As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Brad Smithy.
Brad Smithy is the Central Divisional Director of the Client Advisory Group for UBS Wealth Management USA. He is responsible for the domestic business within 108 offices across 22 states. He oversees approximately 1,900 Financial Advisors and 1460 support staff who manage a combined total of over $323 billion in client assets. With a focus on providing a full range of solutions to address client needs,
Brad’s vision for the Central Division is simple — To be the provider of choice for Wealth Management advice in the communities in which they serve. Brad is a Divisional Director and a member of the WM USA Management Committee.
Brad joined UBS in 2009 as Complex Director of the Florida East Coast Complex. Most recently, Brad led the Southeast Division. Prior to joining the firm, he was a 16-year veteran of Merrill Lynch where he held numerous roles including Financial Advisor, Complex Sales Manager, District Sales Manager and Complex Director, where he was a consistent top performer each year. Brad received his Bachelor of Science in Finance from the University of Florida in 1989. He also holds the Certified Investment Management Analyst (CIMA) designation. Brad serves as a member of the board for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, as well as for the Planned Giving Council of the Place of Hope. Brad and his wife, Laura, reside in North Palm Beach, FL and have three children. Will and Ben attend the University of Florida, and Anna is in her freshman year of High School. Brad is an avid outdoorsman and enjoys spending time boating, fishing, and attending sporting events.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I grew up in North Florida and went to the University of Florida, where I was a finance major. I remember interning at an advisor’s office on Black Monday (October 19, 1987) — the worst stock market crash in the history of Wall Street — and got to watch financial advisors work through the crash live. I saw them dig deep, work hard and take care of their clients.
While I was there that day, I was told two different things by the advisors. One said, “If you want to be in this business, you should leave.” The other said, “If you want to be in this business, you should stay.” I stayed.
I graduated in 1989 and started my career in Tampa. I had always wanted to be on the investment side of financial advising. I had a friend whose father-in-law was a financial advisor and he referred me to a manager who hired me a few years later in Gainesville, Fla., where I was from. I’ve been in the financial advising business ever since. I started with UBS in January of 2009.
It’s been an amazing ride. It’s hard to believe that I’ve been in the business for 27 years. I’ve seen so many different things, including a lot of times of chaos and opportunities. Every time challenging times occur, it reminds me how much people need what our advisors provide.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
When we first started working remotely in March this year, my family and I thought it would be a good idea to get a new puppy. We had lost our lab back in January, and our kids didn’t remember having a puppy since they were so young when we first got her. So, since we were all home together, we figured it’d be a great time to raise a puppy. We got a little yellow lab named Emma, and she came into my office one day when I was on a Skype call. Everyone on my call wanted to see her, so I picked her up to show her on the camera. I knocked over a full glass of water onto my computer and shorted it out. It’s the most memorable and dumbest thing I’ve done in this pandemic, but I ended up with a new dog and a new laptop.
At the beginning of my career, I did something that wasn’t funny to me but was funny to everyone I worked with. I was brand new and cold calling. I called the wife of one of the people I worked with, not realizing that she was using her maiden name. It didn’t register that she was his wife since I was so new. She kept me on the phone for about 40 minutes before she let me know that her husband sat about 10 feet from me. It was funny to them, and it became funny to me, but it wasn’t at the time. I learned that I needed to do better research and be prepared before I got on a phone call.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There’s a quote I like that says, “If I invited everyone who’s helped me along the way to a party, it’d be a big party.”
You don’t get here alone. Early in my career, when I was brand new, the person assigned as my mentor — John Smith — treated me like I was his best client. He worked with me. You can swing and miss a lot early on in your career because there is so much you have to learn about the market, what you can and can’t do, etc. John would always drop what he was doing to help me when I needed it.
One time I had a client who had a life-changing event and inherited a lot of money. He decided he wanted to have various firms around the area pitch him to see who would get to help him with all this new money. John stopped what he was doing for the next couple of days to help me prepare for that pitch, and he went to the meeting with me.
