Ep. 252: Rick Watson - Cultivating Organizational Trust

February 19, 2024 | 29 Minutes

Welcome to Count Me In! Join host Adam Larson and special guest Rick Watson, CEO of Protection Point Advisor, founder of the National Referral Network and author of A Firm Worth Building. They dive into inspiring stories and insights on leadership, company culture, and business success. Get ready for engaging conversations and valuable business wisdom from industry experts like Rick, who shares his journey and expertise in changing company culture. Embrace the CEO mindset and gain powerful leadership tips with Count Me In!

Full Transcript:
< Intro >
Adam:            Welcome back to Count Me In. I'm your host, Adam Larson, and today's episode is all about company culture. Our guest, Rick Watson, CEO of Protection Point Advisors, founder of the National Referral Network, and an author, is a seasoned leader with a wealth of experiences.
He discusses his journey from working with a large corporation to starting his own firm, and the challenges he faced along the way. We explore concepts like trust compression, the importance of storytelling, and edification and empowering a team. With practical examples and real-world experiences, Rick provides valuable strategies, for creating a purpose-driven, successful organization. Get ready to be inspired and motivated, as we dive into the power of culture and leadership in this insightful, engaging, conversation with Rick Watson.
< Music >
Rick, I'm very excited to have you on the Count Me In podcast, and excited to be talking about leadership, and just some of your journey, as well, and what you've learned along the way. And, maybe, we can start off by what inspired you to start your own firm? It's not an easy task to do that. It's not something that people can do lightly. How did you assess your readiness for this entrepreneurial journey?
Rick:               It's funny. I, actually, wanted to be tested. I wanted to be weighed and measured, that was true. And there was a point where I was working for a corporation, every year they would adjust my sales territory, and that drove me nutty. And, so, I would do well, and they would restrict it, if I didn't do as well, they'd increase it. It was really weird. They knew what they wanted to pay me.
So I didn't start going down that road of starting my own firm. But I was happy to work with somebody else, I guess, is what I'm trying to say. I worked with a partner for a long time, and I liked playing second fiddle because, then, I didn't have to have all the attention on me. I could actually just do the work. And there was a point where that partnership fell apart and I had to step up. And I really like being in charge today, I like being the CEO. But it was a transition that took a few years to get there.
Adam:            I can only imagine the transition, especially, if you've always been a company person. You've always not have to make all the decisions. There's a lot of weight that comes with having to make the top-level decision, the top-level strategy. How did you handle adjusting to that weight?
Rick:               Yes, it's funny that you say that. So I always think of someone will be talking about their kid's school, and now their kid just graduated from whatever, and I'm paying for that. Well, I know that in the end analysis, it's our efforts, my decisions, that make that go badly or go well. And you're right, it's an absolute amount of weight all the time.
On the other hand, I like taking care of people. And, so, you do that at home, you take care of your family. And, yes, I suppose it's more weight, it's more responsibility, those people depend on you. And, so, I just have a really big family, it seems like, anymore.
Adam:            Yes, I like that. Seeing them as your family because it's no longer just numbers or people who work for you or say, "Oh, I have this many people." It's like, "No, that person has a name. They have a family themselves, they have a life, as opposed, to just looking at the bottom line."
Rick:               Yes, I think that there is a management school of thought that says that's a bad idea. I disagree. I think that loyalty and culture is part of a company, and that you don't have to turn over people all the time… I just think that there's a school of thought that you can turn over people, and I think that if you don't turn over people, they're so much more profitable. It's a good business decision to hold on to people, and part of that is to build culture and relationships with them.
Adam:            No, that's great, and when you mentioned things like loyalty, it makes me think of trust. And one of the concepts you mentioned in your book, A Firm Worth Building, is trust compression. And when people hear that, they're like, "What does that mean? I don't get it." Unless they've read your book, they may not understand it. So I was thinking maybe you could talk about what trust compression is, and how important it is in leadership.
