My humble beginnings growing up on a farm near Tekamah, Nebraska, gave me many gifts, the biggest being the gift of perspective and work ethic. As I release my fifth book, Proven in the Trenches: 11 Principles to Maximize Advisor Value and Transform Your Firm’s Future, I’m reminded not of the milestones in my life where I experienced success but of the moments that met me with adversity. During such an unstable time in our country – in our world – with the unfolding pandemic and a crippled economy, I realize how some of the most innovative and transformative epiphanies are born during our breaking points.
In 1983, I got my start in this business by selling life insurance out of my college dorm room at the University of Nebraska. The year prior, I remember flipping open an issue of Money Magazine in my high school library, and in that issue was an article listing the top 10 professions of the future. Being a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER® was one of those listed, and I remember feeling like it resonated so much with me and how I wanted to help clients plan their financial future.
Fueled by pure enthusiasm and stubborn drive, I found a way to connect with farmers and build a business. It wasn’t easy. I put over 56,000 miles on my car in a year, driving from one small farm town to the next. My first client was from Fairmont, Nebraska, a small town of only a few hundred people in the middle of the state. That first win was a $2,000 insurance premium for an older couple who were business owners. I remember getting out of my car, once I pulled out of town, because I couldn’t contain my excitement. I ran around the car, beaming with this rush of confidence that I could build something. Those business owners some 37 years later have passed away and their children are now clients. Looking back, it was one of the first times I had nearly reached a breaking point with myself. That moment planted a seed in me. A seed I would need later on in my career in order to endure the frustration and hopelessness that lie ahead.
In the years following, I was often terrified, wondering if I had what it took to make it as an advisor. I developed a sense of productive paranoia and worked all the time. It was an absolute grind, and soon I grew to hate the business. Remember, this was during the late 80’s. The markets did me no favors. I was miserable, unsuccessful and had serious thoughts about exiting financial services altogether. Finding new clients was impossible, and eventually I burned out. My once bubbling sense of enthusiasm had popped.
Then came a hot, humid summer day in Omaha. I pulled up to a busy intersection to take a left turn, and there was a road worker jack hammering cement in the median. Sweat was just rolling off of him. I looked up at him, and I’m waiting to turn left at the light when I realized I envied him for a moment. Granted, it was a brief moment but powerful, nonetheless. How lucky was he to do something he loved and at the end of the day have the opportunity to go home, kick back, have a beer, enjoy time with his family and not have a worry in the world. Meanwhile, there I sat in my car, not having closed a single client all week. Worse yet, I had just been stood up on an appointment and had to go back to the office, where mountains of paperwork waited for me (a lot of filing to do in those days).
My mind went back to the construction worker. That guy was not only making good money, but he also didn’t have to take his work home with him like I did. At that time and in that moment, I would’ve swapped with him.
Driving back to the office, I told myself, “I have to do something differently or this is it.”
I walked into my small business suite and started calling some of my top clients. I just didn’t feel good and needed to hear a friendly voice on the other line. No reason other than to visit with them and catch up. Candidly, it was the only thing I wanted to do because it was one aspect of the job I truly enjoyed. To my surprise, clients were shocked that I called for no reason. No new product to pitch them. No action required on their portfolio. Nothing. And, during a time when the business was overwhelmingly transaction-based, they didn’t know how to respond to a simple, “Hey there! How are you doing?”
No advisor was doing this back then, and to be honest I really wasn’t either. Little did they know I was the one who needed them in that moment instead of the other way around. Yet, the clients I called were so appreciative and truly touched that I took the time to reach out.
This was the moment I came to a powerful conclusion. It was there that I came up with the concept of Love Affair Marketing and the realization that I could build a business on the foundation of putting clients first. It was there that I truly understood what separated a financial planner from every other broker pedaling product. It was there that marked a new beginning for how I would build and sustain a business that served a higher purpose than myself. It was there – and many points since then – that I realized I needed to evolve in order to survive.
These two moments were turning points in my professional career, both as an advisor and an entrepreneur. I was pushed to the brink of collapse. Moments of complete desperation lacking any hope for what lay ahead. And yet, these were the moments that shaped me. These were the moments that revealed an answer to what I’d been looking for all along but had never been pushed hard enough to see.
To you advisors who are finding yourselves in this very same state of despair today; to you who have lost hope in your business amidst the pandemic; to you who don’t know what answers lie ahead in this time of uncertainty, I say this: it is because of these moments that we become better advisors and better business owners. It is because of these moments that we evolve. It is because of these moments that we grow into the advisors who lead this profession forward into the future. A profession that may look very different from what we are today, but one that will be better for it.
Fear was the ultimate motivator early in my career. Let that not be the case for you in this era. May you find that your burning desire guides you through these challenging times and that it pushes you to lean into those (your clients) who made your business what is today.
Embrace the unknown. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Because you can never take a wrong turn when focusing on doing what’s right for the client.