(This blog can also be found at the FPA Practice Management site: http://practicemanagementblog.fpanet.org/2013/12/05/action-groups-produce-cooperative-improvement/)
Quarterbacks have quarterback coaches; pitchers have pitching coaches; singers have voice coaches; actors have acting coaches. Top performers require coaches to see flaws and dullness that is blind to one’s own eye. The best coaches also challenge habits and behaviors to launch greater performance than a performer’s own inertia would allow.
The expert coach is anyone able to observe performance, identify weaknesses, devise corrections, and teach changes. Given these qualities, it is no surprise that the best coaches were former performers themselves. There’s nothing that beats having to develop one’s talent and refine skills through the daily practice of the discipline.
Practitioners in small- to mid-sized financial and wealth management firms are experts that ply their talent just like in sports, music, or theater; the difference is the expertise is not for entertainment but for clients’ long-term financial stability. While an aspiring actor or singer may fail to ever get on the stage, wealth practitioners perform each and every day.
Performing each day is tough enough, but practitioners lack what is common with other performers: coaching. While there are a number of professional coaching services available, the day-to-day press of business makes a dedicated, one-on-one coaching relationship challenging and expensive.
Lacking guidance to identify needed refinements or, in some cases, restructuring methods, the routines found in a firm’s operations drift to dullness and a lack of purpose.
Bright Minds Working Together
Instead of a single coach, a more practical and scalable solution is a study group, or, more pointedly, an “action group”. Such groups are comprised of six to ten active co-practitioners that share a common purpose in sharing the realities of actual strategic and tactical operations. This coaching team pushes theories away and works toward these on-the-ground realities:
What are the business risks?
What are the opportunities?
What are the costs?
What are the benefits?
An action group generates accountability to one another and to the common craft. Instead of a single practitioner or firm carrying all analytical and execution aspects of an issue or opportunity, the group can produce analysis, execution, and refinement collectively. Learning flows through multiple minds and experiences far more broadly than if done singly. In this digital age, the ability to connect with like-minded practitioners away from your local competitive marketplace, but within common business structures and practice challenges, is a core benefit.
Unlike an advisory board that has an arms-length connection to business realities, the action group operates in the role of a real-time R&D department in which practice ideas get tested. However, instead of just one firm’s circumstances, the action group engages its combined circumstances and insights.
Practitioners often are reluctant to form an action group because it’s one more thing to do. Sure, it takes time to prepare, make meetings, and undertake post-meeting steps, but the idea testing gained from integrated experience, learning from others’ successes and failures, and the compounding of brain power saves multiples in time over the course of a firm’s development cycle.
Taking Action with an Action Group
Action groups share leadership and labor. This communal interaction increases accountability and the group’s accumulated thinking applies to each member.
Candidate Pool: The challenge in forming action groups falls on making the connections to other firms outside of each member’s marketing area. Within the FPA, its many chapters offer a ready inventory to identify candidates, make introductions, and formalize participation.
Leadership: Accountability increases with rotating leadership. For example, if the group has six members and meets monthly, then each member would lead the group twice in the year.
Topics: It is the action group’s choice what topics to pursue. Common choices involve:
1) Marketing approaches
2) Service expansion opportunities
3) Client service practices
4) Due diligence on technologies, vendors, and/or investment providers
5) Regulatory/compliance initiatives
Logistics: For each topic, the designated leader prepares a discussion package that includes:
1) Topic overview
2) Background information
3) Questions for discussion
4) Task assignments
Administration: The action group has work to do. The topic leader manages a joint project plan with team assignments and target dates. Accountability is fueled since there is greater economy in working on a task collectively than attempting to do it solo.
Gaining Needed Operational Leverage
Small- to mid-sized practitioners struggle because of limited resources to do work that bigger firms handle easily. Action groups leverage the experience and insights of its members to produce improvements at a much faster rate and with higher quality than a firm could do on its own.