Mentoring builds better businesses, advisors

By Terri Goveia | April 11, 2011 | Last updated on April 11, 2011
10 min read

A year into her job at Rogers Group Financial, Cecilia Tsang wrote a test that would have a profound impact on her career. But it wasn’t tied to any designations or certifications. The result would help her gain entry to the group’s articling program, a lengthy mentorship opportunity.

For Tsang, who was just starting out in financial services, the program would provide a personal guide and a framework for her progress in the business, helping with practical goals like timelines for designations, and broader benchmarks for her development as a young advisor.

The new advisor generally arrives with a newly minted degree but little client experience. Enter the mentor. Bill Gates had one—the iconic Warren Buffett—and so did Charles M. Schwab, who learned key business lessons from Andrew Carnegie. In Tsang’s case, the lessons were crucial.

“The learning doesn’t stop,” she says. “It starts immediately and continues as you work. It takes quite a bit of time to have the knowledge and skills to be a good advisor.”

And turning that learning curve into a formal mentor-novice partnership can yield personal and professional dividends for both teacher and student.

Beyond basic training

Junior advisors aren’t completely alone at the starting line, but having a mentor can take their introduction to the business to a new level. The program at Rogers Group is modelled on the articling program all law students complete and can last anywhere from two to five years, says Clay Gillespie, managing director at the Vancouver-based firm.

New advisors learn the ropes by spending the first stage in research and planning mode, preparing plans for clients while under supervision. Tsang recalls doing trades, paperwork and GIC renewals under Rogers Group chair Brett Simpson. Mentorship is a day-to-day process punctuated by regular meetings to track progress.

“They need some training and cutting of teeth,” says Gillespie. “We don’t believe that somebody, after six weeks of training, is capable of giving the advice required.”

But it’s much more than basic training. Having a mentor as a sounding board and teacher “is critical for the success of the individual and in our case, of our firm,” he says. “You’re teaching the culture of the firm, and [you’re acting like] a parent, not letting them make the same mistakes you made.”

Once mentees become associate financial advisors, their training moves into business building, including solo prospecting and marketing. “They start using their own personality and their own resources, and you just try to direct them in the right direction,” Gillespie says. “Their success is based on what they do.”

And that success is tied to that of the firm, which has 15 advisors under its roof. “Our goals are to build another generation in our firm,” says Gillespie. “Our entire second generation came through this process. Now, we’re trying to work on the third generation.” Better business

Not all mentees are new to the business. That’s the case at Wise Advisory Group, where CEO Julian Wise mentors two advisors: one with several years of investment experience who wanted to develop his skills, the other a former financial services senior executive “who’s never worked on our side of the street.”

Wise takes a looser approach to mentoring. He works with his mentees daily, and holds progress meetings every two weeks. “Our goals are determined by the clients we’re developing —we will sit down and talk about the clients, what needs to be done and [get] input on how to make it happen.” Goals are also specific to each new advisor’s strengths: one may need to shore up on technical knowledge, while the other might need help drawing up a question list for new clients.

Like Gillespie, Wise links mentee development and the progress of his Oakville, Ontario-based firm. The current partnerships “directly relate to money and income,” he says. But there’s also another gain: “The non-tangible measurement of our sense of the person’s growth, how they are filling their new shoes versus their old shoes, and how their outlook has expanded.” Eyeing retention

GAMA International Canada focuses on measurement before the apprenticeship has even begun. There, mentoring—in the form of Sun Life Financial’s six-month Career Academy program—is built on good matchmaking, says Greg Powell, the firm’s president.

Once a young advisor’s manager assesses strengths and weaknesses, mentors and their charges are matched by geography and other factors like personality.

“Whatever we think their sales DNA is built on, we try to match them up with someone similar,” he says. The mentor and mentee then keep in touch by e-mail or phone daily, and meet in person weekly.

Although not all Sun Life Financial producers use the program, having a common approach to mentoring is helpful, Powell says. “We use the same training binders across Canada, so it’s a consistent and level playing field,” he points out. “Our philosophy is it takes the entire village to raise a citizen.”

Most new advisors want advice on prospecting and problem solving, but they are also looking for big-picture expertise. “A central question for them is, ‘How do I have a successful practice?’” Powell says.

The group’s focus? Retention. Although Sun Life Financial compensates senior advisors for acting as mentors, usually “there’s no [formal] perks or incentives for an office to have mentor programs,” Powell says. “It’s about keeping good people in the hallways who have a shot to make it beyond the four-year mark.”

With many young advisors dropping out after a few years, senior advisors often use the program to scout for new talent, he says. “[They think], ‘We get along, the mentorship is over, but I’d like this guy to work at my location.’”

Master classes

No matter the approach or the ultimate goal, mentorship’s benefits extend across the board. There’s only so much a new advisor can draw from coursework and exams. “Book learning is interesting, but it’s not very practical,” says Gillespie, who points to pension regulation as one tripping point for newer advisors. Most newcomers need help with the more hands-on aspects of advising, like relationship and practice building, notes Powell. Some of the questions are simple—should I put an ad in the local newspaper, or take part in community events?

New hires also need help with aspects that aren’t easily defined, like recognizing the right way to approach a client’s needs, says Gillespie. “It’s one thing to know the solutions. It’s another to actually get the clients to do it,” he notes, adding that in many cases, products aren’t the answer. “It’s a will, a power-of-attorney […] motherhood statements—you’re giving advice, and that advice is more important than the product sale.”

The right stuff

Once those lessons are learned, they can pay off on several fronts. Studies link mentorship with better productivity: research by Million Dollar Round Table credits mentoring with increasing production by an average of 14% in the first and second years for producers following the association’s program.

