Female Rainmakers Reveal Secrets to Success

Helping clients succeed, not obsessing over AUM, is their North Star and brass ring.

By Jerilyn Klein

Marguerita (Rita) Cheng remembers a day in her second year as a financial advisor when she went on a dozen-plus appointments and didn’t land a sale: “My boss said to me, ‘What’s wrong with you?’”

Although she was a top seller in her region, he threatened to fire her twice when she briefly fell behind on production, she says. “When I did well, I felt like they wanted to pump me up, when I didn’t do so well, I felt like they wanted to bring me down — so, I would go from hero to zero. I think that this is very difficult for women.”

Cheng knew what was wrong that day 20-plus years ago: She was exhausted from working 50- to 60-hour weeks while raising young children. Her boss wanted her to work even longer hours. And when she didn’t want to go out drinking with colleagues on Friday nights, “I was labeled as anti-social,” she says, although she told them she gave it her all every day at work and had to be there on Saturdays for phone sessions.

She began to think that if she was working so hard, she should be working for herself, says Cheng, now CEO of Blue Ocean Global Wealth, an investment advisory firm in Gaithersburg, Md. It took her just a year to become profitable, despite being prohibited from informing anyone in advance that she was launching her firm.

In good company

Her experience is far from unique. Many female rainmakers have started their own firms to fulfill their personal and professional goals and to serve the types of clients they wish to work with. (In Cheng’s case, it’s women and families, many of whom are ethnically and racially diverse and have never previously worked with a financial planner.) They’ve also found that being a rainmaker doesn’t mean they must chase assets under management (AUM) and only high-net-worth or ultra-high-net-worth clients.

When Shannon McLay was cutting her professional teeth at a wirehouse, “I was specifically told to not take meetings with anybody who had less than $250,000 in assets, ‘You’re going to waste your time because it won’t even count as a new household,’” she says. But as long as she was hitting her numbers, she could allocate her time as she pleased. So, she met with all potential clients, she says, “because I didn’t feel comfortable asking them what their net worth was before we had coffee.”

Through these conversations, she realized she wanted to provide financial guidance to clients from a broader spectrum of wealth levels. She founded and for two years led a financial planning firm for individuals in their 20s and 30s. Then, in 2015, she founded The Financial Gym, a national personal financial services company whose trainers help clients get more “financially fit” by providing guidance, tools and resources; it does not manage assets.

“We attract clients of all shapes and sizes,” she says, including some multimillionaires “who don’t like the traditional advisory firm and want to learn how to manage on their own.” She encourages advisors to not limit their reach to high-net-worth clients because “they’re only a small portion of the country” and “everyone has a friend,” she says. “If you truly take care of and care for your clients, then they build the business for you; you’re creating your own sales force.”

‘Long, slow road to success’

Some female advisors, including Cary Carbonaro, entered the profession with the goal of becoming rainmakers. “By 30, I was making 500K working for a mutual fund. I knew as soon as I started my own firm [in the early 2000s], the only option was to be a rainmaker because that was the only way I could get back to what I was making before,” says Carbonaro, the director of Women & Wealth at ACM Wealth, the wealth planning team of Advisors Capital Management.

However, “Nothing could have prepared me for how difficult it was going to be and how difficult it was to win clients,” she says.

“I’ve been told, ‘Maybe one day you’ll get to play with the big boys,’ ‘You don’t look like a financial planner,’ and ‘Men can take better care of me than you can,’” she says. An attorney whose female client wanted Carbonaro to manage her trust, asked her, “Why is your hair so long?”

But Carbonaro persisted and built up her practice. “I did it slowly over time. I was always myself, honest, transparent and empathetic. I cared deeply for my clients and their well-being. It was a long slow road to success.”

Organic rainmaking

Lynn Ballou, who entered the industry in the early 1980s, didn’t set out to be a rainmaker. But being in the right place at the right time helped her cultivate what she refers to as “my organic rainmaking process.”

“With interest rates at 15%+ and incredibly high tax brackets, there was always something to talk about! Rainmaking became a natural by-product of these conversations,” she says. “And having small children in sports, especially, gave me an opportunity to meet people in my community from all walks of life and have meaningful conversations while standing in the mud at soccer games, or in the fog at swim meets!”

