Elite financial advisors have the ability to inspire and the capacity to serve. They are known for their character, competence and courage. The key to their success is their passion and discipline to protect the long-term interests of others.

Consider that thought. Think of the men and women you know in our industry who stand out. What attributes do they all share in common?

For more than 27 years we have been on a quest to develop research and training to help elevate the professional standards of financial advisors. For the majority of that time we focused our attention on fiduciary responsibility—that being a fiduciary was an important point of differentiation—that being a fiduciary was a critical factor in being part of the “elite.” For the past seven years, we have slowly backed away from “fiduciary,” finding in its stead that leadership and stewardship are far more effective ways to conduct a dialogue about elite advisors. Today, we are indifferent to the outcome of the uniform fiduciary debate—no matter the outcome, we know that we can define a higher professional standard of care without using regulatory and legal terms.

There have been three distinct phases to the research we have conducted in identifying the key attributes of elite advisors. The first phase (2007-2009) was to define a universal decision-making process that could be used by any financial advisor; decide whether the advisor was serving in a fiduciary capacity; and decide whether the advisor was serving as a wealth manager, financial planner, investment consultant, trust officer or retirement advisor. We eventually developed a process consisting of five steps and 17 dimensions (dimensions define the details of a step).

The second phase (2008-2012) overlapped with the first. Once we defined the details of the decision-making process, we began to look at the leadership behaviors of highly effective decision-makers. What made our research stand out from that of other leadership developers was that we were linking leadership behaviors directly to a specific decision-making framework. From this research, we distilled the leadership behaviors to two principles: great decision-makers who are serving in critical leadership roles have the (1) ability to inspire, and (2) capacity to serve.

The ability to inspire. The critical elements are character, competence and courage. When these three elements are in balance, an advisor has integrity—is able to establish himself or herself as an inspiring leader. An advisor who is lacking in integrity (deficient in any one of the three elements) will be ineffective in leading others. A lack of integrity is a non-starter; you can’t lead without it.

Capacity to serve. The critical elements are purpose, process and passion. When these three elements are in balance, the advisor has the ability to engage others, particularly a board or investment committee.

The third phase in our research to identify the key attributes of elite advisors commenced in 2012 when we started a news aggregation portal (www.lcwire.com) to capture the best stories, blogs and videos on the subjects of leadership, stewardship, governance. A lot of the articles we were posting dealt with attributes such as the “Seven Unique Abilities of Good Leaders” or “The Seven Pillars of Transparent Leadership.” I soon discovered after reading a number of these great articles that I was suffering from “attribute envy.” Why haven’t we developed our own list of attributes? And so in 2013 we began our research.

There were a number of questions that came to mind as we conducted our work:
If we focused on the attributes of highly effective professionals in the financial services industry, could this list also be applicable to corporations, not-for-profits, government agencies and the military? We discovered that our attribute list could be used to identify elite professionals in any domain.

Would it be possible to identify attributes applicable to both effective leaders and decision-makers? Or would we need to produce two separate lists? We discovered that our list of attributes could be used to describe effective decision-makers and leaders.

How many attributes should be on the list? We initially identified more than 37 attributes and behaviors, but then culled the list back to 10, two for each of the five steps of our decision-making process.

Before revealing our list, we should take a moment and define how we are using the term “attribute.” Simply stated, it is a quality or characteristic that can be observed. A great deal of leadership literature is devoted to qualities not easily displayed. We try not to take that approach—it is only through consistent words and observable actions that we can inspire others to follow.

So, without any further ado, this is our list—“The 10 Attributes of Elite Financial Advisors”:
1. Aligned        6. Accepting
2. Attentive      7. Ardent
3. Agile            8. Action-oriented
4. Adaptive      9. Accountable
5. Articulate    10. Authentic

Yes, they all start with “A”—that was not one of our initial objectives; it just worked out that way. However, there is significance to the order of the 10. Can you tell what it is? The answer: The list corresponds to a five-step decision-making process—there are two attributes for each step.

Step 1: Analyze
• Has situational awareness and sense
of mission
• Understands the role of other key decision-makers
• Has a respect for objectives, standards, policies and regulations
• Collects and organizes data quickly and intuitively
• Analyzes and prioritizes conflicting priorities
• Plans alternative contingencies

Step 2: Strategize
• Takes a balanced approach to decision-making
• Is a conceptual thinker and a theoretical problem-solver
• Sponsors collaboration
• Is deliberate, practical and proactive
• Quickly absorbs new information
• Deals effectively with abstract concepts

Step 3: Formalize
• Is persuasive in the spoken and
written word
• Customizes communication to the audience
• Is affable and cordial and has a sense of humor
• Bears uncertainty with fortitude and calm
• Resists the temptation to interject a personal agenda
• Values diversity and different viewpoints

Step 4: Implement
• Is consistent and reliable
• Focuses on achieving goals and objectives
• Keeps a sense of perspective in the face of adversity
• Is a self-starter
• Champions new initiatives
• Is assertive and results-oriented

Step 5: Monitor
• Takes and assumes responsibility
• Is budget- and ROI-conscious
• Makes optimal use of people and resources
• Is genuine, sincere, honest and free from pretense
• Has a reputation as a credible source
• Is confident

Sometimes it’s also easier to understand a concept by comparing it with its opposite.

There, you have it—the 10 attributes of elite financial advisors. Elite advisors truly think and act differently; they have devoted time to learning their profession and along the way have acquired an understanding of the principles of effective leadership and decision-making.
Donald B. Trone, GFS, is the President of the Leadership Center for Investment Stewards and the CEO/Chief Ethos Officer of the 3ethos. Don was the first Director of the newly established Institute for Leadership at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy; founder and past President of the Foundation for Fiduciary Studies; and, principal founder and former CEO of fi360. Copyright © 2014. 3ethos – All rights reserved.