At 83, This Coach to Financial Advisors Shares Perspective, Wisdom and Motivation

Reading, writing, thinking, listening and 150 crunches a day are just part of his weekday routine, he says.

By Jerilyn Klein

Editor’s Note: At Rethinking65, we love to hear and tell stories about people who’ve successfully crafted new professions, new ventures and new interests midcareer or in retirement. We are often amazed when we speak with individuals still working in their seventies and eighties because they truly enjoy their work — including the challenge, the social interactions and other benefits. Are you an advisor or someone who work with advisors who fits this category? Email us.

Rethinking65 recently caught up with David Leo, 83, founder of Street Smart Research Group LLC. New York City-based Coach Leo, as he is known, is an author, speaker, coach consultant and trainer to financial advisors. He is also a columnist for Rethinking65.

Coaching financial advisors is David’s third career; he’s been doing it since 2001. He is also a co-author of the book “The Financial Advisor’s Success Manual: How to Structure and Grow Your Financial Services Practice,” published in 2017. David holds a BS in commerce and engineering from Drexel University and an MBA in management and finance from New York University. Here is our edited conversation.

Jerilyn Klein: David, what lessons have you learned from your long working life?

David Leo: My first job after earning my B.S. was as a systems analyst at Chase Manhattan Bank. I joined IBM in 1964 as a programmer/analyst in financial systems, moved into various roles, and then became one of the first business process reengineering consultants and engagement managers in IBM Services. My team helped financial industry clients structure and organize their operational and sales practices. I retired from IBM in 1994 with a pension and very fond memories. That year, I was offered a position at Paine Webber as part of a two- to three-person team to develop what became UBS Online Services. I worked directly with financial advisors and learned what they do on a day-to-day basis.

The most important things I take with me, throughout a lifetime of education and multiple jobs and careers, are IBM’s “basic beliefs and management principles”: Respect for the individual; Service to the customer; Excellence must be a way of life; Management must lead effectively; Obligations to stockholders; Fair deal for the supplier; and IBM should be a good corporate citizen. These beliefs and principles were written by Thomas J. Watson, Jr. in April 1969 and in my mind should drive all businesses then and now. They don’t.

Klein: And what are the biggest life lessons you’ve learned?

Leo: I can’t do justice to this question. I have learned many lessons in my life. I am sure there are more out there waiting for me. One lesson: Be intentional! Take a proactive role in your life, deciding how to direct it with regard to career and family, as early in your life as you are capable of doing that. Think about each stage of your life and figure out what you are learning or meant to learn and use that learning to move forward in your desired direction. [To read David’s 12 other life lessons, click here.]

Klein: What made you decide you wanted to coach financial advisors — and what prompted you to launch a third career in your early sixties?

Leo: In 2001, I was part of a significant downsizing UBS. By now, I was over 63 and felt I had more to contribute. I knew I did not want to retire. My wife still had her career in NYC and preferred not to move. I started looking around outside the corporate world and came upon coaching financial advisors fairly quickly, though it took a while to develop additional skills, capabilities and approaches that could help them do a better job. Given their enormous attrition rate, I knew there had to be ways to help them organize, structure, and grow advisory practices.

During my years at UBS and consulting in the financial services industry, it became apparent that financial advisors’ productivity could be significantly improved through organization, structure, and process optimization, especially in marketing, sales, and service. Most of what FAs do can be done with structured approaches and applying special services to the 20% to 40% of their clients who are the most profitable. That’s what my goals are for the advisors I work with.

The background I developed over the years gave me the set of principles and values I work with every day. I know I need to earn my relationships as well as my income every day. There are no laurels to rest on. I rely on the logic and approaches I learned from programming, the sales and marketing experiences I had, the consulting training and engagements on which I worked, and all the learning I have gained from financial advisors I have worked with.

In selling, it’s said you need to know yourself and others, recognize others, help create positive and lasting impressions and connections, be responsive, always go a step above, keep in communications proactively, and become the most you can be. No one does these things every day perfectly, but as Vince Lombardi said, “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.” I don’t think I am close, but my work is not done.

Klein: What motivates you to keep working?

Leo: When I first started drafting my book in 2015 and 2016, I was thinking about my legacy. I think I didn’t quit in 2001 for similar reasons. In 2001, I had 40-plus years of experience. It struck me that I wanted to share what I have learned over the years and have it be useful to those that would like to work with me.

