Succession is an emotional and overwhelming topic for many thriving businesses, but it can be particularly difficult for wealth advisory organizations, which typically operate with a lean infrastructure and deliver intangible services that are heavily based on relationships. Despite the emphasis placed on up-front planning, many fiduciary professionals are still woefully underprepared, placing their livelihood, their legacy and their clients at great risk.

Ballentine Partners, a New England multifamily office with nearly $7 billion under advisement, is one of the few independent firms that is tackling the issue head-on. These days the founder and chairman, Roy Ballentine, remains active in client-facing and strategic matters while the appointment of two longtime employees to key roles—Drew McMorrow as president and Coventry “Covie” Edwards-Pitt as chief wealth advisory officer—has allowed him to hand off the firm’s day-to-day operations to a younger generation of leaders. Recently, I met with the three of them at their Waltham, Mass., headquarters to discuss what they’ve learned during the multi-year planning process and the positive impact it’s had on the human and intellectual capital driving their business.

Grove: When did you start thinking about succession and why?
Ballentine:  I began to tackle it in earnest about three years ago. I knew there was a lot at stake and it would be irresponsible to do it under pressure. The perfect time to begin these types of long-term initiatives is when there’s no immediate need for it.

McMorrow: We’d been helping clients with their succession issues for years, so we would be remiss if we didn’t apply that same thinking to ourselves.

Grove: Succession planning can often get intertwined with the retirement goals and post-career identity issues of the principals. With all the moving parts, how did you prioritize?
Ballentine: For some business owners, it’s an issue of exiting, other times it’s more clearly an issue of succession. I was committed to doing what was right for the company, not just me. And I wanted to stay involved. That pointed to a succession.

Grove: Was there a structured process you followed?
Ballentine: In its simplest form, I think of our succession process as having five steps: defining our goals, studying the best practices gleaned from other organizations, developing the plan that was right for us, implementing that plan and following through. We’re in the iterative stages of implementation and follow-through now, and have been for more than a year.

Grove: What are the basic components of your plan?
Ballentine: It’s a continual process that involves codifying roles and responsibilities, recruiting and incorporating new talent, figuring out how to institutionalize our knowledge base and preserve it for future employees, and the continuity of our client relationships.

Grove: You were able to fill a number of critical roles with internal candidates. How important is getting the right people into the right roles?
Ballentine: The best plan would’ve failed without the right people. I committed a huge chunk of time to assessing employees; it was the longest part of the process and required my full involvement.

Grove: What did the assessments entail?
Ballentine: The senior team was given a chance to demonstrate their interest in shouldering more leadership responsibilities. During that time, we matched each individual’s skills with their interests and used a number of consultants with specific expertise and perspectives to help us with things like executive coaching and interpersonal dynamics. We also conducted a series of interviews and Web-based tests on things like communication, EQ, intelligence—not just technical aptitude that can often eclipse the softer skills during the hiring process.

Grove: Drew and Covie, you’d both been at the firm for years but in different roles. What needed to change when you took on your new responsibilities?
McMorrow: We needed to develop a new kind of partnership that would bring out the best in each other as well as the rest of the firm’s staff.  And we needed to manage our transition into new roles while continuing with the firm’s core business of advising wealthy clients.

Grove: Drew, what was your first priority as president?
McMorrow: When I assumed the day-to-day responsibility, I first focused on figuring out the organizational chart, doing it in a way that would keep people happy, engaged and enthused about the job we had in front of us. It meant adapting to changing needs and behaviors as people assumed their new roles. For instance, what works at one level, such as a senior role working with his or her peers, may not be what’s needed in another situation. We had to undergo a fair amount of trial and error.

Grove: And how about the biggest challenges?
McMorrow: Finding the right balance between our client responsibilities and climbing the learning curve in our new professional roles. It’s important that we remain as proactive and anticipatory as possible, not just with clients but for the welfare of the firm. And making time to recruit for disciplines such as human resources, investments and business development, all while sustaining growth.

Grove: In such a bespoke business, it’s very difficult to find scale because each step is different and requires thoughtful oversight. How do you manage that along with growth?
Ballentine: We’re not trying to build a massive business. But we have found ways to be incrementally scalable that have added value and profitability to our business. We’ve found efficiencies in delivering solutions, in the implementation process and in developing an infrastructure that enables us to expand.

McMorrow:  I think the degree to which you scale is reflective of your priorities. We place an emphasis on knowledge management and transfer so there is continuity between the employee base and the customer experience.

Grove: How would you characterize your employee base?
McMorrow: We like to bring people in from other industries that can contribute fresh perspectives and skill sets. We also want the firm to be as multigenerational as our clients, so our hiring has begun to reflect that. We place an emphasis on homegrown talent so we can manage the learning and development process to greatest effect.

Edwards-Pitt: Most firms our size are lacking in strong second-tier personnel. Roy’s always known we needed bench strength and that’s something Drew and I both believe in as well.