In January of 2019, I became CEO of Whitnell. The announcement explained where I think Whitnell should go over the next several years. I want us to remain true to our core values of putting client interests first. I also want Whitnell to grow and serve more great clients. I believe that what we do, the impact we have on our clients, is very real and very important. After speaking with numerous clients, I’ve come to truly understand that connection, comfort and continuity isn’t just our tagline, it’s also our mission.
I consider it a privilege and a tremendous responsibility to lead Whitnell into our next phase of growth. Leadership is, in fact, a topic that is important to me. I see all sorts of examples today of what it means to be a leader. My colleague Bob Peckenpaugh wrote an article called why we need leadership now more than ever. I think he’s right. We do need good leaders that we can trust and count on. We need leaders with visions and realistic plans and a willingness to keep executing even through adversity.
I aspire to be that kind of leader. While the announcement states where we’re going and what we plan to do, it doesn’t tell you why. I believe it’s important for leaders to be clear about their motives, why they do what they do. I can think of no better way to explain why I do what I do than to tell you about my parents. Their example shaped me into the leader I am today. Here are leadership lessons I learned from watching them.
FROM THE FRONT PORCHES OF VILLA PARK, ILLINOIS
I grew up in Villa Park, Illinois. In many ways, Villa Park was like a small town inside a big town, the Chicago metro area. Small town values pervaded the way most of us lived. Our days seemed to revolve around work, church, school and baseball, not necessarily in that order. The local VFW was an important gathering place, and it would become crucial to my family’s future by the time I was in my teens.
As I was growing up, I was aware that my father was a WWII veteran. But I didn’t learn, until I was almost 20, that he had been in the D-Day invasion, headed for Omaha Beach. He never talked about this, the way most veterans don’t seem to talk about their experiences. But over time, I came to understand what had happened on that day.
He was on a landing craft headed for the beaches, but they never made it that far. Their landing craft hit a landmine which destroyed the vessel. My father was rescued and returned to the ship from where his landing craft had launched. I suppose my father felt like it was his duty to do his part, no matter how things turned out. He didn’t control the war, but he did control his contribution to the war effort. He was willing to do his part. I don’t think he ever saw himself as a hero.
When he returned from the war, he became a millwright and began to raise a family, me and my two siblings. My dad was a practical man, down-to-earth and frugal. For instance, he believed that a car was for basic transportation. A radio was an unnecessary luxury.
In his early 50s, my dad became disabled. This was a trying time for our family. Fortunately, my older siblings had already gone through college. But I had not. What happened over the next several years gave me a whole new appreciation and respect for my mother and for the important role that entrepreneurship can play in the lives of American families.
My mom had not worked outside of the home before. But after my dad became disabled, she decided to go to work full-time. Like my dad, she believed that she needed to do her part to support our family and that meant doing whatever was necessary to ensure we thrived. So she went to work doing something that she knew well – cooking.
She began working for a catering business and eventually took it over. They catered Friday night fish fries and weddings at the local VFW. She catered luncheons for the Wheaton Rotary and numerous other events. She worked very hard and managed a small team that eventually included me, my brother and even my dad. My first real job was serving as fry cook for my mom’s catering company. My dad manned the broiler and I manned the deep fryer.
I look back on those moments with great fondness now, how our family came together through a difficult time to make a better future for all of us. Working in my mom’s business taught me a lot about teamwork and pulling together. Those lessons have served me well when raising my own children.
I’m very proud of my daughter, Colleen, a music teacher and accomplished vocalist, and my son Connor, who plays center field for the University of Chicago baseball team. I coached his teams from the time he was 8 until about 15, when he started playing high school baseball. I made a lot of memories with Connor in that period of my life. However, the best part was the time we spent together driving in the car, hour after hour, for travel baseball.
Mobile phones were just coming into existence at the time, which meant that we had a lot of time to talk. We went all over God’s green Earth and stayed in crappy hotels and it was great. Travel baseball gave me a relationship with my son that I probably would not have had otherwise. I don’t regret a minute I spent with Connor on those long trips.
My parents raised three children on a millwright’s salary and a working mom’s catering business later in life. All three children went to college and became successful, honorable people in their own right and with their own families. I’m proud of my humble roots and of the hard work that it’s taken to get to this point in my life and career. Those lessons learned as a kid growing up continue to influence me today and shape the way I lead people and teams.
SEVEN LEADERSHIP LESSONS I’VE LEARNED
As I reflect back on the example my parents set for me and on my experiences of following leaders inside different organizations, here are the core lessons I’ve learned:
- We work for families.
- I can’t predict the future.
- Never quit.
- Teamwork matters.
- Simple plans work best.
- We have to invest in the next generation.
- Faith beats fear every time.
Let me share with you what I think these lessons mean for Whitnell and for our clients.
WE WORK FOR FAMILIES
Families really are what Whitnell is all about. We were founded by a family. Some of our clients have been with us for more than one generation. In some instances, we work with grandparents, parents and now their children. Protecting and preserving family wealth is what allows us to deliver comfort to our clients.
I also want this for our wonderful Whitnell team members. It’s important to me, as their leader, that their families thrive and do well. A work-life balance is important in all of our lives. After all, we all work hard to have a great family life. I know that there are certain moments in life that you will never get back if you don’t prioritize them.
I want our team members to work really hard to serve our clients. But I also want them to get away from work and refresh their minds. I want them to be fully present in their family time just as I was fully present in the time I spent with my children. You may have heard the saying – we are not in life to have more work, but we work to have more life. I believe that’s true. Family life matters to our clients, to our team members and to me.
