One of the most rewarding aspects of being a financial advisor – both financially, and psychologically – is forming deep relationships with clients that makes the advisor an indispensable resource that clients can depend on when needed. From the advisor’s ability to provide timely advice as needed, walk clients off the proverbial ledge in times of market volatility, or simply provide ongoing management of the client’s investment portfolio… success as an advisor with existing clients is all about being available to provide value if/when/as the clients may need.
Yet the challenge is that being under a constant state of “potential need” from clients makes it remarkably hard to ever get away from the business for a vacation, and especially for any kind of “extended” leave… including (and especially) maternity leave. Which in turn can become a deterrent for younger female financial advisors who want to someday start a family but are concerned about the consequences of wanting to step away for maternity leave in the future.
In this guest post, financial advisor Ashley Micciche shares her own story and perspective about how she was able to successfully step away from her practice and her clients for a collective 7 months over the span of 3 ½ years for two separate maternity leaves… from the steps she took in advance to prepare, the necessary infrastructure it takes to succeed (or at least make it easier), the benefits of a recurring revenue (e.g., AUM or fee-based) business model to help support the process, how the maternity leave plans were communicated to clients, and why it’s so crucial to set ground rules with both clients and staff to make maternity leave work.
Ultimately, the end result was that, while Ashley did experience a setback in growth of the firm – as time away from the office is still time lost that could have been spent doing business development, and clients rarely provide referrals while the advisor won’t even be there to receive them – clients not only didn’t leave while Ashley was out on maternity leave, but were actually remarkably supportive of her personal journey along the way!
In fact, Ashley makes the case that there are few professions better than financial planning to support starting a family and that allows the flexibility and freedom to step away for a period of time while still being able to control your business and income in the long run!
Ashley M. Micciche, CRPC, QPFC, is the CEO of True North Retirement Advisors, an independent RIA firm located near Portland, Oregon and founded in 2017 by Ashley and her father, David Wilson. True North Retirement Advisors specializes in helping small business owners exit their businesses and retire with financial security. Ashley started her career as a financial advisor in 2007 after graduating magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Finance from Portland State University. In her free time, she enjoys reading, running, and sneaking away to the golf course whenever possible. Ashley can be reached at (503) 387-6869 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
As advisors, we work hard and take good care of our clients. We deserve some extended time off to enjoy life or to handle some of life’s transitions… and so in this guest post, I’m going to give you some practical steps and lessons learned from taking a collective 7 months off work for two separate maternity leaves in the span of the past 3 ½ years.
In fact, the flexibility in schedule that comes with being a financial advisor was one of the main draws of the financial advisor career for me. Seriously, what other career can you go MIA for 3 months and keep your job and your income!? Or if that sounds too extreme, what about just being able to eat breakfast with your kids every morning, see all their sports games, or play golf every Friday if you choose?
I feel so grateful about my career path for many reasons, but flexibility and freedom to be able to start a family while controlling my business and income are right at the top of the list. By the way… why aren’t more women pursuing careers as advisors and planners for this reason alone?!
Taking Maternity Leave As A (Self-Employed) Financial Advisor
In June 2017, 3 months before I gave birth to my second child and embarked on maternity leave, I was being pulled in many different directions. The opportunity to take an extended maternity leave may not happen again (I still have to talk my husband into having 3 kids, which is an uphill battle), so it was important to me to take advantage of this wonderful gift and truly be present with my newborn baby in the short time I’d be away from the office on maternity leave.
At the same time, I had (and still have) some pretty serious tendencies toward workaholism, which made the idea of taking 3 months off work seem impossible. My initials before I got married were A.W. My husband thought those initials stood for: Always Working. I can’t help it – I’m restless and always chasing shiny objects.
But I knew that either taking too little time off or staying in “work mode” while on leave would squander the precious time I had with my baby while he was a newborn – time that I would never get back. That sense of deep regret that I knew I would feel if I didn’t focus on being a mom during that time drove me to put a plan in place so I could take a proper maternity leave without losing clients.
Maybe you’ve been hesitant to pull the trigger on your big bucket list items that require extended travel plans because you think your firm and clients will fall apart in your absence. Even though, if you’re like me, you’re always encouraging clients to live now – take the trips or spend time with the grandkids. Yet we often don’t follow that same advice ourselves.
I’m here to tell you that it can be done, but it does require some thoughtful planning in advance to make sure your practice runs smoothly and your clients will be well taken care of in your absence.
