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Two Newly Embraced Ideas, Thanks to First Ascent

Business Builders

Recently, a financial planner I really admire invited me to a group she was hosting at her office for women in financial services to elevate each other in their respective roles.  After I gladly accepted the invitation, she emailed me again saying that the speaker for this month’s get-together had a last-minute conflict and could not come.  She hoped I wouldn’t mind that she volunteered ME to be the guest speaker.  GULP.

Thankfully, the thoughts I put together to share with the group ended up prompting so much great conversation that I decided it could be worth sharing on a broader scale.  We would love to hear what resonates with you and if you agree or disagree with any of these ideas, so please send us a note.

The topic of my talk was:

Two ideas I have been exposed to, and have embraced, as a part of being with First Ascent.

Idea One: Start by Asking the Right Question…and Then Question Everything

At First Ascent, we believe that if we start by asking ourselves, “How can this benefit me?” or “How can I make money?”, then the focus of our efforts is reduced and we tend to arrive at only one result.

If, however, we start by asking, “How can I do something good for the people I serve?”, then we open up a wide universe of options.  If we focus on creating something of value, we believe a byproduct will likely be financial reward and/or benefit in some form.  Personally, I find it much more fulfilling to have that be a byproduct rather than a primary goal.

At First Ascent, our definition of “good” will always be directly tied to the fiduciary standard, which is why we start every conversation by asking, “What is best for advisors and their clients?”  Then, we act in accordance with the answer.  We do this not only because we believe so strongly that is the right way to operate, but also because we are able to do so.  We have structured our company and our services to eliminate conflicts of interest and perverse incentives.  We have no hidden motives, no hidden fees, and no hidden strategies.

As soon as we ask ourselves what is best for those we serve, it is equally important to us to then question every conventional idea our world seems to universally accept.

When we started First Ascent, we questioned the standard assets under management (AUM) fee structure that asset managers used.  Do we really need to charge a percentage of assets under management?  Does it really cost us significantly more to manage a $1 million portfolio than a $100,000 one?  Our answer?  Well, it led us to pioneer flat fees for outsourced portfolio management.

When we formed our Investment Committee, one of its core guiding principles was to rethink portfolio management. Let’s start from a clean slate, and see what really makes sense.  The results?  We combine active and passive strategies within the same portfolio.  We have no mandate of investing certain percentages in various asset classes just for the sake of filling slices of the pie.  We design elegantly simple portfolios. We focus on what we can control: keeping costs as low as possible, holding only as many positions as required to gain the exposures we want, and trading and rebalancing only when necessary. We believe that simple is not easy. Professionally managed portfolios are oftentimes overly complex for the sake of optics. We believe that the right advisors will see our act of courage to openly address that as beautifully valuable.

Idea Two: Say Yes, Because Failure ­IS an Option

I recently read a quote that said, “The difference between successful people and very successful people is that the latter say ‘no’ to almost everything.”  There is certainly some undeniable wisdom to avoiding mission creep.  My dad, who I also rely on as a career coach, often reminds me, “Swim in your lane,” to help me stay focused on the part I play in executing on First Ascent’s mission.  Similarly, my husband encourages me, “Run your race,” to help me avoid getting side-tracked and losing my focus.

At First Ascent, we try to stay laser-focused on doing what’s best for our clients.  And in doing so, we have adopted a “say yes” spirit whenever possible that allows us the freedom and flexibility to explore and innovate.

A “say no to almost everything” mindset elicits a sense of fear-driven resistance intended to protect and preserve.  Our say “yes” attitude fosters an openness that invites and even creates possibilities for how to even better serve our advisors and clients.  We are willing to experiment with new ideas.  We partner with new people and new companies.  We willingly carve out 20 minutes of our day to listen to a new idea.

One illustration of us “saying yes” is our new partnership with BidMoni’s Fiduciary Shield tool, a free online 401(k) bidding platform.  Another example is our participation on several of the model marketplaces new to the scene.

Another way we “say yes” is for our Master Class series of webinars.  Every month, we host professionals from a wide variety of fields as they present on their respective topics of expertise to our advisor audience.  We receive no compensation and have no affiliation with our presenters. If someone approaches us with a topic we think our advisor audience will find valuable, our hope is to be able to say “yes” and schedule them!

Yes, it takes time, effort, and energy to say, “yes.”  But we believe it is worth it.  And First Ascent would not be here today if people hadn’t said, “yes” to us along the way.

In my opinion, we have a “say yes” spirit because we try not to make decisions driven by fear of failure.  We believe that in the way the word “failure” is used most often, it is the wrong word.  If we reframe “failure” to see it as just another category of life experiences that we will all inevitably have in life as humans, it removes the fear of it.  That reframing can take our attitude even further, to be thankful for that category, realizing it is no less valuable than any and all of the other categories of life experiences.

A quick note on what we would consider “failure” in the context of our attitude at First Ascent: we do NOT mean moral or ethical failure.  And we do NOT mean failing to deliver on what we have promised to our partners and clients.  We DO think of it in the context of something just not turning out the way we might have wanted or envisioned.

The entire First Ascent team recently spent our lunchtime watching a fascinating documentary together called, The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young.  The film chronicles an annual race for elite athletes held in a in a tiny Tennessee town.  The race is 130-ish miles and 60-hours long. One of the men interviewed in the film said, “If you’re going to face a real challenge, it has to be a real challenge.  You can’t accomplish anything without the possibility of failure.”

Watching the film, I was also struck by something else. As you may have guessed with a 60 hour, 130 mile race, very few runners actually finish. But almost all of those runners still seemed satisfied with their own accomplishment.  It occurred to me that when people become really good at what they do, they define success on their own terms. When they face a new challenge, they give it their all, and then they settle into a confidence that drowns out what the world around them may say.  They heed the advice to “run their race” and they do it well.  But success to them doesn’t always mean ultimate completion, victory, or… fill-in-the-blank.  But, when they’ve given it their all, successful people are satisfied with what they have done and with the destination they have reached.

As for me, I may not be able to make First Ascent the largest asset manager in the world, or the most famous.  But I am committed to doing my part in making First Ascent the very best possible version of itself.