I CAN’T PREDICT THE FUTURE
There was no way my father could have predicted, as he boarded that landing craft on D-Day, what would come next. My mother could not have predicted, as she was raising her children, that one day she would have to shift from housewife to bread-winner. Life just doesn’t seem to give us that much notice.
The same is true for us today. I cannot predict with certainty what the markets will do in 6 months, what tax law changes might be next or how the economy will perform over the coming decade. I cannot predict with any accuracy how changes in government leadership will impact us or how trade wars or international peace talks will influence financial outcomes.
Even though there is more technology at my fingertips today than ever before in my career, there are so many variables over which an advisor has no control. Artificial intelligence and predictive analytics give us insights to make adjustments in real time. But they cannot predict the future with 100% certainty.
My colleague and Whitnell’s Chief Investment Officer, David Peckenpaugh, has written many articles about this point. He states that there is so much information today for investors, but so little wisdom. If you have a chance, please read some of Dave’s articles. I know you’ll enjoy them.
As a leader I have come to recognize that there are many things over which I have no control, some things over which I have some control and three things over which I have 100% control - my attitude, my effort and my focus. I ask my team members to have a good attitude, even through adversity. I ask people to give 100% of their best effort every day. I also ask people to fully focus on the task at hand. I am committed to doing the same and to setting the right example.
Thomas Jefferson famously wrote about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence. I have come to believe that we realize the greatest happiness when we spend our energies on those things we can control and not so much on those things we cannot control.
You’ve probably heard the old saying that quitters never win and winners never quit. The problem with aphorisms is that they seek to crystalize the lessons learned, usually from painful experiences, into just a few words that often sound trite. I’m not sure that my mother ever would have said “quitters never win and winners never quit” as she was heading out the door for a fish fry. But she lived it.
As a leader, I believe in adopting a never-say-die attitude. Adversity will come. So often it seems to come at the least convenient time in life. But that’s not what matters. What matters is that we keep trying. Great teams don’t quit. When organizations of any kind, even families, show that great resilience, they put themselves in the best position to win.
Speaking of winning, I believe it takes a team to win. Families really are a sort of team. Raising great children is certainly a team sport. At Whitnell, we seek to be an impact-player on your family team, to be your most trusted advisor. We think of what we do as being an extension of your family, your team.
It is part of my long-term plan to grow the teams at Whitnell so we can serve our clients more effectively and create more opportunity for our organization. We already operate internally like a set of discrete teams, where relationship managers work with individual team members to serve you and nurture young talent. As a leader, I seek to inspire real teamwork and collaboration because I know that’s what produces break throughs.
WE HAVE TO INVEST IN THE NEXT GENERATION
The families we serve are continuously investing in the next generation, whether that’s paying for college, helping young people learn to live on a budget or welcoming new children or grandchildren into the family with their own investment accounts. My parents invested in me by helping me pay for college. I believe Whitnell has to invest in the next generation too.
For the past several years, Whitnell has sought to bring in a new generation of potential leaders. As Whitnell’s leader, I believe we need to do even more of this. We have to become more intentional at identifying young talent in the Millennial generation, young people who crave responsibility and opportunity. We need to institutionalize how we coach them so they achieve their full potential. This will help us deliver against our promise of continuity.
SIMPLE PLANS WORK BEST
Most of our clients have rather complex financial lives. One area they look to us for advice is in making the complex simple. In the short time that I’ve been working with Whitnell, I’ve seen several client plans that do this quite effectively. This makes me proud of our team.
My colleague Brian Henderson has even written a series of articles on Forbes.com using a concept he calls The Book. This strategy allows Brian to collect a lot of information about a client into a single resource that makes their life much more organized and peaceful. It simplifies their life.
My colleague Mia Erickson wrote an article entitled You Don’t Feed A Financial Plan, You Need Financial Planning. Her point is that all the greatest financial plans in the world won’t do you any good unless the details get executed. I think she’s right about this. The efficacy of a plan will depend on execution far more than on brilliance.
This is why, as a leader, I have come to believe that simple plans work best. I recently put forward a vision for what I want Whitnell to achieve in the next few years. My vision includes four simple parts:
- Make investments in technology and infrastructure.
- Add the right team members.
- As appropriate, leverage our relationship with Associated Bank.
- Expand Whitnell’s geographic presence and capabilities.
FAITH BEATS FEAR EVERY TIME
You may have heard the statement that says “investors are always torn between fear and greed.” When the markets go up, they are driven by greed. When the markets plummet, they are driven by fear. Neither fear or greed are good reasons to be an investor because this type of emotional investing only focuses on the short-term. Real success comes from taking a long-term, goal-based perspective.
We are fiduciaries of our clients’ wealth. This is a great responsibility which I take very seriously. Our clients put great faith in us that our recommendations will produce the long-term results they are looking for to support their families. Our clients trust that we will act in their best interests and carefully examine a wide range of financial concerns that could impact them, including but not limited to investments. Our clients trust us to build custom plans and execute those plans with them, and on their behalf, over time.
This means that we, like our clients, need to have a great deal of faith in the future. We need to believe that when you do the right things, the right things happen. We must not be debilitated by fear of an uncertain future that we do not control, just as my parents were not debilitated by things beyond their control. They took decisive action that shaped great outcomes for our family. We are committed to doing the same for the clients we serve.
TO THE FUTURE AND BEYOND
I believe that when you move forward toward the future with confidence, when you prize teamwork and investing in the next generation, when you focus on a simple plan and adopt a never-say-die attitude – all of this puts you in a position to win. I welcome the opportunity to lead Whitnell into the next generation and look forward to helping this wonderful organization grow and serve more great clients.
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