Getting Past The Fear Of Abandoning And/Or Losing Your Clients
The first thing any advisor needs to do when considering an extended leave is getting past the fear of “abandoning” your clients while you’re gone. Perhaps it’s our own ego telling us how important we are… but the truth is that your clients will survive if you’re gone for a few months.
If you work with another advisor who can back you up, and/or you have good quality help with a stellar assistant or support team, then you can really relax, because your clients will be in good hands… really!
If it is truly just you without support staff or another advisor to back you up, taking an extended leave will be a bit trickier, but it can still be done. You may need to build some more infrastructure (more on that later) or continue to make yourself accessible to clients on at least a limited basis while you’re away.
The key here is communication. You want to let your clients know well in advance when you plan to leave, how long you’ll be gone, and when you will be back. It can be tempting to downplay your absence to your clients, but full disclosure – so that you properly set realistic expectations with clients – is key to success with an extended leave. (By the way, why are most advisors so bad at this, and when did the euphemism for “he’s on a boat fishing with his buddies” become “he’s in a meeting”?)
I had my first child in 2014, after about 7 years in the financial advisory business. At that time, I was managing $60-70 million and working with about 100 clients.
I work in a team with my father, and at that time we worked for a large regional broker-dealer where we had one assistant in a branch environment with other support staff and a back office.
The back-up support was there, so my clients had two other people they could call in my absence. But still, I was petrified about taking 3-4 months off for maternity leave, and I had no idea how clients would perceive my departure.
Would clients worry that I wouldn’t come back, and go looking for another advisor? This was my biggest fear, since many women decide to stay home permanently after starting a family, even if they didn’t originally plan to be a stay-at-home-mom. What would happen if the markets crashed and I wasn’t there to handle it? Who would put out the fires for which I usually had the extinguisher? How much would my income drop? How hard would it be to transition back after my leave – would I miss my baby so much that I would be crying every day or be so sleep-deprived that I wouldn’t remember what an IRA was?
I discovered afterward that every single one of my fears was never realized. Except for the sleep deprivation part… that is no joke!
How To Tell Your Clients That You’ll Be Gone “For A While”
About 2 months before I had my first baby, I had maternity photos taken, and I sent out this beautiful maternity announcement card to clients, with an update on how the pregnancy was going and how excited my husband and I were to become parents.
I was overwhelmed by the positive and supportive response I received from my clients.
You don’t need to have to have a bun in the oven to do this. If your reason for leave is an extended bucket list vacation, you could do something similar, but with photos of where you’re going and a story about why this vacation will mean so much to you and your family. Because no matter what the reason for your leave, if you can connect that reason with your personal values and a good story about why it’s important to you, it’s not only not a negative to step away from clients for a while, it becomes an opportunity to connect with your clients on deeper level around your shared values!
In addition to the announcement, it’s also important to sprinkle in additional reminders to clients about your upcoming leave, as not everyone may see your first announcement and “surprising” clients by being gone when they expected you would be there as normal is not good! You can give additional reminders to clients about your impending absence by:
- Writing about it in your regular newsletter or email blast,
- Mentioning it when you talk with clients on the phone or meet in person,
- Sending a couple email reminders to clients as the departure date approaches, reminding them that if they have anything pressing they would like to discuss or if they plan to make any major financial decisions (i.e. retire, buy a house, sell their business, etc.) while you’re out, now is the time to discuss it while you’re still available.
Being clear with clients about what you’re doing, how long you will be gone, and assuring them that they’ll be taken care of in your absence (and explaining to them how they’ll be taken care of in your absence) accomplishes two things:
- It gives you the confidence to leave because you’ll see that your clients truly support you. Whether you’re taking maternity leave or an extended bucket list trip to China, most clients are happy to see you living your life. I was so overwhelmed by the positive support from clients during this time. I think my clients would have lost respect for me if I would have put work before my family and only taken a few weeks off work for maternity leave. Instead, they were happy for me, and completely understood and accepted my decision to leave for nearly 4 months.
- By telegraphing your planned leave and encouraging clients to reach out in advance with any anticipated life changes, it really cuts down on their calls and emails to your staff while you’re gone. This is huge! In the case of both maternity leaves, clients didn’t call as often because they knew I was away. They mostly called for administrative issues like needing money from their accounts. This made it much easier for my backup advisor and my assistant to handle all client service in my absence.
After I left on maternity leave, I also made sure that I sent a couple of photos and notes about how things were going. Whether you have baby photos or photos of you standing at the Great Wall to show off, clients really appreciate the updates, and it will give you a reason to connect with your clients on a personal level and give you lots to talk about after you return.
