Enhancing Your Successor Traits as a Woman in Wealth
Written by Jess Flynn, Communications Director at FP Transitions
Recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data details that women comprise 47% of the workforce, but just 29% of senior management positions. While more women are entering the financial planning profession, they are joining in marketing, administrative, or other staff roles within financial planning firms and related organizations. There is still a large gender inequity between females in leadership at these firms, and it becomes especially apparent as we look at the number of female owners in the financial advisory space.
As advisory firms continue to build profitable, transferrable and enduring businesses, one critical gap in this process has been around attracting and retaining diverse talent. While many firms have openly committed to embracing diversity, equity and inclusion within their firm, the effects of this are yet to be seen in the broader financial services community.As we all know, financial planning has been male dominated since inception. For women in the financial advisory industry, the momentum of change is mounting. Broadly across the United States economy, there are 13 million women-owned businesses, generating almost $2 trillion in wealth. Women own 42% of the businesses in the United States (up from 4.6% in 1972).2 According to a recent LinkedIn study, female founders grew by 35% between 2019 and 2020,3 and the financial industry was the fastest-growing sector within that group. That’s our space! While at times it may feel like it, you are far from alone in your path to ownership.
Today, we’re exploring some of the skills and strengths that women working in wealth may already bring to the table, as well as where next generation leaders (men and women alike) can begin growing and proving their ownership readiness for new opportunities within their firm. We’ll call upon examples and stories of our own community to exemplify how women can move from support role to leadership role.
As leaders in succession and transition planning for the past two decades, our teams have helped thousands of advisors grow from employee to junior partner, and eventually into ownership roles. As we work with teams actively engaging in succession strategies, there are always common themes that emerge. Owners need to understand that the next generation of leaders within the firm are going to look and act much differently than themselves.
First, the business is already likely established after twenty-plus years in business. The entrepreneurial/sales mentality is probably less important today than it was during the business-building years. Now, the leadership team will need to focus on growing the business with talent, client diversification and satisfaction, advisor education, marketing strategy and seamless technology. Once owners embrace this shift in identifying key successor strengths, it’s up to the next generation to demonstrate clear interest and readiness to support the firm in these ways. But what makes a next generation owner stand out? And if we’re really getting serious about bringing more women into the advisory ownership circle, how can a woman working in wealth best articulate her interest, value, and goals for the firm in impactful ways? Let’s dig into it!
KNOW YOUR INTEREST
The first step is knowing that you want to play a leadership role in your firm. You may not even know what that role should be just yet. Long term aspirations are set based upon knowing what you enjoy and then paving the path to that dream role. This is typically step one of any succession process. Maybe you have an entrepreneurial itch, maybe you are a natural leader. But those things alone or in tandem with other strengths don’t necessarily make great owners.
“It was easier to have a conversation about ownership at FP Transitions, because we talk about it all the time. Even so, I never felt entitled, but stayed focused on the success of the company and expected that if the company was successful, then I would be, too. I think more advisors are willing to have the conversation now than they were a few years ago, and women should lean in to that. If you’re focused on the success of the company, discussing ownership should never feel awkward.”
Christine Sjölin, VP of Strategic Operations & Partner at FP Transitions
It's always important to note here that you don’t have to choose between being a great life partner, mother, daughter or being a great owner. There are many stories from our female firm owners about the detours, internal discoveries, and roundabout paths that they were able to take and still find their way into the ownership circle. One person’s story is just that – one way of getting there. While encouraging, know that your story will come together just as it’s supposed to, and having a plan is great, having flexibility and resiliency to keep moving in the direction that is right for you – at that time - that’s the real ticket to keeping on the ownership journey.
“My personal ambitions to be successful in growing our firm and my love for being a parent has always had very blurred lines. Not only did I embrace that mentality and never apologize for needing to be a mother when it was required, but I use what I learned in those early years in my career to now coach other female professionals to embrace all these things all the time. You don’t have to choose one over the other, being successful in your career can go hand in hand with being an amazing mother.”
