a new hire may already have had opportunity to practice communication skills via talking to the advisor (or other team members) through the technical skills development section, explaining what they did and why in their own technical review/feedback meetings. But the next stage is about entering into the inter-personal communication “boot camp” phase, where they begin to interact a bit with clients directly, and/or at least see the advisor and other team members interact with clients.
For instance, the Yeske Buie boot camp process usually entails having 2-4 different people assigned to a client. This includes a “lead” person who is primarily responsible for the client, the main advisor giving advice, possibly another support advisor or someone in a specialized support role, and the trainee. The trainee attends all of the meetings, listens, takes notes, and then does a quick check-in meeting after the meeting is over with the client, to square up on tasks coming out of the meeting. The trainee then does everything from preparing reports to preparing correspondence… all of which will receive feedback from the other advisors in the room before it ever reaches the client.
At this point in the process, the work assigned to the trainee can, or should, be growing in complexity, and there should be fewer errors. The meetings between the trainee and the other advisor (maybe you or a team member) should look and feel like a discussion between colleagues, not necessarily trainer-to-trainee.
The Importance Of Office Environment And Creating Nurturing Office Spaces
In addition to knowing what new hires need to learn, the order in which they will learn it, and some different ways they can be taught, it is also important to ensure the space in which the firm is doing all of these things sends the same message.
We have all seen (or hopefully have seen) Office Space. No one wants to be in the basement, and if we want or need a stapler… someone should provide one! Simply put, small things that hinder being able to do the job well can add up quickly, and go a long way towards getting off on the wrong foot.
For instance, it can be awkward for a new hire to sit down at his or her “new” desk, and discover the drawers or shelves are already full of stuff that doesn’t pertain to them. Make sure the space is clean and without clutter, so the new hire has the best opportunity to do their best work.
Most new hires will learn a lot during the office knowledge section of the advisory firm’s boot camp, in terms of where things are, and the general lay of the land, but it is also helpful to let them know that they should make a list of office supplies that will help them be at their best: pencils, pens, sticky pads, notebooks, desk-top trays, folders, whiteboard, etc. Make it easy for them to ask for those things and have their list included the next time the office orders new supplies.
Finally, consider a welcome gift or office swag. It feels good to be a part of the team. This can be as simple as a card, “welcome to the team,” or if your office has t-shirts or something similar, be sure to give them one!
Practicing The Growth Mindset At Your Advisory Firm
The key to growing an advisory firm with a growth mindset is not merely to develop training programs (i.e., a "boot camp" for new hires) and to have a clean, welcoming space to bring your new hire into. It’s also about actually running the business on an ongoing basis with a growth mindset. Because as much as we love people and enjoy working with our teammates, there will inevitably be moments of frustration when there’s a disconnect between what the firm expects (and may not have communicated well) and what the employee is still learning to do (and may not have perfected yet).
Thankfully, though, the Growth Mindset has a number of points we can turn to for tips and tricks for actual implementation.
Set High Expectations, And Give Good Feedback
The first “key to success” with a growth mindset is to set the bar HIGH and communicate those high standards. Have you seen those new commercials from AT&T – being “just okay” is not “okay.”
For firms that want the best from their employees, and have laid out the roadmap for them and the milestones/timelines for them to be hitting (the boot camp), measuring improvement and growth should be relatively straightforward. There should be fewer and fewer mistakes on more and more complex work as the new hire moves through time.
But that means it’s essential for the firm, from day one (or even during the hiring process itself), to communicate what new hires can expect from the firm and its training program over the next 12 to 18 months. It’s all about alignment. If the firm knows, and the employee knows, where they are going, and how the firm expects them to get there, then it becomes very clear what needs to be done. And at that point, it’s up to the employee to rise to the occasion. Communicating high expectations from the get-go is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The starting point for setting such high expectations is, in team-meetings, to ask questions equally among employees. Don’t freak anyone out on their first day (no one likes the Socratic method… people killed him), but ensure that everyone can and does give feedback. In turn, when someone does a good job or makes an excellent point – celebrate it. This can be as simple as saying, “Great, thank you for sharing that, that is a great idea,” or sending a “great work” email letting the new hire know that you see improvement in their work and value that they are working so hard.
Know How To Challenge Employees
Ultimately, it’s not enough to just set high expectations and wait for people to live up to them. Even good people need constructive feedback to guide their progress. Which means it’s important to learn to give “growth” feedback.
If someone makes the same mistake 5 times, that is rough and probably is an indication of a deeper issue. However, this is not (or shouldn’t be) common. Instead, it’s more common for people to make different, but perhaps related, mistakes, as they try to make adjustments and get the task right (even if they don’t actually get it right yet). Which means it’s important to let them know that you see they are trying and making adjustments and that you believe they are capable of doing great work.
