Welcome back to the 312th episode of the Financial Advisor Success Podcast!
My guest on today’s podcast is Emily Rassam. Emily is the Senior Financial Planner for Archer Investment Management, a virtual Independent RIA based in Austin, Texas, that oversees $170 million of assets under management for nearly 170 families.
What’s unique about Emily, though, is how after struggling for years at a position where responsibilities and pressure kept building (and kept deterring her from being present in her family life), she realized that she had built enough expertise that she didn’t need to settle anymore, and made it a priority to find her ideal position that not only appreciated her expertise… but would also help her build a better work/life balance.
In this episode, we talk in-depth about how, as Emily progressed in her career from working on 401(k) plans to focusing on financial planning, she faced challenges and eventual burnout while building a successful financial planning offering in a firm that was still primarily focused on 401(k) plans first and foremost and didn’t want to allocate resources away from its core 401(k) business, how, by what Emily describes as a stroke of luck in the midst of her burnout struggles, she took a chance in applying for a financial advisor position that she found at 3 a.m., which led her to her current role that pleasantly surprised her as their work culture and work/life balance priorities perfectly aligned with what she was seeking and desperately needed, and how exactly Emily determined that the firm would have such a positive work/life balance – when it didn’t advertise itself that way – by asking key questions of the firm owner during her interview process to understand their systems and processes and how invested the firm really was in its financial planning offering .
We also talk about how, in the very early stages of her career and immediately after finishing an internship for an insurance agency, Emily realized that even though the agency was already creating flyers and literature promoting her as a “financial advisor”, she was too young and inexperienced to truly take on that role, and decided to find a different more service-oriented job where she could gain more financial planning knowledge and expertise at a pace that was comfortable for her, the way that Emily eventually overcame her career-long struggles with imposter syndrome by getting better perspective on the expertise that she had built for 15 years in managing and educating 401(k) plan participants, and how Emily ultimately was able to shed the perceived notion she gleaned early in her career that advisors needed to be cold and calculated in selling their services, and realized that by focusing on the human aspects of financial planning, she could be successful and fulfill her own passion and purpose.
And be certain to listen to the end, where Emily shares how she admittedly struggled for years with saying “no” to clients and “yes” to too many opportunities and found that by advocating for herself and finding the right position that could support her (and help her set limitations for herself), she could finally create a space where she could not only thrive in her career, but at home as a wife and mother as well, why Emily believes it’s important for newer advisors to understand from the beginning of their careers that bringing value to clients does not have to be predicated on doing an overwhelming amount of work and instead can be focused on building more targeted expertise and knowledge that offers true value to their specific clientele, and how, even though Emily went through many years of struggling to find the right work/life balance, she feels it was important for her to have had those experiences because without them, she could not have the knowledge she gained and the appreciation for where she is today.
So, whether you’re interested in learning about how Emily eventually learned how to say ‘no’ to more work and ‘yes’ to a better work/life balance, how Emily leveraged 401(k) educational seminars and webinars to gain rollover opportunities, or how, by finally advocating for herself, Emily found the ideal position for her, then we hope you enjoy this episode of the Financial Advisor Success podcast, with Emily Rassam.
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Michael: Welcome, Emily Rassam, to the “Financial Advisor Success Podcast.”
Emily: Yeah. Thank you, Michael. Thanks for having me.
Michael: I really appreciate you joining us today in the opportunity to talk a bit about work/life balance, like the infamous dynamic of work/life balance in the advisor world. And I find the industry is going through some really interesting transitions right now. Probably driven a small part from the COVID pandemic, which I think had a lot of people kind of reassessing life, and priorities, and certain decisions that there seems to be this newfound focus on really trying to find a different balance between work-life and home life. And for some advisors, it’s led in the direction of saying, “I’m just going to launch my own firm and just build it the way that I want to build it and do the thing that I want to do. ” For other advisors, it’s about switching firms and finding a new firm to work at and a different work environment, at least, hopefully, a firm that has a better work/life balance.
And it’s hard, I think, in part because almost no firm really says, “Yeah, our work/life balance is terrible here.” I guess there’s a few that are like, “Yeah, we’re so focused on growth, you’re going to work a lot of hours, but it’s going to be awesome.” Most firms at least say something to the effect of, “We’ve got a great work/life balance,” and then you get in there and have to see whether that’s actually really going to be the case or not. And I know you’ve followed a version of that journey in your career over the past couple of years of making a transition and finding a firm that really does have a whole different kind of work/life balance and feeling the change that comes with that. And so I’m excited to talk about this dynamic of how you make the decision of when it’s time to make a change for a better work/life balance and how you actually figure out if the firm you’re talking to is going to have the work/life balance that they say they’re going to have.
Emily: Yes, and that is a very scary thing because I think on every single HR section of a website, they say something about work/life balance, and they’ll talk about that in the interview. You’re right. You know, some, it’s just a buzzword to put on a website, and others, you really have to understand what the work culture looks like and what the dynamics look like. And it takes a lot of conversations to truly unearth what that is.
Emily’s Journey Through The Financial Services Industry [05:55]
Michael: So, share with us a little bit more of your journey. I know that you made a transition like this recently, and I think we’ll talk a little more soon about how you found the firm that you found and the change that you ultimately made. But talk just a little bit about what work was like before you made a change that led you to this point that you made some changes and started down this journey.
Emily: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. And I’ll take you all the way back. So, my first entry into this world was I took a financial fellowship, which was an internship, at an insurance agency. And what was kind of funny to me about it was I was 20 years old, and I was about to turn 21, and they had published a bunch of business cards, and flyers, and things and labeled me as a financial advisor. And I just came across these materials the other day when I was going through my office. My picture’s on there. I am a baby in those pictures. I am so young. I didn’t know anything.
And so, I went through this internship, and the goal at the end of it was you’d get licensed. And they slapped this big title on you and this hat, and all of a sudden, you are this financial advisor because you’ve had a few weeks of training. And one of the flyers that came out said that I did estate planning, and tax planning, and business succession planning, and all these things I didn’t know anything about. And so, ultimately, I…
Michael: Not actually that deep on your business succession planning experience as a 20-year-old.
Emily: Yeah. Oh, God, no. And what the job actually was going to be, so if I had finished the internship and stayed on as a “financial advisor,” what they really were going to have me do is Project 100 and sell life insurance to everybody I know. And then 2% of people make it through that kind of program, and then maybe later in their careers learn more about financial planning and actually become more qualified to call themselves financial advisors. But I just found that absolutely ludicrous that there are companies that will take that baby-faced Emily and call her a financial advisor and tell her to call in all of her family and friends and tell them that you, all of a sudden, are this person.
Michael: So what led you down the road just to take that plunge and start…? I was going to say start doing that to yourself, but maybe that’s too strange a way to frame it because I’m sure you were all into it at the time. But how did you land in that direction of saying, “Hey, I’m going to try this financial advisor thing as a 20-year-old,” in the first place?
Emily: Yeah. Well, so, thankfully, I never took the role at the end. The internship was to learn about it, and at the end, you were supposed to then be this financial advisor. And I determined I don’t know enough to tell people what to do with their money, and I don’t really want to be calling people and selling life insurance. So, thankfully, I did, though, fall in love with the industry, and so, thankfully, I was able to find a job. My very next job was as an assistant to two financial advisors. So, I landed in more of a financial planning firm. There were about 25 advisors and support staff, probably about 50 people total.
And so, I started and I worked for a year as an assistant to two financial advisors, learning more of the business from a supporting role. And about a year in, a job opened up that looked a lot more fun, and that was working with a team of advisors that specialized in 401(k)s, and the role that they had open was to go out and do 401(k) enrollment meetings. And I saw the person before me in that role, they’re out in their car, they’re bopping around to different companies and meeting with different people all day long and helping them enroll in their 401(k) plan. So, that was really my next role within this firm was I want to go out and talk to people face to face. I did a year of pushing paperwork around, and filing, and learning some of that. I wanted to go out and do these meetings.
And so, first, I started…
Michael: So… Just I’m curious more even on the assistant job end of things. I guess just what led you there as opposed to, “I’ve fallen in love with the financial advisor industry. I want to find another financial advisor job?”
Emily: Yeah. So, I think what I liked about the financial world, first of all, I was obsessed with time value of money and the idea of just going and helping people grow wealth. And that idea appealed to me, and I felt like this is something I could do eventually. And I think want to eventually be an advisor, but I’m not ready for that role now. And so, I want to work at a firm, and support other advisors, and get to know it in a much more low-pressure environment from a more supporting role. And so I found the industry and I just needed to have a little bit more confidence and knowledge before I felt like I could step out into an advisor role.
