I’m a huge advocate for advisory firms taking advantage of the unique abilities of professional managers. In a previous blog, I described this as “The One Thing That Will Most Transform Your Business Now.”
I still have that conviction. Having the right person in this role empowers the lead advisor to be immersed in the activities that only they can perform. Conveniently, these vital functions also tend to be those that advisors most enjoy and are most proficient at, and have the most direct impact on revenue.
Many studies show that those who have the moxie, persistence and courage to create a new business are often not the ideal choice to manage that business once it’s up and running; the two functions involve very different mindsets and dissimilar skills. So, divide and conquer. Hire your perfect complement.
Since posting that original blog, I have worked with several coaching members to employ operations professionals. Some are running into significant challenges with integration and coordination of the new role. What was intended to be a strategic realignment of responsibilities to allow leaders to focus on core strengths proved to be less rewarding than what was hoped for – or, worse, a sizable distraction.
So, my intention here is to describe the practices that result in a powerful union and enable a happy and productive CEO/COO partnership.
As a precursor, I can’t recommend highly enough the book Rocket Fuel: The One Essential Combination That Will Get You More of What You Want from Your Business by Gino Wickman and Mark C. Winters. In my view, this is the preeminent resource for helping advisors understand the crucial partnership of the Visionary (strategy and insight on the future firm) and the Integrator (operational excellence and bringing the best of the Visionary’s ideas to life). If you’re good at one, you’re not likely to be good at the other, and it’s the mashup of these opposite but complementary energies that propels stellar growth.
Rocket Fuel includes a lot of helpful information on the capabilities, work preferences and personality of both types. It provides many examples of how visionaries and integrators think and process information. The book also provides practical examples of the functional areas in which each type should focus and how the roles can work together effectively.
There are five steps to an effective integration of operations professionals into your firm:
Step #1: Ensure You’re Prepared to Cede Authority and Control
No matter how qualified your newly hired operations professional is, if you’re not ready to relinquish a significant measure of decision making and day-to-day management, this will not be a successful hire.
Most advisors I’ve worked with over the years have some level of disdain for compliance, managing staff, operations and technology, and would be overjoyed to have someone they trust take on these important responsibilities. However, if you believe your firm only functions well if you have direct oversight over the entire organization, neither you nor the operations professional will be satisfied.
My boss, the award-winning Sarah Cain, was formerly the chief operations officer of a $1 billion RIA. She developed a series of questions to carefully consider when hiring a professional manager. This list is specific to the COO role, but most apply to the director or manager level as well:
- Why are you hiring a COO?
- What do you expect the COO to take off your plate?
- How much time are you willing to give a new COO to “fix” any problems you’re hiring them to solve?
- How will you react if your COO tells you decisions you’ve made in the past were not the optimal choice, and need to be changed?
- How much can this COO spend without pre-approval?
- Can the COO hire a new employee without your approval?
- Can the COO fire an employee without your approval?
- Can the COO sign vendor contracts on behalf of the firm?
- What decisions can the COO make without your involvement?
- Will you commit to regularly meeting with your COO AND giving them your full attention so that they can get feedback and answers from you?
- Are you willing to be completely transparent about your firm’s finances with the COO?
- If the COO disagrees with you about a strategic move or operational decision, who wins? How will that disagreement be resolved?
- Are you willing to give the COO authority to reorganize the organizational chart and job duties as they see fit?
- If the COO has a negative performance conversation with an employee, and that employee comes to you to complain, how will you handle it?
- If the COO comes to you with performance concerns about a long-time employee that you consider a friend, how will you handle it?
- Are you willing to give/sell the COO some amount of equity at some point in the future?
- Are you truly willing to give the COO authority to run the day-to-day operations of your business?
Step #2: Identify Role Level Required
Identify the role level you require at this stage of your firm’s growth: operations manager, director of operations or chief operations officer. Operations manager is a lower-level management role, director of operations is an upper-tier management role and chief operations officer is an executive role.
Higher-level positions involve increased autonomy and authority, broader scope, greater participation in firm leadership and increased expectations for identifying and communicating areas of improvement and proactively providing solutions. Each level strives for executional effectiveness.
Step #3: Define and Document Responsibilities
Once you have identified the correct level for your firm’s needs, establish formal job requirements and create a job description that is meaningful, accurate and inspiring. For some, creating documents like this is as exciting as watching paint dry, but it’s a critical starting point. If you lack clarity about the functions this role will perform, decision-making authority and how the two of you will interact, the odds of success diminish significantly.
Envision the impact the right person will have on your firm’s future and let that be a source of enthusiasm for this necessary first step. Dig into what your unique needs are and what tasks you want to get off your plate. There cannot be any daylight between you and the operations professional regarding responsibilities and expectations and how the two of you will work together. Be thorough and accurate in outlining breadth and depth, areas of focus, success measurements and relentless focus on exemplary execution of key business functions.
Identify the experiences, personality type and other characteristics that will lead to success in this role at your firm. Consider cultural alignment. Pay particular attention to the experience candidates have had managing teams and helping firms grow. Are they well-versed in modern approaches to task management and have they leveraged technology effectively in previous roles?
When recruiting for this role, some advisors have stipulated an MBA and a certain number of years experience in financial services. In my view, the requisite skills for this role are largely inherent to one’s way of thinking and working rather than something learned in graduate school.
Specifically, the capabilities one must have to stand out in an operations leadership role include:
- Process orientation
- Attention to detail
- Drive projects to completion
- Manage staff
- Ensure the right people are working on the right stuff at the right time
- Understand leadership’s vision and know how to make it a reality
- The resolve to push back on firm leadership when proposed ideas are suboptimal
And while experience in our profession is ideal, mandating that experience limits your candidate pool to a size that requires viewing through a microscope. Plus, a fresh outside perspective can be the shot in the arm your firm needs. (COO: “Why are you doing it this way?” CEO: “Uh…because we’ve always done it this way?”)
The right candidate will be a quick study, and with the proper onboarding plan will soon understand the nuances of advisory firms.
Step #4: Engage Your Team
Make it very clear why this role is crucial to the firm’s continued success and how it impacts them positively. Generate enthusiasm for the lift this new role will provide, and proactively address the fear or concern some team members may feel about having a new boss or the status of their own position.
Reporting structure must be established, and everyone should know what the new org chart will look like. Which team members will report to the operations leader? If your firm is a partnership, to which partner will the new hire report?
Bring select team members into the interview process and take their reactions to heart.
Step #5: Onboard Deliberately
Once you’ve hired the right person, the next item in the critical path is a thoughtful onboarding plan (see CCO lesson). Set the new hire up for success by creating a logical, structured approach that imparts the knowledge and experience they need to quickly become a key contributor.
Think in terms of modules and time frames. What specific areas need to be mastered, and in what order? Determine who or what is the right resource to provide that information: you, another team member, custodian or broker-dealer online systems, internal workflows or procedure documents, books, blogs or other information sources.
Meet regularly to discuss what’s working well and what’s not, explore how you and the rest of the team can help the new hire excel, iron out difficulties and stay in lockstep on this essential CEO/COO partnership.
When executed with intention and precision, the addition of the right professional manager enables your firm to run with the efficiency of a Swiss timepiece so you can focus your attention exclusively on those tasks you most enjoy and that goose the bottom line.
Conversely, if approached unsystematically or without determination to hand over the reins, both you and your new hire are likely to be disappointed. Dismay leads to turnover and a negative ROI on your talent investment.
Study the recommendations above and implement them in a thoughtful, measured way. As a result, you, your team and your clients will benefit from the order and efficiency that professional managers bring to the table.