John Lefferts' Blog

Monday, March 1, 2010

Change that's tough to believe in...

Change is a very difficult thing to do. A line in a favorite quote states "...what we want is for things to remain the same, but get better". We are all wired to be uncomfortable with change. It's unknown and uncertain. And to effect successful change requires transformational leadership. Leaders who can clearly define where we are, what needs to change and why. Those who can develop an inspired strategy outlining what needs to happen and when along with communicating the pains and benefits in getting there. And can explain a clear, concise and indelible mental image of what it will look like once we get there.

Our country and economy are undergoing great change and with it, we have leaders of change...leaders in senate, congress, regulatory bodies, business. President Obama campaigned on the tag line "Change we can believe in". He's our political leader of change. But as has been well chronicled in the press, very little has changed.

I'm generally a "team player" and root for the home team good, bad or indifferent. And I sincerely want our President to be a successful one, because if he does well, hopefully it will be good for the country. But as charismatic and eloquent as he is, our President is a current case study on how NOT to lead transformational change.

America was ready for change when Obama was elected. It's the core reason why he was elected. However, he began with and has continued defining where we are by blaming the prior administration without really focusing on what the problem actually is. America was screaming for economic change, leaders we can trust and above all else, jobs to get things moving again. This President responds by blaming everyone else (bankers, Bushies, people who make money) and proceeds to push a socialized (don't call me a socialist!) initiative handing out stimulus funds to special interests groups that supported him while railroading his health care plan. Americans feel duped and unheard. He has failed to set a clear vision of where we are, what needs to change and why...the benefits in getting there and painting an image of what it will look like once we get there. Hence, no change. Leadership is more than charisma.

The same could be said for the leaders of change in the financial services business as it relates to regulatory reform. Whether FINRA regulated B/D, SEC regulated RIA's, State regulated insurance or multiple combinations of each (each a stakeholder), there has been no leadership speaking for all setting the vision, outlining changes on how to get there while painting the mental image of what it looks like once we do it. Instead, we have each stakeholder fighting for nothing to change. RIA's are fighting to broad-brush everyone with their standard, FINRA B/D's the same with their standard and insurance wanting nothing to do with either. As a result, if we do get change, it is probably something that each stakeholder does not want. If only business and regulatory leaders got together and hashed out a plan themselves.

Back in the day (late 90's), I had the privilege to lead a transformational change in a field force from insurance based salespeople to evolve into fee based financial advisors over a 6 month timeframe. We likened it to "changing the tires while going 70 MPH" since we needed to make transformational changes to our business model, but at the same time, needed to keep the business going. We had to get FINRA series 6 and insurance licensed folks to get their series 7, series 65 and in some cases series 24 exams done. We changed their product set, training, compensation, recognition and flow of business. In short, it was the sort of "turn on its head" change that often paralyses like we see today...but it worked. Why? We developed a vision and tied that vision to the strategy for fee based planning, specified and managed timelines for each piece of change to take place and most importantly, over communicated the mental image of what it would look like once we got there. Not to blow my own horn here (okay...just a bit), but it was very satisfying to lead this change successfully. And for those who know me, it certainly wasn't my charisma that made it happen, but my dogged, persistent belief in this change and constant drip of communication about it.

I'm hopeful that, Like Bill Clinton, Obama can recognize the needs of the country and change course to lead it. I'm also hopeful that the regulations in the financial services industry find their way to compromise on what makes sense for the consumer rather than continue turf protecting.

Change is hard and always has its enemies. But with transformational leadership, it has a shot at not only happening, but becoming successful. The jury is still out on our current leadership, but hope is not lost. Things are not going to be the same, but they will get better.

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