Rick:               The trust compression it's kind of funny, it's something that we bumped into. It wasn't on purpose. I think that there should be a university study about that. But, effectively, what happens is that people, humans, don't make decisions about how much they trust somebody based on the length of their interactions. It's based on the number of interactions.
And, so, doing those appointments, we were doing appointments, in my industry, the typical appointment goes for 60 to 90 minutes. You do two of those, an opening appointment and a closing appointment. It turns out that if you break that into four appointments, at 15 to 20 minutes apiece, which is way more efficient. Trust that you'll build in that relationship is so much more significant.
And, so, what I'm telling businesses that we work with is that it's a really good idea. If you can break your process up into smaller, bite-sized bits, the people will remember more, and your relationship will be older in a shorter amount of time. It's pretty cool.
Adam:            That does sound pretty cool. One thing that I tried doing was setting my default, in Outlook, to 25 minutes and 50 minutes. Never doing a full hour and never doing a half hour. Because I felt like we would go up until that time, gave ourselves no time for break, but, then, also we'd spend too much time doing other things. How do you still get as so much accomplished by breaking those meetings up? How does that, positively, impact the conversation?
Rick:               Each one of those conversations is, in a sense, scripted, we know where we're at. I think that so much of business conversations are wasted energy. They do the relating, which we would call relating, I talk about it in the book. Which is that first part of like, "Oh, how was the game? How was your kids?" It's bringing down the tension in the room. We do that, consciously, but it takes five to 10 minutes, it does not take whatever. I see people will do it for an hour, and they really are slowing down their conversation.
So we're trying to get from point A to point B, or waypoints. So what we effectively do is break the conversation up into bits. Where you know what part you're supposed to get to, and then it goes pretty easily when you do it that way. Because I know that today my job is to take you from this point to this point, and as soon as we're there, I'm done. I'm like, "That's great." Let's go ahead and schedule.
I think one of the tricks of this, though, is to schedule those conversations really close together, so every couple of days. So it's weird, again, instead, of the traditionally, you'd talk to somebody, spend an hour and a half with them, and, then, come back and see them in two weeks or three weeks. Well, they've forgotten half of what you've said.
So if you break it into short little conversations, and we're going to go, "I want you to digest that, and let's just talk in two or three days." Then in two or three days we'll work through that and it really works well, they can build upon that, and they remember more.
Adam:            Yes, that sounds like it. But what about if you're facing challenges or setbacks within your business? Can you still utilize this concept of trust compression to maintain your team morale, and client confidence, and things like that?
Rick:               Yes, I think trust compression, the way it's supposed to be used is when you're bringing somebody on new, who doesn't already trust you. So where it doesn't get used is a place where you try to take somebody, who is an existing relationship, I have staff who's been with me for two years. I'm not doing trust compression with them, it's already happened, theoretically.
Adam:            Got you, yes.
Rick:               Although I think those little events, little things to build the office, to create bonds, we do ice-cream-for-lunch days. I think that little things like that, doesn't cost a lot of money, it's the same idea, you're building relationship consciously. I think so many firms don't do that. But, yes, if you have bad news, and it takes a long or whatever, if you have a complicated subject, you guys might need to do that in a staff meeting, where it goes in one long session, I should say.
One thing I'm thinking about that we do in our meetings that I think is really helpful, is no matter what the subject, good or bad, we start with a human element to that conversation. So we always start out with like, "Let's spend the first five or 10 minutes, and tell me about something that's going on interesting in your life." The reason is because it brings the conversation back to human. Otherwise, sometimes, we see each other as tools to an end, and we need to remember that they're actually people with lives, and hopes, and all that stuff.
And, so, we'll do things like thorns and roses. Give me one wonderful thing that's happened to you, 30 seconds, something wonderful that happened to you this week, something awful that happened. And we'll go through the room, even when we have 10 people in the room, we still do that, right in the beginning.