There were several other professionals in that meeting, and I immediately went into junior mode. But John wouldn’t let that happen. During the entire meeting, he flipped the conversation to me to make me the senior in the room. It boosted my confidence and made me feel like I belonged.
We won the business, and I don’t think I was the same after that. I was only 25-years-old when I started, so I was pretty much everyone’s grandkids’ age. I remember thinking that this client was really sophisticated. I went there thinking he knows more than me. John kept telling me, “You know 99% more than 99% of the people out there. Don’t ever forget that.” I went in there and we won the business. I left there feeling good. The litmus test for me the next day was if the client needed something, was he going to call and ask for me or was he going to call and ask for John?
The client called straight to me and that’s when I knew that he was focusing on me as his provider of solutions. I had been fully prepared to sit there and let John run the meeting. But he wouldn’t let me, in a good way.
John was a psychology major in college, and he used that so well; it’s not a typical degree for someone in our business. He put me on a pedestal that day and it paid off. He’s retired now and we’re still in contact 27 years later because of that experience.
I try to do the same for my team now. My division has about 3,500 employees. We don’t have jobs without them. We certainly don’t have jobs without their clients. We constantly have to be servant leaders. We have to be responsive. I could go on about this. I am extremely passionate about what my role is. I may be their leader on an organizational chart, but my job doesn’t exist without them. That’s what John taught me.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
My company is 155 years old. We started in Switzerland as the combination of two large Swiss banks, followed by multiple acquisitions since then. We’ve always been a wealth management organization. Wealth management is about markets, but that is a small part of what we really do.
We’re about helping people find solutions. We help people retire, send kids to college. Now people just want to be able to “live the way they want.” If they want to buy a second home, adopt a child, travel, donate more, etc., they want to be able to do that. The market isn’t the end; the market is a means to that end.
Markets go up and down; over time they go up. But that doesn’t inspire people. What is inspiring to people is what motivates them; it’s their vision. People want to make money, but only because it allows them to do everything else.
In my role, my “clients” are the people working in my division — and, on occasion, I do talk to their clients directly. In fact, I had one tell me about six weeks ago that they were able to afford an experimental autoimmunity treatment for their niece that insurance wouldn’t cover. If they had not been financially able to do that, the outcome may have been different. The niece is better, not all the way better, but improved. That’s what matters, those outcomes really matter.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
March 16, 2020, was my last day in our office. In my role as Divisional Director, I’m responsible for 22 states. I used to always travel from Tuesday through Thursday to other offices in my division. My last business trip was the week before, March 10, to Chicago, which is part of my division.
Since March 16, I have been working from home. At first, it was a real upheaval for me and everyone on my team, but that was short-lived. Our business has kept going. No one was laid off, and we avoided a lot of the real problems. We’re truly fortunate and blessed.
We talk a lot about culture, influence and personal relationships. My biggest concern was losing touch with people — “out of sight, out of mind.” So one of the key things my team and I did was focus on outreach and being visible.
Within eight days, we got Skype for everyone, going from 8,000 to 20,000 users. I have 108 branches in my division. I made a commitment that by June 30, I was going to do a Skype branch meeting from my desk here in my house in Palm Beach with all 108 branches. We pulled it off. The focus became about proactive outreach. Being in front of as many people and communicating as much as we could.
When you talk about how you lead in difficult times, it’s about constant communication, uncovering what people are worried or concerned about, and being visible.
We put a huge premium on communications. We probably overcommunicate; people probably get sick of seeing me on Skype. But there’s a concept from our internal training program, Leading the Future, that’s impacted a lot of us. It says, “In the absence of real information, people fill the vacuum with negativity.” We were not going to allow that to happen. We were going to fill that vacuum with real information.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I’ve never considered giving up, but you can get worn down. It’s the same routine every day. You get up, go to your desk, and you’re on camera every day. I was accustomed to being in airports, client events, cities around the country, in New York at least once a month. I loved all that, but everything’s changed.
