“Stop asking questions, Maurer, and do what I tell you to do,” said the general agent for the Baltimore region of a major life insurance company.
At the time, early in my career, I was sure this guy watched Glengarry Glen Ross every morning before work. His lines were a little different, but they were no less rehearsed.
“I made over a million dollars last year!”
“I buy a new Cadillac every two years — cash on the barrelhead.”
I was told how to dress: Dark suits, white shirts, and “power ties” that weren’t too busy. Light blue shirts were allowed on Wednesdays. Never wear sweat pants, even to the gym. Enter and exit the gym in a suit. Your hair should never touch your ears or your neck. Facial hair was strictly forbidden. Jeans, outlawed.
When you have a “big fish on the hook,” invite them to the Oregon Grille, one of the nicer restaurants in the rolling horse country north of Baltimore. Get there a half-hour early and tell the maître d' your name so that he can use it when you return shortly with your guest. Ask where you’ll be seated and pre-greet your waiter. Also let him know your name — along with your “regular” drink, so that you can ask for it momentarily.
As one in a class of newly minted “financial advisers,” who was I to argue with this six-foot-five collegiate lineman as he passionately outlined his method of perception manipulation? Who was I to argue with a million-dollar income and cash on the barrelhead?
Who was I to be original in a world that ranked sales and profit above, well, everything? Who was I to be myself?
This is the old school, and, thankfully, a new school is emerging. The new school doesn’t eschew teamwork, but it questions uniformity. The new school doesn’t worship individuality, but it also doesn’t fear personality. The new school isn’t anti-profit, but it refuses to elevate sales above the personhood of the advisor or the best interest of the client.
While the old school is proprietary and exclusive, the new school is open-sourced and inclusive. The old school insists while the new school nudges. The old school deflects questions and denies suggestions for improvement while the new school welcomes both.
The old school crafts a narrative to which it requires conformity. The new school sees the benefit in allowing advisers to tell their own story and attract the clients who resonate with it.
The financial services industry is not the only realm where this is true. Insistence on conformity may be even more evident in professional baseball, where one of the MLB’s most promising young pitchers is putting convention to the test.
Daniel Norris is a 22-year-old surfer dude who lives in a WalMart parking lot. His ride, a 1978 Volkswagen Westfalia, doubles as his residence. His manner and method might cause any prospective employer to hesitate before bringing him into the fold. But his ability to mow down major league batters with a fastball consistently in the mid-90s earned him a $2 million signing bonus and a spot on the Toronto Blue Jays’ roster. Of course, he’s instructed his agent to limit his allowance to only $10,000. Per year.
Here are three reasons why nonconformity is working for Daniel Norris and could also work for you:
1. He’s authentic. He’s not being different just for the sake of being different. He’s not rebelling against convention as much as he’s being true to himself and his values.
The point isn’t to not be everyone else, but to be yourself. This means that if dark suits, white shirts, power ties and Cadillacs are your thing, that’s what you should wear and drive. But if you prefer no ties—or bow ties—and Levi’s, well, you get the idea.
2. He’s a great teammate. There are certainly players who’ve questioned his unorthodoxy, but no one questions his dedication. “He’s in great shape. He competes on the mound,” says Blue Jays assistant general manager Tony LaCava. “He has great values, and they’re working for him.” And for Toronto.
Being yourself doesn’t mean being on an island. Some, like Norris, might thrive off of extended periods of solitude, but our greatest work often complements and affirms the great work of others.
3. He’s good. Really stinkin’ good. His 11.8 “strikeouts per nine innings” ratio was the best in the minors last season, according to ESPN. And he’s competing for a starting role in the majors ahead of schedule. If Norris were just another dude living down by the river in an old VW bus, we’d never have known about it. That he throws a 96-mile-an-hour fastball low in the strike zone — while doing so in a way that is true to his values — is what makes him special.
If you do things differently, especially in the financial industry, you may well encounter some resistance. You’ll likely have to work harder to prove yourself. But if you do so with a high degree of excellence, you’ll earn the respect of your peers.
There are a growing number of financial advisers who have diverted from the conventional path, and to good effect.
Carl Richards drew criticism from many in the industry when he confessed his greatest financial sin, but a willingness to acknowledge his imperfection endeared him to those skeptical of the industry’s propaganda campaign regarding adviser infallibility (read: everyone).
Carolyn McClanahan gave up her career as a medical doctor when she failed to find a financial adviser who would focus on her as much as her investments. She went back to school and started a planning firm that centers on clients’ values and goals. She’s also become a recognized expert in all things money and medicine.
Recognizing the dearth of women in the advisory realm, Manisha Thakor seems to personify much that the field is lacking, this imbalance considered. Manisha became an industry thought leader, a voice for women advisors and clients.
Michael Kitces is, at heart, a nerd. He struggled with individual client interaction, but turned his passion for education and teaching into a thriving business as the adviser to advisers. “To do anything other than what I do, given my story, would feel like a violation of myself and who I am,” he told me.
How might your life and work look different if you took the same conviction to heart?
Financial planner, speaker, and author Tim Maurer, is a wealth adviser at Buckingham Asset Management and the director of personal finance for the BAM Alliance. A certified financial planner practitioner working with individuals, families and organizations, he also educates at private events and via TV, radio, print, and online media. "Personal finance is more personal than it is finance" is the central theme that drives his writing and speaking.