When other parents brought up issues that were impacting their taxes and portfolio, and other problems, she tried to defuse their emotions, cautiously discuss their frustrations and put the matter in context, says Ballou.

“Because of my calm demeanor and empathy to their concerns and ability to frame them with possible steps that might lead to solutions, many would seek me out away from the sporting or other school event to learn more about what I might be able to do to help them and their families work on long-range comprehensive planning.”

Ballou started Ballou Financial Group in the mid 1980s. In 1998, she joined forces with Marilyn Plum to form Ballou Plum Wealth Advisors. The firm partnered with EP Wealth in 2016. Ballou retired in August 2022.

Introverts can be rainmakers, too

Cheng has also introduced herself to potential clients in less traditional meeting places, including Pilates and childbirth classes. She called the childbirth center to make the arrangements and brought Whole Foods snacks to the class. “It’s compliant, it’s collaborative. I don’t know if I got any people from that particular event,” she says, but firms “need to allow people to be creative” in how they allow advisors to network with prospects. “I don’t play golf.”

Cheng also dispels the commonly held notion that rainmakers must be extroverts. Although she does a lot of professional speaking to help other women advisors advance in the profession, “I’m definitely an introvert. And sometimes, oh my goodness, this is so overwhelming,” she says. “But I realized that I want to do this because I want to inspire others.”

“I think women, myself included, we underestimate ourselves … I think that sometimes we, as a profession, limit ourselves,” she says. “My North Star is I believe financial planning transforms lives. I want to do my part to help women become more confidence about their finances and address the racial wealth gap.”

Finding a niche

When Bridget Venus Grimes started in the industry at a wirehouse, “rainmaking was a requirement to survive in a financial advisor role,” she says. “I wanted to succeed, so I spent time thinking about who I wanted to serve as clients and what their biggest challenges were.”

She decided to focus on women attorneys, recognizing they share many similar career challenges with women in finance. To bring them together and learn more about their needs, she started organizing events and panels — an approach that felt authentic to her.

“If you truly love what you do, if you enjoy serving the niche you are serving, getting to know the needs of that niche and focusing on how you can help overcoming their challenges makes rainmaking something you look forward to and can be successful at,” says Grimes, president of WealthChoice LLC, a San Diego-based wealth advisory firm for female lawyers and female executives.

Grimes wasn’t keen on the many sales courses she attended while working for financial services firms. “They all felt so contrived and pushy,” she says. “When I reverted back to my authentic way of pulling women together, creating relationships with them over time, being a trusted advisor, it felt right to me.”

Advisors seeking a more formal education in sales can find a growing number of university offerings. For example, William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J., has a Critical Selling Skills program for sales professionals, notes Kate Healy, managing director of the CFP Board Center for Financial Planning.

Closing the ‘confidence gap’

Healy thinks it’s important for women who are hesitant about sales to speak with those who’ve achieved success making them, and to learn what sales is really all about. “It’s very much relationship based, and you’re probably already doing a lot of it in your life,” she says. “I love when women tell their stories of how they have come into the profession and what they do. I think that does a lot to build confidence.”

Grimes also addresses this issue. “Many women think of rainmaking as a necessary evil and selling yourself makes them question their ability. The confidence gap is real and imposter syndrome can make rainmaking a challenge,” she says. “This is where having a community of other women financial planners is so valuable” to provide support and confidence.

The Equita Financial Network, which Grimes co-founded with advisor Katie Burke, aims to provide women-led financial planning firms with this support.

Never ‘salesy’

How can advisors be effective rainmakers while addressing the softer side of client relationships that is so important?

“I think this is where women succeed,” says Carbonaro. “I’ve always been a rainmaker, but I never ask for business or make anyone uncomfortable about anything ‘salesy.’ Instead, I just get to know people and genuinely care about them as people.”

“Sometimes I say, ‘Feel free to ask me money questions.’ Once in a while if someone says, ‘We keep having to send massive estimated tax payments,’ I say, ‘I think you are paying too much. Do you have a qualified retirement plan?’” she says. “Or if I am going out with the girls for a birthday dinner, I will include my book[along] with beauty products. I always say, ‘Don’t feel obligated to read it, but if you do, ask me questions.’”