Michael: Okay. And so you did the assistant role for a year. I guess just was there any trigger for why a year? Some people stay two or three years going through that. What led to it’s time to make a transition out? How did you know when it’s time to go back to the other side again?
Emily: So, it was more that the opportunity opened up in the 401(k) role of doing the enrollment meetings. And that felt like it still was not, “I am a financial advisor and I’m doing a financial plan for somebody and making these big, major decisions.” It felt, again, kind of that little bit lower pressure of, “Okay, now I’m comfortable with having some face-to-face communication and helping somebody make decisions to enroll in their 401(k) plan.” Felt like a great place to start.
Michael: Oh, interesting. So, almost sort of a waypoint still on that journey of I’m not ready to do “full financial advisor things,” I’m putting that in air quotes, but I can talk to people about their 401(k) enrollments. That’s an incremental step in the direction without having to be all-in yet.
Emily: Yes. So, that felt more my pace, and I really fell in love with it. And I feel like the more conversations I would have, because I would have thousands of conversations a year, I felt like the more I was sitting in front of people, the more questions they would start to ask me about other areas of their lives, and the more conversations you would have, and the more you would start to work with somebody. And I felt like I kind of just treaded slowly into then becoming knowledgable in a lot more areas and leaning into other areas as well.
I still felt like I’m not qualified to be this full-fledged advisor. I really felt like I personally needed to have a CFP. At this point, I’m 25, 26 years old. I still feel like I look like a baby. I still feel like I’m not quite qualified to give this advice. And I knew enough to know that it’s really hard to give advice in one small area of somebody’s life and not have the true understanding of all of the other pieces of the puzzle. And so, I felt, one, getting the CFP would give me more knowledge around some of those other areas. But two, I’m blonde, blue-eyed, 25, 26-year-old coming in. I felt like I needed some credentials in order to show somebody that I’m serious about this career, and knowledgeable, and really give me more of that street cred.
Michael: Interesting. And so you were several years into the 401(k) enrollment side of the business before even getting to this point?
Emily: That’s right.
Michael: Okay. So, did the role evolve as you were doing 401(k) enrollment meetings, or was it simply just that for several years ongoing and lots of practice cutting your teeth on that?
Emily: Yeah. And so, it just built naturally the more that I had knowledge in other areas. So, there were one-on-one meetings, and then there were group education meetings. And so, I felt like how I grew was by the more that I learned, the more I was able to educate people on. And so, I started then providing educational meetings on social security, and Medicare, and other topics, state planning. And so, it felt like a really warm and comfortable environment to grow some knowledge and then educate and share that knowledge.
And so part of what I loved about being in that 401(k) education role was I felt very good about being an educator and not really being a salesperson. And so I was coming in in a role where the company had hired us to come in and help employees. And we were there to help people and bring value, and so I took that very seriously. And I think that that’s what made me feel comfortable and confident really growing eventually into an advisor role was being able to test this out, and test out knowledge, and build on that in this type of environment.
Michael: So, I guess it’s an interesting distinction, though, because there are some folks that go into the 401(k) and 403(b) markets where they’re out in companies and maybe doing a lot of enrollment work, but it’s enrollment for plans they sell. Like get the plan, get the business, and then do the enrollment and get the participants going. But it sounds like the context here, you didn’t have to sell and get the plans in the first place. Someone else was doing that. You would simply go out and enroll them like, “We got the plan. You go enroll them.” I’m guessing someone else was like, “And I’m going to go on and get the next sale.” So, you were in a pure, like, enroll them, add value. No need to sell anything because someone else took care of that part.
Emily: Yeah. And so, I didn’t need to be part of the sales process, but it did eventually grow into then the goal was to help people with transitioning into retirement and rollovers and kind of transitioning people from the 401(k) space into wealth. And so it kind of grew into having some sales element and some goals around growing assets for the firm in general. So, I think if that had been the goal from the onset, I don’t know if it would have appealed to me. But I think that, over time, what ended up happening is the more people that I educated and helped, the more I would just naturally get some of that business. If I helped somebody make some social security and Medicare decisions, then they were asking me if they could roll money over and raising their hand.
So, a lot of how I’ve built clients over a long period of time is really coming from that more educational space. And so, feeling like I need to give them this value, and then, eventually, it does turn into growing business. But that’s really not been a primary driver in those types of roles.
Michael: So, out of curiosity, I guess I’m just wondering, did it naturally evolve this way for you that you were doing education enrollments and then some people started asking you to help them more and then started turning in a rollover business and broader business? Or was this part of the career track of the firm in the first place that, “Emily, we’re going to hire you and you’re going to do the pure educating work for two years, and then we’re going to move you into this role where you start doing more wealth work,” and that was the intended progression? Does that make sense? I’m trying to say did your career evolve this way, or was this their designed career track for developing you this way?
Emily: Yeah. So, you know what’s really interesting? I never reflected on this until the last year or so is that whatever role I’ve ever been given, I’m hired into a particular role, and I grow it and I add to it. And for better or worse because that really affects work/life balance. You’re given one role and then, well, I can do more, and I can do more, and I can do more, and I can say yes to everything and take on more projects and learn more, get more designations.
So, over the six years of being at that firm, I grew this role tremendously, and it was… Additional roles that I would take on, I was writing investment commentary. I was doing the annual fiduciary review meetings at the 401(k) committee level in addition to doing education and not just enrollments but doing all different specialized education in all of these different areas. And nobody pushes me to do this. It’s just I feel like I constantly add to my own plate. And I’ve kind of noticed that everywhere I go, and so I didn’t really realize that until I really started to reflect back on prior roles that I’ve had. So, nobody at the firm really drove that. I set my own goals and hurdles and added to it, and I never took anything away.
Utilizing 401(k) Expertise And Education To Create A Wealth Management Career Path [18:41]
Michael: So, this evolution for you, it sounds like, is very much just you’re one of those people that’s just kind of wired towards, “I want to do a little more. Here’s another thing I could do, here’s another thing I could do, feels good, positive impact for my career, enjoy doing more stuff and taking on more opportunities.” So, this was, I guess, intrinsically driven for you that you’re just kind of wired this way?
Emily: Yeah. Absolutely. And I just wrote a LinkedIn post about this, and the quote that jumped out for me when I was writing about this was, “Wherever you go, there you are.” And along the way when we talk about my journey here, I’ve changed companies and, “Okay, I’m going to start in this new role,” and this is the role. And then I found myself growing that, and adding to it, and doing these other things, and then getting overwhelmed, and it’s by my own design that that has occurred. And so that’s a little bit of the coaching that I’ve needed in the last year is not taking on more and saying yes to everything.
And so, the six years that I was at that first firm, I grew that role to a certain place. And then I wanted to go work for a larger 401(k) record keeper. So, I worked for a record keeper for five years, and the first role that I had with them was very similar to what I was doing for the advisory firm, and that was going out and doing both one-on-one education meetings and group meetings. But the focus was really more advanced planning at that point.
So, there was somebody on our team that handled more of the enrollments and maybe just an investment change or website help. And then my role was to come in to say, “Okay, now we have an executive who has more complex benefits,” or, “We have somebody retiring who needs help making these decisions and walking through a transition.” And so I was in that role and I loved it. But when the first advent of the fiduciary role came through, I got a little bit of information about how this particular role was going to be eliminated, that there really wasn’t going to be a role to help people at this level and to look for that rollover business and to grow that.
Michael: Oh, interesting. Because the original Department of Labor Fiduciary Rule had this big scrutiny on rollovers from 401(k) plans to IRAs and all the additional due diligence to prove that that was an appropriate rollover. So, the company’s response is going to be, “Then we’re just going to rescind these roles that try to drive rollovers because we don’t want to have to comply with the rule.” They were just going to back away.
Emily: Yeah, 100%. And so, I learned this at a retirement party, and somebody who was an executive told me information that was early for me to know. But…
Michael: Helpful. Probably weren’t supposed to know, but really helpful.
Emily: Yeah, yeah. So, I learned that the option was going to be to step backwards and go into just the educator role. Not helping people retire, not advanced planning topics, kind of taking that step back. And what he said is, “Right now, there’s a wholesaler position available, and you need to take that job. You absolutely need to take this job. You’re going to be without a job or you’re going to have to step backwards.”