For instance, I use the following email with my students:
“Dear (student), this was a tough project. I can see you are making headway; your effort is great. However, I also know this is not your best work, and believe that you are capable of doing better. Please consider revising this assignment based on my feedback. If you do the revisions, we can set up a meeting to discuss the changes you made on the next round. I look forward to your work.”
Your words might not look exactly like my student email, but the message should be the same: “I can see your progress, this is not up to our standard, with X changes and a little more practice – you can and will get there.”
The last part in particular – that with time and learning and practice, it is possible to "get there" – is the essence of reinforcing a Growth Mindset, along with challenging a person’s mind and ability. Which means it is also important to give harder and harder work – and recognize that growth-minded employees are going to want harder and harder work.
For instance, consider the scenario of a new hire running tax projections. This is a relatively straightforward and mechanical task for a new hire to do. Within a few weeks, they will be very familiar with the technology and should have no issues. Which means it’s time to ask them to look at a few different ways this could be done. Or ask them to make changes to the inputs. In essence, ask them to do more than what may be fully required based on the client’s needs (assuming the client’s needs are straightforward). It’s a growth (and learning) opportunity.
It’s also important to have a plan for how they will demonstrate their (newfound) knowledge, giving them the chance to show and tell what they have learned. If they run multiple tax projections, give them an opportunity to discuss the differences they found. If the client truly needed multiple projections, perhaps let the new hire give the presentation about the different projections (with perhaps a practice-run explanation privately first) in the next meeting.
Praise The Process Not The Person or Talent
In addition to setting high expectations, and opportunities to step up to those challenges, it’s also important to provide (good) praise for a job well done.
Praise is very important, but it has to be the right kind of praise. And what the Growth Mindset research shows is that the “right” kind of praise is to praise the process, not the person or their (natural) talent.
For instance, person/talent praise sounds like “great work, you are really smart,” while the better kind of and process praise might be “great work, it is clear you put in the effort on this one.” Both affirmations tell the employee the firm is happy with their work, but the talent praise implies an expectation of natural perfection (when perfection isn’t realistic to expect), while the process message actually inspires and speaks to their ability repeat the same process again to grow further.
Of course, there will be times when praise is not due because a mistake has been made. In this context, the process vs. person/talent praise becomes even more relevant. If the firm has been giving person-focused praise, the fallout of a reprimand for a mistake is devastating. Because now telling them that their work is not good also calls into question if the firm still thinks they are smart.
Simply put, stay away from person-focused and talent-focused praise, and give as much process-focused praise as possible.
Bringing It All Together
The Yeske Buie boot camp program is a pure Growth Mindset and learning culture at its finest. Their program is designed for “residents” who will move on after 3 years… which means it is only designed to train people in order to launch them into the next phase of their career (even if, and actually anticipating that, it won’t be with Yeske Buie).
This pure learning mindset does some really interesting things, not only for the new-hire employees but for the managers at Yeske Buie themselves. For instance, the management at Yeske Buie knows that they do not have to keep everyone (they do not even want to keep everyone), and so the pressure for them to get it all right with all potential employees that walk through their door melts away. Instead, the firm can treat everyone equally, and those that succeed in their boot camp may become actual employees, while the others will leave (still having learned a lot, but not necessarily a great fit for Yeske Buie, which at that point is totally OK!).
Instilling a growth mindset is also great for employees themselves because the pressure to “prove” oneself is also gone. Certainly, most employees want to do well. But if they know they are just there to learn and know that they don’t have to be “ready” to go on day one – then they can just focus on the learning. The firm’s expectations and the employee’s expectations are in alignment – towards continual growth.
By contrast, it is really hard to foster innovation and do cool things for clients and employees when people are afraid to fail. In a growth mindset environment, failure, mistakes, errors, aren’t the enemy – they are just opportunities for learning and getting better.
And you don’t have to just take my word for it. Try out this little exercise for yourself and see what you come up with. In order to be a great teacher/leader/employee, it is worth spending some time thinking about what has worked for you and what didn’t.
So, before tackling the creation of your “boot camp,” take a moment and complete the following exercises where you think about the excellent teachers and leaders you’ve known over the years. Use actual examples from your life, not someone who you would or could imagine working with or that you have read a book about their leadership (i.e. don’t use Bill Gates or John Bogle… unless you actually know Bill or knew John personally). Pick someone you have actually worked for/learned from. And then:
- Think of your best two or three teachers/leaders: what were their characteristics, and how did they make you feel?
- Think of your worst two or three teachers/leaders: what were their characteristics, and how did they make you feel?
If you are a firm owner, place these lists of traits in a prominent place as a daily reminder of what it takes to encourage learning when you are the teacher, recognizing how much you may have grown over the years from where you were early on. If you are a firm employee, use these lists to help you to better articulate your needs as a learner to excel in your own growth opportunities.
The growth mindset has changed both schools and Fortune 500 companies. It can change your advisory firm, and help you to be better educate, retain, and grow its advisors – growing the firm and everyone in it to the next level.