“I Can’t Leave For More Than A Couple Weeks. I Don’t Have The Infrastructure!”
A valid argument that you might be making in your head right now is that you simply can’t step away for an extended period. Maybe you’re a solo advisor and your team is just you. Or maybe you don’t have the “right” team or the infrastructure that clients could solely rely upon without you in order to make it happen.
I understand this point, and I probably would have never taken 3-4 months of leave if it wasn’t for the tiny human growing inside of me that necessitated figuring it out anyway.
Let’s address some of the reasons why you might feel that you truly can’t step away:
- You are a solo advisor with no support: If you work in a home office and it’s just you, then yes, I would contend that it would be very difficult to be inaccessible for more than a few days. But I think the bigger issue with advisors who work alone with no admin staff have a bigger problem – you’re doing paperwork and money movement for your clients when you could be focusing more on client-facing (and higher-dollar-value-for-the-business) activities. If this is you, maybe the dangling carrot of an extended leave will be the motivation you need to hire someone, even if that person is just a part-time assistant to start. With technology, your assistant can be virtual and doesn’t even need to be in the office. They can have calls forwarded to their cell phone from the business line to support you while you’re gone.
- You don’t trust your assistant to take good care of your clients: If your assistant isn’t empowered to make decisions and handle client issues, then you either need to train them better, empower them, or find a new assistant. The more you can align with your support staff and build trust in their ability to handle problems, the easier it will be for you to leave with confidence. This is a tough topic, because I think many advisors either can’t (or won’t) empower their staff to execute their work at a high level, but I don’t know how I would have been able to take an extended leave without a superstar assistant to take care of (and who I was confident could take care of) my clients in my absence and to only bring me in if/when it was truly necessary (which it never was).
- You don’t work with another advisor: Telegraphing your leave, and preemptively handling as many client issues as possible in advance, really does cut down on the number of phone calls in your absence. But some calls will still come in, and may need help beyond “just” what your assistant can provide; it takes another advisor. And while many of you reading this article may not be in an official partnership with another advisor, there are likely other advisors in your office, or at your firm, or affiliated with your platform. Consider identifying another advisor that you have a connection with and whom you trust, and get to know their business better (and vice versa), to figure out if you can support each other during leave and vacation time.
- Your business is transactional: Today’s AUM model for the advisory business is especially conducive to allowing advisors the flexibility to spend time away from the office, thanks to its recurring revenue (that doesn’t always need continuous advisor support to maintain). Yet a lot of advisors still have very transactional businesses, whether selling annuities or mutual funds or trading stocks or options or otherwise operate in some way that forces them to be tied to their desk every day in order for the business to generate any revenue. A transactional model obviously doesn’t support an extended leave without a significant drop in revenue, so you might look at how you can re-structure your business to be more fee-based and less transactional to allow for more flexibility (and more scale!) in serving your clients well. (Not to mention that it increases the enterprise value of the business too!)
- You work in a team, but things will fall apart if you aren’t there: I identify with this one. I have a backup advisor and a well-trained staff, but I also do all of our client billings at the beginning of the quarter, and I process payroll at the end of each month, which means I have at least a couple of time-sensitive tasks that keep me tethered to the office on a regular basis. Perhaps you can use your extended leave plans as the impetus to finally delegate more effectively, outright outsource more tasks, or (better) cross-train your staff.
- My office is disorganized: A lack of operational processes can also keep advisors chained to their office, since you’re reinventing the wheel constantly, or always reminding your staff how you want something done. Operational processes and workflows are critical for keeping your office running and organized without you because it literally is the handbook of how tasks can be done without you while you’re gone! Do you have a consistent process for onboarding new clients or a standard turnaround time on getting back to clients who call or email you? What’s the procedure when a client requests money movement or a wire transfer? How do you thank a client when they send you a referral? Having processes in place and providing a consistent experience for your clients can ensure their experience with your staff or backup advisor is seamless while you’re away.
How I Left The Office For A Collective 7 Months In The Span Of 3 ½ Years
I was able to take extended maternity leave for each of two children for a number of reasons.
First of all, I had a great assistant and a business partner in my father. My clients always had someone they could call when I wasn’t there. Most of my clients have at least met my dad, so it was an easy adjustment for our clients (although my dad was overworked while I was away).
Second, my income remained steady because my practice is primarily fee-based with recurring revenue that continued to cover the staff and overhead expenses while I was gone (though I did lose growth momentum).
Lastly, because we worked for a large broker-dealer at the time, there were many processes in place to ensure a consistent client experience and good service in my absence.