And so, I actually was a 401(k) wholesaler for two years, and I hated every minute of it. I missed meeting with the participants, with the people, and helping people every single day bring clarity to their financial confusion. And so, I was in that role because that was what was available and staying within the company I was, but, ultimately, it just wasn’t the right fit. And it was actually the opposite of my value set because a lot of that role was helping financial advisors sell 401(k) plans that maybe shouldn’t be selling 401(k) plans.
The onesie-twosie advisors that might have a connection, but they don’t know anything about fiduciary responsibility, they’re not going to go do education meetings. And so, I would go and be their wingwoman in a sales presentation and I would sell this business owner on the idea of this advisor, being their advisor for the 401(k). And then I was out at the end of the sale, and it didn’t feel good, and I didn’t like it. And I missed meeting with participants and doing the planning work.
Michael: Interesting. And so, I guess sort of back to that similar vein like, “I don’t like the business development sales-y end,” particularly in that context. “I just want to actually help the people,” which was what made enrollment meetings so appealing because that was a more pure service role.
Emily: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. So, I gave it a good shot. But my family was going to be relocating down to North Carolina, and I knew that, one, when I moved to Charlotte where I am now, I didn’t want to wholesale and leave my husband in a new city and say, “Good luck during the week. I’m going to be traveling.” And I also just didn’t want to stay in that kind of role. That wasn’t the end game for me. I wanted to get back in front of people and feeling like I was bringing value to people in their everyday lives.
Michael: And so what was taking you down to North Carolina? For some people, they’re moving because of a job opportunity, but it sounds like your issue was you’re moving anyways and then trying to figure out what the next career step was going to be because you were moving.
Emily: So, my family, which is my mother, and then I have a twin sister and her husband and kids, we were all talking about moving somewhere south. And we were at Upstate New York, and it’s freezing cold, and property taxes are insane. And a lot of people are kind of leaving Upstate New York, so it’s not really growth area. We felt like being in a warmer climate with lower taxes and more growth and job opportunities felt like a better fit.
Michael: Warmer climate, lower taxes, more growth opportunities. It sounds pretty good.
Emily: Yeah, yeah. And then my mom was shoveling her driveway or sweeping snow off the driveway and fell and broke her wrist, and she said, “I’m done with this weather. Get me out of here.” And I am family-oriented, and being a twin, we’re very close. And so there wasn’t any chance that they were going to move somewhere and we were going to stay in New York. So, we knew that we all wanted to move together, and like total crazy people, we all ended up in the same neighborhood. So, we all moved within a couple months of each other, and we all live within a street or two away. With Charlotte, we just felt that there would be better job opportunities. I mean, we waited to actually make the move until I was settled in and had a job lined up. So, the timing of it was driven by a job, but we’d made the decision to move before that job was available and apparent to us.
Michael: Interesting. So, did you know you were leaving the old job, or were you already out of work, or just moving, and then when you got there you started looking for new opportunities? How did the timing of the move relative to the job change relative to the leaving the old job part work?
Emily: Yeah. So, originally, the company I was working for, I told them that I wanted to relocate, and I really gave them an opportunity to help me find a fit. I’m actually so thankful that they didn’t because I think that the problem sometimes about being good at something, even if it’s not the right job, is you might stay in it. And I was doing pretty well with wholesaling. I didn’t like it. It didn’t feel aligned to my value set. It wasn’t what I truly enjoy doing, but I was decent at it, and I could’ve gotten a job down here wholesaling. And I’m glad they didn’t find me a spot down here. I might have just taken it and moved on.
But I did a lot of interviewing and found a firm that I wanted to join. And I found a role that made a lot of sense to me to go back to having these meetings. And it was a role where, originally, I was just supposed to be meeting with the 401(k) plan, but, as I mentioned before, I grew this role about 20 times before I ended up leaving it. So, it really evolved over the time that I was in that particular company.
The role that I accepted and moved down for was to meet at the committee level for the fiduciary review meetings and meet with committee members. And about six months in, I saw this big hole and this big opportunity for, you know, you all have this huge 401(k) business and, separately, in another part of the company, you have these advisors, but there’s really not a bridge between the two. And so, we had people who were doing education meetings that were strictly education, and they were really gun-shy about converting any of those participants over to the wealth side because they felt like those were just two separate businesses. And I felt there was a huge opportunity and expressed how in two prior companies there are ways to deliver education and be an educator that drives people to raise their hand and ask for more help and potentially become a client on the wealth side as well.
And so, I spent the four years I was at that company up until this past January, I really took on this new role of adding an element to the retirement plan education and bridging over to wealth and taking on wealth clients myself through this process of people who’ve raised their hands. And so, this was a role that I sort of created and then added to, and added to, and added to. But, ultimately, that’s when I kind of finally started to build full financial plans for folks and do more freely much more into an advisor role.
Michael: And so, at what point did you go back for the additional education? So, I think you said at some point, you were also still feeling the pressure of, “I’m not sure I’m qualified to fully be a financial advisor yet,” and then you were looking at going back for your CFP marks. So, when did that come into the picture?
Emily: So, the CFP was before I went over to the record keeper. So, the first firm I was at, I was 25. I think I just hit 11 years of having the CFP. So, I had the CFP in that 401(k) education role, and along the way, I’ve picked up some additional credentials. But even as I was talking to people about social security, I felt like I need to learn more, so I went and got a designation for that. And when I was starting to work with 401(k) plans, I got two different designations that are geared towards that process. So, I do feel like education is really important in kind of developing these different roles.
Michael: So, I’m curious for I guess just your learnings and what you implemented in actually getting people to move over from the 401(k) side to the wealth side of the business. Because I know a number of firms that do have some amount of 401(k) business do have a wealth offering and have struggled to figure out how to systematically or efficiently get clients to switch over, or move over, or cross over when it’s appropriate for them to do so. So, I guess I’m really curious, just what were you actually doing to create the crossovers and create those opportunities? How were you implementing that in practice?
Emily: Yeah. So, a lot of that I think comes from my personal need to be seen as an educator and not a salesperson. And so, the more that I was helping people, and educating them, and doing these specialized group meetings for different groups and one-on-one meetings, and helping people more with the planning the process, I felt like I had learned a lot and grew my knowledge in these areas. And I wanted to share that, and help people, and bring value.
And so my primary goal in every interaction was not how do I get rollovers. That just happened, and that came from just doing a lot of meetings with a lot of different people, and, eventually, people raised their hand. And I think that’s part of the important part about building that business is I think what’s really frowned upon is going in and directly trying to sell for rollover in that business. And that’s why some companies are a little bit gun-shy about doing that. But I think that if it is truly an education role and you’re bringing that value, the people will come. And they enjoy those conversations with you, and they want to have more conversations and have additional help from you.
And the biggest area that I really leaned into was the social security and Medicare because I feel like somebody who is a pre-retiree and about to retire, it feels like they’re confusing and they really don’t know what choices to make. And they’re getting all of these calls and things in the mail about Medicare. And so, helping somebody who feels overwhelmed and anxious about retiring in general and teaching them about those two different things. And also teaching them about what does it look like to pull money out of your retirement plan over time. And some of the more emotional decisions that come from retirement and being able to coach people through that, that brought a lot of rollovers and support because people felt comfortable with me and wanted to continue to receive help in those areas and help through that transition time frame.
Michael: So, it makes sense to me that just, look, if you pick topics like social security and Medicare to do a lot of additional planned participant education on, there’s sort of a really natural self-selection bias at this point. Who comes to a conversation about social security and Medicare? People who are getting ready to transition into social security and Medicare and are going to have retirement rollovers. Who doesn’t come to those? Younger folks that aren’t going to be doing rollovers any time soon. So, just the nature of the topic kind of pulls in people that would be most likely to have rollovers coming in the near future.
Emily: Yeah. And so to be able to help people through those questions. And as I learned more and grew and evolved, the other area that I focused on was helping executives with these complex financial situations understand all of the different pieces. And so, I worked with some executives that had stock options and non-qualified plans, and ESOPs, some executive life and disability plans. And so, over time, I just learned these different types of accounts and plans.
And, really, I think of financial planning as kind of the same thing that appeals to people who like to watch the Marie Kondo and the Home Edit shows, the home organization kind of shows. And I think of financial planning as you start with this messy pantry or you start with all of these different financial documents, and pieces, and confusing things. And you take everything out, and you put them in buckets. And you make sense of them, and it ends up being this beautiful, organized picture. And so, I feel like both with people who are about to retire, it felt like this big confusing thing that kind of made people freeze, or be paralyzed, or not be able to kind of picture what the end result was going to look like and helping people through the anxiety of that.
