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Conducting exit interviews for outgoing team members to gain more ideas on how to improve the position before replacements are hired and new team members learn to work together is key.F. und T. Werner/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

As the first point of contact with clients, assistants are a lifeline to a financial advisor’s business. So what happens when that assistant retires? While few advisors have succession plans for themselves, even fewer consider continuity plans for their assistants and other valued team members.

“Many advisory teams aren’t communicating their thoughts on when they might want to retire,” says Kim Poulin, a business coach with The Personal Coach, which provides consultancy services for advisors, in Montreal. “It’s commonplace in the industry for advisors and assistants to retire at the same time, but it’s not necessarily the case. The discussion doesn’t start early enough.”

Robyn Thompson, president and certified financial planner at Castlemark Wealth Management Inc. in Toronto, knew of her assistant’s retirement plans well in advance, but that didn’t make the transition any easier.

“Whenever you lose a key member of the team, it’s difficult,” she says. “She had direct relationships with clients for such a long period of time and that’s not really something that can be replaced.”

Continuity planning is also a concern for Michael Berton, senior financial planner at Assante Financial Management Ltd. in Vancouver. His team’s administrator, who has been with the practice for more than 20 years, has what he calls “institutional memory” of how the business has evolved as well as extensive knowledge of 350 client families. “And that knowledge isn’t necessarily recorded in a book, it’s carried with her,” he says.

Mr. Berton adds that the administrator is in charge of all the business’s systems and processes, especially preparation of the client files.

“She’s the person to make sure you haven’t missed anything – from forms that need to be filled out to following-up with clients,” he says. “It would take somebody a long time to figure out everything she’s done over the years.”

While Mr. Berton says the team has developed a practice manual that records important processes and relationships, it can only cover the bare bones of the business.

Ms. Poulin says proper continuity planning starts with creating written job descriptions for all team members. “You need to determine the qualifications and skills to replace a person properly,” she says.

For Ms. Thompson, hiring a suitable replacement for her assistant went beyond superior client service and communications. She also considered the candidate’s personality and overall fit in her intimate, three-person office. Ms. Thompson was not looking for a carbon copy of her predecessor, who had her own way of managing clients and overall operations. Rather, she was looking for someone to bring their own unique skills to the position.

“[Looking at successors] gives you a chance to review where some of the gaps are in your practice and consider some things that you could be doing differently,” she says. “It can be time to consider different viewpoints. I’m looking for someone to take ownership of the role and make it their own as it relates to what the firm needs.”

Sometimes, a firm needs to expand to avoid pauses in client service. As soon as a practice gets to a certain level, Ms. Poulin encourages advisors to hire a second assistant.

“That way, if something does happen to one assistant, you do have another person to get the major needs accomplished,” she says.

In fact, for Ms. Thompson, hiring an assistant to replace the one who recently retired would’ve been much more difficult if she had not chosen to expand her team years ago. At that time, she made the decision in order to manage both client expectations and her own growth expectations for the practice.

“Ultimately, you want clients to feel like there are multiple people who can help them address their concerns and questions, that they’re still going to be taken care of,” she says.

Once the team members are in place, they should cross-train their responsibilities to better understand each other’s role, Ms. Thompson says.

“One person should be able to pick up the other person’s file and be able to work together as a team,” she says. “This allows me to be able to work on [providing financial advice], to be the person who guides the clients and the decisions they need to make.”

But before replacements are hired and new team members learn to work together, Mr. Berton suggests conducting exit interviews for outgoing team members to gain more ideas on how to improve the position.

“This is the time employees can speak freely about some of their job challenges,” he says. “We always ask, ‘How should this job change for the next person?’ And they can tell you because they’re not afraid of being fired.”

Finally, when a valued staff member announces their retirement, inform your clients immediately. Ms. Thompson says her assistant received cards, flowers and gifts from her clients after they had been informed she was leaving.

She says going through staffing changes is part of being in business, but notes that advisors will recover and continue evolving their practices.

“I like to acknowledge the contribution the person made, the impact it had on my business, and be grateful for the time I had her help,” she says.