Welcome back to the 161st episode of Financial Advisor Success Podcast!
My guest on today’s podcast is Tessa Felix. Tessa is the HR and operations lead for PWL Capital, an advisory firm based in Montreal and Ottawa that oversees nearly $3.6 billion in assets under management.
What’s unique about Tessa, though, is her particular focus on developing the culture of her advisory firm, and the systems and structure that she’s put in place to help hold everyone on the team accountable for their work, in addition to making the firm an enjoyable environment to work in.
In this episode, we talk in-depth about the Reality-Based Leadership system that Tessa has incorporated into her management approach in the firm. Why the emotional expense of employee drama is such an important cost to manage and save for the firm; Tessa’s routine of weekly team meetings, internal team podcasts, and monthly one-on-ones that she uses to maintain the culture of the firm; and why in the end, culture is not just about creating a fun workplace, but about the actions and behaviors that are expressed in the workplace.
We also talk about Tessa’s own career journey. From joining her advisory firm in an operations role, earning her advisor licenses to shift into a client-facing advisory role, deciding that she actually enjoys the work of managing people and building culture more than working directly with clients and shifting back into an internal operations role, the way she navigated the challenging transition from being a peer of her co-workers to their manager instead, and how she ultimately became not just the HR and operations lead, but the culture lead for her advisory firm as well.
And be certain to listen to the end, where Tessa shares some of the key books that have influenced her journey of learning how to develop and manage people and culture, the software tool she uses to help manage internal team meetings and employee engagement, and the importance of both cultivating a growth mindset in employees and having a growth mindset as a firm where culture itself will always be fluid and evolving.
And so with that introduction, I hope you enjoy this episode of the “Financial Advisor Success” podcast with Tessa Felix.
What You’ll Learn In This Podcast Episode
- What Tessa’s Advisory Firm Looks Like And How Licensing Works In Canada [04:24]
- Tessa’s Role In Her Firm And What Reality-Based Leadership Is [22:20]
- Tessa’s Path To Her Current Role [41:18]
- What A Culture Management Leadership Role Looks Like From A Practical Perspective [58:50]
- Some Other Tools She Uses In Her Role [1:08:07]
- How Tessa Conducts One-On-One Meetings [1:19:09]
- How She Describes The Culture Of Her Own Firm [1:30:03]
- Tessa’s Advice For Starting Down The Path Of Setting A Firm Culture [1:39:42]
Resources Featured In This Episode:
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Michael: Welcome, Tessa Felix, to the “Financial Advisor Success” podcast.
Tessa: Michael, thank you so much for having me. I have to say I’m a frequent listener, and it’s a bit surreal for me to be speaking with you.
Michael: I appreciate that. And I’m excited to have you on because you are, well, I guess kind of relative to our traditional advisor audience, a little bit of a non-traditional listener I know because you are not actually based in the U.S., you are up in Canada and I believe will be our first official guest from financial advice in Canada. So looking forward a little bit talking about like, hey, how does all this stuff actually work up there? Because we here in the U.S. and I think for everybody in every country, like, we kind of get used to our rules and our system, because we live in them for our entire careers of doing this, and sometimes don’t have context that the way we structure this stuff can be somewhat different in other countries.
So kind of looking forward to just talking a little bit about, how does this whole advisor thing work in Canada compared to here in the U.S., and also your journey. Because I know you’ve kind of had an interesting journey of starting on the operations side of an advisory firm, going to the advisor side of the advisory firm and then saying, “Nope, actually, like it on the other side more,” and going back to focus into operations, HR, culture, things that I think are incredibly important in building successful advisory firms. But I guess even for the podcast ourselves, we’ve been a little bit guilty perhaps of focusing so much on the advisor end and not as much about the rest of the support system that has to be there to make the business work as a business. So I’m excited to talk about what that journey looks like and how you think about things like culture in a small advisory firm.
Tessa: Amazing. And you bring up some really great points there. And the journey has been incredibly humbling and very exciting. And I’m willing to dive into all those things that you just brought up. So where would you like to start?
What Tessa’s Advisory Firm Looks Like [04:24]
Michael: So let’s just start a little about the advisory firm you’re at and what it looks like. Paint us a little bit of a picture of the firm itself, where you are.
Tessa: For sure. So we’re similar to an RIA. So we have different offices with different cultures under one firm. And when I arrived at PWL, the bricks had really…they’d already been laid to the foundation of the team. And in ’91, Cameron Passmore, who’s the owner of our team and a partner at PWL, he began to build this practice. He was at an independent mutual fund dealership, and it was all active. And in hindsight, when he tells the story, he says he was…he’s a bit embarrassed by his level of knowledge at the time. And kind of moving along with his tiny practice, he happened to meet a Fidelity executive in Boston, and everything kind of changed there for him. He realized that the world is changing and you shouldn’t be paid by products, and you want to eliminate that conflict of interest. So he started looking for other options.
Michael: This is early ’90s. I’m kind of thinking back.
Tessa: This is ’91, yeah.
Michael: Similar to our advisor space in the U.S., 1980s and 1990s just the world revolved around mutual funds.
Tessa: You got it.
Michael: Anybody in the investment business that had any kind of advisor-related title was probably essentially in the mutual fund brokering, dealing, sales business. Sounds like is where Cameron was as well. Independent mutual fund dealership I think is kind of akin to our independent broker-dealers that sell mutual funds here in the U.S., and deciding like, “Hey, maybe there’s a different version of this than selling mutual funds.”
Tessa: You got it. And there weren’t many options back then that weren’t a wirehouse or a brokerage. And he wanted to have control of the client experience and have a space to really be creative and progressive. And just knowing Cameron, he’s an entrepreneur at heart and want to build something special. And in ’96, he found PWL. And he moved from all commission-based to no-load index funds and ETFs. And I think we were one of the first firms in Canada to welcome and embrace Dimensional Funds.
Michael: Interesting. And I’m thinking back, even here in the U.S., our equivalent of the no-load space was barely existing. ETFs, aside from maybe the original SPDRs, were hardly around. It was even hard to do independent advisor without getting the commissions because there weren’t actually that many platforms or investment vehicles that were built for it back then.
Tessa: Exactly. Exactly. So when Cameron found PWL, they’ve always been fee-based. And I think he was pretty excited to join a company like that.
Michael: So help me understand this structure for PWL overall. So should I be thinking of this as like a large independent advisory firm where just you have one brand, one thing, one centralized sort of firm unto itself, you simply have multiple branch locations or is this more like, there’s a bigger wrapper around you of a platform that you’re tied to and then your firm with Cameron and PWL is kind of a particular location where you get to run your own version of what you do locally on a larger platform?
Tessa: Yeah. So within PWL, there are six advisory teams that are located across Eastern Canada. Our head office is located in Montreal, and we have a centralized corporate team that provides compliance support, marketing support, IT, technology integration, all those great things. So that’s central corporate team. And then each individual advisory office has their own practice. It’s a pretty unique…I think a unique setup.
Michael: And so is PWL like the master parent-level firm or is PWL your particular location in Ottawa and then the other five locations have their own like local team names and structures?
Tessa: Yeah. So PWL is the kind of overarching firm. We all say that we are PWL advisors. And we’re kind of able to do this because we have this foundational kind of commonality in our message. So we all have very similar investment philosophies and really planning-focused as teams.
Michael: And then essentially is the advisors who lead the various locations are partners/owners back to the centralized entity?
Tessa: You got it.
Michael: Okay. And how does this work in terms of a, I guess like a structuring, a licensing requirement? Do you have an advisor license separate from a brokerage sales license similar to what we do in the U.S.?
Tessa: Right. So the basic licensing requirements that you need to be able to give investment advice on securities, it’s called IIROC. So IIROC is the Investment Regulatory Organization of Canada. And a lot of our initial licensing exams are done through the Canadian Securities Institute. So you have to pass, it’s called your Canadian Securities Course level 1, level 2, the CPH exam, and then the Wealth Management Essentials exam. So those are kind of the baseline if you want to be providing advice on securities and to be able to trade.
Michael: And what does it from practicals perspective take to do that? Is this a like, I just kind of have to study some exams and get up on the rules and it takes me a few weeks or is this like a multi-year extended process of studying and courses and classes? How long does it take to get through the layers of exams that are involved?
Tessa: Yeah, yeah. I think it just depends on your study habits, for sure. I think maybe some people might take a little bit longer. I think I plowed through my licensing exams in about a year. And then kind of after that, it depends on how far you want to take it, right? So baseline, become a licensed investment advisor. Next step, if you really want to take it to a client-facing role, especially within our team, then it’s the CFP. So, I think that answers that. Yeah.
Michael: Interesting. That’s, at least relative to our standards, a year-long to get through all the different licensing exams is a monster number. For most here in the U.S., our basic Series exams, which are our equivalent, Series 65 for being an investment advisor or typically a Series 6 or 7 for being a broker are I think for most advisors things that they do probably two or three weeks if you’re just really fast and like crashing through the books, absorbing the information, getting through. Folks that go longer maybe go like a month or two. But single exam, two or three hours, depending on which one you’re doing at which level, got to get your 70% or 72% pass rate, and you’re often licensed and underway.
In our world, at least, people tend to go very quickly from, we want to put you out there in front of prospects so that you can go get clients, bring in assets, sell products, whatever side of the line that you’re on. And so our system is kind of built for a relatively expedited licensing process. Like, if it takes you a year to get through your licenses, I don’t really want to carry your salary for a year only to find out after a year that you’re not very good at getting any clients. So our system is really I think kind of built around getting you through pretty quickly so that you can go out and get clients. And if it turns out you’re good at getting clients, we’ll give you more opportunities and more trading in the future about how to be deeper in your advice.
Tessa: Right, right. And again, I think it comes back to the person and kind of their study habits. It was a year for me personally, but we’ve had advisors on our team who can crank through the exams fairly quickly. In Canada, they’re offered every two weeks. So you could even take it probably back-to-back same day. If you write the CSC level 1, you could probably write level 2 in the same day. And then a week later, you could write the CPH. And then there’s a 36-month requirement to complete the Wealth Management Essentials exams, which are 2 separate exams. So I think it just depends on your study habits and how quickly you can get through those exams, for sure.