And helping busy executives ended up being another area that I worked on where they had all of these different confusing benefits and conflicting priorities with money and helping just simplify that and helping them make sense of it. And so, you do a lot of these meetings when you work in the 401(k) world, and so you start to work a little bit more with different types of people and learn a little bit more about other areas. And people will gravitate towards you that want to work with you beyond just the 401(k) plan or benefits program that you’re helping them with initially.
Leveraging Educational Seminars And Webinars To Develop 401(k) Rollover Opportunities [34:33]
Michael: So, I guess I’m still wondering just how you’re creating these conversations and opportunities in practice. When you talk about leaning into social security and Medicare, is this we’re doing webinars for participants on these topics, we’re doing in-person seminars on these topics, we’re doing one-on-one meetings on these topics? Just what did you actually ultimately create, and how did you actually bring it to plan participants so they would see it and have the opportunity to participate and engage?
Emily: So, it would start by typically pitching this to the HR person or whoever is the decision-maker at a company and to say, “This is an education program that I want to put together for your folks.” And so, a lot of it would be age-based, and so I would essentially say I can do a topic for people who are early-career, and I can talk about budgeting and debt reduction. Mid-career, I might talk in a group presentation about just the investments and kind of initial planning conversations. And then the folks who are nearing retirement, we can provide some education for them and one-on-one meetings.
And so the format for this in most of the cases before COVID was face-to-face. And so I was going out to different employers and doing group meetings in person for a lot of this and a little bit of webinar. But then when COVID hit, it was, of course, all virtual, and so doing a lot of this over Zoom. And so it worked with the HR person really helping to promote the different topics that I was going to be providing and getting people to sign up for the group meeting. And then afterwards, they would typically have a link to sign up for a one-on-one meeting for me if they were in that nearing retirement group. Or if I was doing an executive-level education, I would do one-on-one meetings for them as well. And those would typically, before COVID, be in person and then move to virtual at that point.
Michael: So, you would have this series of sort of seminars/webinars as COVID changed the delivery mechanism of, “I’ve got a session for early-career folks on budgeting. I’ve got a session for mid-career folks on being more responsible with their investments. I’ve got a session for those nearing retirement on social security and Medicare.” The ones in the last group also get an opportunity for follow-on one-on-one meetings if they want to go a little bit deeper. So, what do one-on-one meetings look like with those folks? Is that a full-on hour planning meeting, a 15-minute check-in ask-me-one-question meeting?
Emily: Yeah. So, the scheduled one-on-ones, looking back, I don’t even know how I maintained this type of schedule, but I would have 12 to 15 of those back to back to back to back over a full day, and it’d be 30 minutes at a time. And so we would really just have…it would kind of be an ask-me-anything type of session where somebody might come in and say, “Here’s my pain point. Here’s what I have a question on.” So, in that full day of 30-minute meetings, a good chunk of them I could kind of just answer a quick question or help them understand something. And then there would be a certain number of meetings where it would turn into, “We need to have more conversation around this and potentially help you with more of a comprehensive plan and more than just answering the question today.”
Michael: And so, that just is directly part of the conversation like, “Hey, the question you’re asking is a little bit more than what I can cover in this meeting. So, we’ll talk a little bit here, but if you really want to go deeper on this, we need to talk about a deeper engagement,” and at that point, you’re talking about them becoming a planning and wealth client?
Emily: Yes. So, usually, it’d turn into, “Let’s have another meeting and explore this more and see if this is a good mutual fit for us to transition to work together.” And we would have a form for them to sign to say, “Okay, we’re transitioning away from just talking about the 401(k) plan to now we’re talking about other areas of your life.” And so there is a distinction then after somebody signed that form that we’re going to be having more of a conversation, gathering more data, and providing more support for you beyond what the original context was.
Michael: Okay. And so, these seminars, nobody’s paying for the seminar. You’re doing it as both an employee benefit from the 401(k) provider because this just helps you show value and retain the 401(k) business, and because you know if you have enough of these conversations, some of them inevitably are going to be people who have more wealth and more complex questions, and they end up turning into wealth clients?
Emily: Yeah. And so, in the sales process when that 401(k) plan was sold by the company I used to work for, in that process, they would either sell the plan with education or without. And so they would price in some education, but I was a salaried employee. And so, it would be built into the fee schedule of how they paid for the 401(k) plan services. And so, if included education, then I would come out and provide a certain level of education. But then, ultimately, there was additional potential revenue from the additional meetings that we would have.
Michael: Because you may charge for additional meetings or because some meetings may turn into wealth clients?
Emily: Yeah, because some meetings would turn into AUM clients.
Michael: And so this dynamic of the plan itself would be showed with education or without?
Michael: I guess how does that work in practice? Is it a different fee schedule for the plan or like an additional separate add-on fee if they want the with-education variety? How would that work in practice?
Emily: Yeah. So, typically, the retirement plan advisor who sold the plan would typically add… So, when they were going through the sales process, they would typically provide their level of services that did not include education and that was typically basis point fees or a flat fee against the 401(k) plan were paid for by the employer as a flat fee directly. So, it just depended on what made sense for them. And if they were going to include education, typically, that was a flat fee paid for by the employer. So, they would agree that that’s a service that they wanted, and they would pay separately for that.
Michael: And I guess sort of just from the business end, the flat fees the employers pay is literally the money the company has to then pay you a salary to go out and do the education meetings? That’s how the salary gets covered?
Emily: Yup. That’s exactly right.
Michael: And out of curiosity, do you know how that got priced? I mean, is that just a flat fee for a plan, or a fee by how many education meetings you do, or like a per participant meeting?
Emily: Yeah. So, that was typically per participant, but there were other things that were factored into that. And so if they had multiple locations or needed multiple shifts, typically, the fee schedule would be higher for that. And so that ranged quite a bit. I know that there were plans that we worked on where we might have charged just a few thousand dollars a year, might have been one location right close to our office. And there were some plans that we worked on that we charged six figures a year and it was a very large organization with a lot of different locations. And so I think the number of locations and the total number of participants was the big driver as far as how they built the pricing in for education, specifically.
Michael: And I guess just for context, what size plans or companies are we talking about? Are you mostly working in businesses with dozens of employees, or businesses with hundreds of employees, or businesses with thousands of employees? How big was this market?
Emily: Yeah. There was a pretty big range. So, there were some companies that I went into that were single location. They might have 50 employees. And there were some organizations that I was a part of that were publicly traded companies. And so, it really depended on whether or not education was important to that employer and if they felt value in that type of service. And so, I would say that of all the 401(k) plans that we worked on, probably about 15% of them were actually open to somebody coming in and they wanted to pay for that kind of service. So, it really was based on is the employer receptive to this and welcoming and would like us to come on site and provide this service in addition to managing the 401(k).
Michael: Interesting. So, relative to the plans, it wasn’t a huge participation number of just the plans themselves of 15% plans. One out of every six or so were actually saying, “Yes, we’re willing to pay you to come in.” But once you did, not only did the fees tend to cover the education but wealth business might cross over as well?
Emily: Yeah. That’s right.
Michael: So, did that ever lead to a discussion of, “Gee, this is generating enough wealth business. Why don’t we charge less for the education or just offer the education for free so we can go in and do it because we’re seeing wealth opportunities come from it?
Emily: It didn’t because at the firm I was at, both business lines were separate, and so they operated separately. And so, although there was the hope or the goal to potentially convert somebody to a wealth client, that wasn’t necessarily the main reason that we’re offering education. That was kind of a happy byproduct of it. So, they really didn’t price in any expectations for it, and I understand that.
I know a lot of advisors that really work heavily in the 401(k) space that give away the education, hoping that rollover business that comes from that will support it. But the firm I worked for really said, “We’re providing this education. We’re providing all different types of meetings, and the goal is to educate your folks.” And, really, when I built out the role that I was in was to additionally find some hand-raisers, find people who found value in these conversations and wanted to work with us beyond just the 401(k) meetings.
Michael: Interesting. And I guess, ultimately, to me, part of the takeaway from it is… And, yes, if you really want to charge for it, there are businesses who will pay and you can run that economically viable as an education offering. Realistically, I’m going to guess there would have been more that would’ve said yes if you charged less or free and allowed it to be a cross-subsidized model from the wealth side. But you could run the education business on its own as a paid business, and there are employers that are willing to pay for it. Not all, but there are employers willing to pay for it.
