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Advisors Turned Managers Share Their Challenges

By Murray Coleman September 15, 2014

Great advisors don’t always make great bosses. Some are uncomfortable issuing orders or carrying out mandates from above. Others don’t want to deal with staffers’ warring egos.

But when a growing practice needs leadership, it can be tough to walk away from the challenge, says Dick Bennett, an advisor at Savant Capital Management in Rockford, Ill., with AUM of $4.1 billion. In 2012, the firm’s senior directors asked him to move into management. They said his familiarity with staff and clients — he’d been with Savant Capital for more than 15 years — made him a valuable strategic resource as they ramped up expansion plans.

Bennett accepted their offer, with the stipulation that he’d continue to work with some of his clients. Today, as chief administrative officer, he helps oversee 29 advisors. “I still get energized by the immediate feedback of solving client issues and problems,” he says. “But I’m learning that doing the same for my colleagues can bring a different sense of accomplishment. I now feel like a coach who’s leading a winning team.”

Getting to that point isn’t always a cakewalk, say advisors who’ve undergone a similar career metamorphosis. Leading a group of strong personalities, they warn, requires skills quite different from those advisors typically deploy with clients. And the rewards of team-building can take years to show up in a practice’s bottom line.

Dick Bennett

“Managing a staff can be a double-edged sword,” says Douglas Boneparth, chief operations officer at New York-based Life and Wealth Planning, which has $160 million under management. “You can spend a lot of time working to overcome a problem in one part of the practice, only to find out that another group feels like it has even more pressing concerns.”

After years as an advisor, in 2012 Boneparth and a colleague at Ameriprise joined forces to acquire the independent Life and Wealth Planning. “From that moment, we had staff and I became a boss,” says Boneparth. Time management became more crucial than ever, and he says he has become very disciplined about sticking to a schedule. He also uses what journalists call the “five Ws” as a problem-solving tool, asking staffers the “who, what, where, when and why” behind each dilemma. “It might sound corny,” he says, “but it’s a communications technique that I’m finding really helps to clear up any confusion and diffuse any potential office spats.”

“A Matter of Trust”

Advisors turned managers often struggle when their new role alters relationships with former colleagues. Show staffers you’re a straight shooter, says Rita Mahn, branch manager for Wells Fargo Advisors in Festus, Mo., with $130 million in advisory assets. “It all comes down to a matter of trust,” she says. “They know I’m not going to tell them one thing and then turn around and tell somebody else something different.”

Planting the seeds of new ideas instead of issuing orders is a key technique for Mahn, who became a manager in 2011 after the branch’s leader decided to step down to focus on his advisory practice. Since she had worked with him for years as a senior advisor, the switch made sense — and has proved fairly seamless, according to Mahn. “I feel my role now is to support our advisors, not dictate to them,” she says.

Although she doesn’t hang out with her colleagues on weekends, Mahn thinks part of being a good boss is paying attention to the emotional weather in the office. For example, recently she noticed that a longtime worker wasn’t her usual jovial self. Mahn confronted her and asked what was wrong.

It turned out the employee thought a new rule about how to handle client accounts was the result of something she’d done wrong. When Mahn told her that wasn’t the case, the support staffer was clearly relieved. Later, Mahn found out other colleagues had similar worries and took pains to reassure them.

“Nobody likes to come to work in an office filled with drama,” she says. “As a manager, I’ve found that it’s important to be sensitive to my coworkers’ feelings. After all, a happy team is a more successful team.”