As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Mary Lyons, The Wealth Woman.
Mary began her financial career as a young girl. A second-generation financial advisor, Mary’s fascination with investment planning started at dinner conversations with her parents, understanding wealth as a tool rather than an end goal. As Mary grew up, so did her interest and experience. Today, Mary is recognized as part of the nation’s top 1% in the industry and has been a recipient of the Chairman’s Council Award (top 10 producers with American United Life Insurance Company®) for the past ten years.
With the recognition Mary has earned, she teaches her ideas and methods at national conferences, consults with the industry’s best, and trains advisors in top firms across the United States.
The world and the financial situation shifts and changes every day. The financial strategies that worked for your grandparents and parents no longer work today. The financial plans you made last year, even last month, may need updating. What drives Mary is creating a strong financial portfolio that’s right for you and your family, working with you to meet financial goals while adapting to whatever the world throws your way.
State Licensure. Insurance: FL, IN, LA, MI, NC, NM, NV, OK, SC, TX
Securities (FINRA Series 7 & 66): TX
Registered Representative and Investment Advisor Representative of and securities offered through OneAmerica Securities, Inc., a Registered Investment Advisor, Member FINRA, SIPC. Benchmark Income Group is not an affiliate of OneAmerica Securities and is not a broker dealer or Registered Investment Advisor.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. I know that you are a very busy person. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you grew up?
Sure! My dad comes from a family of entrepreneurs. My grandfather and his brothers had a national contract with Mexico to lay gas pipe. They uprooted their families to move to Mexico and built an extremely lucrative and successful business. Overnight, the national contract was pulled and handed to someone’s brother-in-law and my grandfather lost almost everything. He packed up the family, moved back to the states, and started a steel manufacturing business. A competitor offered to buy him out, but he felt he could grow the business even bigger. Then in the late 70s the steel industry collapsed in the U.S. and my grandfather lost everything a second time. He worked until the day he died. As he had success, like many entrepreneurs, he believed his success would last forever. He was good at making money, but not great at saving it. And due to political and economic factors outside of his control, he lost what he had built, not once, but twice.
On my mom’s side of the family life looked a little different. A few generations ago someone married a pig farmer’s daughter, inherited land, and struck oil. With proper planning they ended up with trust funds for several generations and many of my relatives are successful artists. Because money wasn’t a huge worry, many of them pursued their interests and have very interesting lives.
Having both of those influences has definitely had an impact on me.
What were your early inspirations that set you off on your particular journey?
My dad was both an entrepreneur and a financial advisor. I grew up with him starting businesses and moving from town to town as those businesses expanded. I went to 10 schools from kindergarten to college. We went through tough times and flush times. Through it all, we had dinner table conversations about money. I came to believe that with good ideas and hard work you can make as much money as you want, that money is an abundant resource, and it is a tool that is meant to be used to craft a life you are excited and proud to live.
I didn’t anticipate becoming a financial advisor, but once I started working and talking to my friends and their parents about saving and retiring, I realized I had knowledge that many people don’t — regardless of how financially well off their family may have been growing up. It became a moral obligation to me to help educate as many people as possible about their money so that they too could build lives they are truly excited to live. As I became successful as an individual advisor, I knew I could only make a big impact if I trained others to do the same.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Early in my career I worked with my mom who had the same name as me and so clients would often get confused. It was pretty funny when they would ask Mary the mom or Mary the daughter. I learned to say no when my husband wanted to name our daughter Mary.
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 was an advisor that worked for my dad when I was first starting as an advisor. I was struggling to launch my career. He came into my office one day and told me that the only reason I wasn’t successful was that I was lazy. It hit me really hard. Especially because at the moment he came in I was playing solitaire on my computer. He walked out and I closed my office door and burst into tears. I waited until he left the office and then I went home and didn’t come back for two days.
When I came back, I walked into his office and told him I wanted to be successful. I asked for his help. It was some of the hardest feedback I have ever gotten, but he helped me understand where to focus my efforts to get results. I hated every minute of it, but he changed my career trajectory and my life. I will be grateful forever.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
Despite moving a lot and learning to make friends quickly, this career didn’t come easily. My first year in business was easy because I worked with a mentor. My second year I moved to a new city and decided I could do this on my own. I made less than 30,000 that year. My husband was in law school and I felt like I was failing at life. I actually applied to law school, got a scholarship and accepted. But when it came time to attend orientation, I just couldn’t do it. I deferred twice. Two years later I was having tremendous success. It just goes to show that if you really want something, you should never give up.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I think stubbornness is genetic. I got that from my dad. The grit came from a fear of failing at something my dad did so successfully. Early in my career I really didn’t want to disappoint him or myself. He told me once that how I handled this difficulty would determine how I saw myself for the rest of my life. I believed him. And it does.
Now, the drive comes from the knowledge that each of my clients has a better life because I am in it. When we show a client how they can possibly have 30–70% more income each year of retirement without changing their savings rate or their assumed rates of return, it changes their life. By focusing on creating a stronger retirement distribution income I can show people how they may be able to retire year earlier, or with much more income.
I’ve been able to show people how to quit their job and pursue their purpose. They get to live a radically different life because of the work I do. In some ways it feels like having the cure for financial cancer. If you knew you had the cure could anything get in your way of sharing that with as many people as possible?