Emily: Yeah. And I think some advisors aren’t aware of this, but there are some advisors that go in just to do that education piece and they don’t necessarily manage the plan. And so, an advisor might say, “It’s not my target market to go in and understand all of the fiduciary responsibilities that a committee member might have or to have that committee-level meeting, but I do want to get in front of folks.”
And so, I’ve known many advisors who approach these different companies that might not have education and either offer to go in and do those meetings for free, even though they’re not the plan advisor, or offer a set of education with a fee structure around it. And there’s opportunity there because you’re coming in warm, and there are a lot of folks that have a lot of needs within these 401(k) plans.
Michael: So, the business was already doing education because they literally did it on a paid basis and were going out and doing these meetings. So, I guess help me understand what were they missing that they were already doing education meetings but they weren’t necessarily getting the crossover rollover referral opportunities into the wealth side of the business. But when you came in, you started doing things differently and they did starting at the crossover. So, if they were already doing education, what were they missing that you’d change that suddenly made this bridge that wasn’t bridging before?
Emily: So, I feel like the education that was being offered before was very general and there weren’t the specific topics that are geared towards the pre-retirees or the executives. And so, adding that additional education option is a value to the plan but also gets you in front of the types of people who might want additional business. And that was turned away before. And so, there was, you know, a big wall up between the retirement plan business, the practice, and wealth management. So, there were some advisors that had built their own books of business in other ways, and there were people going and doing these education meetings, but they really weren’t trying to find additional business or convert any of that business or work with any of those folks beyond just those education meetings.
And so that’s one thing that I’d identified was you have millions of dollars actually leaving these 401(k) plans every single year. And, in addition to that, you have a lot of people who have a lot of needs that can then be addressed within the context of these education meetings. And so, basically, I proposed that turning the spigot on and providing that additional education to help build that business. And what ended up happening was just immediate huge amount of growth of inflow into wealth.
And so, very quickly, I’m hired to do this role. I find additional things to do, go out to more and more plans. Do more and more meetings with these participants in group meetings and build additional topics. And then, now I’m building a wealth book of business, and now I’ve got to support this end to end and build this client base. I think that anybody who is working in the retirement plan space that isn’t offering those specialized meetings would be really surprised to find out how much more conversion can occur when you offer that additional education in those specialized topics.
Why Emily Decided She Needed To Pursue A Better Work/Life Balance [48:29]
Michael: So, you’re going down this road, and the good news is it’s working, and the bad news is it’s working.
Emily: Yeah. It worked too well.
Michael: So, you’ve got your 401(k) duties and your educator duties, and you’re doing all these seminars and webinars that are going well, so, of course, everybody wants you to do more of them, more topics, more presentations. And you’re converting wealth clients and getting the opportunity to work with some of those wealth clients, which I’m going to presume is probably part of your remuneration at that point is having wealth clients. But now you have wealth clients on top of making topics, on top of doing presentations, on top of the original 401(k) educator role that you were hired into. And so now a whole lot of hours of work start adding up.
Emily: Yeah, and I can’t say no. And I get excited by all of these ideas, and I loved my work, and so I didn’t mind putting this extra time in. But you know that if you say yes to everything and everyone, and you’ve got this syndrome which a lot of advisors have, and I had in that role was I wanted to help everybody. And I felt like I could help everybody, and so I said yes to everyone and everything. And it just became unsustainable, the number of different things I was doing and the number of households that I essentially ended up working with.
Michael: And so, when does that hit a breaking point?
Emily: So, I kind of wonder what would’ve happened if I didn’t go through this kind of life change, but I got pregnant. And at this point, I’m thinking about I’m going to be going on maternity leave, and so somebody’s going to have to help with this. I wasn’t one of many people in a certain role. I created this role and then built it into this unsustainable, busy role. And now I’m going to need to take a maternity leave but I’m also going to have to come back and not work till 8:00 every single night, and I’m going to have to step back a little bit. And so that is really what drove me to try to make some changes within that company but then ultimately make the decision to leave.
Michael: So, I guess just talk to me more about what types of changes were you trying to make. Just what do you do in that moment when, “Okay, I’ve created the role and it’s going well, but it’s really busy, it’s kind of unsustainable. I’m now pregnant, so maternity leave’s coming.” So, what did you do in the moment to try to navigate this?
Emily: Yeah. So, originally, I started by asking for some support. And so, as I was building all of these different rules, I needed some kind of administrative support in working with this. And I’d asked for it, and I told you this was working well. And so, we were bringing a lot of business on, and I knew the revenue was there to support it, but it just wasn’t a priority for the company I was working with. And so they didn’t provide a person to come on and support me. And this can kept getting kicked down the road of, “Yup, we’ll be able to hire somebody at some point to be able to help you.”
We need to get to a certain amount of revenue or get to a place in our business where we can bring somebody on. But it was very clear that this wasn’t going to happen before maternity leave. So, I found a colleague who was within the wealth department, and I basically said, “Okay, I’m going to train you up over these five months before my maternity leave to be able to at least just help answer questions and help the existing clients while I’m out.” And so I shifted some of my pay to this person and worked on training him and building him into a role to be able to help support that maternity leave, but I had to find that solution on my own and cover that solution.
Michael: And you had to pay for that. You’re an employee for the firm, but you had to pay for someone to cover you into the role?
Emily: Yeah. I honestly don’t know what the firm would’ve done otherwise. And they may have come up with a solution, but I didn’t see one appearing. And so this felt natural to me that if I’m going to shift some of my workload during maternity leave and afterwards that I felt like I needed to help properly compensate this person.
Emily: So, I felt like I was going to come back from maternity leave and have less on my plate, and, really, this person was going to be able to help kind of support me moving forward. And so, I pitched this whole idea to the firm and said, “Okay. I’ve identified somebody who has bandwidth. And who I feel like I have time to train this person up where they can at least cover the types of questions and inquiries that will come in during maternity leave. But then afterwards, we’ll be able to maybe take some things off my plate so that when I’m back, I don’t need to work an extreme amount.”
Michael: Okay. And so how did that pitch go?
Emily: So, they said yes. So, they agreed to that, and we did the training, and I went on maternity leave. And, ultimately, because I built up this role with working with so many households, and so many plans, and so many different things, it honestly overwhelmed him. And so, the joke that I had going into maternity leave was, “Please don’t call me at the hospital, but when I’m home, I can help.” So, I’ll be on maternity leave so I won’t be available all the time, but this is an overwhelming role that I’ve created, and I can kind of log in and help or answer questions while I’m on leave.
And it ended up being a lot more on a daily basis of me needing to kind of jump back in, and… which is not ideal. And when I came back, there was just this backlog of work from when I was out. There were things that didn’t get done and, really, he couldn’t get done while I was on leave. It’s really not necessarily his fault, but there was no on-ramp. So, I took a much shorter leave than most people would, and I came back to this overwhelming amount of work.
Michael: How short was your leave at the end of the day? How long was it until you had to come back?
Emily: I took eight weeks.
Emily: And I felt apologetic about it. It felt like I shouldn’t take this time. And I think that was just the hustle culture of our world is that you want to be available to everyone all the time. And so that’s why I did help during maternity leave and I felt like only I could do that. And so, I came back and I was just drowning because I’ve got a baby at home, I’m not sleeping great, it’s still post-partum period. I’ve got all this work to do, and clients that knew I was out, like, “Okay, you’re back. Let’s meet.” And so, for months, I was just drowning. And I asked for support, I asked for help, I asked when is somebody going to come on to help me, and it just wasn’t coming.
And so, I got to this point where I was starting to get emails from clients saying, “Hey, I emailed you last week and I haven’t heard back from you,” and that’s not me. I am responsive. I’m always there. I’m logged on at midnight if I need to be. So, to me, before going on maternity leave, I feel like I never got behind like that. I always was responsive, and that was one of my core values. And I got behind and I got overwhelmed and just had a mental breakdown. I couldn’t sustain it.
Michael: And so what happened next?
Emily: I really thought about that role and said, “How do I make this work?” How do I take things off of my plate? Can I take the role that I’m in right now and make it sustainable? And so, I spent a couple of months trying to potentially off-load work, beg again for administrative support, all of those types of things. And it just became clear to me that it just wasn’t going to work. And I made this decision that I’m in this role right now that feels like I can’t be this overwhelmed another minute. I need to make my family my priority. I need to make my mental health my priority, and I need to figure out how to find work/life balance. And it didn’t feel like I was going to be able to do that there.
