The Mission Must Be the Mantra

This was article was originally published in Advisor Perspectives. Check it out here.

In Jim Collins’ book, Built to Last, there’s a chapter devoted to “cult-like cultures.” It’s the idea that the best companies build employee engagement that approaches – but doesn’t quite reach – a level of insanity. Employees at those companies have interesting (and often weird) monikers: They sing fight songs, go through intensive and rigorous training, and are self-policing in ensuring that the principles of the company are delivered by every single person, every single day.

The cultures of those companies aren’t rooted in bland values and corporate mission statements – they’re rooted in a clear-eyed, absolutist, nearly religious belief in the way things should be done in their industry.

Collins’ analysis is grounded in the internal workings of great companies. But as a financial advisor, it’s important to recognize that a clear mission doesn’t just drive your culture, it also drives your client acquisition as well.

Here’s why: Take a look at your top 10 competitors and what they say are their “differentiators.” Odds are, all 10 of those companies will offer your exact products and services. Nine of them will mention that they put “clients first.” Eight of them will be telling clients that they have values like “innovation,” “independence,” and “personalization”.

Without a clear mission, they all sound just like you.

But take a look at the firms who built themselves to win. Charles Schwab didn’t just put clients first – the company created a disruptive model that delivered lower costs and took the conflict out of the brokerage business. Edward Jones didn’t just believe in personalized service – it created a “small-office” model that created richer relationships in the small communities where the offices were centered. Vanguard – while it didn’t start as an advisory firm – has always taken a dramatically different approach to investing and structured its business, products and culture to deliver on that belief.

Each of these financial brands doesn’t just say things, they do things. And those things draw a clear boundary about what these firms stand for and the investors they’re meant to attract.

It can be scary to make bold proclamations that cut off entire segments of the market. But for every prospective client who says, “That belief system isn’t for me,” there’s another client who will say, “That’s exactly what I believe in, too” – which is a whole lot better than, “Yeah, they sound like everybody else.”

To build a belief-based advisory practice, here are three things to focus on:

Step 1: Define your villain and your hero

Do not – I repeat – do not sit down and write a mission statement. Instead, look deep inside yourself and tap into your (or your firm’s) passion. What do you believe in when it comes to serving clients? What do you want to change within the industry? Why does all of that matter?

By the end of this exercise, you should have a clearly defined “villain” – the thing that you’re fighting against. You should have a “hero” – the belief system that helps to conquer that villain. And you should have a clear “why” – the impact your approach will have on the entire industry if you’re successful.

Step 2: Make it real

You will not win if your ideology is based solely on words. For clients to see it as real, it needs to be rooted in tangible action.

Look at things like your investment style and approach – how can it be focused to enact your belief system? Think about how to make client engagement a unique experience that acts as a proof point for your passions. Develop thought leadership that proves out the value of your vision. And think about ways to attract, engage and train the kind of team members who share your passion.

By the end of this process, you should have 8-10 tangible ideas to make your mission into a reality. Commit to enacting them ­– and telling people about it – over the course of a year.

Step 3: Picture your moths

You’ve built a nice, big “flame” – a bold declaration of your passion and a business model that backs it up. Now, it’s time to think hard about the “moths” (i.e. clients) who will be drawn to that flame.

This is, in essence, a definition of your true target audience. But it has to go deeper than demographic statistics – you need to sync your mission to a particular investor mindset.

Define who you’re not right for – this can be scary, but it’s essential. Then, take the time to paint a picture of the right kind of client. Obviously, they have to share your belief system, but you need to answer why they share that belief system. It might be their career, their relationship with money growing up, their life situation, or a combination of all of those things. Go into every little detail – demographics, geography, the clubs they’re a part of, their family situation, their hopes, dreams and aspirations.

By the end of this exercise, you should have two to three target client microsegments. What’s better, you know the best places to find them and the messages that are most likely to entice them. Choose one of these segments, and to quote one of the most dynamic sales leaders I’ve ever known, “ATTACK!”

While you’ll be doing proactive outreach and marketing in the beginning, hopefully you won’t have to do that for much longer. As the flame of your mission starts to become known, you should have plenty of moths drawn to your door.

Look no further than the biggest and the best in the financial industry for evidence of just that.

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