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Building the Business 101: Does Gender Matter?

Advisors weigh in on gender issues in their businesses.

Veena A. Kutler and Annette F. Simon, 07/24/2008

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.

Regular readers of this column know that our firm, Garnet Group, is owned and operated entirely by women--we have four women in our Bethesda office and another four in our Boston office. We're a single-gender firm by chance, not choice. Tanya and Lisette had a male employee at one time, but he moved on; in Bethesda we've only had women working in the business. Annette sometimes jokes that she'd happily hire a man if she could just find a qualified one. In truth, we have not made any special effort to bring a man into the business, but we are not averse to doing so someday (all four partners have sons, so perhaps someday . ).

We've always believed that women working together in an office interact--among ourselves and with outside contacts--differently than a group of men or even a group of men and women. Internally in the Bethesda office, we focus on details, work hard to keep everyone in the loop on everything that is happening with our clients and make many decisions collaboratively. Generally, it's a pleasant, friendly, efficient office environment. In some instances, though, we are all trying so hard to defer to each other and get along we waste time on small matters--for instance in making routine choices such as lunch orders.

As bosses we see that our female traits influence our interaction with staff. We are quick to provide praise for initiative or work well done and empathize with personal issues. However, we have a harder time providing negative feedback, although we realize how important it is to staff development to do so.

We find that the empathy and ability to multitask are pluses for the holistic service we provide our clients. A comment that clients make to us is that they feel taken care of on many fronts. At the same time, we are concerned that at times we are not directional enough and have learned that many clients just want a direct recommendation rather than a discussion of their options.

We put a lot of thought and effort into the messages that we convey to clients, prospective clients and other professionals. For years we used a PowerPoint presentation in our initial client presentations; we obsessed over every word, taking great care to be as clear as possible and not to overstate what we promised to provide or accomplish for our clients. Communications with clients, estate attorneys, accountants, and other professionals are similarly screened for hyperbole.

We sometimes wonder if our male colleagues are less concerned about overpromising and as a result may convey more confidence (even bravado) in their meetings with prospective clients. Internally, we have assumed that all-male or predominantly male offices are more competitive and less collaborative than ours. But this has always been conjecture on our part--at least until now.

In preparation for this column we asked NAPFA colleagues to share their stories about male-female dynamics in financial planning firms. Specifically, we asked: If you work in an office that is predominantly male or female:
1. Have you observed that the gender imbalance affects the way your firm communicates with the outside world--prospects, clients, other professionals?
2. Does it influence your internal operations?
3. Are you a single-gender firm by choice or by chance?
4. What efforts have you made to bring in a member of the other sex?

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