By Alfie Mullan, Director of Financial Planning at Emery Little
We have long dreamt of building and running the best financial planning team in the world; the financial planning equivalent of Guardiola’s Barcelona circa 2008 - 2012.
This is certainly an ambitious dream for a young and relatively inexperienced leadership team who, let’s face it, are making it up as they go along, but we are convinced that this will be the gateway to building a world class team, a world class client service, and a world class business.
Emery Little was founded over 20 years ago and since then has grown into a well-established and successful company, but it was time for a change. Having spent much of 2019 and 2020 defining and perfecting our new vision and culture, and trying to get it right in our minds, 2021 was the year that it all started to click into place.
After a complete overhaul of the client-facing personnel, we started 2021 with five relatively inexperienced, yet extremely talented planners, and a client-base that had long become accustomed to seeing the same old familiar few faces for the past two decades. Now everything was set to change.
There are three key components to our philosophy, laying down the foundations that enable us to build a truly exceptional financial planning team. They are as follows:
1. Establishing Trust
This might seem obvious but establishing true and complete trust within a team takes a lot of intentional work.
Many well-renowned business gurus talk of the importance of trust as a crucial ingredient of any team’s success. None more so than Patrick Lencioni, who said, “Trust is about vulnerability; team members who trust one another learn to become comfortable being open, even exposed, to one another around their failures, weaknesses, even fears.”
This ethos of leading through vulnerability has been imperative to the trust-building process within our planning team. We have spent many hours together, sharing our vulnerabilities and fears, talking about our troubles and discussing how we each might deal with a difficult client situation.
Midway through 2021 we were fortunate enough to welcome Harry Dunkinson into the planning team. We were very conscious that this arrangement needed to feel like a brand new team of six, as opposed to the old team plus Harry. When somebody new joins the team, irrespective of what talent and skill they bring to the table, it is always tempting to simply throw them into the mix and hope it works out. We took the decision to tear down the existing team structure and reinvent it from scratch to better reflect our joint objectives.
At the heart of that process we held various meetings where we would encourage each other to step out of our comfort zone and share more than we were naturally comfortable with, all in a bid to engender vulnerability and establish trust within our new team.
There are many tricks and tools that can be used to encourage the building of trust. The employment of these tools, however, has been further complicated in our situation by Covid constraints, which meant that some of the new team members had not even met face-to-face. We found that regular conversations, during which the demonstration of vulnerability was actively encouraged and exhibited, were the catalyst to building that team mentality whereby we truly felt that we had each other’s backs and were willing to go into battle together as a unit.
At times it was very hard and often seemed like overkill but the results were immediate and astonishing.
2. Using the Thinking Environment
I don’t think it’s controversial to say that traditionally financial planners often have lots of ideas, are confident in their own ability and are more than happy to provide their advice to anyone who’s prepared to listen. These tendencies, and more, can create egos which can inflate or deflate others, depending on the personalities around you. I can speak on this with credibility.
In a bid to avoid this negativity, every internal planning team interaction within our business - be it a one-to-one or one of our 3 fortnightly team meetings – is conducted within a Thinking Environment. I have to credit our Operations Director and in-house Time to Think coach, Becca, for normalising this within the business, but it has been fundamental to our success in managing the big characters and egos within the planning team.
In its simplest form, the Thinking Environment is a meeting structure whereby each participant has adequate time to think about the subject at hand, which could be how we are going to achieve our goals for the quarter or how we might need to deal with an unexpected and awkward client case. During the meeting everyone takes it in turns to share their thoughts on the matter in hand with the single proviso that, ‘you will not be interrupted’.
There are many components of the Thinking Environment but the key ones for me are Attention and Equality. Attention ensures that everyone is focused on what the current speaker is saying, providing them with the space to compose their thoughts before sharing them with the team. Equality is of paramount importance because it allows for the ideas of everyone - people from all types of backgrounds, with vastly different experience and knowledge - to bring their own unique views and insights into the conversation. You’d be amazed at how many times the golden answer has come from the last person in the round who, after being given the opportunity to listen to everyone else’s thoughts and ramblings, has been able to come up with the solution to the problem.
Whether your team comprises two people or two hundred, the Thinking Environment is something that I would whole-heartedly recommend as a means of getting the best out of everyone in your team. You might be surprised at how much better they are at solving problems than you.
3. Normalising Healthy Conflict
Conflict, by its very meaning, can put the fear in many who shy away from disagreements or arguments, likewise it can bring out the very worst in those who like to tell people everything that is on their mind.
A team composed of passive, reasonable, conflict-averse folk will never fully exploit their natural talent and maximise their potential. Our mantra is:
“a better you + a better me = a better us”.
This is the philosophy we employ as we strive to normalise healthy conflict, encouraging respectful and honest feedback, warts and all, in a concerted effort to make us better, individually and as a team.
This is still something we’re working hard to adopt and normalise, but we’re all committed to the process and outcome. Crucially, you cannot have healthy conflict without having first established trust amongst the team; that is an absolute non-negotiable. Once that trust is in place it becomes easy to give your colleagues honest and constructive feedback about what they did or didn’t do so well, safe in the knowledge that toys and pram will remain collocated. Likewise it also gives you the capacity to listen to and willingly accept the views of those same trusted colleagues when they let you have both barrels; educating you as to what you could have done better and how you might improve next time.
Inspired by some of the highest performing and most successful teams and businesses in existence - London’s Air Ambulance, Pixar and Motown to name a few - we are determined to implement and encourage the mind-set whereby it is perfectly normal and acceptable to receive, and even welcome, honest feedback from our peers, which we can then reflect upon and utilise to enable us to improve and grow, ironing out the rough spots, eliminating our weaknesses and honing our strengths.
It can be brutal, both to give and receive feedback, but given the right environment where you know that feedback is coming and yet, most importantly, you understand that it’s given for the right reason and by people you trust, it will help you to improve, and also enable you in turn to become more skilled at providing feedback to others. We’re all perpetually elevating each other to new dizzy heights and at a very fast pace.
Hence, better you + better me = better us.
You might get the impression that we have all our ducks in a row and everything in our world is rosy but I must emphasise that this all comes with a huge caveat where I expose our own vulnerability by stressing that we are still very much making it up as we go along. However, collectively we possess an insatiable desire to be world class and with this team of talented experts, both within our company and the partner companies with whom we collaborate, I know that we’re laying the foundations for a successful business that will make a huge impact in the world. And we’ve barely even started.