My motivation is to keep people connected to the firm. I have a responsibility to communicate and be with the team. There are 3,500 people who want and deserve their leadership team to be there for them all the way.
One of the main jobs has been to understand what’s working well, and most importantly, where are the pain points. You don’t get that information unless you’re talking to people. That’s what really keeps me going.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Visibility and willingness to truly listen to people. Being in front of people and letting them know we aren’t hiding from anything. That we’re open for business, nothing has changed with our resources, and we’re going to deliver for them. Being that person responsible for communicating our value proposition is an important and critical role.
While listening and gathering feedback, you also must do something with that feedback. One pothole we avoid is getting feedback and not doing anything with it. Then people think, “What’s the point?” You have to react to feedback, not just gather it. I believe that in challenging times, it’s critical to be visible and be in front.
I’ll give you an example from Joe Torre, former manager of the Yankees. He’d say, “You fix the roof when the sun shines.” He was always hard on the Yankees when they were playing at their best. In difficult times like this, you pull back a little bit, and you’re more of a cheerleader, coach, encourager, and listener. You can be tough and drive people more when they’re already feeling good because they have the momentum behind them already.
Also, be a motivator, someone willing to listen and have a real relationship. Sometimes you need to be a sounding board for someone. People can be like a tea kettle. They build up all this pressure, and as a leader, your job is to flip the lid off to release the steam, and then they’re back down to normal temperature. In times like this, you have to be there for people, your team.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
We always talk about catching people doing something right. You want to recognize them as much as you can. I don’t think you can over recognize people.
My executive assistant — who is very much part of our leadership team — sends an email to the team every Friday asking, “Do you have anything we can recognize people for? It can be professional or personal.” For example, someone passes a Series 7, CFP certification test, had their best month ever, got a great new relationship, had a baby or lost a grandparent, their kids are going to college, or they tore up their knee playing soccer. This information gives me a chance to recognize team members personally. Over the weekend, I’ll send notes to them. Sometimes you need to boost people up. Remind them of where they are and that they have a purpose. It all boils down to one-on-one conversations, recognizing people and connecting personally. We say leadership occurs in conversations. Leadership isn’t being at a podium.
I’m extremely fortunate to work with a great leadership team. They’re a very experienced, veteran, savvy team, structured divisionally in ten markets and led by market heads and their teams. They get it. They make me look good. They really help. I also want to connect with everyone the best I can. It takes a lot of time, but it’s worth every second.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Bad news doesn’t age well. People will accept a “no” if it’s quick. We teach people to be candid, transparent and direct. That goes for internal and client conversations.
We also do that with an eye towards a solution or logical explanation. People don’t just want to know the outcome; they want the reason for the outcome. Be direct and transparent and quick. Anything beyond that doesn’t work. A long, slow no or avoidance creates distrust and doubt.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
I think you control what you can control, especially in our business. There is so much you can’t control. If there’s a COVID outbreak again and businesses close, we can’t control that. The number one thing for a leader is to make sure your organization has the best people. You can control that by hiring the right people.
You can control the environment and culture you create for them to work in, the training you deliver to them, and morale with the end game in mind. You can control your goals and how you try to obtain them, but not always the road to get there. Leadership is really about identifying the right people and putting them in positions to be successful.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
This goes back to my earlier point. You hire and support your people, let them know their value and give them the resources they need, and remind them that this too shall pass.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
I believe an abrupt shift in strategy and vision is a mistake. It’s important to remember that these times won’t last. There will be a recovery. If you’re reacting to each circumstance, you’re all over the place. The biggest thing I’ve seen is people not staying true to who they really are as a company, as a leadership team, and what they believe in. They’re adjusting on the fly to match the circumstances of the day.
You certainly want to adjust. We adjust; we’re all virtual now. Certain adjustments are involuntary. I think the biggest mistakes are: adjusting too quickly; deviating from who they really are; scrapping the vision that they believed in that got them to where they are. Take a deep breath, be calm, get the real truth of the situation. Maintain your long-term strategy and vision, and pivot in the moment to take advantage of the circumstances. Don’t change who you are. The companies that do that are the ones that get in trouble.