Michael: Yeah. But just the fact that you’ve got a layer of about five different pieces by the time you get through two or three up front and two more on wealth management in the long run is to me actually quite a stark difference versus how quick we are out of the gate. It’s one of those things I think is, having traveled to a number of countries with advisors around the world, it’s a bit unique in the U.S. in a way that I don’t think we sometimes realize and maybe take for granted, that we really have a remarkably fast new entrance to market, to client-facing pathway from a licensing structure. Lots of people aspirationally go much, much further with their education, with CFP marks and other post-CFP designations, but the minimum bar here is actually a pretty low minimum relative to most other countries.
Tessa: Yeah. Yeah. And you’re not…just because you pass the exam doesn’t mean that you’re ready to be in front of clients, right? It’s so much deeper than just getting some multiple-choice questions right. And I agree that the depth of the training is incredibly important.
Michael: Yeah. Interesting. And what does it look like for just actually getting a firm started? I know PWL has now been doing this for 20-plus years, but for an advisor that wants to go out and start their own equivalent of a licensed firm today, is it a similarly arduous process for what it takes to actually get a firm up and running or is it just as long as you are fine, firm is just like the thing that you put on your business card?
Tessa: Yeah. That’s an interesting question. What has the experience been in the states?
Michael: So for the U.S., it’s kind of a split, that I go through my licensing exams as an individual to be able to give advice. So we call it being an investment advisor representative of the registered investment advisor as an entity. The registered investment advisor as an entity has to go through its own registration process. Obviously, it doesn’t take an exam because it’s a corporate piece of paper, but there’s a series of registration requirements to register the firm, to put forth the regulatory filings about essentially where you can be found, whether you have any problematic regulatory history for things you’ve done in the past, the nature of the services that you will be offering clients. There are some standard disclosure documents that get prepared to explain what it is that your firm is going to do that you have to file with the regulators. And they will oversee to at least make sure you seem to reasonably providing a service and a price that is commensurate with the service that you say you’re going to be offering. And some level of filing fees to get that done.
But in the U.S., it’s still ultimately a fairly modest cost at the end of the day for just the literal raw registration documents. You’re still talking about like the tens or a few hundred dollars if you need a compliance consultant to help you just create and fill out the documents. If you’re not so comfortable with doing all these regulatory filings, you might pay $3,000 to $5,000 to have a compliance consultant help you. But at that point, you are essentially up and running. A handful of our states have a little bit of additional capital requirements. Might be something like, show you have at least $10,000 of cash in the bank so that if you fold up shop and you have unearned fees, you can at least give the clients back the portion of the fee for the work that you didn’t do. But most states have no capital requirements at all. And so truly, all you need is just create a legal entity, do the paperwork filings, pass the exam as the individual who’s going to represent the firm, and you can be off and running, in theory, a week or two. Although usually, it’s like a month or three just because it takes a while to go back and forth with the regulators to get all the paperwork done and approved.
Tessa: Right, right. So I actually…I haven’t been through a process of kind of opening or starting a firm, but I do know that we’re registered with IIROC. Again, that’s the Investment Regulatory Organization of Canada. And all of our filings are done, it’s called the National Registration Database. So again, our firm is there. You’re able to search our firm and all of our advisors who are licensed.
Michael: Interesting. Interesting. So you, similar I think to us here in the U.S., you have one set of rules and registration requirements for sort of the investment advisor equivalent, and then you’ve got a whole other separate channel for the folks that are tied to brokerage firms and in the business of selling investment products? Is that a similar split?
Tessa: Right, right. So if you’re going to sell mutual funds, you’d have a mutual fund license. If you want to give advice on kind of securities, I think that’s going to be the registered investment advisor with the IIROC regulatory body.
Michael: So okay, like if I’m giving advice, so literally, if I’m giving advice and I’m getting a fee, I’m registering with IIROC. If I’m selling a product and earning a commission then I’m registering as a broker or a mutual fund dealer.
Tessa: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, you got it. Yeah.
Michael: Okay. And are there people that do both at the same time or are you generally like, you’re on one side of this divide or the other?
Tessa: I think there are probably people that have both. The majority of people in our firm and on our team are registered with IIROC.
Michael: Okay. So you just, you wear that one hat.
Michael: So talk to us a little bit more about kind of the size of the firm itself. I don’t know if you measure by clients or assets under management the way we do here in the U.S. or headcount or revenue. Help us just understand sort of overall size and reach of the firm and how many people are being served and who’s serving them.
Tessa: Yeah, yeah, for sure. So PWL, I can break it down. I can talk about PWL stats kind of as a whole, as a firm, and then our team stats if you’d like.
Michael: Okay. Yeah. Sure. I think that’s helpful.
Tessa: Yeah. So as a firm, we have an AUM of $3.6 billion, about 63 employees. Again, we have the six advisory teams located across Canada. And I work directly with Cameron Passmore’s team in the Ottawa branch. So for team stats, we have an AUM of $1.7 billion, but average client size of $2.2 million. It’s about 750 families. But our team is growing. We’ll be 18 people as of March, and an average employee age of 34.
Michael: Well, that’s a very young base with average age of 34. Is that typical for what the advisory firm landscape looks like for other firms in Canada or is your firm unique for being younger?
Tessa: I think it’s maybe unique to our team. It’s not necessarily about age, but it’s about impact. And if we feel someone can add a lot of value, then we’ll bring them on.
Michael: Because the part of the challenge that we have here in the U.S. is just a significant age challenge. Depending on whose statistics you look at, the average age for a U.S. advisor is somewhere in the early to mid-50s range. By our CFP Board stats, we actually have more CFP professionals over the age of 70 than under the age of 30.
Michael: And so, when you look at a lot of advisory firms here, well, as that math would bear out, you get lots of firms where a big base of the advisors are in their 50s or even into their 60s. And maybe there are a few who are younger that are working in. But a lot of advisors, well, kind of by definition, roughly half of them are who are in their 50s, 60s or even up into their 70s. So an average age of 34, you really don’t see very often at all in the U.S. unless it’s literally like a bunch of advisors in their 20s and 30s who just started the firm from scratch. So a firm at your size that’s been doing this for 20-plus years and has an average age down at 34 is actually pretty unique.
Tessa: Right. Yeah. And I think that, again, I can only really speak to the data of our team, I don’t think that’s the same kind of firm-wide. I think our team is, yeah, uniquely young.
Michael: Interesting. And I’m struck overall that just a $3.6 billion firm with average clients that are $2 million-plus and 63 employees, those statistics are actually quite similar to what we would see for a lot of wealth management-oriented firms here in the U.S. It’s a fairly affluent clientele, at least by our standards, for independent firms. Certainly, there are some ones that specialize with ultra-ultra-high-net-worth, where all their clients are tens of millions of dollars and up. But for working with the mere mortals of millionaires, that’s a very sizable firm and a very sizable average client household. So is that kind of part of where you focus overall that you built there? Are you a much larger firm relative to the peers in your space?
Tessa: I would say the peers in Canada, for AUM, I would think that we are maybe larger. Especially in Ottawa, I would say that that is true. We don’t see many firms with this, our investment philosophy, our team structure and assets under management. I think is fairly unique.
Tessa’s Role In Her Firm And What Reality-Based Leadership Is [22:20]
Michael: Okay. Interesting. And so talk to us a little bit about your role in the firm now and where you fit into the business in the local office there.
Tessa: Okay. Should I kind of maybe start with my journey into financial services or just dive into the role?
Michael: Yeah, I want to understand a little bit of just what the role looks like now and then understand a little bit more about how you get to this, what I think is fairly unique role for some of the tasks or the responsibilities that you have within the firm.
Tessa: Okay. Yeah. So I think for how to define my role now, it’s a bit unconventional. I’m going to use Cy Wakeman’s words here. So Cy Wakeman is the founder and CEO of a company called Reality-Based Leadership. And I’m going to use her words because I can’t seem to say it any better. And my role as a leader is to help employees eliminate what they call emotional waste, emotional expensiveness, drama, and judgment from the workplace by facilitating better mental processes. So I would say that, if we want to dig a little bit deeper into that, in Cy’s research, she found that the average…it’s American data, she found that the average American spends two and a half hours a day in drama, okay? That could be two and a half hours a day walking around going, “This is sick and wrong. I would never do things this way.” Right? Arguing against reality, resisting change, gossiping, tattling, venting, scorekeeping. So this behavior could actually be conversations between co-workers or could be that internal dialogue that you have with yourself.
Michael: I think we have movies about this. “Office Space” is coming to mind offhand.
Tessa: You got it. You got it. So I can give you a scenario. So let’s say a senior advisor and a junior advisor, right? They come out of a prospect meeting. And the junior advisor is thinking to themselves, “Oh my gosh, I just butchered explaining our fee structure and our investment philosophy. That prospect is never going to become a client. Oh my goodness, my boss thinks I’m an idiot. He’d give me a funny look. I’m going to get fired tomorrow.” Right? So you can see pretty quickly how that two and a half hours a day can add up when you look at it from that perspective. And taking another step back, right, that’s 17 hours a week. That’s 68 hours a month. That’s 816 hours a year per person lost in drama. So a big part of my role is helping people figure out, again, a better mental process so we can really use that two and a half hours a day for something that’s a bit more effective and hopefully a bit happier.
Michael: So take me back again to just that kind of headline framing of how Cy puts it forth. You’d said like to help employees eliminate emotional waste. Like, I just want to process that again, now that I’m understanding more of the context.
Tessa: Yeah. Yeah. So I’ll explain a bit of the philosophy. So Reality-Based Leadership, they say that we all have this human condition, right? If we’re not aware of sources of drama, we tend to default in the same way. We point to kind of other people in our circumstances for why we can’t succeed. And the big lesson that Cy talks about is our circumstances are not the reason we can’t succeed, but they’re the reality in which we must succeed. So she has this kind of beautiful mantra, and it’s almost become a non-negotiable in our office, which is stop judging, start helping. And why she says that is because the second you fall into judgment, you stop serving, you stop leading, and you stop adding value. So the thing that really blew me away from Cy’s work is this concept of emotional expensiveness. What do you think of when there’s a traditional performance review of an employee? What do you think of Michael?
Michael: All right, so I’m probably going in just trying to figure like, did they hit their goals? How has their overall performance been? Do I feel like their productivity was good? Did they get stuff done over the past year that I would have expected if they come to work with a reasonable attitude so that we can get through what we need to get through in the business? I think that’s kind of my default. Did we get the work done, and how is our employee relationship to the business?
