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Culture Shock: A New Company Even Seems to Speak a Different Language
by Bill WillisOnWallStreet, July 1, 2009Over the years, you probably have heard Heraclitus’ ancient adage, “the only constant in our world is change.” This axiom may have always made sense to you, however, the rate and magnitude of change that advisors are experiencing in today’s financial services world are certainly unprecedented by any standard.

During the past several months an extraordinary number of advisors have changed firms and as such are embracing a new corporate culture. Some have invited this change by going independent; others have switched from wirehouses to boutiques; while still others have hopped from one wirehouse to another.

In almost every instance these advisors have experienced a different and often perplexing culture.

Their new work place is different. It’s not quite as they envisioned it from the descriptions provided by the hiring manager. There is a new language and different rules. It is hard to know who will help, or even what to ask.

In this unique era, cultural change has become an issue for those who did not invite it. Even advisors who have remained at the same firms are finding that cultural change has sought them out. The majority of major firms have either merged or been purchased. Even those advisors who vowed that they would never move are probably carrying a new business card today.

So almost every advisor on Wall Street is faced with a changing corporate environment, and with change comes questions.

Those at Morgan Stanley or Smith Barney might be wondering if larger is really better for them. Will there be enough resources and how will account conflicts be resolved? Merrill Lynch brokers are contemplating the ramifications of being owned by a bank. Will the bankers meddle with the franchise or might they be too risk-averse? Meanwhile, Wachovia advisors are also wondering about their new parent too. Will the firm continue to promote that broker-centric regional ambience? UBS brokers might be concerned about last year’s aggressive hiring followed by this year’s branch sales and cuts. Rumors seem to be clouding their future. Finally, former Bear Stearns advisors have worried about the ramification of their aggressive boutique being purchased by a large conservative bank. Indeed, whether an advisor changed firms or if the firm just changed, the challenge becomes how to excel in the new environment.

Advisors must strive to be as resilient and adaptive as the financial markets that surround them. As I read about the details of the once mighty General Motors going bankrupt, the Dow soared ahead more than 200 points. The market is seeing beyond a gloomy and confusing headline and focusing on a brighter future. We must embrace a similar optimism.

As always, those who see the opportunities in change will be rewarded. Your new or changed firms may have different management with new ideas and goals. Those resisting change and clinging to past are likely to suffer.

You should entertain the idea that the “good old days” were not as great as you might remember them, so let’s review some positive adjustments to your new corporate culture.

If you have recently changed firms, take the initiative and learn how your new firm operates and how it can best serve you and your clients. Attend meetings, ask questions and make home office visits. Get to know department heads and product specialists. Study a bit of the firm’s history so that you can better understand its position today. Find someone in your branch other than your manager who is knowledgeable and willing to help. Offer to buy your manager lunch and learn more about him and the firm. Advisors who have stayed aboard a firm that has changed owners should do many of the same things and take advantage of new opportunities.

Merrill Lynch advisors should focus on the positives that Bank of America brings to the table. They will have access to greater lending capabilities for existing clients and will be offered bank client referrals as a means of growing their businesses.

As the joint venture between Morgan Stanley and Smith Barney progresses, it will become evident that these firms have very similar cultures. Both are bottom-up types of organizations that embrace the entrepreneurial spirit, so the big change will probably have little impact on most advisors. On a positive note, the best of both worlds in terms of products and technology will be made available.

Perhaps because Wells Fargo is most focused on the bank portion of its Wachovia purchase, there seems little impact on the popular brokerage culture. There has been no change in leadership or philosophy. The Wells Fargo brand offers a serious uptick and the institution now has much improved financials. Advisors should become familiar with the Wells Fargo story and use its power to retain and procure clients.

Rather than listening to rumors and speculation of the firm’s future, UBS advisors should concentrate on the firm’s significant cultural enhancements. Last year’s aggressive hiring spree netted some of the top advisors in the industry whose expertise and character will have a positive impact on individual branches. By laying off their least-productive advisors and selling marginally profitable branches, the firm is better positioned to focus resources to a smaller and more productive group. One should feel empowered in this more upscale environment.

Bears Stearns employees had always cherished their aggressive and entrepreneurial corporate culture. When they suddenly became a subsidiary of JPMorgan Chase, many assumed that the culture would change immediately. In reality, JPMorgan PCS, as it is now known, seems to have retained most of the positive from the past while adding several sophisticated product and service offerings from it parent. It has been described to me recently as the best of the old and the new.

It is important for advisors to have a positive attitude about their new or changing firms. Remember, your clients and prospects are sensitive to these feelings, and will only be as comfortable with your firm as you are.

Although progress is coming at warp speed, the feedback I get indicates that the majority of firms are working hard to provide the highest level of service possible.

Remember that successful financial advisors are a firm’s most important element. Despite one of the deepest revenue slumps on record, firms have continued paying advisors enormous transitional compensation bonuses.

If you find some aspect of a firm’s environment unappealing, I would urge you to point it out to management. They want you to be happy and productive, rather than being interested in pursuing a competitor’s offer.