When Karma Meets Capitalism: How Positive Actions Create Positive Results

Karma is one of life’s most valuable currencies, not just in wealth management, but across the spectrum. Taking positive – sometimes selfless – actions is not only a major key to financial success. Frequently, you’ll find it is the absolute best way to thrive across-the-board despite life’s inevitable vicissitudes – including even during your darkest periods of boredom, disappointment and crisis. That’s why, today, I’m going to address Karma both in the context of the area I know best, wealth management, but also more generally. Put simply, Karma matters.

To begin, Karma is, of course, an ancient Indian religious concept (drawn from a mix of the Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh and Jain traditions) which holds that every action in the universe commences its own cycle of cause and effect (a traditional metaphor is the growing circle of ripples produced by tossing a pebble into a pond – ripples that, in turn, might disrupt the path of a fish – one that then swims in a new direction, either to be eaten by a larger fish or, perhaps, escape a predator, and so on – ad infinitum). Even within the fixed boundaries of a pond, the universe remains infinite and, therefore, ALL actions have universal consequences.

Because human beings (unlike the inanimate stone in the analogy) possess powers like will and judgement, our control over Karma – while far from absolute – is significant. Our actions can be directed in positive OR negative directions and, at least some of their consequences, are foreseeable. Over time, humans can build Karma. Hence, if you’re attempting to achieve excellence in wealth management, karmic reality demands fully embracing both the “art” and the “science” of: (1) keeping watch over existing clients; and (2) simultaneously seeking to expand your roster. Each of these functions – just like throwing a rock into water – generate their own “ripple effects” which is why practicing positive human interactions (karmic “art”), on the one hand, and generating meaningful deliverables (karmic “science”), on the other, give you the highest probability of producing positive outcomes within your own metaphorical pond: a complex financial ecosystem filled with clients, bosses, competing firms and changing regulations.

There is, of course, a natural tension between these two goals – especially if your success and financial upside are rooted in client acquisition rather than economic performance. In particular, time allocation issues present intense challenges. All of our respective levels of energy, sustainable interest and ability to provide real attention are inherently limited. Therefore, living a “Karma-oriented life” necessitates more than merely “acting positively.” Rather, it also requires conscious moderation – a truth the Buddha himself discovered when he rejected both the excesses of pure hedonism and the absolute poverty of asceticism (the “Middle Path”). Those who spend their “Karma currency” without attending to balance, risk forfeiting Karma’s value. In other words, intended positive deeds go unfinished, deadlines are missed and mistakes rapidly accumulate. Current clients head for the doors while your will to replace them is itself replaced by rapidly spiraling pessimism and self-doubt. So what to do?

(1)  Keeping Clients Happy:

If you don’t do a good job satisfying your clients, you’re obviously throwing away one of the most essential sources of Karma. It’s the difference between seeing a particular area-code show up on your phone (but then cringing and letting it go to voice mail), or literally leaping to take that call. The simple reality is that whenever you cringe, what necessarily follows WILL take twice as much effort and, inevitably, you’ll end up stuck, miserable and going it alone. If you leap, the world leaps with you. It doesn’t matter if the client is nice or mean or if the situation is easy or tough. And it also doesn’t matter if it’s 4:30 PM on a beautiful Friday afternoon. Action produces reaction – and often exponentially.

Practicing active karmic behavior requires constant awareness not only of one’s self but of others. For example, the nicest of clients can be especially draining. They can sap your time and resources; they can distract; and they can mask internal flaws. Conversely, many times, it is the clients you occasionally dread who can be some of the most rewarding: they can teach; they can force you to develop outside-the-box solutions and help you to forge a more battle-tested and bad-ass team. When you put forth your best efforts to overcome these clients’ shortcomings, you’ll likely find them to be consistent sources of business referrals and those whom you will someday remember as having improved your processes and efficiency. (As in much of Eastern philosophy, neither “yin” nor “yang” is the answer – rather, it possessing an awareness of both)

Nevertheless, I’m not suggesting you distrust your instincts about people either. Clients whose company you enjoy are also the ones who will give you the freedom to experiment, to be bold, to take new approaches, and ultimately to add less-experienced staffers to assist with the representation (thus unburdening you and providing a valuable mentorship opportunity). Tougher clients are the ones who reinforce your value proposition. They are the folks best suited to test your experts, your tactics, and use as overall metrics for measuring personal performance. If there comes a time when your boss can’t keep up with this sort of client (but you can), you KNOW you’re doing something right. And when you do lose a client or two (and all of us do – no matter how good we might think we are), although you may suffer in the short term, you will have discovered far more about yourself and your firm’s actual (as opposed to “marketed”) capabilities.