Tessa: Yeah, yeah. So it’s like current performance, a little bit of future potential. And a huge part that’s missing from that is the impact of emotional expensiveness. And again, in Cy’s research, she found that emotional expensiveness has such an impact on the true value of an employee that has to be multiplied by a coefficient of three. So let’s say that you were going to go start a business, okay, and you knew me from maybe a past job, right? I’m highly technically competent and I work hard, but I’m the most toxic employee out there, right? Are you likely to bring me to your new firm?
Michael: No. No. This is kind of a problem, right?
Tessa: You got it. You’re probably not going to bring me along. That’s because you must offset any value derived from an employee by the emotional expense and emotional cost that that relationship brings to the team and to the organization. So again, this framework, understanding emotional expensiveness has made me look at my own behavior and also the behavior of our people. And it’s all about kind of turning down the dial of emotional expensiveness so we can ultimately have a really effective, happy workplace.
Michael: So what does this look like in practice? I sort of get conceptually like, yes, when work has a lot of drama and everybody is spending time either gossiping or wrapped up in the drama, then we’re not getting work done. And I hope as a business owner that we get the work done and not get stuck in the drama. So like, I sort of understand it conceptually. And people that have drama can infect others in the team. So I understand the concept, but what does that mean you’re actually doing on a day-to-day or week-to-week or ongoing basis in trying to address this, in trying to deal with this?
Tessa: Right, right. So kind of understanding what emotional expensiveness is, is the first step. And again, in Cy’s research, there are five competencies of being what they call emotionally inexpensive. So understanding what those competencies are and putting that into action happens on a daily basis. So you have like hundreds of coaching opportunities every single day with your employees. And kind of understanding the first factor, being emotionally inexpensive, which is personal accountability, has really helped me kind of change the conversations with our people. So again, it happens one-on-one, putting these competencies into practice.
Michael: Okay. So what are my five competencies then?
Tessa: Yeah. Yeah. So personal accountability is, again, the holy grail of being emotionally inexpensive. So there are four factors that really contribute to someone being in high state of accountability, which is commitment. So that means buying in to the initiative, whatever you’re trying to do, without conditions. And that second factor is resilience, right? So it’s staying the course in the face of obstacles. And really resilient people, they have two kind of things in common. They often have large groups of social networks that they often crowdsource information from. And the second is they ask for help early and often from these groups. Now, that third factor is ownership, right? Taking ownership of my actions or my outcomes, good or bad. And that last factor is continuous learning, right? So it’s learning from failure. So that’s personal accountability in a nutshell. And again, I can’t take credit for any of this. This is all Cy Wakeman’s work.
And the second factor is reality-based thinking. So understanding that…getting down to the facts of situations instead of creating stories. So asking yourself that question, “Okay, what do I know for sure?” Let’s say like Cameron comes out of his office and maybe says something and I’m like, “Oh my gosh, he’s mad at me.” But really, it’s like, what do you know for sure? All you know for sure is that Cameron has come out of his office, right? So it’s getting down to the facts.
Michael: Or like, Cameron is upset. That doesn’t mean he’s upset with you or anything you did or anything that’s related. He may have or may not have stubbed his toe on his desk while he was coming out the door, right? Like, all the ways that we sometimes read into situations or other people’s emotions instead of just saying like, “No, all we actually literally know is like, he came out of his office and he has a frowny face. So let’s not read further into this than what we actually know.
Tessa: Let’s not read into that, right? You have to stop the stories, stop the stress. And so much stress is created by what we think, and it’s not necessarily based in reality or facts. And that third competency is organizational alignment and understanding your opinion versus expertise. So what do you think the difference is between those two things, Michael?
Michael: The difference between my opinion and my expertise? One comes off the cuff and the other one hopefully I actually spent a little bit of time studying and analyzing to figure out.
Tessa: Right, right. So opinion is often, it could be biases, it could be what I prefer as opposed to what I know for sure. So kind of this competency of organizational alignment focuses on how we can make something work based on our expertise versus why we can’t. So that’s kind of the big area of expertise in organizational alignment.
And the fourth is capitalizing on change. So again, organizations, a lot of teams, because change happens, right? And it’s understanding that we all experience the same three kind of steps when it comes to change, which is surprise, panic, and blame, right? Let’s say, “Okay, guys, we’re going to implement a new e-sign process on our team for client accounts.” Right? Some people will be like, “Awesome. Like, I love e-sign, I love electronic paperwork. This is going to be beautiful.” Or maybe some people on the team will, “But I love paper and I’m so attached to it,” and they start resisting. So a really interesting thing is that some people, when it comes to change, they’re going to stay in what we call resistance, right? Some people are going to go to maintenance. And then kind of the next step to that is some people are going to quickly go into what Reality-Based Leadership calls vision. So in a change, Michael, where do you think the average leader spends the most time? With resistance, maintenance people, or vision?
Michael: In practice, we spend our time with the resistance people trying to win them over.
Tessa: You got it. Right. So an average leader spends an extra 80 hours with somebody who’s in a chronic state of resistance. But what the research shows is you only have a 1% to 3% chance of changing somebody’s mind who’s in a chronic state of resistance. So while it kind of may be possible, right, where’s the kind of better place to put our leader’s resources?
Michael: With the vision folks who are excited to march forward with whatever my crazy vision is as an entrepreneur.
Tessa: You got it. You got it. That’s right. So it’s understanding kind of the mentality that people will go through when change is implemented. That’s the fourth competency. And the fifth is driving for results. So understanding that you have two paths in life, right? You can end up with a positive result or a learning, or you can end up with reasons, stories, and excuses for why you couldn’t get something done. And the reality is we’re always going to have extenuating circumstances, right? We’re never going to have a perfect reality. And it’s our job to succeed anyways. So that’s Reality-Based Leadership in a nutshell.
Michael: So I just… where have you learned and absorbed all of this? Like, you have clearly lived and embraced this, because you know your talking points well. Our conversation today is not the first time you have been talking about these talking points. So where does this come from for you?
Tessa: Yeah, yeah. It all started with kind of my journey into this role. I started spending a ton of time just reading and researching and learning about culture. And I eventually landed on Cy Wakeman’s book called “No Ego.” And it was really unconventional. And I kind of was reading it, I was like, “Oh my gosh, this goes against everything I thought was great leadership.” And I actually put the book down for a while. I was like, “I don’t want to read this.” But I was like, “Okay, no, this goes against my thinking. I should read this.” And I really got into it. And then I found that she has a certification course that she does, a three-day kind of intensive certification that she does in Omaha, Nebraska. So I flew to Omaha, and I attended her certification course. And it was probably the best three days of learning I have ever had. And that kind of…what they teach you at the certification course is to basically be able to go back to your organization and teach the Reality-Based Leadership philosophy to leaders and also to employees. So this is something that I’ve been working through at PWL over the last year.
Michael: Very cool. So for folks that are listening, this is episode 161. So if you go to kitces.com/161, we’ll have links out for the “No Ego” book and the Reality-Based Leadership certification course if you’re curious to look this up as well. I am wondering, though, what was it in the “No Ego” book that was like this trigger for you. I think you had said like they were taking all these things that you thought about leadership and demolishing them and tearing them down. So what were the shocks or the revelations that were coming from this as you were going through and reading it?
Tessa: Right, right. So again, when I initially started kind of cultivating this culture role, I thought, “Okay…” I was very naive at the time, I said, “Okay, how can I make work happy? How can I engage employees? How can I motivate people?” And in Cy’s book, she says, “You can’t…with all of these things, you can’t have accountability.” It kind of leads to, without accountability, all of these great things will lead to entitlement. And I was like, “Whoa, okay, that changes my mind a little bit.”
Michael: Right. If things are just always happy and I never actually have the consequences of not doing the things I said I was going to do, then things are always happy and I just expect that they’re always going to be happy. And then I get entitled and get grumpy any time they’re not happy and work isn’t fun anymore.
Tessa: Right, right. So when you’re missing that personal accountability piece, it can lead to a fairly negative work environment. So when I first got in the role, I was developing all these things to engage employees and make work happy and…
Michael: All right, no more Friday beer and no more ping-ponging. Got it.
Tessa: Right. And like, my initial concept of culture, I thought it’s perks. It’s all these things. Of course, it’s not perks. And reading Daniel Pink’s book “Drive,” right, motivation is a choice. Engagement is a choice. So can we facilitate and have a really open, transparent work environment? Yeah. But it’s up to the employee whether they’re going to be motivated or not, whether they’re going to work hard or not, whether they’re going to be engaged or not. So again, cultivating and fostering that personal accountability in our people has made a fairly big difference.
Michael: All I can think now is like, so the famous Glengarry Glen Ross moment where he shouts out “coffee is for closers” is actually a legitimate approach to Reality-Based Leadership? You can’t have the coffee until you’re accountable for your results?
Tessa: Yeah, maybe. Yeah.
Michael: All right, how about that? So I can kind of imagine now the shift of like, you’re taking on this leadership role. Like, “I’m going to be an awesome leader. I’m going to get in there. We’re going to have some cool perks. I’m going to keep people motivated. I really want to be engaged. We’re going to do these fun things. I’m so excited to lead my team.” And then Cy was like, “Yeah, if you do all this stuff, you don’t figure out the accountability, they’re just going to be entitled and then you’ll be miserable.”
Tessa: You nailed it.
Michael: Like, “Ah, okay.”
Tessa: Yeah, yeah. And really, it hit me in the face. I was like, “Wow, this is…I’ve really got to look into this.” Because, first trying to figure out the role. And just when I read her stuff, it really resonated with me. And I think I attribute her work to being kind of this additional push on our team’s flywheel as we kind of continue to gain momentum. And yeah, it’s made a great impact.
Michael: Interesting. So what does this look like in practice of, okay, so I can’t do the fun stuff until we have our accountability mechanisms in place? So like, then what does Reality-Based Leadership preach around how you’re supposed to do the accountability part?
Tessa: Right. And I think that comes back to culture. Like, of course, you can have fun stuff at work. We have happy hour every Friday. We do a meditation practice at work. We do have a fun and work environment. Doesn’t mean take it away, it just means…The biggest part of culture is that culture is fluid, right? Culture is actions, it’s behaviors, skills, and knowledge that people bring to work every day. So if personal accountability is something that we value, how can we put that into action? And I think where that comes from is really putting that into practice. So like I said before, you have hundreds of coaching opportunities with your people every single day. And that one-on-one conversation is a great way to act on what you value and facilitate better mental process.
