Do you remember The Ed Sullivan Show? There was a performer, Erich Brenn, who would come onstage and spin plates. He’d set up a table with a rack of long dowels, put a plate on top of each dowel and start each plate spinning. As long as the plates kept spinning, they’d stay on top of the dowels, but Brenn had to keep adding spin so that all the plates would stay in the air.

The tension would build as he ran back and forth, trying to keep all the plates spinning. Eventually, he’d have too many plates in the air to manage and they’d start to fall. He’d end up panting and sweating and watching plate after plate crash to the stage, making a glorious mess of things. The whole experience was invigorating, at least for some of us.

We use the spinning-plates metaphor regularly to describe what it feels like to manage a successful financial advisory practice. As your client roster expands, so do the number of tasks, sometimes exponentially. As markets become more volatile and productive investments become harder to find, the work of satisfying clients becomes even harder. It’s easy for little things, and sometimes even big, important things, to slip through the cracks.

For Brenn with the plates, the whole point of the act was to spin so many plates that he eventually couldn’t keep up. For advisors trying to run a productive practice, losing track of a deliverable can have serious negative consequences. Every successful advisor takes client requests very seriously, and most do whatever it takes to make sure clients get what they need accurately and in a timely manner. Satisfied clients mean a growing business and more opportunities to be of service—a virtuous cycle.

Advisors with growing practices quickly realize that it’s helpful to pass as many tasks and deliverables as possible to other team members. The role of the sales assistant or client associate becomes critically important to maintaining the cycle of client attainment and client satisfaction. Great support staff are invaluable, but are very hard to find and even more challenging to manage. Especially as teams get larger and work with more uniquely successful (and demanding) clients, effective staff management becomes essential to keep all the plates spinning smoothly.

Here are some practical insights and suggestions for how you can more efficiently develop a great support team and then manage their focus on deliverables.

Understand Their Experience

From our coaching work with larger teams, we’ve isolated several important insights that will help to sensitize you to the experience of your sales support team. First, it is important to realize that how they experience work and reward is very different from how you do. For you, a new client represents an influx of revenue. You’ll need to invest time and energy to engage and integrate the new client, and then manage his experience of your value over time. In return, you will be compensated.

A new client means something very different to your sales assistant: a whole bunch of additional work for very little (if any) additional compensation. As a result, there’s a big difference in how you feel about gaining a new client versus how your sales assistant feels about the additional work. For you, a new client represents a meaningful gain, while your assistant sees it as one more plate to keep spinning.

In addition, your job requires you to focus on the big picture and meaningful human interactions. Your support team must focus on details and try to keep up with all your demands and those of anxious or busy clients. As you off-load the detail work to your staff, they wind up with complex and competing priorities that tend to shift as new requests are added to the old list of deliverables.

This constant and intense flow makes it likely that someone may miss the importance of a particular deliverable or lose track of the status of various needs. This is especially true when it comes to interacting with other resources within the firm—so true that it deserves special attention.

Establishing Priorities

If there is one place where breakdowns in delivery tend to be most common, it’s where your sales support hands off a task to a staff person somewhere else in the organization. It’s human nature to assume that once you’ve handed off a task to someone, she will proceed to address it in a timely manner. You certainly assume your sales staff will keep those plates spinning (and you should), and they do the same with the issues they forward to the back office.

And this is where things break down. The professionals in the back office are juggling everybody’s deliverables and don’t participate in any meaningful way in the benefits of fulfilling those expectations. They don’t have an emotional stake in the outcomes, certainly not the kind of emotional investment that you have. As a result, every advisor learns early on to check in regularly with back office staff to ensure that your priorities are taken care of.

It is important to add that this is not because support staff aren’t committed to doing an excellent job. In fact, the vast majority of people in the firms we work with do a fantastic job of meeting or exceeding expectations. The problem is that your priorities are not (and cannot be) their priorities. 

Experienced advisors come to accept this difference of perspective and learn to check in frequently to make sure that tasks are completed and plates keep spinning. It takes only a few painful experiences to deeply install an emotional awareness that “the job’s not over until the paperwork is done.”

Just because a task is coded as finished in your mental files, or those of your immediate team members, you can’t assume that the process is moving forward and that the ultimate deliverable will be completed.

We know this because one of the most common coaching engagements we have with larger teams starts with the question “How can we stay more on top of things?” Often, the advisor knows what needs to be done but feels as if the support staff don’t “get it.”

Leverage Technology

After coaching around the differences between how an advisor feels when a new client signs and how the support staff feel, as described above, we move into a discussion on some practical ways to ensure that plates keep spinning.

Recently, we’ve been suggesting that teams leverage technology to help with the task. Virtually every team we’ve worked with has already figured out the importance of to-do lists to keep things on track. It is a simple step to add an explicit, written list of deliverables to the handoff from one team member to another. It takes only a few moments to confirm that everybody understands what is expected. Most advisors understand the importance of this step, even though it means taking a few extra minutes to review expectations and priorities. In addition, most teams have created a tracking process for incoming requests from clients that allows both support staff and the advisor to keep track of what is expected from the team. These things are easy to do, and most teams figure them out after one or two plates hit the deck.

We suggest taking advantage of recent developments in technology to turn these classic to-do lists into living documents. Apps like Dropbox allow you to create a to-do file that is accessible to everyone on the team 24/7. The file provides a single, comprehensive and shared tracking resource for all the deliverables of the team. This way, everyone can check in whenever they need to in order to make sure that they are up to speed on the current priorities of the team. It’s especially helpful for the advisor, who can check in anytime, including nights and weekends, to see the status of all those spinning plates. Typically, we suggest that one person be responsible for maintaining the list, including adding new deliverables and including a secondary list of tasks completed. 

The To-Do List

Finally, we suggest that the living to-do list include two categories for every action that must be handed off to others who aren’t on your immediate team. The first is a reminder to “check on the status of the handoff” and the second is “confirm task has been completed by others.” These categories serve as visual reminders when someone else is responsible for spinning a plate.

With regular follow-up, you can help avoid the dreaded crash of a dropped plate.

Ken Haman is the Managing Director at the AllianceBernstein Advisor Institute, visit

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