Still, Outlook was our CRM at the time, and there were a lot of inefficiencies in our practice while I was on both maternity leaves. This can create problems, and cause tasks to fall through the cracks.
I remember coming back from maternity leave to a few things that didn’t get done or were missed, partly because we didn’t have the processes in place to make sure maturing bonds don’t get missed and new monies were invested on time. In my case, the mistakes were easily resolved, but these types of mistakes can easily turn into big problems if the infrastructure isn’t there.
We continue to build and improve our processes, and I think building the processes and procedures is the secret sauce to a successful extended leave.
What Infrastructure Is Required For An Extended Leave?
I believe the 3 legs of the stool that will provide the infrastructure you need to take a successful extended leave are:
- A business model that earns income whether you’re there or not (i.e., recurring revenue).
- Support staff who are capable and empowered to take good care of your clients.
- Processes to ensure a consistent client experience.
You may need to build out your infrastructure more before you can take extended time off, but when you’ve done that and you have the freedom and the flexibility to take more time off, it will be worth it!
How To Make The (Maternity Or Other) Leave Transition Smooth
I find that the more I work, the more work I create work for myself, and the harder it is to cut off from work. For this reason, I recommend a gradual shift to a part-time schedule a few weeks prior to the start of your leave.
With my second child, my due date was September 19th, so I worked 4 days/week at the beginning of September, then 3 days/week during the 2nd week of September, and 1-2 days/week until my due date. My last day of work was my due date, and baby arrived just 4 days later.
By completing my transition and starting leave before baby arrived, I wasn’t thinking about calling that client back or entering those trades while I was in labor (let’s be real though… it’s not like I would have been distracted by that in labor anyways).
You’ll need to be super productive in the 2-3 months before you leave, making sure you’ve done all the reviews, met with your clients, finished up your projects, etc.
You should not be having any client meetings or starting any new projects during the last few weeks of transition. Instead, wrap up things that need to get done while you’re away, get organized, touch base with your top clients, and communicate with your staff how to handle projects that will still be outstanding when you leave.
It’s also important to figure out how to transition outstanding work to your assistant or backup advisor. A good CRM can help you transition all of your outstanding tasks quite easily, but unfortunately, I was using Outlook for my CRM at the time, so every day during the last few weeks of my leave, I printed out all of my outstanding tasks, and put them in a folder for my assistant in case I went into labor early and didn’t show up for work the next day.
You’ll likely also have a few outstanding tasks during your leave, and you’ll want to decide how to handle those in advance. For instance, maybe a client is going to transition into retirement themselves while you’re on leave. How will you handle this situation? Do you work closely with another advisor and should they work with the client on this while you’re away? Can you make some decisions and put the plan in place before you leave, or can it wait until after your return? Will you make an exception and take care of it while you’re away?
Whatever you decide, you’ll want to discuss it with your client, so they know what to expect and how they will be taken care of in your absence.
Setting The Ground Rules And Dealing With Emergencies While You’re Away
Ideally, an extended leave is one where you can completely unplug from the business. But in the end, you’re still the business owner, and some “emergencies” may still require your attention while you’re gone.
You’ll need to decide, though, what really constitutes an “emergency,” and under what circumstances you want to be notified by your staff (if at all) so you can handle it.
With my first maternity leave, I was adamant about focusing on life as a new mom with a newborn baby, and that I shouldn’t be contacted unless it was a real emergency (which, let’s be honest, rarely happens in our business).
I’m not convinced that there are ever any true emergencies in most of our advisory practices. The Great Recession would have been a terrible time to be away from the office for an extended period, and you would probably want to know if a member of your staff made a mistake with a request from your largest client and now he/she is irate, but other than that, I can’t think of too many circumstances where staff or a backup advisor can’t handle a client issue while you’re away.
During my maternity leave, the markets were smooth and I only had one emergency come up – a client transferred their account to another financial institution. This was a good client, and I was surprised by their decision to leave (I still don’t know why they transferred), but I actually wouldn’t classify this as a true emergency. It stressed me out, but I couldn’t do anything about it, because the account was already transferring out when I was notified, and the client didn’t return our calls or emails.
If you’re okay with being contacted in certain situations, or you’re going to have access to your work computer on an extended leave, it’s a slippery slope. You must know thyself. If I bring my work laptop on vacation with me, I’ll be working. I just can’t help myself. Others may be able to briefly plug in on the laptop, but then still unplug when it’s time. Whatever your personal preference, though, it’s important to set some ground rules with your staff… and yourself!