So if you’re in a situation where an employee is struggling, right? As a leader, do you fall into sympathy and reinforce kind of that victim mentality or do you use empathy and help the person see that they can have an impact on their challenging circumstances? Right? So again, fostering that great mental process for accountability, and the magic really happens in those moments. So again, understanding what accountability is versus kind of its opposite, which is learned helplessness. So again, acting on that every day. It’s like if you see an employee struggling, do you just leave it and walk away or do you use that as a coaching opportunity?
Tessa’s Path To Her Current Role [41:18]
Michael: Interesting. So now help me understand a little how you get to a role where you are taking in stuff like this and trying to do this in an advisory firm. Did you go to college for psychology or management or something along those lines?
Tessa: Yeah, yeah. My degree is in psychology, but it really is just a, it’s a passion, but I’m just really fascinated with, again, like what makes a culture great, and how can we help people be the best version of themselves? And when I started at PWL, this was not my role at all.
Michael: So how did you start out at the firm then?
Tessa: Yeah. So I started at the firm January 1st, 2014 as an operations administrator. And in that role, you’re the administrative backbone of the team, right? It’s paperwork, it’s meeting prep, it’s coordination with compliance departments and general client service. And again, after about a year of that, I became an IIROC-registered representative.
Michael: So you were kind of crossing the divide of, okay, I started in operations, but I’m going to go do this advisor thing. So I’m crossing over and going down that career track.
Tessa: Yeah. So I was on the path to becoming client-facing. And I was looking into the CFP, but I knew that’s not where my heart was. And I was super nervous to kind of break the news to Cameron, right? You don’t want to let down your boss. And then when I told him, he just said, “Great, what do you want to do?” And told him about, again, my passion for high-performance teams and what it takes to really create a high-functioning workplace culture. And he said, “Awesome, let’s do it.” So I think I was 23 years old when he totally just gave me the reins to take the role and run with it. And you can talk about trust and sharing responsibility, right? He always says it’s all about people.
So from 2015 to 2018, I was balancing two roles. So a huge part of my day was dedicated to getting through high volumes of paperwork and meeting prep. And we were experiencing a lot of growth. So there’s actually a time where I think I was creating anywhere between 5 to 15 client onboarding packages a day. It was wild. But also during this time, right, culture and HR was my side hustle. So I go from completing paper packages, which obviously had to be priority, to interviewing accountants to lead our family office department and having development meetings with our employees. So it was a bit of a strange contrast, but you kind of just have to put ego aside and do what the team needs at the time. So ripping through high volumes of paperwork by day and by night, just in my spare time I was spending every waking moment reading about culture and leadership and kind of put myself through this self-induced ongoing culture bootcamp. And by November 2018, my full-time role became culture, HR and the operations lead for our team in Ottawa.
Michael: Interesting. So talk to me about this…sort of this transition period you had I guess back in 2014/2015 of like, “I’ve joined an advisory firm. I’m starting on operations. That was my foot in the door. I’m getting my license exams to become an advisor. I make the switch. I’m becoming an advisor.” And then another year later and you’re making a hard left back to the path that you had been on previously. Talk to us more about what was going on there. Why not continuing down the advisor road? You get lots of opportunities to work with clients and try to help them to be their best selves and achieve their goals. What was going on that advising clients wasn’t working but managing team members was like, “I want to go back and do that?”
Tessa: Right, right. And I think I…I was young when I first joined the team. And I had it in my head that the definition of success was becoming a client-facing advisor. But it was such a disconnect for me and what I wanted to do. And I was fortunate enough to be in a situation to have a really supportive leader in Cameron, where he really supported, again, taking that left turn and completely changing career paths. And kind of since then, a team philosophy we always say the definition of success is not the be-all-end-all, it’s not to be an advisor. If that’s what you want to do and that’s what you’re passionate about, that’s awesome. But if you want to stick to a more back-office role and really own that department, that’s awesome, too. So I think that the definition of success and changing my mentality about that is where it all started.
Michael: So how does that come about? I know people who have gone down what in retrospect was probably not their ideal definition of success for like their lifetime, then at some point deciding when they were retiring like, “Oh, no, I’m actually going to go do the thing that I realized in retrospect I probably wanted to do for like 30 years but denied myself.” Like, you started down one path and made just what to me is a rather quick realization that, “Wait, this actually isn’t the thing I like and want to do. I’m not going to have this be my definition of success.” So what was going on that pulled you back from that or made you turn the other direction?
Tessa: Yeah, I think it maybe was just where I was at in life. I’d graduated university fairly recently before I started working at PWL. And again, just doing a lot of reading on kind of self-development and asking myself those questions like, “What really makes me happy? What brings me joy?” And getting to that realization of…and I don’t know the answer to this, but for some reason, really enjoy working and managing people and helping them see their circumstances in a different way. And I think that’s what kind of made a big difference for me. But the support, though, the support from Cameron to literally hand me this job and kind of cultivate and create it. You can imagine if he said, “Oh, yeah, no, culture doesn’t matter and people don’t matter, and let’s just grow the business.” Right? Maybe I wouldn’t end up where I am today. So it’s also leadership, right, and helping people grow and develop in the direction that they want. So I can’t just…it’s not just me, it’s also the leadership around me that really supported this.
Michael: Well, and I certainly…I get it, not even…well, I would hope at least most firms or people in leadership wouldn’t quite go so far as like, “Ah, people don’t matter, let’s just go grow this thing.” But I do think there’s…
Tessa: You’d hope not.
Michael: I would hope not or the business will tend to hit its own ceiling. But I think there is just a very sort of practical limiting factor of like, look, there’s all sorts of cool things I would hypothetically like to do in my business to make us a great place to work and have great managers doing all sorts of great ongoing things with our team, but at some point, I only have so much budget. There’s a lot of other competing demands in the business, like marketing and sales and operations and advice and software tools and all the different things. Like, it’s one thing to say like, “Yeah, our people are valued here,” it’s another then figuring out like, but can I actually afford to hire someone who wears a hat of saying culture is either your sole focus or even just my primary focus or a key focus? I know that ultimately, you wear a couple of different hats because you’ve got I guess an accountability for culture, for the overall HR function of the firm, and I think you had said for kind of leading the operations team as well. So you do this across a few different domains.
Tessa: Yeah. Well, it’s just specific to our team. So I don’t do the HR for the firm.
Michael: Okay. So I think you’d said 18 people who are locally there and building that location.
Tessa: Yeah. Yeah.
Michael: So how was that conversation in going back to Cameron, going back to a boss of like, “Hey, you know that thing like a year ago that I really said I wanted to do and you were really nice to let me have an opportunity to do it? I’m having second thoughts.” How does that conversation go? Or even bringing it up.
Tessa: Very nerve-wracking, right? You never want to let down your boss, right? You want to impress your boss and set out to do what you intended to do. But I had to be honest about kind of where I wanted to go. And that was definitely still on the team. I wanted to make a huge impact on the team in some way. I just knew that wasn’t going to be client-facing. And yeah, I let him know. And his reaction was, awesome. He said, “Great, let’s figure out what you want to do.” It was actually a pretty…when I look back, it was actually a pretty…it was a great conversation. That was a turning point in my career for sure.
Michael: And you had it because you just said like, “I’m just not happy doing this advisor thing I’m going down the road of doing, I need to go this other direction?”
Tessa: Yeah, yeah. And I think through, we were in a position where…I’ve only been in the role since November 2018. So I really was…I was managing the ops role and then, again, culture was kind of the side hustle, and HR was a side hustle over time from 2015 to 2018. But now we kind of have enough people that I was able to move full-time into the culture role.
Michael: Well, that’s one of the interesting effects overall of just a growing firm. Out of curiosity, I think you said there are…so there are 18 people there locally now. How many were there six years ago when you were first coming in as an operations administrator?
Tessa: Yeah. So I was the fifth employee. And that was in 2014. And now we’re at…we’ll be 18 people in March. So there’s a few years there where we were rapidly, rapidly hiring just to manage the growth, just to manage the growth of the business and really kind of put the structure in place in order to scale what had kind of landed on us. So a lot of rapid hiring going on there. And we still hire. We still hire and search for talent pretty aggressively.
Michael: Interesting. Because there is an effect for me, and I experienced this in my own career journey at a firm that through kind of similar years and stages of my career had a very similar growth rate and trajectory. I think I was like employee number 8 when I joined Pinnacle, and by about 6 years later we were probably 25 or 30 employees, and the client base had almost quadrupled. Like similar, big growth years and working crazy hours and onboarding a bajillion clients and all of that. But ultimately, that also created opportunities for me from a career perspective that just flat out wouldn’t have existed in the firm I joined when I joined it. Like, I…
Tessa: What did that journey look like for you?
Michael: So from my end, it was being able to come in, well, for a firm at the time as a director of financial planning that originally was just a department of me, and then was just what happens when there’s only…fit everybody at one table at the holiday dinner, but then it was a department of two and then three and then four and then five and more and hiring people and training people. And then for me ultimately a shift that said…similarly, I went down a path for a while and then said, “I’m actually not sure that this is what I want to do. The thing that I really like doing is some of this writing and speaking, educating back to the industry and trying to work with the whole of advisors and not just the ones that are within our firm.” So I went back to our founding partners and said, “Hey, I’d like to do this thing where I’ve got one foot inside the firm because I still liking to apply some of what I do here in the firm, but I also want to have one foot outside the firm so I can kind of scratch this itch about impacting the industry and the advisor community more broadly.”
And just reflecting back on it, like, that would not have been feasible for the business at the size we were when I joined. It was feasible for the business by the size we were a couple of years later. We had a little bit more economies of scale, a little bit more flexibility in the budget. Like, there were ways to make this work for our size. I think at that time, $800 million at the time, that just wouldn’t have been feasible when I joined and we were under $200 million. I’m sure at the time it would have been like, “Look, you’re either all in or you’re all out. No offense taken if you’re all out, but we can’t tuck you in on a partial basis. We need the resources elsewhere.”
And it was…for me, it’s still been one of the formative things about kind of like reflecting on career opportunities for people coming into the industry overall, that just being at a firm that is growing, if you have upward aspirations for moving up in the firm wherever you are, just being at a business that’s growing creates fascinating opportunities, because as the org chart literally gets bigger as the business grows, there will be new positions that get created that don’t exist when you show up and may or may not exist in the future, but you know what? If it’s a good firm and it’s growing well and you’re doing good work and you say, “Here’s the thing I want to do in the future that I think can impact the business positively,” we tend to figure out how to make this happen. Because it’s good for business and good for the team and good for everyone when you’ve got motivated people that are excited to move into a new and different role, even if it wasn’t quite what the firm was originally. But it all hinges on having some level of growth in the first place, firms that are moving up.