David Leo with his grandchildren

Since then, I have continued to learn about coaching and financial advisory. I can now share and help FAs and, as a result, improve services to their clients. Helping is important to me to reach a level of feeling accomplished and becoming more of what I’d like to become. I’d like to leave something to posterity, in addition to my children and grandchildren first.

I am 83 years old but in good shape mentally. I think it’s critical to use your brain every day. My choices are writing articles, reading, offering my services in several forms, speaking with FAs and people who work with FAs, coaching, and thinking, albeit probably too much.

Klein: What is your approach to coaching?

Leo: My overall approach to coaching, the basics of which are laid out in my book, is designed for financial advisors who want to grow their business by bringing organization and structure to their practices. I provide many specific tools and techniques that they can use to service and expand their books of business. As a coach, I help advisors use these tools to gather necessary data, interpret the meaning of our findings, draw conclusions, and take the proper actions for improving client service and driving business growth. It’s the continuing contact and holding FAs accountable for using the tools and implementing the processes we discuss that brings the benefits of a new model for doing business.

Each coaching engagement is specific to each FA and her or his book of business. Step one, therefore, is to understand the FA and their business, similarly to FAs doing a client discovery meeting. The process is ensuring FAs have a quality story about whom they do it for, what they do, why they do it, how they do it, and mostly how it benefits the client.

I want to help FAs outline and implement a set of processes that will save them time and energy while “ensuring” their clients are very well serviced so little, if anything, falls through the cracks throughout the life of the client-advisor relationship. With a structured and organized set of processes, the advisor can have the time to devote to the second goal of this book: Helping to grow their advisory practice in terms of AUM and/or production.

I describe my approach to practice management as “coachulting,” a combination of coaching and consulting. Consulting is an “understand, tell and do” methodology. Coaching is more of an “ask, guide and monitor” methodology. Both monitor execution by the coachee and act as an accountability and “brainstorming” partner. The coachee may want a part time “partner” with whom to check progress and continue to bounce off ideas. As many if not most advisors do not have anyone with whom they can regularly discuss their business, brainstorm with and be accountable to, a coach can be a valuable resource. The right coach will care about your practice as much as you do.

Klein: What are the biggest challenges facing advisors today, and what are you often asked to help with? Do advisors’ challenges and asks tend to be the same, or do advisors sometimes not know what they don’t know?

Leo: Great question. There are needs and wants. In general, what I like to start with is understanding the FA’s book of business: Who are they, what are they like, are there any niches we can work with, how were they acquired, what worked, what didn’t work, etc.? Essentially, we gather the FAs “client wisdom”: What do they know and what don’t they know, especially about their top clients. Many FAs have unprofitable clients, and we want to know about them in general before we decide what paths to take.

What I hear from FAs is how busy they are and therefore they can’t do as much prospecting for new clients and assets. If these are the stated issues, we first validate that by estimating how much time FAs “should” be spending on the book they have, based on their book and services they provide by tier. As needed, we work on ensuring structured processes are in place to provide consistency for both clients and advisors.

Consistency and process establishes expectations and routines instead of ad hoc actions which break patterns and cause disruptions and restarts. This is inefficient and ineffective. We also establish better time planning which includes time blocking and structured contact plans as well as metrics for accountability.

And we identify three or four business development approaches so advisors can get more expert in managing specific approaches whether working with COIs, seeking introductions, or conducting focused educational meetings. We establish a schedule for marketing and again promote consistency and process.

I often hear, “If I can get prospects in the chair (next to me), I can close them.” The approach I use is getting prospects in the chair and having a quality message to convert prospects to clients, as well as deepening relationships with existing clients.

Klein: Approximately how many advisors total you’ve worked with through the years?

Leo: I’ve worked with hundreds of clients over the last 20 years. In my early years, I would work with up to 40 or more clients at a time. With meeting prep, the meetings, and my follow up notes for each call, I found that was as many as I could work with at any one time. In addition, there are always ad hoc calls from FAs. In the last number of years, I have reduced my maximum number of clients quite a bit, but the time per client has increased.

Klein: How do you keep up to date on the pulse of the industry? For example, you recently wrote an article for Rethinking65 about working with millennials.

Leo: Even at 83, I can remember being young. Ha-ha. I have worked with all age FAs and others all my life. I have also helped raise three sons, so I have a history, along with memory. As one of my colleagues said just the other day, I can bring wisdom from experiences that younger people have not had yet and advantage them beyond their years. I also bring tradition, as I mentioned what I learned at IBM many years ago. Perspective has value.

