Voices: A stranger took a chance on me. Now it's your turn.
As financial advisors, we always look for investments with a positive ROI. Sometimes the best investments require very little capital at all.
When I graduated from high school nearly 25 years ago, I was fortunate to land an internship in financial services through a program called Inroads. The goal of the program was to expose talented minority youth to corporate America and to prepare them to succeed in their future careers.
I was attracted to the program not by the lure of building a resume or career, but by the opportunity to earn $3 more per hour than the minimum wage I was making at the local fast food restaurant where I was working.
Inroads provided several hours of interview preparation, which included advice on what to wear, how to sell myself. Then they set me up with interviews with three interviews with companies in the consumer goods and insurance industries.
Despite their tutelage, I bombed all three of my interviews.
At that point I had resigned myself to flipping burgers the rest of the summer and preparing for college. And then the phone rang — Inroads was giving me one more interview opportunity — this time with Merrill Lynch.
After receiving bad driving directions (there was no Waze or even MapQuest back then) I arrived at the interview more than an hour late. I walked in with low expectations and a nothing-to-lose attitude. Instead of offering the carefully crafted interview responses I had been trained to provide, I decided to simply be myself this time. The interviewer and I seemed to hit it off well, but I had little confidence that I’d be called back for the job. Then when I left the interview, things got worse. I returned to my car and learned that my battery had died. Mortified, I walked back into the office and sheepishly asked my interviewer for help jump-starting my car!
A few days later, I got the shock of my life—I had landed the Merrill Lynch internship! A stranger saw something in me and decided to take a chance. During college, I spent every summer and winter at the company and accepted a full-time job offer upon graduation. That experience led me to a job in management, an MBA and ultimately a VP role at Goldman Sachs.
Today, years later, I am still working in the financial services industry, except now I am running my own RIA.
This summer, my company hired its first class of interns, including one who worked directly with me. Unlike many financial advisor internships that involve compiling prospect lists and cold-calling, I made sure mine was substantive. My intern, a rising sophomore at my alma mater, Morgan State University, shadowed me all summer. He joined me at just about every client meeting, board meeting, research meeting and networking function. I filled in the gaps in his financial knowledge and challenged him to write his own financial market commentary. He helped me complete my quarterly review books, which gave him insight into portfolio construction and the financial planning process. The result — an offer to intern again next summer or even this winter.
Below are ways to invest in young talent — ones I have found yield a handsome ROI.
Internships. Recruit a student to work for your company next summer. Although internships can be unpaid, you should find room in your budget to pay them. Most college and graduate school students cannot afford to work for free, even if they are receiving college credit for their efforts. You would hate to miss out on a talented candidate just because they don’t have financial means. What you are looking for is an intern with potential.
When recruiting for your internship program, be open-minded. Consider community colleges as well as traditional four-year universities. With today’s era of sky-high tuition prices, many bright students are taking less-traditional routes to earning their degrees. Community colleges can be a great places to find hidden gems.
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In planning the intern’s tasks, think about their development, not just the needs of your business. A successful internship is a win-win arrangement where you get some extra help and the student learns enough about the financial planning industry to get an idea of whether it’s a good long-term fit. Even if things don’t work out, they may help you attract other interns in the future or design a better program for next year.
Mentorship. Find someone to mentor. This relationship can be formal or informal, however in my experience, the best ones are informal. These endeavors require commitments on both sides of the aisle. Both parties must be proactive in arranging times to meet, asking questions and building the relationship. Mentees have to be open to constructive criticism and willing to commit to personal development goals. Mentors must be flexible. It’s not about guiding your mentee through the steps it takes to be like you. It’s about helping them find their own path. Mentors must also be selfless. Much like the fiduciary roles we play with our clients, we cannot provide advice that benefits us. Most of the people I’ve mentored over the years have never worked for my company. In fact, one of my favorite mentees is a young man who I met when he bombed a job interview with me!
Sponsorship. A sponsor is someone who advocates on behalf of someone else and leverages their goodwill and contacts to help the person succeed. While mentors have mentees, sponsors have protégés. Sponsors position their protégés to win by lending their influence to advance their reputations. Examples of sponsorship include helping a young advisor land a key client opportunity even if the sponsor sees no economic reward in return or nominating a protégé for a non-profit board position.
Like the fabled turtle sitting atop a tree stump, I did not get where I am by myself. I was lifted up by the people who took a chance on me, seeing potential that few others saw. Most likely, someone did the same for you.
Now it’s time for you to make the same investment in someone else.