Yes karmic goodwill has a price – but what investment doesn’t?  Upper-level managers who can’t realize this truth should (politely) be distanced from your career. They aren’t contributing to your success and need to be “downsized.”  As in any good Dilbert cartoon, far too many managers only “manage” – they don’t “do.” Remind yourself that it shows true grit – not weakness – to tell someone, straight to their face: “If you’re so damn good at it, and have so much free time, then grab a rifle, soldier, and man your post!” This may not make you instantly popular, but if applied judiciously, it will earn you respect – especially from your troops. I call it the John Wayne test.

Lastly, maintaining client Karma always demands efficient and accurate communication. If your organization does not (or cannot) sufficiently support your ability to communicate effectively, you simply have to leave. Ask yourself: Are you a person who cares, who tries, puts in their hours, thinks creatively and repeatedly leaps for those calls. If the answer is “YES,” any company in the world would be insane not to overpay you. Wealth managers (or actually members of any profession) who emphasize those traits, yet find themselves under-appreciated, are willfully allowing their bosses to steal Karma that ought to be flowing toward clients. Don’t be that guy.

(2)  Attracting New Clients:

Relatively speaking, retaining clients comes down to doing two things excellently and then repeating as often as possible: delivering on promises and setting expectations.  If you can’t accomplish a goal, explain why – honestly.  If for some reason, you can’t explain why, admit you can’t but be sure to find an alternative solution. Never be afraid to seek out colleagues for advice and ideas. And finally, if there actually isn’t a solution, then you need to admit that too – and, no matter how much it pains you, tell the client you’ve decided (fairly) to cut your fees as a result. As noted, you’ll lose some clients regardless, but your Karma will have been strengthened and that’s all that matters in the long run. Don’t be surprised when a customer who trusts you but still decides to take his $1 million account elsewhere, shows up at your door five years later with $20 million or $100 million in hand. THAT is the power of Karma.

In contrast, winning over new clients – like all forms of sales – is complex and sometimes grueling work. Not many people can do it. “Sales” can properly be described as instant judgment (at the risk of stealing from John Lennon’s more eloquent phrase “Instant Karma…”) But sometimes it really is like being like Aaron Eckhardt in, “Thank You for Smoking,” or Don Draper in “Mad Men.” It’s projecting confidence, trust and sophistication – CONSTANTLY. Sales is a stage performance – it is the audition that never stops. Be prepared to get booed off that stage. Expect a majority of life’s proverbial casting directors to say those dreaded words: “Thanks so much for your time. Don’t call us – We’ll call you. NEXT please.”

Your task is to master rejection – simultaneously being cold to its emotional effects while sufficiently analytic to learn from mistakes. Oh – And to bust heads when not supported. You can only learn to apply leverage, when you actually have it. You’ve got to know the script (who cares if it’s for a movie entitled “Sharknado”?)  Your task is to convince yourself that “Sharknado” is Hamlet. Find ways to make ALL your lines compelling. Invite allies to help you rehearse. Know your audience intimately (that is, DO COMPREHENSIVE RESEARCH!) and then make the prospect truly believe.

And, no, I’m not remotely exaggerating. When you walk out onto that stage and declare: “Look out! The entire beach is swarming with giant mutated robotic sharks from Hell!” if you don’t 100% believe you’re actually on a mutant-shark-infested beach, forget about the sale. It’s over. Go home. (Just look at “Sharknado’s” own tagline: ENOUGH SAID!”)