Adam:            Wow, I love that concept of bringing it back to a human moment. Because with the way industries are going, with the way the markets are, people are really stressed right now, and they're feeling the pinch. Companies are downsizing but, then, you're still having to do the same amount of work, and you're feeling that tension. And allowing that space for people to feel human, even during the workday, can improve morale greatly, I would think.
Rick:               Yes, well, I think what it does is build bonds, little bonds. And it's like Velcro, it's not one of those that work, it's all the cumulative effect of all those little bonds, and it's something so easy and free to do.
One of the things that I find in accounting firms, it's not just accounting, to be honest with you, it's any small professional firms, is that they tend to run like little fiefdoms. They don't spend enough energy focusing on actually running the business well, building culture. Being intentional about how we run and build the business, it's sort of more ad hoc. "I need to get my work done, and you're a tool for me to get my work done." And, so, that comes across. We need to change that dynamic or else it doesn't work as well, in the long term, and it's why those firms stay small.
Adam:            Mh-hmm, so maybe we can dive into that a little bit. What are some steps you would take to start changing that dynamic, if you were in a firm like that or running a firm?
Rick:               So I think the first thing that has to happen is the person in charge or the team, however it is, they have to figure out where they actually want to go. How they want to scale their firm and grow it, and that starts with a value proposition. "Are we just a proposition? Are we just an accounting firm that does taxes, for example, or are we doing something that's meaningful and special? What do we do that is our sort of superpower?" And then you figure that out, and you almost sell it like a religion to your staff, they believe in it. They believe in this mission that you're creating.
"We do taxes faster than everybody else."
"We do taxes better than everybody else." You've got to make your thing so you're not a commodity. The place I think it's a great place to start is what do you hate about your industry? Like, what does it just gripe you when people do it like that? Because that's the center of what you believe in. 
And, so, I don't think it's just an act. I think you sell that religion, in a sense, to employees because you believe it down to your core, and that's a meaningful business that can grow, and there's no reason to limit its growth, at that point. You want to spread the message, the gospel, so to speak, of your idea, your concept, your approach. And, so, you do that, you create mechanisms to help you scale this idea.
So many accountants, what they do is they'll say, and this is what I've heard 100 times, "Yes, I only want to grow to a certain point, I've got to get rid of a third of my clients this year."
It happens all the time because they don't want to grow. Because they see business growth as an impediment to the freedom in their life, and the opposite is actually true. That your life gets more free the more you scale this purposeful idea It's very counterintuitive, but it's a common problem I see in the industry.
Adam:            As we talk about this, it made me think of sometimes you hear from the top of an organization, "We've got this great idea." Kind of like you're saying, you're selling it as a religion, but when you trickle down to the people doing, maybe, grunt work, people doing lower level work. People, even the middle managers, trying to help lead the team, and the bottom line is very much in their mind, especially, for KPIs, and those things. How do you balance this idea versus the actual work you're doing, to make it applicable?
Rick:               So, first, there's a lot of things, you keep touching on all the little chapters of the book. I will say that who you hire matters. If they don't believe in your religion, don't hire them, and I use the religion softly, so I'm really talking about your purpose. They need to buy into your purpose. And if you have somebody who doesn't buy into that idea, it is in your interest to find a way to let them exit the company. Which is hard to do, by the way, because sometimes they're stars. So that's part of it.
I think, you believing it, really believing it, not just saying, "We believe something". Because I think employees are like children, in the sense that they can sense when you're lying to them. When your actions don't match your deeds. So assuming that those were in alignment and you had the right people, then, I think involving them in the story; "What's happening?"
"How we're achieving this purpose?"
We do a meeting every other week that talks about our purpose, where we're going. We start with who's human, so this human sort of aspect of it. We have people who are remote and local, and it binds the team together. And then we talk about how we're trying to get to our goals, and I think that's also super important. There's so much that goes into this, it's a big question.
