Chances are, the next time you’re looking for a talented team member for your practice, you won’t rent out an auditorium, take your seat in the judge’s chair and wince your way through dozens of bad acts in the hope of finding one exceptional star. But even if your interview process doesn’t make for ratings-grabbing television along the lines of America’s Got Talent, you do need a strategy to attract and retain the best the industry has to offer.

“If you’re going to carry out your role as the CEO [of your practice], then I think one of your responsibilities is to make sure that all the jobs are being done by the best-qualified people,” says George Hartman, consultant, coach and facilitator with The Covenant Group in Toronto.

So, how can you identify top-performing partner advisors, junior associates, marketing professionals and administrative assistants who will stay with your practice for the long term? We asked advisors with established teams to tell us what’s worked best for them.

Circle of friends

Certified financial planner Laurie Stephenson knew she needed a succession plan long before she co-founded Stephenson Daigle Financial. Along the way, she found both an advisor who became her partner and future successor, and an assistant she calls an “organizational wizard.”

Over the years, all three have become friends in this close-knit Halifax-based practice. And when the market crashed last year while Stephenson was celebrating her 20th anniversary in Italy, she knew her shop was in good hands.

“We’re able to do so much more interesting work as a team,” Stephenson says. “We’ll bring different ideas to the table and I think that’s really valuable … It’s given our clients a sense of security that we’re all here working on their behalf … [and] I think I’m a better advisor with a team behind me.”

Stephenson began looking for a business partner when she was working in management at Freedom 55 Financial. Co-worker Trevor Daigle caught her eye.

“When I met Trevor, I knew he was a good succession plan,” she says. “I met other people too and I thought they might work out, but it was always a senior partner/junior partner kind of arrangement. What I realized over the last couple of years was that wasn’t going to work for me. I needed somebody who was more of a partner who would eventually take over the practice.”

Stephenson says Daigle’s approach to financial planning is so similar to her own that she trusts him to take a file and manage it in the same spirit, if not in precisely the same way, as she would. That confidence comes from a six-year work history together before the two started their own practice: Stephenson Daigle. It’s been reinforced in the three years since.

Krista Zinck was another recruit from Freedom 55 Financial and, although they worked together for a year before moving out on their own, Zinck won Stephenson over within the first three minutes. “She’s just so good,” Stephenson says about the operations manager.

She describes Zinck as “the full package” with the right mix of people and organizational skills. “We ask her every single week if she’s still happy,” Stephenson says with a laugh. “She’s a hugely integral piece of our practice. She’s a full member of our team.”

Now Stephenson is just about ready to bring a new junior advisor on board [DASH] again, someone she and Daigle are already familiar with. “He’s a known quantity, he’s somebody that we like and he does really good work,” she says. “When we bring somebody else in, we want to make sure that they really are on their feet and able to do stuff so we don’t have to do a huge amount of training.”

Doors open

If Stephenson looks for experience, Tina Tehranchian takes quite a different approach. Tehranchian, a CFP and branch manager with Assante Capital Management Ltd. in Richmond Hill, Ont., has made a point of hiring new immigrants to Canada and taking on the responsibility of training them. She advertises her open positions and then carefully screens candidates based on academic and work credentials.

Her administrative assistant, Megan Pirhadi, joined the firm in 2001, shortly after arriving in Canada from Iran. She had a BA in English translation and a 10-year background working in the international finance department of a bank [DASH] but no Canadian work experience.

“Having been a new immigrant myself, I can really see the potential in new immigrants. I thought that we should definitely give her a chance and it has worked out really well,” Tehranchian says. “The immigration process usually sets you back in your career and life a good 10 years, if not more. So new immigrants usually have a higher drive for success than somebody who’s been born and raised here because they feel they have to catch up.”

Tehranchian’s marketing assistant, Margaret Chen, started in 2006 after immigrating to Canada as a student from Hong Kong. She was fresh out of school when Tehranchian hired her on the strength of her BA in economics and Seneca College marketing diploma.

“If somebody takes school seriously and has done well in school, that is a good sign they’re going to be a good employee because they will take their job seriously as well,” Tehranchian explains. “We did the first interview on the phone because if the person comes across as negative or has no energy or doesn’t have the communication skills, you get it right away and you don’t need to waste any more time … I got a very positive vibe from her … She was very cheerful and the same enthusiasm and positive energy came across in the face-to-face interview. We had quite a few candidates that we interviewed for that position and she was clearly our top choice for the job.”

With Pirhadi handling administrative tasks and Chen organizing marketing activities, Tehranchian has more time to focus on client meetings and financial planning. For efficiency, she shares Chen with the other advisor in her branch, Janine Purves, who also has an administrative assistant, Janice Smith, rounding the team up to five people.

