As the RIA industry continues to evolve and competition for clients (and advisors) increases, RIAs are realizing the importance of a dedicated Operations team that ensures that the trains are running on time and allows advisors to focus their attention solely on client service and business development.  The RIA industry has always done a good job detailing the career path for those aspiring to become financial advisors. In fact, the CFP Board Center of Financial Planning put out a fantastic report in 2019 titled “Financial Planning Career Paths,” in which they spelled out the responsibilities and compensation levels as an employee progresses from Analyst to Associate Advisor, Service Advisor, Lead Advisor and ultimately Partner of the firm. We believe the equivalent to these positions among the operations track would be: Operations Associate, Operations Manager, Director of Operations, and ultimately, Chief Operating Officer.  The next big question is, “Where do I uncover candidates for these positions?”

For an entry-level operations hire, we recommend getting to know the career center at your local college intimately well.  And understand you will need to be as dedicated to this relationship the same way RIA’s dedicate themselves to the custodial referral programs for new clients – you will get out of it exactly what you put in.  When Matt Sonnen was COO at Luminous Capital, he was in the UCLA career center at least once per month, conducting resume classes for graduating seniors; volunteering to conduct mock interviews for students preparing to enter the workforce; sitting on “information session” panels to explain to students the difference between an investment bank and a wealth management firm.  The time devoted to this endeavor serves two distinct advantages: when students know about your firm and appreciate the time you have dedicated to their careers, the number of applicants per job posting will increase exponentially.  Second, the career center staff will appreciate your hard work and will actively call your office to offer you unique and talented candidates directly, before their resumes are posted publicly for other firms to consider. 

An internship program can also be a great way to uncover college-aged candidates.  By cycling upcoming graduates through your internship program, you not only get a “free look” at candidates, but you can also observe their attitude, their aptitude for certain positions, and you can truly test the cultural fit of each candidate.  As stated above, you will reap exactly what you put into your internship program – a well designed training program that gives students access to all areas of your firm will lead to word-of-mouth testimonials on campus and increase the number of applicants for each open position posted on campus.  A haphazard “we don’t have anything for you to do today, why don’t you poke around on the internet until it’s time to leave” internship program will do more damage to your brand and hurt your chances at receiving interest from top talent at local colleges.

Competing for entry-level employees, especially in an operations capacity, can be a challenge.   While we like to think of RIAs as large and successful businesses, the reality is, few of us have name recognition at the local colleges.  When Tony Craun, the COO of Sand Hill Global Advisors in Palo Alto joined the COO Roundtable podcast, he explained, “I’m not only competing against the Merrill Lynch’s or the Morgan Stanley’s for talent — my office sits a couple of blocks from Stanford University. Obviously, the war for talent in Silicon Valley between us and the technology industry is very real.  I’m not Google and I’m not Amazon, and I can see both of their offices from my office window.  But the thing that I come back to that the independent RIA has as a talent advantage, especially for younger people, is that we offer opportunity.  Technology firms in Silicon Valley and VC firms on Sand Hill Road create quite a behemoth in terms of compensation for people in this industry. But I offer opportunity and I offer career growth and I can bring people to our firm who see a career path here and opportunities to touch things that are untouched where large firms are likely to put employees in a tight box.” 

You also may need to be creative with these operations hires and look outside the industry.  Stacey McKinnon of Morton Capital has spoken at many events about her willingness to examine candidates from customer service roles ranging from food servers to coffee shop baristas.  If she can find someone who is detail oriented, can execute a set process while allowing for some amount of flexibility to fit each unique situation, all while maintaining a positive attitude and positive client service, she is willing to offer them a job.  While on Michael Kitces’ podcast last year, she talked about hiring two people from the education field, one a high school English teacher and another from a private organization.  “Honestly, navigating difficult conversations with parents I think is actually a really interesting trait, similar to serving someone coffee at 4:30 a.m,” she explained.   She continued, “You’re kind of just thinking through these professions that exist outside of your normal day-to-day, and how can that translate into somebody that either has the work ethic that you’re looking for or is truly capable of learning, and learning quickly.” 

Online job sites such as LinkedIn, Indeed, Craig’s List, etc. are easy to use and are typically low cost.  However, they are also easy to use and low cost for candidates to submit resumes for open positions, so you oftentimes will receive resumes for candidates that do not match the requirements or qualifications for the job.  In our experience, hiring managers are more often overwhelmed by the number of resumes received from these sites, and underwhelmed by the quality of candidates applying.  While not the low-cost option, we have seen much more success with the help of recruiters.

Our industry typically only thinks of recruiters with regard to finding advisors, but Robert Half’s OfficeTeam division is a great place for finding entry level or somewhat experienced operations personnel.  Especially if your firm has not had a particular role in the past, a recruiter can help formulate a job description and can help identify candidates in your area currently working at other firms in a similar role.  This would be most helpful in an Operations Manager or Director of Operations role.

When relying on your own network of professionals to attract top operations talent, Steven Beals of EP Wealth had this to say on the COO Roundtable podcast, “Allowing associates at all levels to have conversations with the executive team and leaders of the organization, to allow for job sharing, to invest back into employee’s careers financially, whether that’s allowing them to pursue a CFP or somebody wants to pursue a master’s degree…Be on the lookout for a thirst for knowledge and, people who are innovative and looking to make positive change, enjoy communicating with people at all levels.”

Many RIAs have had success by opening the search to their employees’ network of candidates as well.  By offering a placement incentive to employees that uncover candidates who are ultimately hired, you create a team of in-house recruiters working to find talented and eager candidates.  Who knows the culture of the firm better than those professionals already working inside the organization?  You’d be hard pressed to find more passionate salespeople extoling the virtues of your firm than those who love coming to work every day and who have fully bought into the mission and vision of the firm.

Employees are the lifeblood of any service organization.  We do not ship widgets in the RIA industry – we are in a relationship business and nothing is more important to a relationship business than its people.  For firms of 5 – 25 employees, each new hire has a huge impact on the firm’s culture, so it imperative RIAs dedicate time and resources to finding and nurturing top talent, especially for those responsible for the back-office operations and profitability of the firm.  With a combination of the mentioned strategies above, we are confident RIAs can continue to grow and service more and more clients.

We were very proud to collaborate with HIFON on this important article.

About HIFON

HIFON is a private, independent study group for RIA Operations Professionals. Founded in 2010, HIFON has built the premier operations community for RIAs. HIFON membership gives you access to best practices, independent advice, and peer-to-peer support you cannot find anywhere else. Your success is their mission. Learn more at hifon.org.

About PFI Advisors

PFI Advisors is a consulting firm that helps financial advisors build more impactful and profitable enterprises – whether that is launching an RIA from scratch, integrating two firms to maximize efficiencies, or simply helping an existing firm evolve into a true enterprise.  PFI Advisors also hosts the popular podcast, The COO Roundtable.  Learn more at pfiadvisors.com.

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