I’ve now kind of taken it to a sort of a rough rule of thumb of like, businesses that are growing at 15% a year or more I find tend to be able to create those opportunities fast enough. Just if you kind of do the compounding math, a business that grows at 15% a year basically doubles every 5 years. So your org chart and all the opportunities in it will be twice the size in 5 years and quadruple the size in 10 years. So if you’re employee number 5, there will be 15 more roles that don’t exist today that will be there in 10 years. And if you’re growing at 25%, it only takes you 6 years to quadruple the business, which sounds like is about where you guys have gone in the journey.
Tessa: Yeah, we’re living that. Yeah, we’re living that right now. Sure.
Michael: And it just it’s…to me, it becomes a filter when you’re trying to decide like maybe as a younger or newer advisor, it’s not even age-dependent, just newer advisor looking at your career of, if you want a firm with some opportunities, if you’re not quite sure what the opportunities are or they’re not quite sure, just businesses that are growing, lots of opportunities will get created, and frankly, you can figure out what they are later. If the firm is growing and you’re doing good work, there is a very high likelihood everybody is going to come together to figure out how to make the right role work, as long as the growth is there. In Silicon Valley, in the tech world, I know there’s a famous saying, I think Sheryl Sandberg had put forth originally, that like if you ever get a chance to get on a rocket ship, you don’t ask what seat.
Tessa: It’s such a great quote.
Michael: You just get on the rocket ship and you’ll figure out where you’re going to sit later. Because…
Tessa: You got it.
Michael: …you’re on a rocket ship, it’s going to work out.
Tessa: Yes. Exactly. Yes.
Michael: And granted, companies in Silicon Valley grow at like several extra zeros of compounding growth rates than what we sometimes get in the advisor world. But I think the same principle still holds up. And it sounds like certainly, it was part of the journey for you that you got to move into a role that just wouldn’t have been feasible in the firm that you joined. But lo and behold, when you have a passion for it and the firm is growing and new opportunities are getting created, you figure out how to make it work and how to formulate it.
Tessa: Totally. That comes into play for a lot of the roles on our team and kind of how we’ve structured things. And people have these amazing opportunities to kind of really have total autonomy over their processes and their decisions and where they want to take, we call them their departments. And it’s amazing what really great, talented, responsible people can do when you just kind of empower them and get out of their way.
Michael: I like how you frame that. Yeah. Say that again. It’s amazing what good, talented people can do when you get out of their way?
Tessa: Yeah. Delegate and get out of their way, pretty much. Yeah, empower people and get out of their way.
What A Culture Management Leadership Role Looks Like From A Practical Perspective [58:50]
Michael: Very cool. Very cool. So now help me understand a little bit more of like what this sort of culture management leadership role looks like at a practical perspective. Like, what’s a typical week in the life of Tessa at this point?
Tessa: Yeah, yeah, for sure. So typical week, a lot of it, like how to put all of this framework into practice. And again, culture is, right, it’s about actions, it’s about behaviors. You can’t just take a bunch of nice words, slap them in a boardroom and boom, you have nice culture, right? So putting into practice every day some of the things that we value, right, personal accountability. So again, using every opportunity I have to have coaching conversations with teammates. And another thing that we value is feedback. So if we want feedback to be the norm on our team, what can we put in place really cultivate that culture of feedback? So I’ve actually just recently implemented a new tool. It’s called Fellow. And it’s amazing. It’s a great kind of software to give feedback.
Michael: Fellow like fellow human beings, Fellow?
Tessa: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s called the Fellow app. And let me tell you, if you want to create a culture of feedback, you want to use Fellow. It’s awesome. And first steps in behavior change, right? Make it obvious, make it easy, make it attractive, make it satisfying. And again, if feedback is something that we value, then we want to make that a really easy thing for people to do.
Michael: So what exactly is Fellow and what does it do?
Tessa: Yeah. So Fellow is, it’s a great…it’s a management tool. So I use it for all of my one-on-one meetings with employees. So we have frequent development conversations where we can both collaborate in an agenda, and we can build it together. And you can also delegate or kind of give action items that are really obvious. So it’s easy to see what you have to get done. And you can also set your priorities. So it’s a great one-on-one tool but also a great kind of meeting tool. So we have department meetings on our team, weekly department meetings, and everybody can kind of contribute to the agenda. It also tracks kind of the history of the conversations and what action items have been delegated and what’s been done. So that’s kind of Fellow in a nutshell. And it’s actually quite recently that we implemented it, but it’s made a pretty big difference.
Michael: Interesting. So if I’m going to regularly do one-on-one meetings with my team as part of the management process, then we can create an agenda in Fellow. If things are coming up then I’m going to tell my team like, “Hey, our one-on-one is on Monday. If you’ve got anything that you want to make sure we’re covering, put it on the agenda in Fellow so we make sure we don’t forget about it on Monday?”
Tessa: Yeah. Yeah. And it’s a great tool. So a lot of my day is kind of figuring out okay, what’s on the agenda this week and what developing meeting conversations do I have this week? It’s a lot of looking for kind of not…yeah, looking for technology that can kind of really help support the culture that we want to have. Another thing that happens weekly at our office, we have a…wellness is another thing that we really, really value. And we have a meditation practice at work. So there’s actually a solid group of us, about maybe 8 to 10 people that will sit down for 10 minutes and we’ll meditate together every day. That’s part of my day. And yeah, it’s a lot of just, again, just being resilient and figuring out what needs to be done.
Michael: So is there a structure to how you go through the week of, I don’t know, Monday I’ve got team meetings. Tuesdays I do my one-on-ones, Wednesday is a miscellaneous day? Is there a cadence like that for how you handle just managing this team of people?
Tessa: Yeah. Yeah. So Mondays, we call them our team focus day. So we actually don’t book any client meetings on Mondays, which is pretty intentional. It’s kind of a day to really focus on, “Okay, I’m going to prep for my week, I’m going to get ready.” A lot of our team meetings will happen on Mondays. So kind of getting ready for that. And then moving through the week, yeah, one-on-one meetings. Cameron and I, we actually do an internal team podcast. We call it the Culture Cast. And it’s not kind of out there kind of on the web at all. It’s just for our team. And this is where we talk about team updates. People can give shout-outs, any sort of biz dev things that are going on. So it’s kind of a platform to share what’s going on on the team. So there’s prep for that.
Michael: And you do that on a weekly basis?
Tessa: Every week. Yeah.
Michael: So what happens on the Culture Cast? How long is it? What are you talking about? I do not know any other firms that are doing weekly podcasts for internal team.
Tessa: Right. So the reason why we created the Culture Cast was, so we used to have like these big roundtable team meetings. And it was…honestly, they were pretty useless. I won’t lie. It was good to get together as a team, but the information that was being shared wasn’t really relevant to everybody in the room. So we decided to break up that really, really large kind of cumbersome team meeting and share any necessary updates that affect everybody on this platform of a podcast. So the podcast, the Culture Cast replaces that large team meeting that was going on. And they can get pretty funny. It’s kind of good for morale. There’s a lot of good humor that happens on them. And again, it’s a great way for people to show their gratitude, right? Give shout-outs to employees. And it’s an opportunity for them to reflect on things that were great during the week and show appreciation for your teammates. So far, so good. I think we’ve been doing it for two years.
Michael: Well, that’s a long time. That’s like…
Tessa: Yeah, it’s a really fun tool.
Michael: And wait again, and how long are they running?
Tessa: Oh, yeah, of course. Yeah. So the episodes, they can range from 10 minutes to like 20 minutes, depends on what we’re talking about. So again, it’s updates, it shout-outs and recognition. And then I’ll try to kind of have a section of what I call things worth thinking about. So I’ll talk about things like the negativity bias or the illusion of transparency. What else? How to build habits. So I try to make it some sort of like a value-add for people to take away. Rejection of stress, all those sorts of things. So it’s kind of a cool platform to share the things I’m excited about, which is psychology.
Michael: Interesting. And how did this come about? How do you get to the point where you’re doing an internal team podcast?
Tessa: Yeah. It came about because we had asked for feedback, right? Something we value. And people were like, “Team meeting is not effective.” So we’re like, “Okay, let’s listen to our people. Like, bye-bye team meeting. Okay, how can we share?” But there’s still people who are like, “Well, I still want to feel connected to the team and hear about the general team updates.” I’m like, “Okay, I think a podcast could work.” So we gave it a go and I think people find it effective.
Michael: And so how are you just making this happen from a podcast end? Just like, “Now we have to hire a team member who just does the internal weekly Culture Cast?”
Tessa: Right. Yeah. So we actually have on our team, we do have a public podcast called the “Rational Reminder,” which is hosted by my brother, Ben Felix and Cameron Passmore. So we have all of this equipment, and we have a studio in our office. So it just so happens that I’m able to use great equipment to have our internal team Culture Cast.
Michael: And just who produces it? Or is the idea like, “This isn’t fancy, just like, Cameron and I sit in front of a mic and we chit-chat for a while? We hit the record button then we’re done. We send the sound file to everyone.”
Tessa: Yeah. No, we do get an edit done. And that’s just done through our marketing department and our corporate office and our head office. And it’s pretty quick. And they turn it around usually the same day. And then we just release it to everybody.
Michael: And like literally as a podcast? I get you don’t advertise it. Like, can I…if I know where to look, can I actually like find this thing on iTunes or are you sort of circulating an internal sound file?
Tessa: You got it. So we use Microsoft Teams as our platform to share knowledge as a firm and as a team. So we have a team channel called Culture Cast, and I upload the file there and then just give people a little blurb about what the episode is. And there’s sometimes conversations that happen within that channel about what we’ve talked about. And yeah, so that’s how we share it.
Michael: Okay. Very cool. And I guess for those who aren’t familiar, so Microsoft Teams is kind of Microsoft’s competitor equivalent to Slack’s. And I guess for us that don’t know Slack, it’s sort of an internal communications…
Tessa: It’s not knowledge sharing tool either.
Michael: …platform where you can create multiple different channels to have conversations by department or with certain teams or with certain groups or just things that you want to broadcast to the whole business.