Read David Leo’s article on working with millennials

Obviously, I have a technology background as well. Regardless of whether you are talking an 80-column punched card (a stiff piece of paper that held 80 piece of digital data represented by the presence or absence of holes) or a much smaller 3TB flash drive that holds billions of pieces of data, it’s all storage. I have also been using Microsoft Office for almost 30 years.

There are technologies I am not strong on, but that’s not my role. I don’t coach on what tech stack to put in place, never did. I keep aware of key technologies in financial planning and CRM, among others. When I was selling computers, I didn’t understand the technical components; I understood how to apply technology to solve problems. Admittedly, I also am not as up on some apps like email marketing, web development, SEO, or FB advertising. My focus was and remains on process; understanding people, including prospects and clients; client communications; the elements of financial planning rather than the tools itself. I believe these areas address the needs of all FAs regardless of age.

I also keep up with the pulse of the industry by reading and listening. I probably read more books than most FAs that focus on business, as well as reading AdvisorHub, Advisor Perspectives, and of course Rethinking65. I read or listen to Michael Kitces, Carl Richards, Kitces and Carl, Bob Veres when I can, and Joel Bruckenstein when I can on technology. I listen to at least several relevant webinars a week put on by RIAs and some at wirehouses. As I write, I also “research” and find things of interest such as the BCG study Dorothy [Hinchcliff] recently made me aware of.

Overall, it’s difficult given there are perhaps 300 billion emails sent or received daily around the world and perhaps 2,000,000 podcasts and over 48 million episodes. God knows how many articles per day or week are distributed. Mostly you have to find a small number of good sources and keep your ears and eyes open.

Klein: This past year has been challenging with getting out to meet with clients and industry peers. How did you adapt, and will continue using any new strategies that you picked up this year?

Leo: Virtually all my coaching is by phone since my clients are all over the country. For one-on-many, I have done a few webinars and a podcast, which was new to me, and those will continue going forward. Webinars make sense in any environment but out of necessity, more so during COVID. I also attended several virtual conferences the past 12 months.

I do think in-person sessions are more valuable than webinars and podcasts for establishing relationships and having interactive discussions. We’ll get back to that, though probably not as fast as I would like. While in-person is better for making business happen, it greatly reduces attendance. For me, I’d rather have qualified in-person attendance than attracting a crowd of people with whom you can’t establish relationships, before, during, and after an in-person meeting.

Klein: How has embracing new careers in your 50s and 60s helped you better understand and assist advisors who are looking for new opportunities and want to stay engaged in the second half of their lives?

Leo: Another great question! One must decide what one wants to do with her or his life. It’s not that easy a question — and it changes. I have been through job changes at 56 and 63 —thankfully only those two — but coaching is a whole new ballgame for client acquisition. There are trials and tribulations, challenges, and rewards. I have the first-hand experience I can and am willing to share with others, including FAs.

There are people I can help and people I cannot. For example, there is a trend in a limited number of cases where people want to work eight or nine months a year, make more money, and take three to four months off a year. While I can understand that desire, it’s not how I was raised, nor how I worked. Nor do I believe it’s something I could do. While I know I could coach those folks, I am not sure I would want to.

Klein: What do you like to do in your spare time to stay cognitively and physically fit?

Leo: During my “spare time” I wonder how I had time to work on full-time job and do everything else. As I said above, I read, write, listen, think, and stay on my PC most of the day. So far keeping cognitively fit has not been an issue. I enjoy cooking and food shopping. I find it interesting and love the abundance in America; I see and think how fortunate we are.

I also try and stay in shape physically, which is not easy but also critical. I admit that I am now 20 pounds heavier than when I ran marathons in 1985 and 1986, but after 35 years that’s not too bad. In the last year, since the pandemic, I haven’t done as much aerobic exercise. But every weekday I go for a total of 150 crunches, 90 pushups, 90 bicep curls each arm, and 60 squats (all in three sets, not all at once) along with a modicum of stretching, though never enough of that.

My wife and I travel every year for a couple weeks, usually overseas. I hope to spend a month in Italy next year. I think the benefits are retaining my cognitive wellbeing as long as possible. I also visit my three sons and their families, including my six grandchildren who all live in different cities. Traveling is a marvelous learning experience, both from the people you meet and the cultures you visit.

Jerilyn Klein is editorial director of Rethinking65.

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