Six lessons on transforming an industry

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There are some lessons you have to learn the hard way, and others that you’re lucky enough to learn from others. Having just sold my upstart online investing company to one of the largest so-called incumbents in Canada, CI Financial, I wanted to pass along some of the lessons I learned along the way to anyone who’s working to transform an industry, or shape an organization. 

A quick disclaimer before I dive in: some of these lessons are sure to set off lightbulbs, while others simply won’t fit the problem you’re trying to solve. My goal here is to offer something for everyone. After all, an entrepreneur should never blindly follow all of the advice they’re given (which leads me to my first point).

1. When given advice, proceed with caution. Everyone will have an opinion on how you should build your business. But if you take all of these “expert” views into consideration, you’re just as likely to misstep as you would be if you ignored them all together.

Nobody knows your business as well as you do, yet people will want to shoehorn their worldview into whatever small insight into your business that they do have. That’s why it’s essential to establish a process for choosing when you’ll heed advice and from whom, and when you’ll ignore it.

I’ve found that the best way to curb that opinion overwhelm is to build out a panel of trusted advisors who are experienced, trustworthy, and familiar with your business. Since the early days at WealthBar, I’ve turned to my advisor panel for the most critical decisions. 

Of course, sticking to a process means that sometimes you’ll filter out advice that does have merit. But you’ll also free up your mental capacity for the millions of other decisions you need to make in a day. To me, that’s invaluable.

2. Digital transformation can’t be done in a silo. Every boardroom across Canada understands that digital disruption is paramount to staying competitive. But too often, businesses are limiting this mandate to their investment in an expensive piece of software, or a single department. 

Sure, many people can and do make money in businesses that are focused on a single transaction or process. But if your aspirations are to truly transform an industry, you have to stand on the shoulders of giants. Learn from those who have come before you, and those running the same race. That’s how you’ll move forward.

That’s the lesson I’ve learned from my experiences in the wealth management industry, which is riddled with friction points when it comes to the challenges of going digital. It’s an industry built on a legacy of paper-based practices and manual transactions, not to mention, we’re dealing with highly sensitive information. There’s simply no way to paper-over (or rather, web 2.0-over) the current infrastructure. 

That means it’s simply impossible for one single firm to solve all of the infrastructure challenges we face. It will take time to update the back offices of our banking systems, and for customers to get on board with new technologies, and new ways of interacting with the businesses that serve them (which are increasingly moving online).

Instead, digital transformation requires industry-wide collaboration. So as a business leader, you should be just as focused on building networks and creating awareness around the problem as you are on acquiring new software.

3. Don’t assume technology can solve your problems. It’s also important to realize that technology for technology’s sake is nothing more than a series of zeros and ones on a silicon chip.

Truly solving a problem requires understanding what caused it in the first place, and building a process around that.

Toyota, known for having some the world’s most efficient assembly lines, became recognized for its approach to eliminating inefficiencies not by bringing in more expensive machines, but by asking a simple question: “Why?” Before investing in that new software or machine, get clear on the problem you’re trying to solve by finding out why it exists in the first place.

4. Treating your employees well is the key to momentum. The single most important thing that you can do to move your business forward is to create an environment where employees show up for more than just a paycheque.

When employees are satisfied, your attrition and training costs decline precipitously, which we all know is hugely expensive. But more than that, when you go above an employee’s expectations, they’ll remember that, and the impact of that positive experience can cascade through your organization.

Here’s an example: early on, I hired an adviser from a bank. Within a year, I saw that he was bringing something truly valuable to the table: a commitment to customer service, along with the agility required to succeed in a startup. Recognizing his contributions, I decided to offer him a steep, unsolicited raise. The gesture came as a complete surprise to him, and was implanted on his memory. 

He’s now a senior leader at the company, and while he maintains high standards and expectations, he treats his employees with this same lens of generosity and positivity and as a result, has built a highly capable team with minimal turnover.

5. A prestigious title does not guarantee success. Part of investing in your people means looking beyond the resume. 

We’ve all interviewed candidates with an impressive resume, but minimal aptitude. That principle goes the other way, too. Sometimes the candidate with varied career history can grow into the exact type of leader you need on your team.  

For example, one of the most senior engineers on our team today initially came to us straight from a coding bootcamp with a professional background not in tech, but as an aesthetician. We hired her not for the companies on her resume, but her commitment to learning and achievement. Today, she mentors other engineers on our team and embraces challenges with a level of commitment that’s hard to find even among her most experienced peers.

6. Recognize that you’ll never be ready. I’ll leave you with one final admission. The reality is, there’s not a single entrepreneur or business leader out there who hasn’t had to fake it until they make it.

Whether you’re building a business from the ground up, or pushing for change in your organization, doing entrepreneurial work can be scary. I equate it to the decision to become a parent: you’ll never truly be prepared for what’s coming next and when you take the leap, it changes you.

Everyone will feel trepidatious when staring down a big new challenge. But there comes a time where no amount of additional research will make you any more prepared to plunge into the unknown. Would-be-parents can read all they want about how to cope with sleep deprivation, they won’t really understand it until they’ve experienced it. Similarly, there are certain things you won’t understand about running a business until you’ve experienced them.

At some point, you just have to take the leap.

Tea Nicola is the CEO, CI Direct Investing,


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