And the other thing is within the firm that I was working for, only 4% of the total revenue of the firm was wealth management business. And so it wasn’t a huge part of the firm. And I think that’s part of why I didn’t necessarily have the resources that I might’ve needed is this was an employee benefits firm that did retirement plans, and we’re this cute little department.
Michael: Just at the end of the day, you were building a cool wealth thing in a firm that was still 96% core 401(k) business doing retirement plans. And so just when you’re that far outside of the core of what they do, it just gets really hard to get resources in a larger firm. They just tend to reinvest it in the core.
Emily: Yeah. That’s exactly right. And so, I started thinking about if I worked for a firm that was really primarily focused on financial planning, I would have resources, support, technology, and I’d really be able to focus on the planning. Because, ultimately, at the end of the day, the mechanism of going out and talking to people in a 401(k) plan, what I loved about that was sitting down with folks and having those conversations and helping them through the financial plan. And so, I did that by working with 401(k) participants, but, ultimately, I wanted to continue that work but in a smaller scale.
Michael: Well, I’m struck in that journey that if we go back to, I guess, the earlier end of that 10-plus years prior, you were in the 401(k) business and “doing” enrollment meetings, as I say “doing” in air quotes, like just enrollment meetings. Because you had said originally you didn’t feel qualified to be a more holistic financial advisor. That was the whole start of taking the administrative job out of the gate.
And so early on, you were reluctant to be in the seat of doing this full financial advisor job. But 10-plus years later of having built into enrollment and built into education and started building wealth and actually doing a wealth role, now you are suddenly at the other end of the spectrum of, “Oh, wait, this is actually the only thing I want to do now. I want to do the financial planning and wealth work. Maybe I’m going to let go of the 401(k) side of the business I’ve been doing for my entire career up to this point.”
Emily: Yeah. It took me a long time to feel confident in calling myself an advisor. And it was really in that last four years that I was at that prior company, I kind of woke up one day and said, “You know, I’m really freaking knowledgeable, and I’ve built out this knowledge in all of these different areas.” And I’m doing the work. I’m doing planning. And I think it took me a long time to not see myself as that 20-year-old I don’t know anything baby-faced Emily where I’m not qualified to do this. And that changed for me within the last five years of saying, “You know what? I’m actually really good at this, and I know what I’m doing,” and I finally felt comfortable. And I think that took me a lot longer than it takes other people, and really…
Michael: How long was it? Just how long were you into your career at this point?
Emily: So, now I’m 15 years into my career. It took me a long time to really feel like I knew enough to really take that full responsibility on of having clients.
Michael: So, I guess this transition was a few years ago relative to now, but that still means like you were 10 or 12 years in before getting in the point where you really felt like, “I can call myself a financial advisor and not have that catch in my throat when I try to say it to someone with a straight face.”
Emily: Yeah. And I think that I felt like I probably had that knowledge many years before that, but it just took me a while to get out of that impostor syndrome and feel like I truly had that technical knowledge. And I think that, really, when I felt that transformation for me was, I felt like, at least the first 10 years, it felt like there was all this technical knowledge that was just outside of what I knew. And so I felt like I knew a lot but I needed to learn more, and learn more, and learn more.
And then, all of a sudden, what I realized was I had this technical knowledge, and now I can kind of zoom out and really help people put all those pieces together and have more of those human conversations and those behavioral, transformative types of conversations. And so that’s, I think, what really made me feel like I’ve, all of a sudden, got to a point where I felt like my technical knowledge was in a place where now I feel like I’m a planner and spending time on planning. And it’s tablestakes for me to review a tax return or look at some different pieces of the puzzle, and now I can really kind of put this all together.
Michael: So, was there any particular transformative moment, like the moment you experienced a client meeting or something of, “I had this meeting, and this is where I suddenly realized I was there, it was time?” Was there a moment, or did it just really slowly creep up on you?
Emily: Yeah. So, I think that when I really started to feel like the real deal was I started to take on clients that were much larger clients. And taking on a CFO, or a CEO, or some of the executives that I started to work with, I said, “Wow, they want to work with me, and trust me, and value my advice.” And so I kind of needed that seal of approval.
When I stopped focusing so much on building technical knowledge was when a lot of my conversations stopped being about the technical pieces of the financial plan and really started to be about how to help people move forward with their goals. And so, helping somebody who planned for years, and years, and years to go to Italy feel confident to book the plane tickets and go. And so, I started to see success in these relationships and helping people move forward and realizing that I have an impact in making somebody feel comfortable and confident making some major life decisions, or hitting a goal, or buying that dream car and participating in that. And I think that’s what really helped me feel like a real planner.
Michael: It’s funny to me hearing the story and the journey. It reminds me of just a similar dynamic for what I went through because I was similar. I started right out of college, and I remember throughout the early days of my career, I never wanted anyone to know what year I had graduated because I was like, “They’re going to do the math and figure out how young I am.” And so I’d graduated in 2000 and I didn’t want to tell anybody when I’d graduated, and particularly then because there was a… Like, if it was the early 2000s and your graduation year started with a 2 and not a 199, that meant you were really young.
And I had had a conversation with someone a year ago who had asked me when I graduated, and it caught in my throat saying that I graduated in 2000. I was like, “Wow.” That was 21 years ago, and I still have trouble saying when I graduated because I don’t want people to know how young I am. Not actually that young anymore, but, still, that mental self-image stays with you a really long time.
Emily: Yeah, because you remember when you didn’t know anything and when you were young. That doesn’t leave you. And so, sometimes, it takes pressing pause and saying, “You know what? I know a lot more than I think I know, and I’m doing a lot more high-level work that maybe I think I can.” And so, I think it was just the 401(k)-environment created this really warm environment for me to do this without the pressure of joining a firm and having to cold call clients, and sell myself, and sell these services that I’m not qualified to do and do all of these things. And so, this just felt like a very warm, slow treading into eventually ending up having a book of business and having clients that I work with one on one.
Vetting Firm Culture To Find An Ideal Work/life Balance [1:05:08]
Michael: I guess so you’re getting to this point of, “It’s not working. I’m burning out hard. The firm just isn’t going to give me the resources that I’m asking for because, at the end of the day, unfortunately, I’m being really successful in something that’s not actually their core business, so it’s just hard to get resources. And maybe now I really actually want to be primarily focused in financial planning with a firm that’s actually financial planning first because then they’ll put the resources towards financial planning.”
So, this transition now is building up in your head, so what happens next? Is there a particular trigger when it just became, “This is the moment I give up on the current firm. It’s time to find something new?”
Emily: Yeah. So, I built up over the years just different networks of financial advisors that I knew in different areas and different companies. And so I started just having a lot of conversations with people and just trying to understand different roles that people had and different firms that they worked for. I even thought for a half a minute about starting my own small RIA and what that might look like. And so, I was having lots of conversations, and I was sure that a connection that I had or somebody that I would know would lead into a firm that I wanted to potentially join.
And what I was looking for was I can’t be so busy and overwhelmed. I need to join somewhere that has support, and also, I need to walk in with boundaries immediately and have a much more limited role where I’m not juggling 50 balls, and wearing 30 hats, and doing all of these different things. And so, I had a lot of conversations with different people just to understand where they were, how they got there, what advice they would have for somebody in my position, and I was sure that one of those would lead into a job. But what ultimately happened was it was 3 in the morning on a Thursday night and I’m rocking my son back to sleep. And I’m just kind of squinting at my phone and I’m like, “I’m going to go on Indeed and just see what’s out there.” And so, up until this point…
Michael: Things we do at 3:00 in the morning because the little one wouldn’t go down.
Emily: Yeah. Exactly. And so, surely, I’m going to just build on these great connections I pride myself on having. But I’m on Indeed, it’s 3:00 in the morning. I just had it with where I was and said, “I’m going to just see what’s out there.” And so, I see a posting for a senior financial planner role at an RIA, and I gave it about two seconds thought and I just said, “I’m going to upload whatever random resume I have sitting on this phone.” I don’t even know if I’m attaching the right document. I don’t even have my glasses on. We’re just throwing something into the ether here.
And 8:00 the next morning, I get an email saying, “We’re very interested in talking to you.” And so that was a Friday morning. So, the next Tuesday, I have a conversation with what ultimately ends up being the firm that I go to. And one of the very first things that he says to me is, “Mental health is really important to us,” and just really talked to me about how the firm is run. Everybody that’s there, there’s a limited number of clients that they take on. And they space meetings out so that people have space and time throughout their day. And he had said that he wants people to operate at 80% capacity max because if we get busy, then you might get to 100%. But it wasn’t this we’re expecting 150% out of you and to grow this into 50 other different roles. It sounded a lot more like a place that I could actually find that work/life balance.