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
It’s going really well! Over the past 12 years I have helped 800 clients. I am determined to help even more. Because of that I started Benchmark Income Group. We have created an incubator to train and launch new advisors and take existing advisors to new levels. This is the best way to serve more families. My goal is to build our company (currently 9 people) to over 100 advisors. If each advisor helps as few as 20 new families a year, we would be able to impact 2000 new families a year. Over 10 years that would be at least 20,000 families living very different lives. It’s not the world, but it’s a nice big dent. And who knows, maybe we can do even more!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story? It’s definitely the work we are doing.
The first story I always think of is a client of mine that I met at a seminar I did. He and his wife were reluctant adopters of the plan we built. He liked part of it, but not all of it. We did a partial implementation and I let it be, but it was keeping me up at night. I couldn’t let it go. I called him back and after weeks of back and forth he implemented most of the plan. It still wasn’t all of it, but it put him in a much better position.
Fast forward two years. He was diagnosed with ALS. I remember when he and his wife came in. They were so worried about their finances. He kept saying — I know I didn’t do everything you said. Are my wife and kids going to be ok when I am gone?
We had three years to perfect the strategy from that point. Because of the work we did, his wife has about 80% of the income he was bringing home guaranteed for the rest of her life. Both of his daughters have college completely paid for, with money set aside for future weddings.
As his condition deteriorated, the family was able to take several last vacations together, creating memories to last forever. His wife was able to care for him without the fear of financial ruin at his passing. She has often told me how grateful she is, because her life would have been very different without the planning. And what a cool gift — to die knowing that you took care of your family even after you were gone. I know that his wife and girls see his love for them in a very palpable way.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Remember why you are doing this. You’ll never be happy if it’s for the money. Find a higher purpose to your business and lock onto it. Make every decision based on that purpose. It is much easier to keep pushing through challenges when you know why you are doing it. Make sure each of your employees knows the higher purpose too. It will keep them going through tough times too.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Every day. Both with the work itself, and the funds we are able to donate to our community.
Wonderful. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- Less Ego. More Talent.
It takes a certain amount of ego to survive when you are starting and running a business, but too much definitely gets in the way. I have made the most progress when I have set my ego aside and focused on the work itself. When I get out of the way and appreciate my employee’s contributions, they give more than I could ever expect. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t care who gets the credit.
2. Extreme Ownership
I read Jocko Wilink’s book not too long ago and it changed the way I looked at issues in the business. If there is a problem anywhere in the organization, it’s my fault. I either haven’t expressed what I want properly, I haven’t trained my staff properly, or I am allowing someone who isn’t productive to create an issue. It took me a while but learning to put the good of the group above any one individual has made a tremendous impact on the productivity of our organization.
3. Put People before Profit
There is a parable of the General and the CEO. The general is pushing his team to execute on strategy, work nights, work weekends. He has a breakfast meeting with the CEO and the CEO asks him how it is going. The General says everyone is involved, but I just wish they were more committed. The CEO points to his plate and says the chicken was involved in laying the eggs, but the pig was committed to be bacon. The chickens will still be around laying eggs long after you have finished eating your bacon. It is so important to make sure your employees aren’t bacon. The point is not to use them up, but to help them get better at laying eggs. I am a big believer in individualization. I work really hard to find out what motivates each person on my team. My goal is always to help them see that they can become more without ever making them feel like less.
4. Remove people who don’t buy into the vision
In the early stages of our company, I had an employee I really liked, and I kept trying to coach her into success. She said all the right things, but never changed her behavior. Because I liked her, I kept trying to coach her into new habits. I waited way too long to let her go. When I did, the clean-up took months. If it is a skill problem, you can coach them. If it is a will problem, the sooner you let them go, the better.
5. Don’t try to do everything.
Hire experts and let them do their jobs. Don’t try to do something that sucks the energy out of you. It’s counterproductive. As soon as you can possibly afford to hire it out, do it. You will grow much more quickly when you have good people working hard toward a goal. It’s easy to think you can do everything well. It’s much harder to admit that you can’t. Admit it. And hire people who are good at the things you aren’t good at.
Now that you have gained this experience and knowledge, has it affected or changed your personal leadership philosophy and style? How have these changes affected your company? It has changed everything. It’s changed the way I hire. It’s changed the way I coach our people. It’s changed the way I measure success.
This series is called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me”. This has the implicit assumption that had you known something, you might have acted differently. But from your current vantage point, do you feel that knowing alone would have been enough, or do you feel that ultimately you can only learn from experience? I think that learning from mistakes is the best way, perhaps the only way, to truly absorb and integrate abstract information. What do you think about this idea? Can you explain?
I think it’s a combo. Early in my career I had to learn from experience. My ego was big enough that sometimes I couldn’t recognize good advice. As I have gotten older, I have realized that none of my problems are new problems. There are books and articles and podcasts that cover any topic I could possibly think of. All I have to do is remain open minded. If I absorb other people’s experience, I can avoid making some of their mistakes.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I would start a Modern Money Movement — get ready, there is a book in the works — The world is changing rapidly, it’s not the same world our parents and grandparents grew up in. Yet, in the world of financial services, despite evidence of improved strategies, people are still pursuing the same old tired tools. It’s time for the old school methodologies to retire and make way for improvements that truly solve the problems people face.
How can our readers further follow your work online?