Some Other Tools She Uses In Her Role [1:08:07]
Michael: Very cool. So what are some of the other kind of like technology tools and pieces you’re using? I’m fascinated just hearing some of this like, “We do Culture Cast podcasts and we broadcast to Microsoft Teams.” You’re using the Fellow app, which I have never seen or heard of and I’m now excited to look up when I’m done with our podcast here. Again, for folks listening, episode 161. So if you go to kitces.com/161 by the time you are hearing this, we will have looked up and found the Fellow app and put a link to it in the show notes. What else are you using, Tessa, for doing this kind of technology to enable better management?
Tessa: Yeah. Actually, we started a long time ago, we started with Slack. And it was an awesome tool. And it kind of…yeah, it was our…you create all these different channels like advice, planning, operations.
Michael: I feel the “but” coming, though.
Tessa: Yeah, the “but.” Yeah. So, but as a firm, so our team was just using Slack. And I think actually, some other teams in PWL were using Slack as well. But as a firm, we made a decision to all migrate to Microsoft Teams. So there was nothing wrong with Slack, but just as a firm, that was the decision. And we all had to get on board with Teams, which turns out to be a very robust, amazing tool.
Michael: Yeah. Slack is a cool thing, but don’t underestimate a nearly $1 trillion market cap company for their ability to like, “Oh, we can make one of those, too.” Copy, copy, copy, “Here we go.”
Tessa: Right. And we use Office 365, right? It integrates with everything else that we use. And again, there’s nothing wrong with Slack. Slack was an awesome tool, but again, it just flows a little bit better in what we’re doing. So Microsoft Teams is something we use Fellow, which we’ve talked about. And something that we used to do before again when we had Slack was a program called Officevibe. And this program would send weekly surveys to employees asking them just general feedback and kind of their feeling about the work environment and alignment and feedback and all of those sorts of things. But once we kind of migrated from Slack to Teams, we had to get rid of Officevibe because we couldn’t add Officevibe as an app in Microsoft Teams.
Tessa: Yeah. So our main kind of technology pieces, yeah, are Teams and Fellow, and then we have the internal Culture Cast.
Michael: And the software is called Office Five, like the number five?
Tessa: Oh, Officevibe, like V-I-B-E.
Michael: Oh, okay, like, what’s the vibe going around the office? Let’s do an employee engagement measurement. Okay, got it.
Tessa: Yeah. And it was really interesting. And that was in kind of the early stages…implementing Officevibe was in the early stages of kind of my role in culture. And again, that’s where that accountability piece was missing, right? We were having all of these…our employees come to us saying, “Well, these are all the things that are wrong,” and pointing out maybe everything that they want to change, but at the same time, we’re not going to have a perfect reality. And it’s getting people to understand their role in the issues in the office. So again, adding that accountability piece has kind of moved us a little bit away from these surveys that we were pushing to employees before and adding in that accountability piece. Just a side note on that.
Michael: So that’s interesting. So I want to understand this a little bit more. So maybe start with a little bit more of just like what really exactly Officevibe does and how you were using it. Is this like, we send a survey, it’s software that sends a survey out to the team that says like, “Are you happy here and is management doing a good job?” What exactly was it that it does or that you were doing with it?
Tessa: Yeah, exactly. So it would send, it was like a five-question survey on a weekly basis. So it’s an app that you use through Slack. So employee would get a personal message through the kind of, they call a bot. So it’d be like the Officevibe bot. And the bot would ask, “Oh, do you have time to answer this quick survey?” It would take like a minute. And the employees would fill it out. And then over time, I got all this data on kind of…it’d have an employee like Net Promoter Score and where employees are really kind of feeling that things weren’t going as well. So kind of rate like happiness, engagement, satisfaction, communication with your manager. So it gave us all this amazing data, but again, there wasn’t any kind of self-reflecting on that. It was all, okay, this is all the things that are wrong. But again, that next step is okay, what is my role in that? So that’s what Officevibe did. And don’t get me wrong, the data was very cool to see. It could give feedback, it could do all these things, but again, it was that next step of adding an accountability piece.
Michael: But I’m just…I’m sorry, I’m still fascinated, just stuck on like a weekly survey around employee engagement. So all right, maybe this is slightly my own like Gen Xer, cynical, jaded self. Like, do people really take a weekly survey in Slack of like, “How was our engagement? And how’s our satisfaction? And how’s your communication with the manager” like every week that someone’s asking me?
Tessa: Yeah. Yeah. So I think they were different questions every week. And they took like 30 seconds. They’re pretty quick to complete.
Michael: That you would write or just Officevibe has figured out like, “We’ve just got a list of questions and we mix them up so that they stay fresh?”
Tessa: You got it. And I could craft my own surveys based specifically on maybe questions I wanted to ask, but it was often just Officevibe pushing out the weekly survey. And the frequency, I think people over time were getting pretty tired of it. I won’t lie, I’ll be transparent. It doesn’t have to be weekly. You could set it as monthly. But kind of my thoughts on the weekly was feedback should be frequent, right? Why would you wait?
Michael: From the manager end, I’m like, I would love to just do this daily. How’s daily? Because the moment a problem is going on, I as a business owner would like to be in there to intervene, right? Just from my idealized world, like, I always wish I knew everything that was happening and every problem at every moment so we can always solve them in real-time. Except, of course…
Tessa: Wouldn’t that be amazing?
Michael: Right. Then like, except everybody is so pissed that every single day I ask them how they’re doing that at some point they just kind of blow me off, right? So there’s just some balancing point of how often can I realistically get the feedback in a constructive manner. But I sort of get it from the other end. Like, I suppose the upshot at least is, if I’m doing the survey every week, then if I actually do anything like boneheaded in the business, everybody knows they’re going to get to sound off on that no more than six to seven days tops. And that there is an interesting dynamic to that mechanism of what happens when employees actually know that the moment something is bothering them in the business, there will be a way for them to share that.
Tessa: Yeah, yeah, exactly. And I think Officevibe, it was really effective when we were using it, but again, because we transitioned to Microsoft Teams, we lost the ability to use it.
Michael: Because it just literally doesn’t have an integration?
Tessa: Honestly, I actually think it does, I just don’t think it’s available within kind of our license with Teams yet.
Tessa: Yeah. Yeah. But it was really cool, and it was really interesting. And people were on board. There was feedback sometimes that their questions were repetitive. But again, it’s an opportunity to keep feedback on top of mind.
Michael: I’m sure Officevibe has some rotation to questions. When you fill it out 52 times a year, at some point I would imagine that you’ve kind of seen all the questions in the rotation.
Tessa: Yeah, yeah, for sure. And like I said, the data was really interesting. And it was like, “Oh, man, people are super stressed. Our wellness at work, it’s way below average. What can we do to improve that?” So that data was like, it was cool. I was like, okay, I can really have the collective voice of the team and figure out, “Okay, what can I do to add value? What can I do to help improve this?” And it was cool. I really enjoyed using it.
Michael: And so I kind of get the context now of like, “So we did this for a while and we’re getting this continuous feedback, and this is really cool and I see stuff and I know what’s going on. If there’s some challenges or issues in the business, I know that they’re happening.” And then you get to the natural next step. It’s like, “Okay, I’ve identified a problem. Now as a manager, I want to do something about it.” And it sounds like that was where you then hit the wall of like, “Oh, so ironically, Officevibe, really good at helping me understand employee engagement, not good at actually helping me to engage with employees about their employee engagement.”
Tessa: Yeah, and about accountability, right? So everybody has a role to play. And people can often be really great at pointing out other people’s lack of accountability. We don’t often recognize their own and look at their own behavior. So Officevibe was a great tool for people to voice what they want to say, but again, that next step, which is where kind of the Reality-Based Leadership framework came in is “Okay, yeah, our circumstances aren’t perfect, but what can you do as an individual to help?” So that was kind of the next step of that development.
Michael: And is that what then took you to Fellow? Because you could start capturing agendas and to do some action items. And then when we come back next week we’re like, “Well, here was the action items, so did we get this thing done?” And now accountability is starting to get built in?
Tessa: Right, right, exactly. And Fellow is such a great tool for that. It’s just easy. It’s so easy to use, right? You can just delegate an action item and boom, it’s obvious, it’s there. Yeah, we really…so far, it’s only been actually maybe about a month that we’ve used it, but so far we really enjoy it.
Michael: And so as you went down this road with Fellow, and I kind of understand the agendas and some of that back and forth around agendas and to-do items, so what happened to surveying around employee engagement? Is that still a thing you do and measure in the business or have you kind of moved on and said, “Ah, well, we’re doing these one-on-ones now and if people aren’t engaged, we’re just going to come up in our one-on-one, so we’re going to do it there?”
Tessa: Yeah, yeah. It’s more in the one-on-one conversations. And I find that it’s actually…it’s more effective when you can speak with somebody face-to-face about their development, as opposed to just throwing…if somebody has some input on let’s say our office environment or something that they would like to see changed, I like to start that off as a conversation. And just having frequent opportunities to chat with people, you’re able to kind of be connected to what they’re thinking, but also coach them through, “Okay, so you’re in a challenging circumstance, okay, what’s your role in it and what can you do to help the situation?” As opposed to a, “Here’s a problem, can management fix it?” It’s like, “No, no, no, no, what’s your role? What’s your role in that?”
How Tessa Conducts One-On-One Meetings [1:19:09]
Michael: Interesting. So now talk to us a little bit more about kind of one-on-one meetings. Because I actually don’t know a lot of advisory firms that necessarily do this or have a lot of structure around it. Aside from maybe one-on-one once a year when we do our performance review kind of structure. Most firms I know, once you grow to a certain size of team, we start doing team meetings, because we just literally put everyone in the same room at the same time so we can make sure the communication flows and people know what other people are doing. But talk to us a little bit more about just literally like, what are these one-on-one meetings? Does everyone meet with everyone? Who meets with who? How often do they happen? How does it actually work from a management end?
Tessa: For sure, for sure. So I meet with…last year, I can tell you about last year because we lived it, I met with every single team member, so I think 17 team members, 16 team members every month. So the conversations, my kind of thought behind that is semiannual and annual reviews, it’s like, why are you waiting till halfway through the year to tell a person what they need to work on? Right? Let’s talk about it more frequently than that so they actually have an opportunity to get better. So we meet with people…I meet with everybody one-on-one. And as an example, let’s say, we just finished our kind of last one-on-one meetings in December of 2019. And kind of that’s more compensation conversation, review of the year and just things that their aspirations, the employees’ aspirations for 2020.
