Thriving through change

10 November 2021

Money & Life team

Money & Life contributors draw on their diverse range of experience to present you with insights and guidance that will help you manage your financial wellbeing, achieve your lifestyle goals and plan for your financial future.

How can financial planners successfully handle disruption and change and offer valued support to their clients and team? Dr Adam Fraser and Kate Tierney CFP® share insights with Miriam Delacy on what helps leaders embrace transformation and thrive.

In a landmark study conducted in late 2020, Deakin University and The e-lab set out to investigate levels of wellbeing, mental health and stress among financial planners in Australia.  Their 2021 report, sponsored by AIA Australia, also presents findings on the behaviours planners tend to show when they are flourishing, both personally and professionally, in spite of the many changes the advice landscape has undergone in recent years.

As lead researcher and founder of The e-lab, Dr Adam Fraser has spoken with many financial planners, both before and during the study. In conducting this research and through his broader work, he explores how people and organisa­tions adopt a high performance culture and the importance of wellbeing to thriving in this challenging and evolving world.

With the level of disruption in the financial advice profession, Adam found an increasing number of planners approaching him with concerns about the impact of constant change on their own wellbeing, and for their peers. “The narrative in the industry has been that all the change and disruption they are going through is taking its toll on advisers. Not only profes­sionally but also personally, writes Adam in his foreword to the Australian Financial Advisers Wellbeing Report 2021.

Critical findings included in the report are the habits of financial planners managing to take positive action in their personal and professional lives, in spite of the frustration they feel as they face challenge after challenge and uncertainty about where the next change will come from. A broad category of ‘Thrivers’ shared their experiences and behaviours, enabling Adam and his fellow researchers to draw some conclusions about what these financial planners have in common.

“When we humans we come up against a challenge we can choose to go towards it or move away from it,” says Adam. “The big thing that came out of the research is that everyone has a similar narrative when it comes to change and disruption. The story financial planners tell themselves might be that regulatory change hasn’t been handled well and it’s getting in the way of helping me do the best by my client. The difference is what financial planners then decide to do with that story. Do they get stuck in negative emotions or make a positive choice   – like adapting their systems or choosing a different customer segment? For a lot of planners  their response might be to leave the industry, while the thrivers would say this isn’t great but how do I change my business to make the most of it?”

Growing as a leader

A financial planner in this group, Kate Tierney CFP® is currently working from her farm in rural Victoria. Even before the pandemic, a two hour commute to the RSM Financial Services Australia office in Ballarat meant she generally spent two days each week in the office. This is a significant change in lifestyle compared with her previous role with Macquarie Group, based in their Sydney headquarters. This dramatic change in lifestyle and working culture as well as her client base, has seen her continue to evolve, both as a person and a leader.

“My approach to leadership keeps changing as I develop as a person and as my role changes too,” she says. “I moved to rural Victoria six years ago from my position at Macquarie in Sydney. During my time there I was in my 20s and I was promoted several times, ending up in roles where I was managing peers and sometimes people older than me. This situation and the sheer pace of the work there brought out some interesting leadership traits in me.

“How I lead now is quite different as I try to give my team as much responsibility as they can reasonably manage. This is because I recognise how much I was able to thrive when I was given that level of responsibility, so I know how much better it feels for other people when they feel trusted to take control.”

According to Adam this habit of finding skilled team members and empowering them to do their best work is a characteristic that’s common among the Thrivers. “It’s not unusual for a leader to want to be across everything and hold on to it all, particularly when theirs is a business they’ve built from the ground up,” he says. “We found that leaders who struggle to evolve are micromanaging. Thrivers on the other hand are really good at hiring people who are better at some things than they are. They trust in their capabilities which means they don’t expect to give them a blueprint for how to do something. Instead, they make it clear what the expected result is and let them do it their way.”

As a leader dealing with change, Kate knows that a lack of control can feel frustrating. But just like other Thrivers included in the research study, she responds with actions that are focussed and constructive. “I had four years away from financial planning between 2011 and 2014 and it was amazing how much change had happened,” she says. “It was a big learning curve to come back into the profession at that time. To stay motivated it was very important to focus on what I could control and to be an advocate for changes that I mostly saw as positive.

“I feel the profession needed to change and grow which helped me to accept things. I recognised the need to bring community on board with the value and quality financial advice can offer. That doesn’t mean I agree 100% with how changes have been carried out but I can’t control that part. I’ve always had a big focus on the value of learning and education and  having a stronger, more professional, better educated workforce is a big positive for having our community trust us.”

Wellbeing and resilience

To maintain the energy and focus it takes to keep on top of change when the path seems so fraught with difficulty isn’t easy. Both Adam and Kate acknowledge that being able to meet each challenge in a positive way takes a lot out of you. “Being a leader is one of the hardest jobs ever,” says Adam. “Leading through disruption and change requires so much of you. You’ve got to fill yourself back up so you can give to others. And when you’re drained you can’t be expected to think strategically.

