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Finding a Sympathetic Shoulder

Having people to talk to helps in tough times.

Veena A. Kutler and Annette F. Simon, 12/30/2008

This monthly series of articles describes the many steps and occasional missteps we have taken in building our financial advisory business, Garnet Group LLC. Currently, Garnet has eight staff members, more than 90 clients, more than $300 million in client net worth under advisement, and offices in Bethesda, Md., and Boston. Veena Kutler, CFA, and Annette Simon, CFP, are the managing principals in the Garnet office in Bethesda.

To badly paraphrase a popular song, these days it's hard out there for an advisor. With almost every asset class at or near 10-year lows and all of the bad news related to Bernie Madoff we are, at best, the brunt of many jokes and at worst taking much of the blame for the current financial crisis.

Even when times are good, it's human nature to seek support from friends, family, and colleagues. Given the events of the past few months, financial advisors especially need a close group of trusted comrades with whom to consult and commiserate. Many independent advisors work solo or in small groups with staff members rather than professional colleagues. We all need a bigger universe of people out there with whom to share our experiences.

Fortunately, there are more outlets for connecting with other people, both professionally and socially, than ever before.

Our Support Networks

Professional Associations
Associations have been around for years providing the members of a single profession with a forum for shared concerns and opportunities to meet and discuss the issues affecting their industries. Some associations lobby state and local governments on behalf of their members; others create standards and certification programs that define their professions.

As we have discussed in the past, both of us are long-standing and relatively active members of NAPFA. We attribute much of our success and business growth to NAPFA. We met each other and most of our closest business friends through NAPFA; over the years, we have vastly expanded our network of centers of influence by attending NAPFA events. Several of our clients have come to us either directly or indirectly through NAPFA. We feel that we have received much more from our involvement with NAPFA than we have put into it in terms of the time and energy we have dedicated to volunteer work.

NAPFA provides a variety of ways to build a support network:

Local Study Groups: NAPFA currently funds more than 50 local study groups that meet anywhere from annually to monthly. Our local Washington, DC, NAPFA study group is very active and holds monthly meetings including four quarterly workshops and two annual social events. Both of us have presented workshops and participated in running the group over the years.

As a rule, one is not required to be a member of NAPFA in order to attend a NAPFA study group meeting. Some groups require you to become a member after your first few meetings. Local study groups may or may not require you to pay a separate fee to join the group or participate in specific events.

If you are new to the industry, NAPFA study group meetings are an ideal place to meet fee-only advisors, to test the waters and see if the profession is right for you. You may meet members who are looking for help and are almost guaranteed to pick up valuable information about the industry and the issues of the day.

Geographically diverse study groups: Several years ago, in an effort to serve the needs of more established practitioners, NAPFA created its Management Information Exchange group program. Through the program, members from different parts of the country, but with similar practices and concerns, were assigned to groups with six to ten members. MIX groups provide an opportunity for advisors and business owners to share and support each other at a more intimate level than local study groups where members are often competitors. MIX groups typically meet for 1-2 days once or twice a year. Typically, MIX group members are sharing detailed information about their businesses and over time act as an informal advisory board for each other. NAPFA currently has more than 25 MIX Groups and many are looking for more members.

Annette has participated in a MIX group for the past couple of years and found it to be and extremely valuable experience. Members of her MIX group take turns hosting and planning the agenda for their 1 ½ day meetings, which have included presentations from fund managers, a tour of a trading floor, interactive leadership development sessions and more. Members share ideas between meetings via e-mail and phone, building stronger bonds and deeper trust over time.

Conferences and Virtual Education Programs: Of course, one of the biggest draws and the most apparent benefit of NAPFA membership is their wonderful conferences. The obvious and practical reason to attend conferences is to participate in the continuing education sessions -- which are first rate. In our years of attending NAPFA conferences we have heard too many excellent speakers to count. And we've probably never come home from a conference without at least a handful of new ideas we can't wait to try in our business.

But beyond the educational value, NAPFA conferences are a great place to meet colleagues -- many who are now old and dear friends as well as new members who bring interesting new perspectives to the industry. We have come to look forward to NAPFA conferences and rank them among our favorite things about our chosen field.