At Sun Life Financial, the numbers are even higher. “We’re about 20 percentage points better for those who have a mentor versus those who don’t,” says Vicken Kazazian, senior vice-president, Career Sales Force, at Sun Life Financial. “We believe it has a very important impact, so it’s a very key part of our whole professional development program.”

And the industry has taken renewed notice of its value on the succession front, says Powell. “It seems to be something that the industry is clueing into again,” he observes. “With the boomers leaving, there’s an awareness that we’re losing expertise. The Gen X and Y [advisors] are realizing that not everything they need is on the laptop.” Clear objectives

But advisors can’t attain goals simply by sharing coffee with a mentee once a week. The senior advisors stress the need for clearly stated objectives.

“Both parties [should] sit down and work out what their takeaways are going to be,” advises Wise. “Not just, ‘I want to know more and I want to get better.’ It has to be quantified.”

Personality also plays a role. Both Sun Life Financial and Rogers Group emphasize good chemistry between the teacher and student. In bigger companies, managers can play a major role in individualizing a mentorship, by assessing an advisor’s personality and needs before they are assigned to a mentor, says Kazazian.

Apprentices also need to understand the process—it’s not just about pushing product, it’s also about establishing long-term relationships and trust, says Gillespie. They must also recognize why the partnership is in place. “Your mentor is not there to be your friend. They’re not there to make you feel good. They’re there to make you succeed,” says Gillespie.

The right mindset is also critical, notes Wise. One former mentee had lofty goals. “He told me, ‘I want to be like you and I want to reach where you’ve reached,” he recalls. But the mentee spent meetings talking about why he hadn’t met any goals. “After about a year, I said, ‘I’m sorry, but this is wasting your time and mine.’”

Many new advisors have the wrong attitude, Wise says. “They say, ‘I want to come and work with you so I can get rich,’ instead of [wanting] to self-improve.”

Tsang agrees. “You need to be motivated yourself to push forward,” she says. “Nobody is going to hold your hand. It has to be from yourself. You have to be the driver.” Risk and reward

Kazazian likens the relationship between a mentor and new advisor to that of an old-world master and his apprentice. But even the student can teach the master a thing or two.

After time with his mentees, Wise reinstated 15 questions to the list he uses with potential clients. He’d dropped them some time ago, but realized that they’d helped gain valuable insight into clients. “You’re not only watching somebody grow,” he points out. “You’re learning some stuff [and] you’re relearning what you learned a long time ago. You take that and apply it and think, ‘Why did I stop doing that?’”

“You can learn a lot from a new generation,” says Gillespie. “They know a lot about technology and they run in different circles. They question how you do things, [which] can be very valuable in making your practice better.”

It’s a full-circle phenomenon that often plays out in other ways: Gillespie was a mentee himself, and Tsang, who’s now been with the firm almost 12 years, just started mentoring a new hire.

And the relationships forged often last through a new advisor’s career. Once mentees earn their stripes, they “just want to survive and have a practice,” notes Powell. “They will generally cut the apron strings faster than they should with an office. But they won’t do that to a mentor. They will hang on to their mentor for years.” And why not? “It’s not a credibility factor,” he explains. “There’s something magical about having a guide in this challenging career.”

A Master Mentor

What makes a good mentor? Researchers at Université Laval have pinpointed the elements that most influence mentees’ satisfaction with their mentoring experience. At the top of their list: trust. After surveying 142 entrepreneurs who’d gone through a mentoring program, the researchers found neither the number nor the length of meetings between a mentor and a novice entrepreneur made a difference on mentee satisfaction.

Though the novices stressed efficiency, having a clear agenda and expertise, they don’t put too much emphasis on the mentee’s position or pedigree, Etienne St-Jean and Josée Audet, the study’s authors, reported in the International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring in 2009.

“An impressive resumé is less important than the mentor’s actions and behaviours towards the mentee, especially if those behaviours allow the mentor to gain the mentee’s trust,” the authors found. What else do the mentees want? Understanding. “To increase their chances of being satisfied with the mentoring experience, novice entrepreneurs should be paired with mentors who understand them and who are prepared to comply with the mentoring agreement.”

Such understanding and trust are essential in the early stages of an entrepreneurial career, when novices may experience self-doubt. To that end, “It may be relevant to recruit mentors who are or have been entrepreneurs, to help bring the difficulties of the start-up process into perspective.”

Mentoring On The Fly:Two Views

The advisor community has a history of providing cross-generational guidance—even across different practices and affiliations, says Vicken Kazazian, senior vice-president, Career Sales Force, at Sun Life Financial. “There’s already a natural aspect of our culture, where the senior people like to show younger people how the business works [and] what financial services is all about.”

When does advice turn into mentoring? Along with his formal mentees at Wise Advisory, CEO Julian Wise also has casual mentorships with members of MGA Performance Canada, where he’s on the board of directors. “I’m more than happy to share my insights with them,” says Wise. “Some of those people will come to me to talk to me and ask for guidance and advice, and I think that’s called mentoring, too.”

But others take a different view. The kind of advice shared at industry events and during a coffee break is valuable for those looking for a sounding board, says Greg Powell, president of GAMA International Canada, who thinks a mentorship needs a defined framework and a specific relationship. “[Being] a mentor means an active two-way communication,” he says. “If you meet once a month in the hallways you’re a colleague. If you meet often, give advice where merited, and allow the newer advisor to develop ideas and practices, then you’re a mentor.”

Terri Goveia