So an example of an agenda for this first round of one-on-one meetings is what are you looking forward to most aside of work? What excites you about the team? What’s an area that you think you could use coaching on? Also, in our end-of-year meetings, we give people feedback. And in this year’s first review meeting, they have to kind of develop an action plan for how they’re going to kind of work on those things to work on that, that we chatted about. And we also talk about their aspirations. And those are kind of the themes of the conversation with every employee kind of moving through the year. And I’ll create the agendas, but now that we have Fellow, it can be more of a collaborative event. And we can also have the history of all of our conversations. So the employee can go back and look like, “Oh, yeah, we talked about this. This is the impact I wanted to have this year. It’s fresh in my mind. I know what it is.” So again, that’s where Fellow comes in.
Michael: So the goal is every month you’re doing one of these meetings with every employee across the firm.
Tessa: Right. And I don’t know how sustainable that is as we continue to grow.
Michael: Well, yeah, I was going to come to that question later. Like, at some point, is the vision you’re going to go less frequently or is at some point, the vision that like, someone else is going to take half the people and you’re going to take half the people? Because when there’s 30 or 40 or 50, at some point, you literally run out of hours.
Tessa: Yeah, exactly. And I think the vision for that is, we are a small team. And people who are in, maybe we call them more lead roles, right, they’re still managing a huge kind of…they still have to service 120 households or 300 households each. So they still have their advisor job. But then again, it’s kind of the side hustle of that leadership role. And I think eventually as we continue to grow and add more people, again, people are going to be able to become more centralized in leadership positions. And ideally, we’d have a lead of the advice department having development meetings with advisors, not me. So that’s kind of where…
Tessa: Right, that’s where I like to…
Michael: So an advisor lead can have advisor one-on-ones, and you’ll have operations and that side of the business for doing the one on ones.
Tessa: Yeah, yeah.
Michael: So how long is a typical meeting? Is this like a 30-minute check-in? Is this an hour? Is this a two-hour meeting?
Tessa: It really depends on…it depends on the conversation. Some of them are quick, like 25, 30 minutes, and sometimes there are things that employees are struggling with a little bit, like…oh, I don’t know an example. But yeah. And it’s again, it’s walking them through a better mental process about how to think about an issue. So sometimes the conversations can be long. Sometimes there can be a lot of laughing, sometimes there can be crying. It’s really interesting. So it’s, yeah, just depends on the vibe and what people want to talk about.
Michael: So the agendas, I get there’s a level of collaborative because if they’ve got a thing that they want to talk about, they’ll put it on the agenda because they know they’re going to have a meeting with you in a month. But is there otherwise a standard structure, “Hey we’re always going to give you some feedback on how you’re doing for the month, check-in about your aspirations for where things are going?” Like, “Boom, boom, here’s our three to five sort of standard questions or talking points and then you add yourself to the bottom if you want to,” or is this a much more flexible agenda? I’m imagining, when you’re doing monthly meetings that either there’s a very rigorous structure and you kind of do the same thing every time or it’s a very, very open structure and you’re sort of flexing into it every time.
Tessa: Yeah, it’s kind of a bit of both. It can be a combination of what we’ve chatted about last time, it can be revisiting what their aspirations are for 2020 and kind of seeing, “Okay, is this still a priority for you? I know you said you want to take CFA Level II exam June 2020, where are you at with your studying? How’s that going? Do you need any support? So there’s…you can look at…people set their own priorities, and then we can kind of just have those conversations. And it’s really for the employee to…it’s an opportunity to say what they think about the current environment and just an open conversation.
Michael: But the idea as well is if I’m having any performance-related concerns about an employee, this is also where they’re happening. So I don’t have to build this up to annual review process, we’re going to talk about this in the one-on-one.
Tessa: Yeah. I wouldn’t wait. Like if there’s a performance issue with a team member, I wouldn’t wait. And say their GIG… well, we call them GIG meetings. It stands for growth, impact, goals. So their GIG meeting, the one-on-one meetings I’m talking about, I’m not going to wait a month to tell them about their performance issue, I’m going to talk to them that day. So it would be…if there’s a performance issue, for sure, we’d kind of address it, and then it would be a follow-up to maybe that initial conversation in their one-on-one GIG meeting.
Michael: Okay. And so how long have you been running this structure now?
Tessa: Oh, it’s been a long time. And honestly, I won’t lie, it’s not perfected. I think it’s been since around 2015 was when we kind of started implementing these one-on-one meetings, I think. But they weren’t perfect, they’re not perfect now. It’s a really just kind of a learn as you go kind of process, finding the best way to have an effective conversation. But I think people get a lot out of them. I learn a lot about what people want to do and how we can kind of help them get there.
Michael: So being just four-plus years into it now, I would imagine you’ve learned quite a bit. So what have you found is what works, what doesn’t work when you’re trying to do more of a real-time, ongoing interaction and feedback process.
Tessa: Yeah. I think people like the structure. Are you talking about the feedback process in the one-on-ones or just feedback in general?
Michael: The one-on-ones and how you’re trying to run the meeting. So I’m going to imagine for four years, they’ve probably evolved quite a bit and there’s a whole bunch of, “Yep, not doing that anymore in our process.”
Tessa: Yeah. And I think at the beginning, it was a lot of…it was a weird transition for me personally because I was going from being a peer to a lot of these people to now being in a more leadership management role, kind of be an awkward transition, right? Like, all of a sudden you’re buddy-buddy with everybody and then you’re talking to them about their development and their compensation. So I think it was me working through getting over the fears about that, and then kind of understanding that having a collaborative agenda in these meetings will make them really effective. And it’s really fun to talk about people’s development. And again, just reading articles, how to have an effective one-on-one, like what does that look like? What questions should you ask? Or there’s so many great resources out there. So it’s just, it’s figuring out what works and trying it, and if it doesn’t work, get feedback, then be agile and change it.
Michael: So now that you brought this up, I’ve got to ask about this as well. So the transition from…to me, you sort of have two interesting transitions, right? I’m in on the operations side. I’m going to go over the advisor side. No, actually, I really like the culture and HR and managing side more than the advising side. So there’s kind of that shift. And then there’s the one that I think is a challenge for almost anyone in any context, but I would think even harder just when you’re still in your 20s of, so I started out in an entry position and a few years later, I am the manager of the people that I started out with, some of who might have even been there before I was, depending on the sequence.
Tessa: Twenty years before I have.
Michael: Right. And as you said, going from buddy-buddy conversations and drinks to like, “So I have to talk to you about your performance and your compensation.”
Tessa: Performance and your behavior and your development. And it really is like, you kind of just can’t hold back, right? It’s a mind shift a little bit. And you can still be close with people, absolutely, and be friendly with people, but at the same time, in the back of my head…in my mind, I’m always like, “Okay, I definitely have to keep a different level of professionalism than I did before.” And it’s that transition of, yeah, you’re my friend, but now, again, we’re going to be talking about compensation. It’s almost just like, “Hey, this is how our relationship was before, and I really value that, but these are the…just be transparent, right? Just be honest. These are the kind of conversations we’re going to be having moving forward. And I hope you’re okay with that. And again, yeah, just be honest, be transparent. No point in holding back.” The more you get in those conversations, the easier it gets. And over time, right, just like culture, it’s not quick. You have to develop these things over time and eventually becomes the norm. And eventually, everybody gets more comfortable with the new norm.
How She Describes The Culture Of Her Own Firm [1:30:03]
Michael: So as someone that kind of lives and breathes the culture for your firm and tries to set this pace, how do you describe culture and the culture of your firm in particular?
Tessa: Yeah. Well, like I said at the beginning, we’re different offices with different cultures. And I can only really speak authentically about the culture of our team.
Tessa: Yeah. So to me, earlier, when we kind of touched on this is, culture is, it’s fluid and it’s actions, right? The biggest thing about culture is, it’s actions. Again, you can’t just put these beautiful, fluffy words up in the boardroom and expect to have great culture. And back in 2015 when I was really trying to figure this out, I came across the Netflix’s culture slide deck. And they say that true culture and values, as opposed to these nice-sounding values, are shown by who gets promoted, rewarded and let go. Right? I was like, “Wow, that makes a lot of sense.” And real company values are behaviors and skills that companies particularly value in fellow employees. So again, it’s not an overnight process, and it’s not stationary. And I kind of like to relate it to the flywheel that Jim Collins talks about, right? It’s this impact of your actions and your decisions and a little bit of luck that can really help you gain momentum to become successful, right? It’s this compounding effect of hard work, effort and learning from failure. So that’s kind of the beginning of how you would think about cultivating culture.
Michael: So then I’m wondering like, in the context of your firm in particular, so how do you describe your culture in particular? As you said, culture is driven by who gets promoted and who gets let go. So who…well, I was going to say who’s getting promoted and who’s getting let go, but maybe we can just talk hypothetically about who’s getting let go. But what does that look like in practice in a firm like yours?
Tessa: Right. It comes back to two actions. And again, it’s what do we value? And in our team, we value personal accountability, we value feedback, we value wellness and we value care. Care is one of the things we talk about. And it’s like, we’re in this together as a group. So seeing as those are the things that we value, again, how do we action that on a daily basis? So if we value personal accountability, again, am I going to fall into sympathy as a leader or am I going to go to empathy and help people see their circumstances in a different way?
So these one-on-one kind of conversations are incredibly important, right? This can happen after let’s say a meeting with a client or a prospect. We have maybe a more junior advisor and then a more experienced advisor, right? Do they just leave that meeting without talking to each other or do they say, “Okay…” Does the senior advisor say, “Give me two things that I could have done better in that meeting?” And then the junior advisor does the same thing. Right? So it’s this two-way model feedback. So if we believe in personal accountability and feedback, again, how do we action that every single day? And we’re not perfect, right? Again, it’s the actions. It takes effort and a lot of kind of top-of-mind conscious thinking to implement these things. And if it’s something that we really value, we’re going to do it.
Michael: So what surprised you the most in trying to build a strong culture at the firm?