Of course other associations and organizations put on conferences as well and we have attended a number of those events over the years, Non-NAPFA conferences have allowed us to expand our circle of acquaintances in the business and opened our eyes to how others operate their businesses. We have gained a great deal from stepping outside our NAPFA cocoons every now and again, but for us, NAPFA will probably always be our professional home.PAGEBREAK

Informal Social/Professional Groups
It sometimes seems that we have built our business through the years by having lunch with people! We frequently invite attorneys, accountants and other allied professionals to lunch so that we can get to know each other and explore opportunities to help grow our respective businesses. We also eat lunch with our staff at least a couple of days a week and discuss what's happening with our clients and what we can do to make things work better in our office.

What began as a friendly lunch four years ago with a couple of local planners has evolved into a fun group of seven advisors who meet roughly quarterly for lunch, dinner or drinks at a restaurant or one of our houses. We have shared a lot with this group -- members have changed jobs, retired, formed new firms, we even hired one of the group members as an advisor in our firm a year or so ago! The business and our shared trials are a big topic of discussion, but not really the number one purpose for the group. Now when we get together it's nonstop talking -- stories, jokes and frankly discussing our personal lives as well business problems and successes. We wouldn't be without this gang and eagerly anticipate each gathering!

Online Networks
Like so many trends that eventually take hold in the broader population, online networks got their start with college- and high school-aged kids. It seems that everyone under the age of 25 is on Facebook and keeping up with dozens if not hundreds of friends from around the country, even around the world.

What may be surprising is that Facebook is not just for kids anymore. Annette joined a few months ago and was surprised to learn how many more "mature" folks were on Facebook and using it for business and social networking. Skeptical at first, she has found it to be a useful and fun way to connect with friends and acquaintances from various parts of her life that are now scattered around the country. It's also a powerful communication tool that links easily to many websites and blogs. We suspect this form of networking will only grow in importance in the years to come -- especially with the arrival of the Obama team, our first internet-savvy administration.

Other social networking sites have begun adapting the concept for use in a more professional context. LinkedIn is probably the most successful of these sites and has become a very popular vehicle for professionals looking to connect with others for the purpose of hiring, contracting, researching article ideas etc. LinkedIn, Naymz and other sites in this category allow members to recommend each other and provide information about their experiences working together in the past.PAGEBREAK

Something New -- Coach-Guided Peer Counseling
Recently, we met with Hilary Joel of WJ Consulting, an executive coach we have worked with over the years, to discuss the value of a coach-guided formal peer group. The concept, new to us, is similar to the MIX group in that the members (ideally less than 10) would be geographically diverse. The approach, however, would be quite different, with members meeting for an hour or so roughly once a month by phone with a stated goal of raising the bar of self-awareness for each participant.

Initially, a certified professional coach would participate in each meeting to ensure that the focus of the group would be on recognizing and addressing the obstacles -- both internal and external -- that come between members and their stated goals. The coach would guide the conversation back to fundamental factors if it began to drift off course into anecdotes by individuals and/or discussion of surface-level tactics. Over time, group members will most likely begin to recognize when the discussion is moving from a coaching conversation to something else and how to self-correct.

The coach, Hilary believes, would not need to be an industry expert. Her/his role, rather, is to ask deeper questions and to lead participants to do active listening. Unlike a facilitator, whose primary task is to keep the group on agenda, a coach focuses on ensuring that the group is learning and looking beneath the surface. A good coach creates a safe environment where participants feel comfortable enough to uncover their deepest issues and move beyond emotional reactions in order to solve problems at a profound and fundamental level.

Agenda setting can be rotated among the peers, allowing each member to choose the focus for a session. Pre-work, for example, reading an assigned book prior to a meeting, would allow for a deeper, more focused group discussion.

Sharing them with others often makes your burdens feel lighter and your victories more meaningful. Finding ways to connect with other people is worth the effort. Give it a try!

Tell us about your support networks. E-mail us at dc@garnetgroup.com.

Also, check out our new blog, The Money Mamas.

Veena A. Kutler, MBA, CFA, and Annette F. Simon, MBA, CFP, are founders and principals of Garnet Group, LLC -- www.garnetgroup.com, a fee-only wealth management firm with offices in Bethesda, MD and Boston MA. Both are NAPFA Registered Financial Advisors with more than 30 years of financial planning and portfolio management experience between them. Garnet serves the needs of high net worth individuals and families in the Boston and Washington, D.C. areas

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