“I am always giving and giving and when someone needs me, they reach out to me,” she says. In contrast, “I know so many men who are very aggressive. They speak about working with you and talk about what they do incessantly.”

Jacqueline (JaQ) Campbell, president of Alexandra Legacy Private Wealth Management, says rainmakers should have a deep love and respect for the art of “How to Win Friends and Influence Others.” You should also “be “enjoying the opportunity to share with the world why you have services that they need,” she says, “and believing in your execution to perform and deliver.”

A balancing act

Building relationships is only one piece of the puzzle. “I am an empath and I love people, so all of that was easy,” says Carbonaro. However, “I had to make sure I knew everything — and I mean everything — about investments, financial planning, taxes, etc.  I didn’t feel worthy to charge unless I knew it all.”

Cheng, who studied finance, speaks to the importance of combining her strong quant and analytic skills with her communication and people skills.

It’s also important to balance rainmaking efforts without losing sight of tending to the needs of existing clients.

Campbell recommends determining how many hours you spend servicing top relationships, and then estimating how many households you can comfortably handle without compromising value or service. It requires “an honest assessment of balancing business growth, with business retention and engagement,” she says.

Concerns about work-life balance may deter some women from pursuing a rainmaking path. “I like to say that’s not a women’s issue; that’s a family issue that everyone has,” says Healy, of the Center for Financial Planning. Since the pandemic, “I think that there is much more understanding that work can be done in different ways and there could be more flexibility.”

She recommends that women look at a variety of workplace options. “Different firms are going to have different capabilities and different requirements,” she says.

Lessons learned

What do female rainmakers wish they knew early in their careers?

Ballou shares a long list. “Be yourself, be engaged and caring. In other words, be a woman!” she says. “Be willing to talk to anyone anytime about any aspect of our profession that could be relevant and how it could be viewed in a different lens.”

“Also, be the most knowledgeable person in the conversation without beating everyone over the head with your brilliance. Instead, be an educator,” she says. “Have a specialty (mine was taxation) and stay super sharp about that topic. Be humble about what you don’t know, tell others who need the information that you’ll research it and get back to them. And then do exactly that as quickly and thoroughly as possible.”

Carbonaro agrees, “It is okay to say, ‘I don’t know but I will find out and get back to you.’” She also recommends defining who you do — and do not — want to work with.

“I know in the beginning you are wide open to everyone!  But once you get to max capacity —most RIAs, 100 or so households — it is more difficult if you don’t have 100 of your ideal clients in size, personality, and whatever else is important to you,” she says. Furthermore, “difficult clients, no matter how much money they have, are not worth it.”

“I once had a $10 million-plus client — twice,” she says. “I fired him the first time and he came back, and I broke my own rule, took him back and fired him again.  The entire experience was draining and unprofitable. I lost sleep over it and I love my beauty sleep.”

And while Carbonaro places a big emphasis on behavioral coaching, sometimes even these efforts can fail. “What I still struggle with today is if I can’t reach my client — meaning they are not listening or taking my good advice.”

Cheng, of Blue Ocean Global Wealth, learned there is no one correct way to be a rainmaker.I’m not as aggressive as my [former] boss is; I will never be my boss,” she says. “He can be right for the type of clients he wants to serve and the type of way he wants to be perceived. But for the type of relationships I want to build and the practice that I want to build, I can be me.”

Winning trust and empowering clients

Although many men and women remain skeptical of working with a female advisor, Campbell of Alexandra Legacy Wealth Management thinks that women’s own struggles can add to their credibility and resourcefulness.

“I had to squeeze blood out of a turnip, making 60 cents on a dollar — I know how to make money,” she says.

To help win the confidence and business of female clients, “I impress upon them the responsibility they have as a mother, a wife, a leader or as a financial steward for their family, to be educated on wealth and to do what is necessary to be a contributor to their family wealth tree,” says Campbell.

Many of her clients have “never received an inheritance, which is the number one way to create generational wealth, so I inspire them to build their plan to be the first family member to leave an inheritance and to use their sacrifice to gain the commitment of other family members to follow suit!” says Campbell.

“My clients are leaders and bosses so it doesn’t take too much for me to convince them that they are in the position to create the changes they want to see for themselves or their families,” she says. “I remind them to execute with purpose.”