Adam:            No, it is a big question, and I know that you could have full conversations just on that one question, I just asked. But it's one of those things that people are constantly looking at, and I think a lot of times we have high-level conversations about things.
But a lot of times people forget about the people who are actually doing some of the work that's harder, people on the front lines. A lot of times you forget about the people on the front lines, doing the work. And how do you trickle that down to them to make sure that everybody is in line, and it's not an easy task ever to do, like you had mentioned.
Rick:               Yes, well, they have to have buy in. So I think the problem with running your practice like a fiefdom is that it's all coming from you down, and they have very little control. But when you run it differently, you run it based on a sense of purpose, then, it goes the other way. They'll tell you when you're outside of tolerance.
You should have a staff person who should be able to walk into your office and say, "I don't like how you treated that person, and here's why." And rather than that being a negative, that's a huge positive, you had somebody stand up. I want my people to tell me when I'm wrong because it's hard to see what's happening. I need that feedback loop.
Adam:            Yes, it's almost like you need to have those. I think there's a book out there that's about the fierce conversations. You need to have the openness to have those fierce conversations. Where you're not attacking anybody, you're just saying, "Hey, I'm keeping you accountable because we all need to be kept accountable."
Rick:               Yes, I think that pushback is important and I value that we have it, fortunately.
Adam:            That's amazing. And, so, another concept that I wanted to touch on, that you talk about in your book, is edification. And how do you use edification to empower your team members?
Rick:               So edification can be used in two ways. It's outside; so other professionals. How do you introduce another professional? If you say, "Hey, I've got a financial advisor I want to introduce you to." Potentially. Do you say, "Financial advisor, here you go." That's great, you've just commoditized them.
It'd be like me saying, "Hey, I've got an accountant I want you to talk to."
"Well, that's great, thank you." That's a wonderful… No.
Edification would be to say, "Let me tell you about this accountant." Tell 'em a story like, "He's such a great guy, we've known him forever, and he's just done such great work with my clients. His funny, little side note..." And then you tell a story about him, like "He's into horseback riding." Whatever that funny little thing is.
All right, now, that thing is something. It's not just a generic thing, it's something, something for them to attach it to. When we bought our house, the realtor said, and it's kind of an odd analogy, but the realtor said, "It's great if you can give every house that we look at a name, so that we can keep track of which one we're talking about." Well, that's all we're doing with people. Let's tell a little story, or a little name, or something odd about that that I can remember. "He's got a funny little dog."
"Oh, yes, I remember that guy." All right.
So that's one element of edification. How do you introduce other professionals, to your clients? Because if you're not doing that, you're missing the boat. What clients want today is teams.
They don't want individuals. So you want a team? I can solve six problems. I can't just do your taxes; I can do your taxes, your estate planning, so it's that side of it.
The second element of edification is edifying your staff. So if you're complaining about the fact that you have to do all the work.
The pressure of this business is killing you, and it's so much work on you, it's because you're not edifying the people around you. You want to not be the smartest person in the room.
In fact, a great way to say it is, "Look, I'm an amazing accountant, but without my team, I'm nothing. I mean, if you want to get this done or this done, don't call me, call them because they're way better at it." And then tell a little story about them. One of the stories that I tell, all the time, it's a stupid little story.
But I'll say, "You know what I think so cool about when we hire people is we hire just amazing people. They work in the best interests of our clients, not because I told them to, but because it's who they are, at their core. And you could give them a million dollars, and put it in a suitcase, and give it to them, come back two years later, and it would all be there because that's just who they are."
Well, how excited are you now to be introduced to a staff person and them to go, "Great, I've got this person I'm working with." So I think that edification of the people around you, makes you not the smartest person in the room, which helps a lot.
Adam:            I think it also makes people appeal to the human, and we've been talking about this, human side. Where if you show kindness to another person, it automatically disarms them. And there's that old adage, "Kill them with kindness." When you're referring to somebody who's being mean to you. But it's also you can just be kind and show that edification to people that you meet, and it automatically lightens the room, as well.