Elise Rogers, VP of Marketing at FP Transitions
FIND A GREAT FIT
Regardless of whether you want to be an owner or simply want to be on the leadership path at a firm, it’s crucial to locate the right business for you. The culture, the clients, the teammates, the opportunities, they all have to be “right” for you. If you find yourself in the wrong place, only you can evaluate whether speaking up or moving on is the right solution. Gender-speaking, women tend to be more patient as we wait for things to resolve, when in many cases we already intuitively know this is NOT going to work out. Don’t waste your hardworking years at a firm that is never going to appreciate your worth or afford you the opportunities you’ve sought. Pick up your desk and find a new place that will value you.
SPEAK UP & ENGAGE THE ROOM
If you’re at the right firm, it’s critical to spend time with your coworkers, specifically those leading your firm right now. They are going to be a wealth of information and experience, and if you do want to be on the ownership pathway you can do a few things right now:
- Ask for a mentor relationship.
- Ask for new opportunities.
- Offer your support for new initiatives.
When you’re in meetings, be sure to engage in the conversation. There are two things women can do to show their leadership strengths in these settings. Push yourself to find at least one or two comments that can further the conversation. Lean upon your experience and expertise when you speak up. Make it clear that you have something of value to contribute. The other way women can truly shine in these settings is to ask other women or minority voices in the room for their insights. Opening the door for others is something true leaders understand and demonstrate regularly.
Tip from Kem Taylor, Consultant at FP Transitions: Find out what the ownership pathway is at your firm. If it doesn’t exist yet, offer to help build it.
We know that succession drives better business results. While owners may recognize the importance of a succession plan for legal reasons, fiduciary standard of care or insurance coverage, they may not realize how an internal succession plan can elevate the value of the firm. A team invested in the performance of the firm also shares in both the responsibility and the rewards of that growth. When cashflow and compensation are effectively structured, this mentality is supported with measurable results and incentives. We've seen many examples of how synthesizing structure and culture can produce increased profits.
(Check out our blog on Addressing Sustainability One Step at a Time. if you're looking for information to share with your leadership team.)
LEARN THE BUSINESS
There’s a mindset shift from employee to junior partner to owner. It doesn’t happen overnight and these adjustments require constant exercise. You’ll move from meeting deadlines to questioning and setting these deadlines. You’ll see the world through an entirely different lens; it’s no longer about solving today’s problems but about paving a course for the next ten years. You will rely on those around you to be masters of their departments, and you’ll go from order taker to rule maker. Move through these areas slowly, expect the unexpected, and work on gracefully owning when you’ve made a mistake.
Succession is a process, not a transaction. It happens over several years, often ten or more, with the owner at the helm and slowly providing more opportunities for next generation owners to begin taking the wheel.
“When I had my first baby, I wrote a birth plan with lots of details. In the end, we threw it out because we really just wanted a healthy baby. There’s a similarity with business—yes, I’ve had personal goals and a wanted to be an owner, but ultimately, I wanted to see the company be successful. Being flexible has allowed me to see opportunities and partnerships where I might have missed out if my focus was too narrow.”
Christine Sjölin, VP of Strategic Operations & Partner at FP Transitions
Always ensure you are on the same page as the owner(s) and it’s also crucial that you have a written deal in place. In this industry, it’s not uncommon to hear a next generation leader learned of a change to the succession plan late in the process. Communication and documentation are the only ways to ensure everyone has the same plan.
“Owners and business goals change over time. An acquisition may change the direction of the company, or an owner may decide to retire early. Constant communication is key.”
Kem Taylor, Consultant at FP Transitions
DEMONSTRATE YOUR VALUE
No one is ever done learning. Women are traditionally great listeners and multitaskers, right? Whether that’s true for you or total nonsense, it’s a good idea to bring out all your super skills now. You were hired for a reason – you bring something the firm values. Find your balance between articulating your knowledge, teaching others how something is done, and always having the wisdom to appreciate that you do NOT know everything. We should be learning something from someone every day. When we stop worrying about whether others see our value, and we start owning the room in our own way.
Here's a brief list of the attitudes that women leaders can do in this phase of growth:
- Demonstrate a willingness to learn.
This attitude can further your relationship across multiple departments and levels of leadership. There’s always room to learn more aspects of a business. This applies to anyone in a leadership position at a growing firm. The truth about growth-minded firms is that strong, dependable leaders will be multi-faceted and open to learning other areas of the business. They seek continuous improvement and apply this knowledge for the betterment of the entire firm.