I’ll give you a quick example. A successful financial advisor came to me the other day saying that he’d heard some people lament, “I want to go back to the branch, I’m tired of working from home.” I get all that. But we are working from home. Embrace it for the time being and adjust to it. This advisor said, “I don’t think I’ll ever work the same again. I’ve used this time to work on my business, not just in my business.” It’s a great comment.
Our team will never work the same again, and I think that’s a good thing. The advisor was referring to the way the world has changed. His vision for what he wants to accomplish has not changed, but the way he’s going to do it has. He’s adjusting to the situation while keeping the end game in mind.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
The answer to this is specific to our wealth management business. We think growing during times like this isn’t just possible, it’s expected. Our business is highly competitive. There are banks, regional firms, independents, robo advisors, and websites, etc. When times are good, people don’t see the need for advice as much as they do when things are turbulent.
We’re encouraging our people to do everything they can in this more virtual world to generate new business because people are seeking assistance. They need an experienced financial advisor at a firm that has the platform to take care of all their needs. We have the best people to deliver financial advice.
We were impacted when the market went down, but we were also able to generate more business that can position us well moving forward. Even if your business is negatively impacted, for example if you run a restaurant, there’s not a lot you can do but adapt to it with curbside pick-up or delivery.
In an environment like this, you have to try and differentiate yourself. Our company differentiates itself naturally in times like this. The consumer, our client base, has a demand for what we offer and that helps us.
We’re also continuously surveying our clients. The difference in the amount of responses we get in times like this and what they say is pretty amazing. We do fine when the markets are going up because the assets we manage are going up. But we really grow during times when people realize they may need more advice than they are currently getting.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Maintain visibility, that’s important. You can’t run and hide. You have to lead and stand out in front. You can’t charge from the bottom of the hill. An example is our commitment to being in front of all 108 branches. Within 90 days, we did that. My team received more useful feedback on that than anything else.
- Listen. Give people an opportunity to provide feedback and make sure you listen and act on the feedback. People want to know that they are not alone. We talk about running towards problems. In addition to the 108 branch visits, we did a lot of small group events and discussions. It allowed people to talk about what’s on their mind, provide suggestions and discuss pain points.
- Outreach. Make sure that you’re communicating. It all revolves around personal relationships, listening, discussing, making sure you’re communicating. There’s a phrase I mentioned earlier, “Leadership occurs in conversations,” Make sure you’re checking in with people, and let them know you care by reaching out proactively. It can be as simple as, “Hey, how are you doing?” We encourage people to do non-scheduled outreach. Sometimes if you see something on your calendar, you go, “Okay, that’s a requirement.” But when you get a call, “Hey, I was just thinking about you,” that can be more meaningful.
- Keep the vision alive. Continue to find opportunities to reinforce where we are headed and that it is the right direction. Despite the circumstances surrounding us, we are on our way to getting where we want to be. Keep your eye on the prize. Don’t stop evolving towards that end game.
- Be on your front foot. Taking the offense is more fun than defense in gaining market share during a down time. Be on your front foot. Be bold. Be confident. Look for opportunities to grow.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I was in high school when I first heard this quote from my football coach, “Pain of discipline or pain of regret, your choice.” I’ll never forget that.
To me, it meant, “Everything worth having is worth working for.” You need to attain it. You need to maintain your intensity around what’s important to you, whatever it is. Back then, it was pain of discipline, pain of regret — your choice. If you don’t work out hard now and get ready, then you’re not going to play as well, and you’ll regret that you weren’t prepared as you should be.
You either pay now or pay later. Whether it’s working out in the morning to feel better the rest of the day, studying to get a certification, or swallowing your pride and apologizing for something, you humble yourself for the greater good. That’s what that saying means to me.
How can our readers further follow your work?
My LinkedIn is https://www.linkedin.com/in/bradford-smithy-7174971a/