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October 2008

Combat Leadership for the Financial Services Industry

Soldiers showing aptitudes in leadership are invited to take a combat leadership course; I’ve done it and it was one of the most punishing and rewarding programs I’ve experienced. There I was taught 10 battle-proven principles of leadership and given opportunities to demonstrate my understanding in real-life situations.

As I mentioned in “Leading Your Team” (see the June 2008 edition of FORUM), there are parallels between a career within the Canadian financial industry and the life of a soldier. Coming into this industry from a long military career with Canadian Combat Engineers has given me a good vantage point from which to observe these similarities first hand. 

To achieve results, this industry needs leadership not just managers. For advisors, it’s a time in history that carries heavy responsibility as they deal with the challenge of the boomer demographic moving into a new stage of life and looking for financial advice. This situation calls for a leader with the intestinal fortitude to navigate their advisors through the noise, smoke and confusion that lie ahead.

In the Forum article, we explored the first three principles: develop leadership potential within your team; know your people and promote their welfare; and be a team. Here are the next three.

Principle #4: Seek and Accept Responsibility

The only way to get better at the craft of leadership is to get into the trenches and do the job. Looking down at your toes and hoping no one calls your name isn’t leadership. Instead grab your rifle, helmet and put “camo paint” on your face and exclaim “I’ll do it, Sarge!”  It’s no different in the financial services world. When you have a chance to put your neck on the line for a new campaign idea or battle an underwriting decision on behalf of one of your advisors, say “I’ll do it, Sarge!” For the task to succeed, take ownership and place yourself at some risk. Nothing is gained by taking the path of least resistance or hoping that things will just eventually improve. Become adept at identifying opportunities in everyday circumstances to take control of situations and move them forward.

Principle #5: Achieve Professional Competence

One of the elements of being believable as a leader is being credible. This is why for hundreds of years military organizations have promoted from within their ranks. You become a sergeant after first being a corporal and a private for several years. This allows individuals to gain experience and tests their skills in a kaleidoscope of challenging situations, at home and abroad, in peace and conflict. The financial services industry in Canada is much the same. Knowledgeable, competent people can be found within the advisor ranks. Managers who spend even a modest amount of time in the advisor environment have greater understanding and credibility than those parachuted in from outside the industry. 

Time and experience are important but greatly complemented by education. Some of the most powerful ways to achieve professional competence in our industry is through earning designations such as CFP, CLU and RHU. Learn as much as possible about a wide variety of subjects and become a voracious reader. 

It’s hard to expect your advisors to strive to develop professionally if they don’t see you doing it. Share with your advisors the articles you’ve read, relevant resources you’ve found and learnings from a course that had an impact on you. By doing so, your advisors will also strive to develop themselves professionally, benefiting the clients who prefer to work with advisors who continually sharpen and polish their skills.

Principle #6: Keep Your Team Informed

Only by knowing what’s happening in the entire battlefield can a soldier make the decisions required at a level where the work gets done. To remove a minefield at night requires you to know who is in front of you, who is behind you and what is on either side of you. Technical skills are not enough.

The unknown is scary; it causes doubt that paralyses some and causes costly delays in decision-making in others. The absence of accurate information can lead to rumours, waning the effectiveness of people. Rumours cost time and effort to investigate and eradicate before your troops are fully functional again. Distracted soldiers are a danger to themselves and others around them.

Give your advisors the “big picture” as a frame of context around the granular detail that pervades their day-to-day agenda. Keep them up to date on salient issues in the Canadian marketplace, government regulators, federal budgets, the financial industry, their company, the competition, product changes and so on. It’s important for them to do their jobs effectively and provide this same “big picture” to the clients they service.

During that combat leadership course, it was taught that leadership is a privilege and not a right. This holds true whether you’re in the military service or the financial service. Seek responsibility even if risky; reduce that risk by being professionally competent and providing the information your people need to do their job effectively. 

Greg Powell, CFP, BA (Psych), CD

Greg Powell is a financial centre manager and certified financial planner in British Columbia. The views of the author do not necessarily reflect those of Sun Life Financial. For additional information on this subject, you can reach Greg at

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