How Being Vulnerable Can Benefit Your Advisory Firm Culture

April 25, 2019

Connections happen when you have the courage to make mistakes

My wife was recently named executive director of a local nonprofit. As is typical for older non-profits, a degree of “mission creep” was creating some challenges. While the employees were onboard with the mission, there were aspects of the work that did not align with it entirely. Messaging, funding and employee and board engagement were suffering. Deciding that they needed time together, away from the day-to-day, she held an offsite weekend.

The team provided input into the agenda, but there was one critical element she wanted to be sure was included: vulnerability. As I listened to her share her experience, I thought about all the advisory firms I know that could use this technique. Let me ask: How many of you are ever vulnerable with your staff?

Making connections

One of my wife’s inspirations leading up to the offsite was Brené Brown’s TEDxHouston talk The power of vulnerability. Brown describes herself as both a storyteller and clinical researcher. Her talk reinforced to me why robo advisors and 800 number, call center virtual advisors will never really be a threat. People ultimately need a human connection. But, she warns, in order for the connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be really seen. And while connecting to your clients is important, so is connecting to your staff.vulnerable

When my wife first brought up the idea spending Friday – Sunday at a lake house with her team, my conservative Midwest (and somewhat introverted) self thought that, while a good idea for her, I could never imagine doing it. In fact, the idea alone gave me anxiety. But she said that in order to work better together, they had to break out of their “work personalities” and really become a team. And to have a better understanding of mission, a few meetings here or there was not going to cut it.

Without sharing all the details of the weekend, laughs were had, a few tears were shed, and a group of co-workers started to really become a team. The majority of the time was spent taking a deep dive into the mission, blue-sky visioning, and taking a long hard look at how they talk to donors and participants about what they do. Intense work sessions were broken up with cooking, cleaning, a few hikes and even some down time with a cell phone photo scavenger hunt. I think there was even a margarita contest.  

But it all started with being vulnerable. Each person in the room had to get past their fear of making a mistake or saying something wrong. They had to get past being uncomfortable.

Dr. Brown says vulnerability means uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure, but it’s also “the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, empathy and creativity.” The creativity and connection could not happen until they had the courage to be imperfect, to fail and make mistakes.

What could your offsite look like?

Think about what a real offsite could do for you and your firm.  As a business owner and financial advisor, your job is to project confidence and be the decision maker. Clients want you to project  knowledge and certainty; they want to follow someone who is decisive. Your staff wants to do their part, and may be able to do a lot more – if you let them.

While connecting to your clients is important, so is connecting to your staff.

My guess is that they know their jobs better than you do and they may have ideas on how to improve the overall business, if given the opportunity. And if you think about it, feeling closer to the people you work with, understanding the goals of the firm and strengthening relationships, you could create a better work environment.

Now, think about how, instead of being the boss for a few hours, you could be open and even vulnerable. If you are open to the “shame and fear” of being vulnerable for a little while, you would be amazed at the creativity and passion that results. The growth and culture of your firm could rise to a completely new level.

A couple of thoughts for your offsite:

  • Push aside the “we are too small to do anything like this” mentality. Frankly, smaller firms have to work closer together. You could easily do this with four or five (and up to 20) people without much cost or effort.
  • Decide what you want to get out of it. This is not a party, but a work meeting. What do you want to accomplish? Other than team building, what do you want to solve for? What do you want to have as takeaways? What do you want as an outcome?
  • Get away from it all – literally. Logistics are easy. You want to eliminate, to the best of your ability, distractions. (That is why I like the idea of a weekend and, in my wife’s case, why it worked so well.) Vrbo and Airbnb are great sites to find houses that will fit large groups.
  • Put out a tentative agenda. Some of the staff will need to see an agenda before they are on board. What are you going to discuss? What are the rules? How are you going to handle meals, sleeping arrangements? What inputs do they have in the agenda? This can’t just be your meeting – it is their meeting, too. Be open to ideas and changes.
  • Show your vulnerability. When your team sees you, they may only see your firm and your brand. You need to be open – admit your fears so they will share theirs. Share mistakes or missteps you have made. Don’t be defensive or argumentative. Don’t dominate the conversation. Be human.
  • Encourage others. Push them out of their comfort zones, challenge them – and then praise them for doing so. Maybe start with Dr. Brown’s talk or her book as required viewing/reading before you get together.

What comes out of the offsite is up to you and your staff. My guess is that you will have a more cohesive group. You will have ideas on how to improve your business and your relationships. Putting aside the fear of not always being right or not always being in charge will allow your staff to shine and bring everyone closer to your firm’s mission and goals. It takes a human connection to be a good employer and a good advisor. Most firms won’t take the time to do it right.

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