Michael: Well, I think it’s interesting that, as we mentioned at the very beginning, a lot of firms say work/life balance. Everybody sort of says it these days. I feel like it’s the hot thing to talk about. But then the question becomes does the firm really, really do it and really, really live it. And I’m struck in the context of just some of what you described there, that’s one thing when a firm says, “Work/life balance is really important to us.” It’s another when they start talking about things like, “No, we really limit how many clients anyone is assigned and takes on so that they continue that balance,” or “We space out meetings and we’ll only do so many meetings in a day because we actually don’t want you to get too loaded up.” That’s an interesting distinction to me because there are firms that say it but they don’t necessarily get down to that level of, “Here’s what we actually do to make that happen,” whereas this firm was saying it out of the gate.
Emily: Yeah. And I was just hyperfocused on this because I was really vetting for are we just saying things that sound good, or is this really how you practice? And so I asked…
Michael: So, what else were you listening for or asking? How were you figuring out whether it was really real or not?
Emily: Yeah. So, I asked a lot of questions about how, and when, and why they took clients on, what types of clients they said no to. Because what I wanted to hear is that they didn’t say yes to everybody, and you’re not everything to everyone.
Emily: And so I was listening for that. I asked a lot about scheduling and processes, but I also asked a lot about support because I knew that a place that valued support and bringing support staff on makes a huge difference that once you’re done with your meetings for the day, if you have to sit down and do three hours of paperwork, it’s impossible to create work/life balance when you don’t have support in that.
And so, I wanted to know how and when they hired, what the next hires would look like, and when that would occur. So, I’m in my head picturing do I need to be absolutely overwhelmed and at my total breaking point before somebody comes on, or do you proactively hire? And so I was listening for that to try to understand how that is tracked and monitored and when the hiring decisions were made.
Michael: Interesting. So, just you outright asking those questions like, “How do you decide when the next hire’s going to come? What are the next hires going to be? Tell me about your hiring process.” Those were actual questions you’re asking them in the interview process for the job you’re trying for?
Emily: Yeah. And I was very upfront about, you know, I have a little one at home. I have a goal of having another child at some point. I want to know how do you build a family life into all of this. And so, learning that other folks there have children as well and it wasn’t a butts-in-seats role. It was you get your work done and we don’t give you an overwhelming amount of work to do or an overwhelming number of clients to take on. If you do your job well, it doesn’t matter if it’s at 8 p.m., or 8 a.m., or in the middle of the day. It wasn’t a clock in, clock out, 9-to-5 kind of role.
Michael: And so how were they answering the hiring questions you were asking in ways that were satisfactory to you?
Emily: Basically, what was shared with me was we get to a point where we can see that we’re going to need additional support and we start hiring for that right away. And so they shared with me language that felt like we build the track before the train comes along. We’re not trying to throw track down as we’re running. And the other thing that I was listening for is what kind of technology support is there and what type of systems are there to help create efficiencies in the work as well. So, do I have administrative support, and are there processes, and systems, and technologies that are going to support me as well?
Michael: And how did they answer that? Because I don’t hear a lot of firms say, “Well, let me tell you about our support processes.”
Emily: Yeah. So, I had them take me through the client experience, what the workflows looked like, what the technology looked like. So, I looked at sample financial plan and some of the different technologies that were there. I wanted to understand who did what in each part of the processes. So, they were very open and transparent with me and shared a lot with me about what that looked like. And so I wanted to make…
Michael: And so you were looking for a firm literally that has well-defined processes and workflows and division of work because you just actually asked them, “Show me a sample plan, how it’s built, and who does each part of the process,” so you can look for do they have workflows and system in process where things get handed off appropriately?
Emily: Yeah. Exactly. So, when I saw what the workflow steps were, and who gets assigned what, and what part would be my role, all of those different types of things, I really wanted to actually see what the day-to-day work would look like. And so, they were able to demo that for me and show me end to end what it looks like for a client working with us and what behind the scenes happens at the firm to support that process.
Michael: So, I guess I’m wondering, back to the original job description you saw on Indeed at 3:00 in the morning, were they advertising this in the job position like, “We’re a great firm if you prioritize work/life balance,” and you reached out? Or was it just any old senior financial planner role and it just turned out to be a firm that really happens to value work/life balance?
Emily: You know, I think there was a little bit of language in there. I don’t know that it was super apparent to me in that. I think I just got lucky in that once I had that initial conversation, it was very clear to me. And how I clicked with the other advisor, and how that conversation went, and the emphasis on this work/life balance and building out this practice, that became very clear to me. I think, at that point, I was just open to having a conversation, and it just happened to be what popped up for me. So, it was really more in having those conversations after the fact that I’ve realized that I struck gold.
Michael: And so, I guess just tell us overall about the firm, then. I mean, is this a huge firm, a mid-size firm, a small firm? Tell us about the business itself that you ended out finding your way to.
Emily: So, the firm I found, it’s a small RIA based in Austin, Texas. So, that is one huge advantage of being in this post, well, COVID environment is being able to not just look within Charlotte, North Carolina but to look at different roles all over the country. And so, it really expanded the types and numbers of firms that could potentially work. And so, it’s a founder advisor who started his own practice 15 years ago and really ran it by himself for many years and then hired a practice manager, and a client service representative, and two paraplanners, and then ultimately was looking for a senior planner.
And what also went really well in those conversations was that I had shared how I had worked in these larger institutions where there wasn’t ever going to be an opportunity long-term for any kind of partnership or ownership. And so, as it kind of turns out, this is a place where I can grow into that kind of role, and we’re working on that right now is some of that succession and continuity planning which will allow me to have that kind of role in the future.
Michael: And so, what’s the size of the firm overall at this point of…I don’t know if you measure by revenue, or clients, or AUM.
Emily: Yeah. So, we have about $170 million assets under management, and it’s about 170 families that we work with.
Emily: So, new clients that we work with typically are coming in with $1 million or more investable assets, but there are some legacy clients that are a little bit smaller that we’ve worked with.
Michael: Interesting. And so, it’s essentially a six-person team, then, like founder, practice manager, CSA, two paraplanners, and you?
Michael: Okay. And so, what has it looked like, then, over the past year since making the transition?
Emily: Yeah. So, after making the transition, all the right things were said in that conversation. You still have this lingering fear of…
Michael: “I hope it’s really real when I get there.”
Emily: Oh, yeah. And the other thing is I think that in my head too when I had that 3:00 in the morning, I need to make a change kind of thought process, I thought I’m going to have to take a big step back in my career to find work/life balance. And what ended up with this role is I am in a lead advisor planner role, and I didn’t know that I was going to be able to find that with work/life balance, and so that worked out better than expected.
But what ended up happening in practice is that the advisor that I worked with is really coaching me into work/life balance. Because, again, wherever you go, there you are. I come into this firm and I start to find all of these extra things that I could maybe do because I can’t help myself, right? So, I feel like I have to be this…I don’t know. Even though I’d already made the decision that I needed to step back, I kind of just couldn’t help myself, and so I started to want to volunteer to take on more. And what he’s really done is said, “Okay. You don’t have any goals other than to find work/life balance. We are not going to burn you out. Our goal is to not burn you out and is to keep you happy and to continue to bring value to you and your career.”
And so, part of what’s ended up happening over the last 11 months that I’ve been there is, one, we’ll be on a meeting together and he’ll say, “Pull up your calendar and make a mental health day for yourself, and just find this time to decompress.” And so, he’ll put on my calendar, “Emily’s out of the office. She is on a rocket ship on the way to Mars with Elon Musk, incommunicado, don’t reach out to her.” And so that’s part of the coaching is putting these times on my calendar, not setting goals. But also, we have a weekly planner meeting where he and I and the two paraplanners get together, and we’ll come up with an idea. And very quickly I’m raising my hand, “I’ll take this on. I’ll build this new workflow. I’ll research this new technology. I’ll build this into our practice,” and he will say, “No. I know you’ve got a lot on your plate. We’re going to have one of the paraplanners do this.”
And so, a lot of what he’s coached me to in the last year is slowing down what I’m saying yes to, learning how to say no to clients, so taking on people who aren’t the right fit. I’ve never known how to do that before. I’ve just said yes to everybody.
Michael: So, how do you do that? Because I think a lot of us need some help with that.