For me, it worked very well on both maternity leaves to restrict myself from accessing my work computer. The only thing I allowed myself to do was to clear out my email periodically, so I didn’t have 14,000 emails when I returned. I resisted the urge to reply to any emails and get involved (since I had my out of office reply on). Instead, I forwarded all emails to my assistant to handle.
Top Regrets When Taking Maternity Leave
I’ve talked to other women in similar circumstances – working moms who took time off for maternity leave, and many of them have regrets about it. I talked to one wholesaler colleague who took two months off work when she had her son. Two months is very short for maternity leave, and worse, she stayed tethered to her cell phone – answering emails and putting out fires all the time.
She has major regrets about the distraction of her work during those precious first months with her baby, and she feels like she wasted her maternity leave.
Moms tell me that if they have regrets about taking maternity leave it usually falls in one of 2 categories:
- Their maternity leave wasn’t long enough. This is a real problem for many women in the American working world today where paid leave isn’t long enough to justify spending more than a few weeks at home with their baby. The flexibility that many producing, fee-based female advisors have is a luxury that shouldn’t be squandered in our industry.
- They never “disconnected” from the office. Like the colleague I told you about who felt like she squandered her maternity leave by answering emails and continuing to work, it’s important to disconnect as much as possible (ideally 100%), so that you can focus your time on enjoying your leave. I struggled with this during my 2nd maternity leave because we were less than 4 months from launching our RIA firm when my son was born. I spent hours on conference calls, touring office space, meeting with vendors, and writing copy for our new website while a baby slept (or cried or nursed!) in my arms.
The Hardest Part
I’m one of the most competitive people I know. I love to win, I hate to lose, and it wouldn’t be unusual for me to sulk if you beat me at some meaningless game like Yahtzee. The hardest part of taking maternity leave was that while my clients stayed and the revenue sustained… it really did hamper my growth efforts.
If you’re an advisor in growth mode, you are also going to have to accept the likely loss in opportunities for new business while you’re out. In my experience, clients don’t refer others during this time, and if you are working on new business development with longer cycles, then the inevitable loss (or delay) of potential new clients is a reality.
Overall, I estimate that my 4-month maternity leave set me back 9-12 months in lost new business opportunities back in 2014.
Leaving twice in 4 years set me back further than I would like to be at this point in my career, but in the long-run, it was 100% worth it to take a break and enjoy the time with my babies when they were newborns.
The second hardest part was transitioning back in to work after having a baby. It’s hard. You have to pump, store, and transport milk around all day like a dairy cow. If you’re crazy like me, you pump in the car while driving to client appointments. It gives a whole new meaning to hands-free in the car. 😊
If you’re a new mom, you’ll also feel guilt – a lot of guilt – when you do go back to work, because you’re no longer at home. But secretly you’re also super excited to not have another human attached to you for 8 hours during the day. And then you feel guilty about that, too!
If I were to do it again, I would transition back the way I transitioned out – gradually over a period of at least 2-3 weeks. That way, you get used to balancing work with your new schedule of pumping (if you continue to nurse), dropping off or picking up baby from childcare.
It was a shock to go from not working to working full-time again, so a gradual transition back gives you more time to adjust to new schedules with less stress.
The Best Part
The best part about taking an extended leave is that once you’ve done it, you know it can be done! Clients can (and will) survive without you. It’s very humbling to know that the world continues to move forward in your absence, but it’s freeing at the same time.
With two maternity leaves under my belt, I decided to take the entire month of August 2019 off. August in Oregon is magical. I’ll get to spend time with my kids, do summer activities with them, have playdates with my mom friends, and play golf 3 days/week!
I’m planning to make this a regular thing. Summer is my favorite season, and I can’t think of a better way to enjoy time with my kids while they’re little than taking an entire month off every year to just hang out with them (and play a ridiculous amount of golf!).
Not ready for an extended leave? Try baby steps
Not sure if you’re ready for an extended leave? I encourage you to take baby steps. Go on vacation for a week longer than you normally would. Take every Friday off for the next month. Try a staycation for 2 weeks at home. You may just find that your phone doesn’t ring as often as you think, and your staff is more than capable to steer the ship in your absence.
Just Do It!
Whether it’s maternity leave, a staycation next summer, or a mini-retirement overseas, I encourage you to take an extended period off work to enjoy life. If you plan for it in advance, you can successfully take an extended leave, keep your practice running smoothly, and not lose all your clients!
Not many careers offer you the opportunity to take a month, 2 months, or even 6 months off and still maintain your income and client base. It’s time more advisors take advantage of the flexibility of the advisory business to take an extended leave!