Hiring new immigrants may mean more work for an advisor at the outset because they’re not as familiar with our culture and industry, Tehranchian acknowledges. “You have more of an upfront investment of time in the training process,” she says, “but if you find the right person and the right fit, I think it’s a real win-win for the organization.”

Mix and match

Scott Plaskett has embraced a different business structure to access the skills he needs. His practice, IRONSHIELD Financial Planning in Toronto, founded in 1993, benefits from a blend of full-time employees and specialized professionals he hires from time to time.

Plaskett, CFP, is the senior financial planner and CEO, while his wife, Catherine, is chief operating officer. “We have very complementary skill sets,” he says. “I have a great vision of where I want the firm to go, and Cathy’s able to take that vision and put it into an actual action plan.”

The Plasketts are supported by in-house talent Jill Martin, their administrative assistant for the past four years. They also consider their chartered accountant Ted Masters, bookkeeper Shirley Huntington and corporate writer Caroline Cakebread part of their team, though all three are paid by the project or by the hour. These looser associations are a cost-effective way to meet the practice’s needs while maintaining flexibility.

Martin was a successful in-house hire, Plaskett says, because she came from and understood the financial world. He also appreciated her confidence. She was able to step right in and offer to take over a wide range of tasks – allowing him to concentrate on his core strengths.

Plaskett found Martin through a recruiter, and he will likely embark on the same process to replace a second administrative assistant who left earlier this year. Recruiters, he says, have both the time and the industry contacts to quickly round up likely candidates. Once he has a short list, Plaskett will use the Kolbe ATM Index, an online assessment tool that identifies the ways an employee will be most productive, to make sure his new hire fits his practice.

“We determine, as a firm, the perfect Kolbe score for a position,” he explains. “When we get down to the point where we’ve got maybe one, two or three people, then we look at the Kolbe scores and that really determines who we hire.”

To easily integrate new people into his practice, Plaskett has systematized and documented processes ranging from answering the phone and faxing documents to sending out birthday letters and entering client information. Instructions are stored in a searchable database that’s always on hand if a new hire has a question.

“It allows us to get people through the training process quicker, instead of me having to sit there for a full day or even a week,” he says.

Finder’s keepers

Of course, there are many other ways to find great hires. Hartman’s first choice is “information and referrals from people whose opinion you respect,” but he warns this may lead to some awkwardness if the person turns out not to be suitable either pre-hire or post-hire. Another team member may have great recommendations since he or she knows exactly what skills the job needs.

Hartman also says clients can be good sources of candidates since they’ve been on the receiving end of the service your practice delivers and know what they like.

If you’re looking for fresh blood from outside the industry, Hartman says a popular approach in the U.S. is to participate in an internship program for university or community college graduates. In Canada, Toronto’s Seneca College has an active program, he suggests, and there are similar programs across Canada.

Keep in mind that finding the ideal candidate for an open position in your practice is just the first step. Whether you’re banking on industry experience like Stephenson and Plaskett, or on energy and enthusiasm like Tehranchian, once you’ve identified your new team member, you need to start thinking about retention.

Hartman advises people consider the human resources process of “on-boarding” [DASH] making your new hire feel welcome from day one, ensuring team members greet him or her warmly and explaining the initiation program that will teach the new team member what he or she needs to know. He recommends creating a “role contract” for each team member that sets out what they can expect from you and what you expect from them.

Stephenson adds it’s important to pay a competitive salary [DASH] but perhaps even more important to offer flexibility. For example, last summer, Zinck took two half-days off during the summer to spend with her children.

Tehranchian agrees: “Money is important, but it’s not the main thing.” She tries to make sure her team members are challenged by their work (which keeps them learning and interested) and appreciated for what they do. In addition to a bonus system that rewards good performance, she organizes informal get-togethers a few times a year to cultivate team spirit.

Plaskett sets aside time for a “positive focus” at each weekly staff meeting [DASH] an opportunity for every team member to share something that happened that he or she is proud of. Then they talk about how to take that experience to the next level by, for example, parlaying one good experience with a client into many.

Acting on these discussions helps team members see their contributions make a difference to the practice. The positive focus discussions also give Plaskett a chance to thank his team for a job well done.

It’s all about motivating your stars to do their very best work for you.

“I spend the bulk of my time coaching advisors on how to ensure that everyone in their organization is working at the highest level of their capability,” says Hartman. “For the advisor, that typically means dealing directly with clients or perhaps in some business development activity. But it also applies to the other team members … We want them to be doing work that’s appropriate for their skill and comfort and what they value as being important.”

And that, ultimately, is how you win Financial’s Got Talent.

  • Alison MacAlpine is a Toronto-based freelance editor and writer.