“It’s not just that activities like running, swimming, playing a musical instrument or cooking allow you to enter a positive state. That definitely is a benefit. But the neuroscience of insight tells us that it’s in these moments that we can pay attention to the part of our brain that’s been busy trying to solve a problem. When the conscious brain is stressed and overwhelmed it’s just not capable of listening to the answer that the unconscious brain has been working on in the background.”

Kate agrees that leaders cannot function at their best, for their clients or their team, if they are not taking time to engage with something they love doing outside of work. “You have to put your own oxygen mask on first,” she says. “I can’t imagine turning up to work in a happy and positive state if that’s not reflected in my life. It really is important to find time to do things that bring you joy.”

“I’m generally not a disciplined person,” Kate adds. “Some people manage their work and wellbeing to a timeframe to keep everything in balance but having a lot of routine and structure just isn’t me. My approach is more intuitive. I monitor my mood and productivity and do what I need to at the time to make sure I’m happy with both. I choose my activity in the moment and if that means going for a run at 10am, that’s what I’ll do.”

Resilience is another quality Kate believes drives her positive behaviours. “I’ve had quite a few changes of direction in my career and life,” she says. “These have been chosen by me and that’s helped me expect change, accept that it’s inevitable and become adept at responding. The pace of change just keeps accelerating which means there’s going to be more and more of it in the next 10 years and the next.

“In my view, this resilience isn’t something you’re born with. And while it would be great to go to a school for resilience, it really only comes from experience. When I talk to my team about a challenge they’re going through it can help to let them know that some of the hardest periods in my life are now experiences I’m grateful for. These challenges shape you as a person and let you know how adaptable you really are.”

Gratitude for where she is right now is another important aspect of Kate’s ability to accept change and keep moving through it. “Talking to Adam has helped me realise that I’m a person  who isn’t waiting for a change in my life to be happy,” she says. “That doesn’t mean I don’t have goals that I’m working towards. It just means I’m not delaying my happiness until those goals are achieved. I learned a long time ago to find things in the now that help me realise how lucky I am to be living my life just as it is now.”

Staying connected

Like every Australian, Kate has faced a few more challenges than usual in the last 18 months due to the restrictions introduced by the COVID-19 pandemic. But she’s also found things to be grateful for, particularly in her work. “As a financial planner and leader, I do get to influence the people I work with in my team, but the biggest influence I have is on my clients,” says Kate. “It was so rewarding to see how they responded to the market downturn last year. They didn’t panic and stayed very measured in their response which really puts into perspective the value of the coaching and mentoring I’d been doing with them in the months leading up to the pandemic.”

Kate is also immensely grateful for the connection she’s made with her fellow planners in her Ballarat office and how that’s kept her going as she’s become isolated from her wider professional community. “Before the pandemic I really enjoyed going to events and taking time out to learn new things and check in with other financial planners,” she says. “Now that these events are on hold, I realise how important it is to have these touchpoints with my peers and how being a lone wolf really isn’t my style.”

“The silver lining to this is how close I’ve become to my team here in Victoria,” she adds. “In the Ballarat office I’m one of three planners and we’ve developed a good rapport really quickly. I joined the team in November 2019 just a few months before everything changed. And while I love the balance of working a few days from home and being in the office, I definitely look forward to a time when there will be more opportunities to collaborate and connect once more. I’ve heard friends working in other industries say they’ll never go back to the office but I definitely believe in the perks of working with people face-to-face, as a way to create new ideas together and support one another.”

How leaders thrive through disruption

Five key behaviours have been shown to help leaders stay positive, maintain momentum and embrace change:

  1. Stepping towards change
    Thrivers have an ability to be frustrated by obstacles and yet make the most of the situation,” says Adam “The people who struggle to move forward are so lost in their story and emotion they can’t see the potential solutions or imagine a future when things will be better. Thrivers, on the other hand, are driven by values and goals and the impact they want to make which helps them to get past any frustration they might feel.” 
  1. Self-awareness
    “Whether at work or at home, I’m very conscious of the impact my mood can have on those around me,” says Kate. “When I visit the office I make a point of bringing the best version of myself I can be. I make a commitment to being positive and engaged but also very present and accessible so my team feel comfortable to share what they’re experiencing if they’re feeling worn out or negative.”
  2. Take a pause
    “When leaders spend time on their wellbeing, it releases the pressure valve,” says Adam. ”They get a chance to recover and a way to decompress from their stress. The activity needn’t be training for a triathlon. It could be starting the day with a walk or making time for an artistic pursuit like playing a musical instrument. Anything that makes them take a pause and triggers a shift perspective can help them stay positive.”
  3. Using time wisely
    “Every adviser wants to spend as much time as they can with clients,” says Kate. “It’s what we get the most enjoyment from so it’s important to make it a priority. Delegation is a skill you have to keep developing because there’s a fine balance between being the one responsible for the advice written and having someone take on key tasks so you have that extra time available for clients.”
  4. Staying connected
    “Financial planners who stay connected with their peers in the professions get huge benefits,” says Adam. ”From an emotional perspective they can vent in a way that they can’t with their own team. It gives them an outlet and a way to validate their feelings. But they also benefit from hearing different perspectives and insights that can help them with the innovation it takes to find good solutions.”

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