The ‘secret handshake’

Despite their success, female rainmakers haven’t forgotten that it took them a while to learn some rainmaking basics that their male peers seemed to be aware of from the get-go.

When Campbell first learned about mergers and acquisitions, and that advisors can have ownership stakes, “it was like OMG, Christmas Day,” she says. “Coming from the corporate world, these terms and deals were not discussed in the boardrooms I sat in, so learning how M&A works for the independent advisor channel has expanded my vision on how I want to see the firm grow.”

Healy, whose career journey includes a dozen years at TD Ameritrade plus time with other financial institutions, has also discussed this topic with female financial-industry executives.

“Suzanne Siracuse [a consultant and former InvestmentNews CEO] and I used to talk that there’s a secret handshake that we sometimes felt like the men had that we just didn’t know about,” says Healy. “It wasn’t that we couldn’t do it; we just didn’t know that we should so.” In other words, “It was like, ‘What are the rules that we don’t know about?’”

Those rules include, “It’s OK to be the one that asks for the money,” and “It’s OK to be competitive,” says Healy. Although she says she doesn’t want to generalize that all women are not taught these things, there’s still the challenge of, “How do we make more women understand that and also understand what it really means … that it’s not this hard thing?”

Strengthening the sisterhood

McLay, of the Financial Gym, has found that female advisors aren’t always allies in a way she thinks would help drive their collective successes. In some firms, “there’s a lot of focus on individual performance,” she says. “There’s not a lot of focus on collaboration and team building and what that looks like, and I think because of that, it’s just inherently everybody in competition with each other.”

Grimes of WealthChoice and the Equita Financial Network offers four suggestions on how female advisors can better support each other:

  1. Build a network of other female advisors.
  2. Share experiences and challenges with each other. Provide feedback and encouragement. Help others build the confidence they need to succeed.
  3. “One of the ways our network at Equita has been successful in helping with rainmaking is by collaborating on prospecting opportunities. We leverage one another’s expertise and connections for rainmaking,” she says.
  4. Celebrate success. The Equita community has an online forum “where we celebrate wins we have,” she says. “It feeds positivity.”

Campbell, a divorced, single mom, says the wealth management/financial planning profession needs “true sisterhood.”

More specifically, “women need other women who will become their clients, and refer clients who will take the journey with them. Women need seasoned mentors and advisors to expose them and consider them as part of their succession plan,” she says. “Whether it is a therapist, or someone to watch the kids, cook dinner, or a seasoned mentor who can provide valuable wisdom, women need a tribe of people who love them and understand their mission to help clients create financial freedom.”

“I believe it can be done,” says Campbell. “True sisters don’t just talk … they walk the walk and use their power to take action.”

McLay offered some final thoughts about being a financial planner.

“I always say it’s the greatest job ever, because you get to be the backseat driver on somebody’s road trip of life. There’s nothing greater than being in the car, helping your clients make the right decisions,” she says. “Or if they decide to make a hard left and go in another direction, you get to be there, to support them when maybe the road gets daring or they hit bumps along the way.” McClay adds, “it requires a lot of compassion and empathy to be that trusted backseat driver with your client.”

Jerilyn Klein is editorial director of Rethinking65.


Latest news

Bluespring Wealth Partners Acquires Scottsdale, Ariz., firm

Led by husband and wife Kevin and Carrie Dick, KDI Wealth Management oversees $750M in client assets and is rated in the top 10 in state by Forbes.

Judge Halts Rule Capping Credit-Card Late Fees

A federal judge in Texas halted the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's new rule capping credit card late fees at $8.

Inflation, Economic Uncertainty Upending Retirement Dreams for Many

Nationwide’s Advisor Authority survey finds many are taking non-traditional approaches to retirement, including moving in with their adult children.

Perigon Wealth Management Appoints Head of Advisor Success and Integration

Maria Daley has more than 30 years of experience leading business development and relationship management teams.

SEC Wants RIAs to Verify Customer Identities

The SEC and Treasury say the rule is needed because customers have used RIAs for illicit foreign financial activity in the United States.

Concerns About Insufficient Savings Keep Many Retirees Awake, Survey Finds

Among those in retirement, 32% fear they have too little savings, according to the Schroders 2024 US Retirement Survey.