Many times the most efficient way to win over a prospect is first by getting them to believe in you personally (active Karma) as opposed to abstractions like your company’s brand, the investment process, (theoretically) “brilliant” strategies, your office’s walls (“lined with rich mahogany…”) – or even the caviar at Christmas. You have to be compelling and different – but most of all: RELIABLE. In wealth management, that’s why good salespeople are so rare, so hard to cultivate and harder still to manage – that is, once you have risen into the more senior levels of an organization. But when you find them – keep them around – no matter what it takes. And note: each and every one of the concepts mentioned in this section is its own “karmic action.” Without positive Karma, you and your team won’t be able to sell a certified original Picasso for fifty bucks, let alone an investment fund that returns 3% a year.

In my opinion, the two most important college majors for future wealth managers are psychology and drama.  You have to know what motivates people and you have to know how to capture an audience. All of the technical knowledge about your business can be learned in a month and mastered in a year – so long as you’re under the tutelage of an experienced banker.  (As an aside, my law degree has been useful in spotting issues, applying solutions and being confident in front of people who are smarter than I am – e.g., 90% of Wall Street – well, 80%…)  Your choices are simple. You can connect or you can die. The activity of connecting is a duality: it requires requires Karma and is itself another manifestation of Karma. There are always hundreds of moments where any transaction can disintegrate. You have to be prepared to handle every single one of them entirely on your own. The client signs (or doesn’t) because of who you are AND what you do. Connect or die . . .

(3) What to Expect:

Follow the approach I’m suggesting and it’s highly probable there will be those who stigmatize you as a “diva.” There will be managers who ignore your skill, believing that their product, their brand or their process are selling themselves. Others will argue that a dehumanization of the sales target leads to the quickest positive result (“Don’t get personal – Get the signature”). I’ve heard it all.

Please – Don’t believe it! Sell yourself. Sell your enthusiasm. Sell the reasons behind your product. And do it all because you know that everything you’re selling is totally worth buying at a price that you believe is fair. If you’re not willing or able to walk away from a deal, you shouldn’t have walked there in the first place. Winners are on a mission – 24/7.

Wealth management is a contact sport. It involves building long term relationships and building them fast.  “Fast” is the operative word here because in a world of quarterly earnings reports, endless performance reviews and constant pressure to produce, those who don’t leap, most certainly end up in the ditch. This is exactly why understanding Karma is so crucial. Today’s regulatory environment also makes opening new client accounts its own unique variety of torture. Indeed, the entire field of finance has become so commoditized, fee sensitive and competitive that the only option is to distinguish exactly who you are through objectivity, classiness, and – dare I say – quirkiness.

Sales in wealth management still needs the name on the front of the jersey. But allow me to emphasize:  It also requires the name on the back of the jersey – And that name deserves to be in lights. Karma is your light. In the words of a very different religious tradition, “Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine . . .”

On a final note, building Karma isn’t all work. People like to surround themselves with those who make the “everyday” fun – What the Germans have long referred to as being, “eine wahre Liebhaber des Lebens” – a true lover of life – and yet another explanation of Karma (it’s no accident that a German author, Hermann Hesse, wrote one of the greatest modern works about Karma, “SIddhartha…” – Then again there was that whole World Was 2 thing, so Germans are, admittedly, what one might call “a mixed bag” on the subject…) The point, however, remains valid.

For your personal sake – and because it will make you vastly more successful – allow yourself to become a “Liebhaber.” No one will entrust their affairs to you if you can’t project real curiosity about their existence. Personally, I strive to replenish my Karma by meeting as many successful people outside of my comfort zone as possible. This can mean wine, women, song, golf, politics, media training, shooting guns, writing a blog, driving race cars, script-writing, foreign travel, concerts, Bikram yoga, photography, charitable work – you name it. The more, the better: Long term success demands basking in the reflected light of other human beings. Drink up your universe in big gulps (whatever Mayor Bloomberg might say about that) and “super-size” your mind. Do all you can to relish both day and night – the good AND the bad – even when experiencing a major setback or crash. That’s what inspires loyalty, friendship, confidence, interest and trust – even romance.

When it comes to reliance on transitory company talking points vs. a lifetime spent improving Karma, I choose the karmic approach without hesitation. So should you.

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