Have we lost our way? A danger of success is that we look at how things have turned out and then create a story about why that is so. And somehow our story becomes the story—it is repeated and amplified as if it were true. We spend our time with those who share our story and cast aside those who don’t.

The DOL regulation for fiduciaries has strengthened many of our positions in the marketplace because we had always viewed ourselves in this light, but our backslapping is premature. We have correctly made the story about putting clients’ interest first, but have misconstrued what this means. Now the conversations have turned to fee structure, the ongoing active-versus-passive debate, robo-advisors, safe withdrawal rates—the things that turn a meaningful business into a commodity.

I have been working through a book by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, who are involved in the Design Program at Stanford. It’s called Designing Your Life—How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life, and it’s based on their Stanford class, one of the most popular at the school. One of the book’s exercises for readers is to have them create a work manifesto and a life manifesto and see where these intersect. As I wrote my work manifesto, I realized that my purpose in what I do hasn’t really changed during my more than 30 years in the business. What changed is that I went from starving in a tiny practice to growing a larger practice with a business partner, and we now have a sustainable organization of almost 40 people with distributed ownership and leadership responsibilities.

But if we were to describe how we became successful, we would make up a story that would be only partially true. More important, I don’t want the success of the enterprise to get in the way of the successful client relationships we have cultivated over the years. That hasn’t been easy. Finding co-workers who share many aspects of my work and personal manifestos may be the best way to ensure the firm lasts long beyond me or my founding partner, Wil. Let me share what this means for me.

Some of my work manifesto is about improving the lives of the people we serve. It is about connecting them with their money so they can be more productive in other aspects of their lives—parenting, work, spending, living. It is about relating with clients on a deep level so when they talk about what they want, we can explore what that really means. It means spending enough time with them so we can define the “whys” long before we ever touch the “hows.” It means working with the clients who want to have these discussions. It means working with clients that I like, regardless of whether their worldview may be different from mine. It means reframing issues so they can see a path for themselves, and a way out of self-imposed boxes.

We have a lot of expertise in our firm—CPAs, JDs, CFPs, CFAs—but if truth be told, much of the technical expertise is a commodity. It is usually rules-based, formula-driven and obtainable from almost any place that smart people work. It is critical, but it is fast and easily replicated.

Real client work is slow. It is not scalable in a traditional sense, nor should it be. Some of our primary care physicians bemoan their new practice standards—rather than 45 minutes with a patient, many are required to see them every 15 minutes. Who is served?

The work that we do requires soft skills. Mike Fiterman is the CEO of Liberty Diversified International. He was honored this year by the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal as one of Minnesota’s most admired CEOs. In his speech he said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

If we are really doing quality work for our clients we have to take the time to understand them. For example, why does it make sense for clients in similar financial situations to have different strategies for helping their children? Our most meaningful client conversations are about helping them think differently. One of our clients has had tremendous emotional reactions about financial support for her adult child who, though quite bright, has never found her way. In working through the issues, we asked her, “If your daughter was diagnosed as high-functioning special needs, what would be different for you?” Almost immediately, we could see her relax and she said, “I would be more compassionate toward her.” We were able to approach the situation differently because she shifted her reaction.

Slow work is compassionate work. What are the things we are doing to help train one another to be more compassionate? Slow work means listening. It means writing handwritten notes to clients, sending them books we think may interest them and continuously thanking them. Slow work is trying to understand their frustrations rather than being put off by them. They entrust their lives to us. What could be more meaningful?
The poet Antonio Machado describes what I am trying to express in his poem “The Wind, One Brilliant Day”:

The wind, one brilliant day, called
To my soul with an odor of jasmine.
“In return for the odor of my jasmine,
I’d like all the odor of your roses.”
“I have no roses; all the flowers
in my garden are dead.”
“Well, then, I’ll take the withered petals
And the yellow leaves and the waters of
the fountain.”

The wind left. And I wept. And I said to myself:
“What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?”
It’s important to me that success doesn’t get in the way of my work. Let’s make sure we are tending our gardens. 

Ross Levin, CFP, is founding principal and president of Accredited Investors Inc., in Edina, Minn.