Rick:               I think so. One of the biggest problems that the industry has is trying to be the smartest person in the room. And the reason is it's not because you are the smartest person in the room, it's because of fear. "I'm afraid that they're going to see that I'm not." So what I do is I puff my chest up and it's all about client control, they're afraid of doing this client control.
One of the reasons, another one of my companies, which is The National Referral Network, it makes this little sandbox where multiple professionals, of different disciplines, can play in the same area. They can work with a client and not be afraid.
If I'm not teaching edification to the accountant, so that they don't try to take away client control from the financial advisor or from the attorney, they need to all be able to share that. And the way they do is by lifting each other up, constantly, and it makes them all stronger, that's the irony. It's the opposite of cutting down your competition in the middle of... If you cut your competition down, it makes yourself look weaker, not stronger.
Adam:            Mh-hmm, someone should tell that to the politicians. But that's a whole 'nother conversation. I mean, one thing I've always read, when it comes to leadership, is you want to bring up the people who are around you, and bring them up because then it raises you up. Because you're helping empower them to become better, which makes you better. Which in turn prepares you for whatever you have next.
Rick:               It's also a way to be able to delegate. I mean, if I built the people up around me. Then if I pass you over to somebody else, they're not going to somebody weaker, they're going to somebody stronger.
Adam:            Yes.
Rick:               And everybody's going to say, "That's great, yes, sign me up for that." Nobody wants the worst end of the deal. They want the best end of the deal. So, yes, it works with clients, it works inside of your staff, and it works within professional networks.
Adam:            Mh-hmm. So how do you ensure that this edification is a key part of your team's interactions. You've mentioned hiring the right people. What if you've already have a bunch of people hired. Can you teach that to people?
Rick:               Absolutely, we teach it constantly. So one of the things we have, and it's in the book, about client success manuals, and employee success manuals. Most of those manuals, that people put together, are legal things to keep them from getting sued. "I told you not to do that." No, and we teach classes, constantly, on the things that we care about, so, yes, edification. You could ask any member on my staff and they absolutely know what's done.
It's like with parents, again, parent and child relationship is very similar. It's what behaviors do you model and do you reinforce, so that your kids grow up, and they end up away, whatever you wanted them to be, but you modeled those behaviors, and then you encouraged those behaviors in them. You taught them. It's the same thing with employees, and if somebody's not tracking, get rid of them because it will save you so much time, and money, and energy. You don't want poison in the system, and we purposely are pulling poison out of the system.
Adam:            Do you maybe have any examples that you can share, of where your team has been able to innovate and contribute to the success, by using the practices we've been talking about?
Rick:               So one of the things that I can think of is, yes, lots of them. First of all, one of our mottos in our company is "We build what should exist". So we have a financial planning firm, and a referral firm, and a real estate fund. And, again, they all operate on this; "We build what should exist." We go where the market should exist. So it's weird because we don't say we do taxes. We talk about bigger things. I think that's the first step is starting, in that regard. And, I'm sorry, I lost the thread of your question there.
Adam:            It's okay. I was talking about any examples you have, of people applying this and it's showing success in your organization.
Rick:               So because we innovate, people are always throwing out ideas as how to get there, and that's been a pretty strong piece. I'm trying to think of an example, a specific example, other than the fact that we've grown a financial investment firm to a half a billion dollars, from about $20 in my checking. So I would say that's a pretty good indication that it seems to work, and we're recruiting advisors, right now, like crazy. So I think that also people are recognizing that story, and that value proposition, and wanting to be part of it.
Adam:            Yes, when people recognize it, they see the value, and then they tell their friends, "Hey, you want to do this X, Y, and Z service, you should check out this company because this is the experience I have." And it creates that natural flow between parties, and potential clients and potential people wanting to work for you.