Emily: Yeah. I mean, I feel like I would take in any stray puppy before. They needed my help and I can help them, and I would just say yes to everything. And so, part of that is just helping me understand there’s… And what he will always say is, “There are only so many seats on the bus. And so we’re going to limit you to the number of people you can work with, and you really need to build your client base with clients that are easy to work with, engaged in the planning process, at an asset level that supports what we’re doing.” And he said, “You bring a massive amount of value, and you do a lot of work, and you really need to bring on the types of clients that the revenue supports the amount of work that you’re doing.” And so, really kind of staying a little bit more firm with some of the minimums and having the right type of client coming on board. And so, I’ve needed some coaching in that.
Michael: And so, did you have to compromise on salary, or compensation, or something else around this to find this more work/life balanced role? Are there other tradeoffs that have gone with this decision?
Emily: I really expected to have that be a result, and I expected to step back in compensation and all of that. But what just ended up happening, and I just feel so lucky and so happy to be where I am, my compensation has remained relatively the same as what I was making with a lot of opportunity kind of built in. So, I have been able to decrease my work significantly, have a lot more support, and continue to grow my career and grow my compensation, and I really didn’t expect that. And I think that had I known that this was possible, I think I might have made some much bigger changes a lot earlier.
But I think being 15 years into my career and having this knowledge base, I think that there’s a shift in the value that I bring isn’t necessarily doing more, and pushing more paperwork around, and taking on more roles. It’s really having this knowledge and value that I can bring to clients and kind of understanding that there’s appropriate compensation for that.
The Surprises And Low Point Emily Encountered On Her Journey [1:22:47]
Michael: So, what surprised you the most in this journey building your career in the advisory business?
Emily: I think that what surprised me the most is kind of being able to get to this point of truly having this work/life balance, of having this time during the week to spend with my son and bringing on these high net worth clients and having them value my time, and being at a firm that values my time. I think I didn’t necessarily expect that. I just thought that I was working in an industry that was goal-driven, and hustle culture, and you have to work really, really hard in order to build a career in this space. And I think that it really surprised me that you can slow down and limit the number of clients you’re bringing on, and niche up in this business, and have that work/life balance, and have more of that satisfaction. I think that was really surprising to me that those came together.
Michael: There’s a striking transition to me, and you just described it in part of the journey for you as well, that there’s sort of this part of the job really early on where… I mean, frankly, well, really early on, your value is pushing paperwork. You literally did that for a year at the beginning. And then there is a part where your value is just spending more time doing stuff, so you hit the road on enrollment meetings. And then there is a point where your value is doing more, and so you did more roles and took on more stuff and lived that journey for a while.
But then along the way, you’re also building this knowledge base, an experience base of how to give advice and how to serve clients, and at some point, there’s enough of a knowledge base there that you can really primarily get paid for that as the main work that you’re doing. And getting paid for knowledge work is really different than getting paid for service work and time. Because you can get paid for a lot of knowledge without having to spend an inordinate amount of hours because you’re getting paid for the last 15 years of experience you built to get to this point.
Emily: Yeah. Absolutely. And I think a transition that also happened at the same time was somebody had told me early on in my career that the first impression that you can give somebody is that you are either cold and competent or you’re warm and dumb. And so I feel like in the first part of my career, it was I need to get this technical knowledge and I need to be really technically strong in a lot of different areas, and get these designations, and get my CFP.
And I feel like another transition that kind of happened over the last couple of years is understanding that my value is my knowledge but also I can have that running in the background that’s the foundation. But, really, this role is about transitioning into being that warm and friendly person and focusing more on the human element of this work. And so I think that’s something that changed for me too as I gained confidence that I knew I had this technical knowledge kind of just running. It became a lot more effortless, and then, all of a sudden, I felt like a real planner and I felt like I was bringing a lot more value when I started to lean more into the people aspect of it.
Michael: So, what was the low point for you on this journey?
Emily: I think the low point was just before I made this transition feeling like I’m failing at home. I’m not present enough with my son. And I felt like I was failing at work because I got that email that I didn’t get back to somebody. And feeling like I’m failing at this because I can’t make this work, and I don’t have enough hours in the day to make this work. And making a change in this career is really scary because you can’t necessarily just transport your clients. And going somewhere new, often it means starting fresh or hoping that people find you in that transition.
And so the scary thing was feeling like I’m not doing well in any of this. I need to take this big step back, and I’m probably going to hurt my compensation and do all of these things. Although I was making a lot of the right decisions for my family, it was scary to me that it felt like I was cratering my career at the same time or I thought that that was going to end up being the result of it.
The Advice Emily Would Give Her Former Self And Newer, Younger Advisors [1:27:08]
Michael: So, is there anything you wish you’d done differently in this journey, looking back in retrospect?
Emily: You know, ultimately, I feel like I’m so happy with where I am now, and I know that that wouldn’t have occurred if I didn’t go through the prior firms and roles that I went through. And I think that I might have gone back and told myself at earlier ages, “You are legitimate. You do know a lot. You can do this. You are an advisor and a planner, and people will respect you and value your opinion and value your knowledge.” I wish that I had known that earlier and been more confident at different points. But, at the end of the day, I’m happy that that’s where I am now, and I’m very happy that I’m building my career now in the firm that I am at that does value the mental health and the work/life balance. And I will be having another maternity leave coming up in May.
Emily: Yeah. Thank you. And I knew that at the prior firm, I said, “I can’t do this again. I can’t go through another maternity leave here. It will just break me completely as a human.” And so it just feels a lot different knowing that I will have that type of support here. And so, I think that feeling confident in my knowledge base, finding the right type of firm, and finding the right type of environment for me has just led to so much more happiness.
And the firm said, “We have failed you if we can’t cover you and if you can’t take a maternity leave without us contacting you. It’s our job to make sure that your clients are taken care of and your work is done, and that you’re coming back and there’s an on-ramp for you to slowly wade back into work.” It feels so much more different, and I’m excited about this pregnancy, and this maternity leave, and how I’m building my career here.
Michael: So, just practically speaking, though, in a small firm environment where you are, how are they planning to handle the client load and the rest while you’re out?
Emily: Yeah. So, there’s the other advisor senior planner, and two paraplanners, and the client service representative. So, between them answering some of those reactive questions, things that clients might need during that time. But because I don’t have the volume of work and the volume of clients, it also just makes it easier to step into. There’s not as much to have to try to cover. Whereas at the other firm, my role was so big, it really made it impossible for the person who was trying to help me try to cover that.
And so, right now, I’m not so busy and overwhelmed that me taking a step back for a period of time to focus on my family, there’s bandwidth for them to help me because they’re not operating at 150% capacity, their personal capacity. And so there’s room for that support. And also, we have a nice role where we work with really good clients that are understanding, and I won’t feel apologetic telling them that I’m going on maternity leave. They’ll be excited for me and will say, okay, I’ll have my meeting with you before or after I’m back. And I just feel like being able to communicate that to clients also feels different here.
Michael: So, what advice would you give to younger, newer advisors looking to become a financial planner and coming to the industry today?
Emily: I think that for a newer advisor coming in, I would say that finding the right environment to grow doesn’t necessarily need to be a busy, hustle culture kind of place. And also finding where you can bring value without overwhelming yourself and trying to do everything for everyone. And so I think that when advisors are trying to grow their practice, they want to say yes to everything and everyone, and I would say that that becomes overwhelming really quickly. And so focusing on the right clients and who you can help, and taking on the type of role that is sustainable, I think, is ultimately what’s going to work. And then just having confidence in yourself in that if you’ve been doing the work to build that technical knowledge and just feeling comfortable and confident in your knowledge being that value and not the amount of work that you’re putting in.
What Success Means To Emily [1:31:35]
Michael: So, as we wrap up, this is a podcast about success, and one of the themes that always comes up is just literally the word success means very different things to different people. And so you’ve had this wonderful career arc of success in building the business, and building through different roles, and getting to a much better role in place for where you are now in your career of similar dollars, more knowledge work, much better work/life balance. So, career is going well. How do you define success for yourself at this point?
Emily: So, I think success to me now is liking what I do, liking who I work with, liking my clients, and feeling good about who I am in my family and being present for that as well as who I am for my clients and being present. And so, having the type of workload that makes that sustainable, I think, has made a big difference. But, to me, that success is really finding that balance and focusing on my mental health and focusing on slowing down in order to achieve that.
Michael: Amen. Amen. Well, thank you so much, Emily, for joining us on the “Financial Advisor Success Podcast.”
Emily: Thanks for having me.