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The art of breathing: How to handle the overwhelm of being a financial advisor in 2012

First we need to understand the principle of diminishing personal returns -- and then be willing to take counterintuitive steps

Friday, May 25, 2012 – 4:51 AM by Guest Columnist Abby Salameh
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Abby Salameh: You want to answer that e-mail immediately, return that phone call ASAP and respond to that text message the minute it comes in on your phone.

Brooke’s Note: The definition of a good financial advisor these days has expanded to everything from achieving alpha to picking up Alphie from doggie day care for that $30-million client (just this once!) If you’re a financial advisor with 80 to 100 clients then there is no logical endpoint for a day or a week. But there has to be one or, logically, the whole operation will melt down. Managing this challenge is difficult but Abby Salameh, a veteran of advisor management, child-raising and New York — the ultimate qualifications for knowing how to handle over stimulus, has done more than tackle it with this column. It follows her last offering — one of the most successful guest articles we’ve ever run. See: 5 ways for stressed-out advisors to build a more efficient practice. Yoga gets mentioned as a solution in this column but we won’t hold it against her.

“I’m burned out” said Dan, an advisor in New York. “I don’t have enough time in the day to get all my intended activities done and I totally forgot to make a reservation for my anniversary tonight.” He had came in early this morning and now we were preparing for a client event we were hosting the next day. He seemed rather stressed as we walked through the agenda. We would be mid-discussion and the iPhone would “bing” another e-mail, another text, another phone call. Dan would check the phone every two to five minutes and occasionally step out to answer or respond.

It was clear an intervention was needed. After about an hour, I stopped Dan mid- text and asked him this simple question: “When is the last time you took a breath?” He looked at me quizzically. It was obvious that he was breathing. But it wasn’t the conscience breath of which I was speaking.

Forgetting to inhale

Dan is a classic Type A personality. Fairly high strung, incredibly talented, smart, ambitious, great father and husband, good steward of his business and his clients. But he cannot remember what he ate for breakfast (or if he even ate breakfast.) He has a laundry list of things to do that keeps growing, a half-written newsletter from last month that never went out, a job description for an intern that he hasn’t yet posted. He got in extremely early to prep for an “A” client meeting that he had no time to prep for yesterday because he got sidetracked by a account-opening process for a new client that went awry.

Sound familiar? We all have a bit of Dan in us; entrepreneurial, ambitious, hard working, family oriented and eager to please all of our stakeholders, our business, our families, our clients and our employees. We have the fire in our belly to bring on new clients, increase profitability, service existing clients and multi-task all other functions like social media and marketing, operations and human capital, and don’t forget technology. See: Three ways to use social media in turbulent markets.

We are all very productive, right?

Wrong. Somewhere in our search for elusive highest level of productivity, we became over burdened and burned out. So, what do we do?

In the words of a famous Simon and Garfunkel song: Slow down. You move too fast.

Step away from the hand-held device

One thing I’ve noticed is that, metaphorically speaking, we all run fast. You want to answer that e-mail immediately, return that phone call ASAP and respond to that text message the minute it comes in on your phone. We have set unrealistic expectations on our own response times. See: Why RIAs are shunning mobile apps and why Black Diamond, Orion, Fidelity and others are still placing their chips on an iPad future.

So, what do we do? We have to slow things down. Take control of our time. Be mindful of what we are doing and allot the required time necessary to complete the task at hand.

Paige, a younger advisor I work with, told me recently she gave up the use of her iPhone for her birthday. I looked at her with amazement. I could not imagine giving up my iphone. See: Orion Advisor Services goes mobile with advisor-branded apps for the iPhone and Android.

Paige explained that she spends plenty of time in the office and that once she walks out that door, she wants to leave it all behind; that anything that happens from the time she leaves until the time she gets in the next day can wait. Paige said the decision has been liberating. I imagine it would be.

But since we are all not exactly like Paige (and going without an iPhone might actually add to my stress level) here are a few tips for slowing down that you may want to try:

• Implement a policy for getting back to clients. Set expectations of when they can expect to hear back from you based on the request they have. Jo Ann, one of Fusion Advisor Network advisors, tells her clients that she will return their calls within 24 hours. This way, if a message is left, the client understands and expects it may take her a day to get back to them.

• Delegate, delegate, delegate. Ask yourself immediately: “Is it something I really need to be involved in or is it a request that can be handled by another staff member in my office? If the answer is the latter, don’t bother, send it down the line. Eric, an advisor in Baltimore, has his junior advisor handle many of the investment requests and has his client service manager handle other requests. Rarely is there a need for Eric to actually even return the call, which leaves him free to do what he loves — bring in new business. Trust your staff. That’s why you hired them. See: Nine pitfalls for advisors to avoid when taking on new employees.

• Put your phone down when you are in a meeting or trying to complete a task. This is the hard one. It is so tempting to check your phone for e-mails or messages if you have it sitting in front of you. Put it away. Turn it off. The urge to reach for it will diminish if it is not in the same room as you are. You will actually finish the implementation of the plan, the completion of the newsletter, the thank you letter you wanted to send to the divorce attorney that just sent you a referral.

• Take the deep breath. Things will come up. There will always be fire drills. If you are anything like me, you have the inclination to react quickly. Don’t. Take a deep breath; that pregnant pause so often spoken about but not practiced. It will slow you down.

Advisors breathing together

“Ohhhmmmm” said Sue in the corner. “Move into downward dog” said Kathy, the instructor. And everyone inhaled deeply and exhaled deeply together. Sound like a typical yoga class? In some ways it is and in some ways it’s not. The difference here is that this yoga class is being held at 7am during the Fusion Advisor Network top advisor conference before the breakfast session begins. There are 15 advisors (and me) in the class on the lawn of La Posada in Santa Fe, NM and Kathy is one of our advisors in Memphis, TN.

Dan is one of the participants. He has taken my advice and has also started doing yoga. Dan seems much more peaceful than he was a month ago when I was in his office. After the class, I ask him how it’s going. I had recently helped him write and launch an e-mail campaign targeting new retirement plan prospects and I was really asking if he had gotten any response.

“I have to thank you, Abby, Dan said. “Although you have provided me with growth and marketing solutions that seem to be working, the advice on slowing down is the one that made the greatest impact. Just then, I heard his phone “bing.” Dan turned the phone off.

Abby Salameh brings to Fusion Advisor Network 20 years of experience working directly with independent advisors. Having started her career at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Inc. in 1992, Abby went on to help launch InvestmentNews for Crain Communications Inc. In 2002, she joined TD Ameritrade to head the marketing efforts for its institutional services. More recently, Abby has been providing strategic and tactical marketing consulting for leading industry firms, including large broker-dealers and independent advisors. She joined Fusion Advisor Network in September. See: What exactly is Fusion Advisor Network and who did it draw to Las Vegas last week.

Fusion Advisor Network is a membership organization consisting of some of the leading independent advisory firms in the country. It provides affiliated member firms with a tight-knit community coupled with business management consulting, marketing services, technology optimization, human-capital guidance, and guidance around succession planning, including mergers and acquisitions.

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