Rick:               That sense of purpose that I was talking about earlier, I think that's part of what you're selling in a story. It's funny because I was thinking of an advisor that we were bringing into our firm. But it wouldn't be that different from another professional you're bringing into your firm. What story do you tell them that makes you guys different? And is that going to suck them into your firm? Do they really want to be part of it because of that? And the extension of that is just that manual. 
Somebody in a meeting, recently, he doesn't even work for us, but he's looking at us, and he was just going on about, "This is the most amazing firm I've ever come across, and, boy, if you can have that." So we train our ideas for people who don't work for us, and it's really a recruiting mechanism, at the end of the day. So we want them to get excited. And, then, you have one of them, in a meeting, get excited and start talking about it. What they do is it creates enthusiasm in the other people, who are also considering us.
Adam:            Mh-hmm, now, do you think it'd be beneficial for any professionals, who are listening to this, they may not be in the same industry or anything like that. But they're saying, "I want to apply these concepts." How important it is to learn how to be a better storyteller, when you're creating these interactions?
Rick:               Yes, 100%, so we do classes on storytelling.
Adam:            Oh, okay.
Rick:               Yes, I mean, literally, last week, that was the class that I did. I think I had 15 people, on the class, in a Zoom meeting, on storytelling. So, yes, storytelling is super important. It's important for clients because if you tell a good story, what happens is it's like a string, and you can lead somebody, almost, anywhere as long as they know where that string is going to lead.
Adam:            Yes, exactly.
Rick:               So the story is what does that. But without the story, the story is that sense of purpose, it's not just telling them what the purpose is. It's telling them the story of how that purpose got created, then they buy into it. They say, "Stories tell..." And I can't remember that story-
Adam:            That's okay, I've heard the quote before, but I can't seem to finish it either, at the moment. But I think you got across what you were trying to say, it's how important it is. Because what a story does is it grabs your attention. It pulls you in.
I mean, the best books, the best movies, the best things that you're listening to, if you're grabbed in. My dad will sit there, at a bookstore, and read the first chapter. If it pulls him in, he's either putting it on a list or buying it or getting it from the library, the next day. It's that same kind of concept for just interactions with folks. If you're able to tell the right story and grab people in. And, so, like you said, when somebody's coming onto your team. If you can tell the right story, it'll grab them in and have them, part of the quote-unquote, "Religion" that we've been talking about.
Rick:               And the opposite is also true, so that's why we were doing this class. Because I listened to one of my people tell a story poorly. And I'm like, "You have so many extraneous details, I don't even know where we're going in this story."
And, so, we needed to back that off and start getting rid of some of that, or they'll cut their own reputation, in their story. "Well, I'm new to this industry, and don't really know what I'm doing." There are ways to phrase that that would not destroy your story. But the problem is now you've got somebody who's just tuned out.
And, so, we talk, in that case, about mentorship. Talk about how much you value the mentor who's teaching you right now, and how you really want to be more of that. Then you're borrowing somebody else's story, which I think is so crazy, that you can do that
But we can all think of ways of phrasing something that would be more productive. And then the other thing is practice your story. Tell somebody the story and then get feedback. Somebody who doesn't matter in this equation, and they might go, "Well, actually, I didn't even know where you're going with that." So that's helpful.
Adam:            No, it's very helpful, and I think we could, probably, talk about this for hours. But I just want to thank you, Rick, for coming on the podcast, today. I think it's been a really great conversation, and I just really appreciate you sharing your knowledge with our audience, today.
Rick:               You're welcome, and if anybody wants to find out more, they can just go to nrnamerica.com, that's our National Referral Network. Which is the way that we connect with accountants, attorneys, we've build this little sandbox, and when you come in there, there's a little pop up, it talks about the book. Or you can just find the book on Amazon at A Firm Worth Building, and it should pop right up.
Adam:            Perfect, and we'll put all those links in the show notes, so feel free to look at that.
Rick:               Great, thank you.
< Outro >
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