Those who joined together in Fort Lauderdale for Nicsa’s 2020 Strategic Leadership Forum had no way of knowing they would be attending the last industry conference before lockdown.
Soon after returning home, they — along with the rest of the industry — would rise to an unexpected challenge, implementing home office arrangements while working to deliver the most streamlined client experiences possible.
Come February 2021, attendees again convened for SLF, this time in a virtual manner open to all employees of corporate-registered firms. The three-day experience, set against the backdrop of a global pandemic and an era of social unrest, highlighted a range of perspectives on effective leadership in a profoundly changed industry.
Nearly 40 speakers shared more than 15 hours of educational content centered on creating meaningful relationships amid shifting operating environments — both inside and outside of firms.
Nicsa’s 2021 SLF also focused on fostering engagement, driving growth, and exploring emerging trends in team management, client communication, and product development.
BUILDING INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL TRUST
Throughout the three-day event, leaders explored how pandemic-altered learning environments have affected the asset management industry. The industry’s top thought-leaders shared their perspectives on building the skills and tools necessary to create meaningful engagement with employees, financial advisors, investors, and customers.
- Embracing Alternative Workplaces
Leaders from across the asset management industry largely agreed that the pandemic has created opportunities for workplace improvement. Many said they are trading in high-cost real estate space for smaller offices backed by flexible working arrangements. One panelist noted that the office has become the center of gravity around which flexible working situations revolve.
After proving successful after a year working from home, many firms are confidently moving away from the five-day in-office week in favor of a mix of physical and virtual workspaces. The goal is to offer flexibility while providing a forum for in-person gatherings.
Several speakers agreed that virtual arrangements present a challenge when acclimating new employees to organizations, pursuing strategic initiatives, and onboarding customers. To help facilitate interpersonal connections in these scenarios, many leaders are turning to hybrid physical-virtual workplace models.
The speakers agreed that moving forward, there won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution, but rather a balance between encouraging people to come back to the office and offering flexible remote options.
- Striving for Overcommunication
Throughout the virtual event, industry veterans echoed the theme that effective communication is paramount. Asset management is already a people-centric business, but the speakers said the pandemic has forced them to become more vulnerable.
Their advice to other leaders? Overcommunicate on a systematic basis — and keep up the habit once the crisis is over. Force yourselves to expand your digital social circles by reaching out to people you regularly bumped into in the hallway pre-pandemic. Check in with employees across various departments to see how they are coping with change.
The past year has been an incredible test of leadership as firms focused on building relationships in an all-new environment — and many successfully mastered the pivot. For example, several speakers said they worked to successfully engage the customer on a personal and authentic, yet professional, level.
One CEO said that first impressions in direct sales are now less about personality and more about investment content. But while the Zoom world allows for accelerated communication in real-time without travel disruptions, many said the handshake will come back in some form.
Numerous speakers anticipate that the industry will be more strategic with travel moving forward. Travel costs have dramatically declined over the past year, and though they may increase again in the future, it likely won’t be to the same extent, they said. After all, the forced learning experiment that was 2020 has made the industry more comfortable with the power of technology.
CREATING BUSINESS OPPORTUNITIES
Industry experts also discussed a growing trend in aligning investments with values — both from an internal perspective and the client-investor standpoint.
As one seasoned executive said, the pandemic and recent social unrest have cast a spotlight on the social aspect of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) criteria. Not only have asset managers been challenged to build social flexibility into their operations, but there is an increased awareness that a firm’s actions impact the lives of its employees and communities.
After 2020 proved that it is possible to implement change quickly, many leaders are working to reimagine other areas of the business. Some said they are leveraging the power of video conferences to bring together larger groups of clients for fun events, like virtual pizza-making challenges.
Many said that the pandemic accelerated digital transformation at firms worldwide, allowing them to achieve previously unattainable goals. One leader said that by adopting digital onboarding, she was able to go from taking two to three days to open a new client account to just seven minutes from start to finish.
That type of agility will prove valuable as the industry anticipates the largest wealth transfer in history. Many are adopting a full-family approach that’s not just about working with the patriarch or matriarch, but also with their kids and grandkids. Others are forming client advisory boards with next-generation clients to hear their feedback in real time.
FOSTERING A CULTURE OF DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION
This year’s SLF also focused on the urgent need to address diversity and inclusion in the asset management industry. Nicsa’s leadership explained their efforts to advance the movement throughout a handful of sessions.
- The Diversity Project North America
Nicsa member firms have been working to drive measurable change through the Diversity Project North America since October 2018.
On February 24, 2021, the first day of SLF, Nicsa announced the launch of the Diversity Project North America’s 2021 DE&I Perception Survey of the Asset Management industry. Anonymous results from the survey will be compiled in an effort to advance industry diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Nicsa also announced that the industry’s first annual Fearless Leadership Symposium will be held on June 16 and 17. The event is being organized to highlight bold business practices
around diversity equity and inclusion. It will include an awards program for organizations leading the way on such initiatives.
- Leading Amid Social Unrest
Several SLF sessions discussed building diversity throughout employee ranks. The general consensus: While there’s been progress, there’s still a long way to go when it comes to fostering inclusive leadership.
One leader said his firm used the death of George Floyd and resulting social unrest as an opportunity to initiate hard, uncomfortable conversations. By soliciting and working to understand various opinions, the firm was able to foster a sense of belonging.
Panelists agreed that such exercises must be backed by action. Many pledged to focus on diversity, inclusion, and equity while recruiting new employees and developing existing talent through mentorships.
Fortunately, the increased acceptance of remote work opens up talent pools for diverse candidates. To begin hiring candidates who live in other states or countries and those who can’t leave the home regularly, some firms are reimagining HR policies around the way they post jobs.
Another key takeaway in terms of diversity and inclusion was that bringing in new employees is a meaningless action if you do not make them feel welcome and give them opportunities to thrive. Leadership must come from the top — only then can the incremental progress being made become exponential.
TACKLING 2021 WITH CONFIDENCE AND COMPASSION
Industry professionals wrapped up the third day of SLF 2021 by reflecting on the job of the asset manager — and how it’s more important today than ever before.
The industry’s underlying mission is to create a brighter financial future for clients, and everyone plays a different role in that regard. But in 2021, achieving that mission is not going to be easy.
We’ve already seen investors who are nervous that what goes up in the currently strong stock market must come down, and others sitting on cash.
Still, asset managers have an incredible influence over people’s dreams — and the speakers at SLF repeatedly indicated that failure is not an option. Moving forward, they said it’s imperative asset managers use all the tools they have to keep their promises to clients, shareholders, and employees.
Leaders will need to use their recently-acquired digital assets to project increased visibility and convey sincerity both internally and externally. As one panelist said, after all they’ve been through, people are most hungry for truth and facts.