Tessa: Yeah, again, at the team, right? So the team level, well, a lot of learning, a lot of failures, a lot of things…conventional ways of thinking about leadership that aren’t super effective. I think figuring out the facts and just having a growth mindset. Carol Dweck talks about growth versus fixed mindset and truly using that mentality of you know what? If I don’t have it now, it doesn’t mean I’m never going to get it. Doesn’t mean I’m never going to figure it out. So it’s just this relentless need to always figure out the evidence-based way to do something. And I think we’ve…eventually over time, we’ve arrived at this kind of structure of leadership through Reality-Based Leadership and through Fellow and all these great things.
So what surprised me most is I guess how much misinformation is out there and how much… When I first looked into this role, I was like, “Oh, yeah, culture is beer, culture is happy hours, it’s cute puppies walking around the office.” Like, no, no, no, that’s not it at all, it’s actions and behaviors. And your culture is really going to shine through. I think it’s Ben Horowitz, I think he has this awesome quote from his book “What You Do Is Who You Are.” And he says, “The best way to understand your culture is not through what managers tell you, but through how new employees behave.” Right? So what behavior do they perceive will help them fit in, survive, and succeed, right? That’s your company culture. That makes a lot of sense to me. What do you think?
Michael: Oh, I like that. I like that. The best way to understand your culture is how your new employees behave. It’s so true. If someone new comes on board, any time you’re in a new environment, it is probably the moment, at least for reasonably astute employees, it is the moment you are most attuned to everything that’s happening around you, because you’re trying to figure out, “How does it work around here? How do I fit in?” Right? Like, “What do I have to do to look good in front of my peers or my boss? What do I really not do because I don’t want to look bad and get in trouble?” And so granted, there’s maybe a subset of folks who are a little bit oblivious to that stuff and march to their own tune. But for most people, you start picking up on the social cues pretty quickly and figuring out what kinds of behaviors around here are rewarded or frowned upon. And you’re on your best behavior because you don’t want to get fired right after you start a new job. So you are paying the most attention, and you are trying the hardest to be on “your best behavior,” which basically means you will try as hard as you can to exemplify whatever you believe the firm’s culture is when you first take it in and show up.
Tessa: You got it, right? What’s going to help me fit in, survive, and succeed? Oh, it just makes so much sense to me. I’m like, “Wow, yes, I get it now.” Yeah, I love that. I’m about 70% through his book, and it’s phenomenal.
Michael: I was going to say, what was the book and who..?
Tessa: Yeah. So Ben Horowitz of Horowitz and Andreessen, and the book is “What You Do Is Who You Are.”
Michael: All right, very cool. We will make sure we put that in the show notes as well.
Michael: So what was the low point for you on the journey?
Tessa: Oh, that’s a good question. I think the getting out of the headspace of, “This girl used to fill out paperwork and now she’s talking to me about my development and my compensation. What experience does she have?” Right? So getting over that in my head was I think…well, it was a great thing for sure, but the low points were lacking that kind of self-confidence in my ability to cultivate a culture, right? It was daunting, but at the same time… I know I brought up Carol Dweck already, but I read her book and I was like, “Oh my gosh, I can…after reading this book, I can do anything.” Right? Have you read “Growth Mindset” or “Mindset” by Carol Dweck?
Michael: Yep, yep, it is a powerful book.
Tessa: Yeah, yeah. So just having that mentality really helped kind of move things forward and kind of helped me gain confidence. And it’s like, if you have a fixed mindset, you’re avoiding everything that’s going to make you actually great at it because you think you’re never going to be good at it. So you’re like, “Oh, I’m not good at public speaking, therefore, I’m not going to do any public speaking.” And therefore, you don’t get any experience public speaking. So kind of just diving into, “Okay, you know what? I’m going to create this one-on-one GIG meeting kind of cadence of meeting with employees. I’m going to go and learn about Reality-Based Leadership and overcome my fear of public speaking and deliver workshops to the company.” Right? So it’s again, the low point of falling into a fixed mindset but then realizing I’ve got to get out of that, I think has been a great lesson. And failure is awesome. I’ve learned way more from my failures than I have my successes.
Michael: And I’m struck as well that just, it sounds kind of a style and approach for you overall. Like, for you, when you hit a wall with a challenge, it’s like, “I’ve got to go read something. I’ve got to go find something. I’m going to try to take in new information to learn my way or climb my way through the challenge?”
Tessa: Yeah, yeah. And I think that’s really part of our culture as a team, we have a big focus on continuous learning. It just shines through in our actions, right? It’s what Ben and Cameron have been able to do with the podcast, the “Rational Reminder” has been really great. They kind of throw these Hail Mary passes to these really interesting people and people will say yes. And it’s kind of just being okay being vulnerable, and understanding that being vulnerable, when you feel like that, you’re actually going to be courageous and brave. And we really try to instill that every day in our people. And it’s like, why not try? Why not? And, yeah, I think that’s something that we value.
Tessa’s Advice For Starting Down The Path Of Setting A Firm Culture [1:39:42]
Michael: So for someone who’s listening who’s maybe like loving what they hear, “Oh my gosh, I wish my firm’s culture was like this or I could build up like this, but we don’t have all the stuff you’re talking about,” or like, “We’re where you were five years ago or six years ago,” who wants to start getting started and going down this road, what would you tell someone that wants to take the first step of taking control of a culture that maybe they’ve never particularly defined or done anything with beyond? It was just sort of a reflection of the people that were there and it is what it is.
Tessa: Right. I think, take a look at what virtues are important to you and ask yourself, “Okay, if this is really meaningful to me, how am I implementing this? How do my actions relate to what I value?” And let’s say your boss is like, “Yeah, we have to be on time for meetings. This is super important. If you’re five minutes early, you’re late,” right, but then he himself or she herself is always late for meetings, no one’s going to value that rule. So look at your own actions first. Look at what you can do as an individual to help, and then again, start acting on your values.
And just coming back to learning, right? When I first started, again, getting into this role, it was like, “Okay, what is motivation? What does motivation really mean? Or what does behavior change mean? What is vulnerability? What are the costs of incivility in the workplace?” And then you kind of just go down all of these rabbit holes and start listening to amazing content from so many sources. And you keep picking off the things that you hear. And it takes work, sacrifice. Like I don’t really go home and watch Netflix, I go home and read. I watch Netflix sometimes. I won’t lie. But you know what I mean? It’s this kind of…this dedication to, “Okay, what do I value and how do I implement it on a daily basis?” So it comes back to you.
Michael: So anything that you wish you could go back and tell you from four or five years ago as you were starting down this journey that you know now and wish you knew then?
Tessa: Oh, so many things. I think one of the biggest lessons was…and again just I had these thoughts before, but again, Cy Wakeman, she just says it really well, is stop the stories, stop the stress, right? There’s so many times where before, like if somebody’s meeting, like a one-on-one meeting, I’m like, “Oh my gosh, this is going to be such a bad meeting. They think I’m a terrible leader. There’s no point to these conversations. What am I doing here? Why do they value what I have to say?” And then after the meeting, it turns out it was an awesome meeting and we had a great conversation. So it’s that recognizing, not believing everything, I think. And I think people can tend to catastrophize things and have black and white thinking. And it’s really, what’s the point in stressing out, and just kind of go for it, and you’re most likely going to have a good experience, in some cases, I think.
Michael: It reminds me a little one of the themes we had come up early on this podcast with Carl Richards around the phenomenon of the impostor syndrome, which is actually like well researched in psychology now. These situations that we get ourselves into where you may be fully qualified to do the thing you’re about to do, but if you don’t believe yourself, that nagging deep down like, “Man, my clients pay me a lot of money, am I really actually worth this?” Like, “I hope they don’t realize that I’m actually usually just figuring all this stuff out about five minutes before I get to the meeting sometimes.” Right? And we start criticizing and talking yourselves down and this feeling of, I don’t feel like I’m really as good as everybody thinks I am, and I’m afraid that they’re going to realize that I’m an impostor. That’s where the name come from.
That it strikes me like what you’re describing of Cy’s work sounds very much to me like an extension of impostor syndrome, right? If you tell yourself the impostor stories, you may even actually successfully convince yourself they’re true and then sabotage yourself. If you just stop the stories, you stop all the stressing around it and just do the thing and let it happen, and it might actually turn out you’re okay at it.
Tessa: Totally. And it’s getting back to the facts, right? Like before, let’s say when I first started doing the one-on-one meetings, I get super stressed out about them and like create all these stories that, “Oh my gosh, people don’t value what I have to say.” Meanwhile, I have no evidence that this person thinks that way, right? So getting back to the facts, right? What do I know for sure? The only thing I know for sure is that I booked a meeting with this person and we’re going to have a meeting and we have an agenda. That is the facts. That’s it. So why bother kind of creating this terrible storm in my head about how everything is going to be terrible when really nothing’s happened yet.
Michael: Well, very cool. So what comes next for you?
Tessa: Yeah. I think it’s just continuing to grow the team and add talented, responsible people. That’s kind of the next step. And seeing where we really want to take the team and what we want to do. And I think that what we want to do is continue growing. And I think we have this kind of solid structure in place to enable growth. So I think that’s the plan.
Michael: So as we wrap up, as you know, this is a podcast around success, and one of the themes that always comes up, success means different things to different people. As you pointed out, it changes in our own mindset as we start down one version of our career path and like, “I actually don’t like this. I’m going to go to this other direction as well.” So you are navigating this journey as you go and it certainly sounds like have really hit your stride in finding success in building culture. How do you define success for yourself as you look forward from here?
Tessa: Oh, I love this question. It’s such a good question. I think it’s doing something small every day that brings me joy. The compounding effects of that are real, at least in my perspective, from my perspective. Yeah.
Michael: And any direction that you’re trying to compound that towards, or is that just part of the journey?
Tessa: I think it’s just part of the journey, right? It’s something that I want to make sure that I’m being the absolute best kind of culture lead for our team. So what does that mean? Right? That’s a great goal, but okay, what can I do every single day that’s going to get me there? And that’s, okay, I’m going to read 25 pages of Ben Horowitz’s book every night, and I’m going to kind of just continually chip away and get myself really comfortable in this culture role. And again, like, the compounding effects of kind of the small habits over time will kind of get you to where you want to go.
Michael: Well, very cool. I love it. I’m very curious and excited to see where that actually goes for your journey. So we may have to check back in a couple of years and see where that’s compounding for you.
Tessa: Absolutely. I’d love to do that.
Michael: Awesome. Well, thank you so much, Tessa, for joining us on the “Financial Advisor Success” podcast.
Tessa: Awesome. Thanks for having me. It was great experience.
Michael: Thank you.