I'll be honest. At 32 years old I faced my fair share of skeptics last year when I took over as CEO of Buckingham Asset Management. Many people, including some of our own clients, wondered why the reins of the company would be given to someone so young. In some ways, I can fully understand the sentiment. After all, youth and responsibility can seem like a combustible combination.
However, done the right way, young leadership can pay excellent dividends for organizations. Young leaders face a number of challenges, but knowing those issues in advance can give you a leg up in addressing them and position your firm to reap the benefits that young leadership can bring.
One of the biggest challenges younger CEOs face has to do with the mentality of our generation. We feel like we can do it all, and could try to do just that when we step into leadership roles. We may not necessarily want to change everything about the firm, but we're full of ideas for growth and enhancements, and we believe we can implement them all at once. However, the world (and our industry) is filled with good ideas. What differentiates great companies from good companies is how superbly they execute the most important ideas.
Let's use my firm as an example. So much of our success was rooted in the culture and foundation established when we were founded in 1994 and continues to this day. I had to be mindful that we couldn't take on so many new initiatives that we lost our identity and drifted away from what had made us so successful. Here are two examples - one success and one failure - to help illustrate the importance of this balance.
As I was transitioning to CEO of Buckingham, I recognized a huge opportunity for substantial growth - merging with other like-minded firms - while also delivering an incredibly important solution to an industry-wide issue: succession solutions for advisors. This was a significant departure from the model we had followed since our inception and that had served us well to this point. While we had been pleased with our traditional means of growth, I truly believed adding this strategy would be one that would help elevate our practice to even greater levels.
In October 2010, we closed our first deal, merging with Wealth Management Consultants in Santa Rosa, Calif. We have now closed on three mergers, totaling about $500 million in collective assets, with plans for more on the way. We have been aggressive, but not so hungry that we lost sight of the important factors that make each transaction successful. We are cautious to make sure the firms fit with us - culturally, ideologically and professionally.
The importance of that caution was strongly reinforced when we put on hold plans for another offering about which I feel passionately. Our firm generally serves higher-net-worth individuals, as well as institutions and retirement plans. I, like many of my colleagues at Buckingham, have always felt that with minimum fees and minimum asset levels required by registered investment advisory firms (RIAs), there remained a group of investors who were not getting access to quality, independent planning and advice. I wanted to find a way to offer services to these investors, those who did not have the complex requirements or needs of a full-services wealth management firm - a "Buckingham light," so to speak.
From a strategic perspective, it seemed to make total sense. It seemed to be a cultural match with our philosophy of helping investors and always doing the right thing. However, despite the merit of this idea, it ultimately wasn't the right time. We needed to focus on superbly executing our core business, rather than devoting resources to this new, exciting "venture."
These types of lessons were also invaluable as I stepped into another new role at the beginning of the year: CEO of Buckingham's sister company, BAM Advisor Services - a national provider of back-office services to successful advisory firms. My experiences with Buckingham led to a smoother transition as I took over the reins of both organizations. Certainly helping with the move into both roles was that the previous CEOs - Bert Schweizer III (Buckingham) and Mont Levy (BAM) - remain with the company to serve as mentors for me in my new roles.
However, this is another challenge that many young CEOs will face: maintaining balance and strong working relationships with those who have been with the business for much longer. This is a challenge that can significantly hurt a business, because handled inappropriately, you can lose valuable experience, outstanding skills and significant know-how that could be extremely beneficial to your firm.
In our case, we were fortunate to have two of our previous leaders, Bert and Mont, not only desire to mentor future leadership after they had passed the torch but also get back to doing what they enjoyed most: serving as wealth advisors to our clients.
Finally, young leaders also have to balance and respect the ambitious nature of younger generations. After all, the mentality that may have helped young executives get to their position of success isn't just limited to them. It also extends to the people under their direction. Not only are we charged with attracting top-level talent, but we must also retain that talent. Our generation can be impatient and willing to jump to another job for just a slight bump in pay, rather than trying to grow a career in a single place. It's important that a young leader let his team know that he understands their desires to progress and help each of them envision their personal future with the company. At Buckingham, we like to stress to our clients the importance of staying the course, following well-devised plans and always taking a big-picture view when making decisions. And that advice doesn't just pertain to investments.
Adam Birenbaum is CEO of BAM Advisor Services, a comprehensive service provider for independent RIA firms across the country. He is also CEO of Buckingham Asset Management, a Registered Investment Advisor firm in St. Louis. Buckingham and BAM manage or administer more than $14 billion.