- Apply a business mindset.
Dig into the hard work of running a firm. Immerse yourself with knowledge on running an advisory business. Read up on resources from places like FP Transitions and other consultants, custodians and broker-dealers on what it means to run a business. This isn’t going to be something anyone just hands you – this is a huge commitment that requires business acumen and application before diving in. (I’m linking some excellent resources at the end of this article.)
- Ensure your strengths translate.
Not everyone will think just like you! Your job is to show up and articulate your value in ways that make sense to the decision makers. Even if fellow leaders trust and respect your contributions, it is vital that your ownership team sees your worth directly. Reach out to them, provide insights when they are present, don’t be afraid to voice a thought or ask a hard question. These things matter when you are running a firm. Being able to communicate across the organization is critical for any leader.
Advice from Elise: “Although I personally have strengths in creative components and business, I have leveraged those skill sets to make complex ideas appear simple. A deep understanding of our business has allowed me to leverage the things that I am good at but utilize them in other aspects of the business. I believe that has been invaluable to my success in the firm.”
- Volunteer for opportunities.
Focus on areas that further your personal goals and align with the firm’s best interests. Knowing how the current owner thinks and makes decisions matters. Support areas of weakness within the firm by offering intelligent solutions that reassure owners and fellow leaders that your interests are in line with the firm’s best interests.
- Don’t be afraid to fail.
Women face labels. It’s proven that we do it to ourselves and each other. My advice? Let it go. Be you, be true to yourself and stand up for what matters to you. I’ve found a balance for myself that only works for me. You need to find that for you. Stop and think before responding quickly if you tend to be a fast reactor. If you take too long to respond to criticism or hard questions, try the opposite approach by writing down your immediate feelings. Either way, these are minor things. The biggest opportunity is simply this: do something. Always move. Move forward, move sideways, move backwards if you need to course correct. You do you.
Advice from Elise: “Leveraging an element of vulnerability has been something I have found to be more useful than leaning into my frustrations. If I’m seeking buy-in on something I’ve never done before, I will openly admit that it may underperform, or even flop. But in our firm’s culture, I feel comfortable sharing that level of vulnerability. They know I’ll embrace the opportunity and find ways to improve upon what we learn from this experience.”
DON’T ASK FOR PERMISSION: TAKE THAT SEAT!
I’m reminded of a story from one of my friends who bought into her advisory business at 26. She had only just become a financial planner and was in the process of building her life and career at the same time. The opportunity presented itself likely because she was demonstrating the aforementioned skills and interests. As she began stepping into the ownership role, she noticed that during company meetings she was still getting up and making room for the senior advisors. At that point, she was an owner, an equal. One day she made an effort to stay in her seat as everyone filed in. It was noticeably tense for a few minutes. But ultimately she credits that as her ‘coming of age as an owner’ moment.
We all have those experiences. If you’re waiting for someone to give you permission, stop because that probably won’t happen. Why give someone else the power over our behavior? If you feel you should be in a conversation, ask to join. If you have an idea someone needs to hear, go tell that person! This earned boldness is one thing we can continue to share with our peers.
Advice on being bold from Kem: Find out what the ownership pathway is at your firm. If it doesn’t exist yet, offer to help build it.
CHAMPION THE BUSINESS
Leveraging your voice within the firm is important, and leaders also know how to articulate the value of their firm to others including clients, media, and related organizations. As an aspiring owner, you will need to grow your comfort in this area. There are some great ways you can do this:
- Talk highly and confidently about the business internally
- Author content for the company blog or on social media
- Grow your personal brand on social media platforms
- Sit on panels at industry events
- Offer your expertise for podcast interviews
Staying connected to your community of peers can truly remain a source of inspiration, confidence and mental stability. You are never alone on this journey – far from it! So many great leaders have come up in industries that are predominantly male. It can be done, and it’s best done with other female advocates, champions and role models at your side.
Women in financial services have an opportunity to stand out simply because we are a minority. You can look at this as a challenge or you can embrace this as an opportunity. I choose to see it as the latter. I also recognize not everyone has the same experiences. This is why I think it’s important to keep meeting new people and learning of their journey. When you can help another, I think that’s one of the greatest gifts we can share with our fellow humans.