Swift Chat with HCR Wealth's Alyssa Phillips: Building an Empowered and Collaborative Workplace Culture
In this Swift Chat, Marie Swift of Impact Communications, Inc. speaks with Alyssa Phillips, Chief Operating Officer at HCR Wealth Advisors, a RIA firm with fiduciary values based in Los Angeles.
The two discuss how HCR uses technology and people to build an empowered and collaborative workplace culture. They also share highlights from the recent WealthManagement.com "Wealthies" awards where Alyssa was up for CTO of the year.
Learn more about HCR Wealth at: www.HCRWealth.com
We very much have an open-door policy here, and that's really part of our culture as well. I'm surprised my door isn't opening now, actually. The staff is very comfortable coming to us on the executive team and letting us know what sort of concerns they have, or bottlenecks or obstacles they're facing because it's really up to us to alleviate those sorts of things."
Transcript of Conversation
Marie Swift: Well, hello and welcome back to another Swift Chat, and today I'm joined by Alyssa Phillips and she is the Chief Operating Officer of a great Los Angeles based firm. It's an RIA firm with fiduciary values and it's called HCR Wealth Advisors. So welcome, Alyssa.
Alyssa Phillips: Thank you very much. I'm happy to be here.
Swift: It was great to see you in New York recently. I know we had a great time celebrating together at the WealthManagement.com "Wealthies," that's what they call it. The Wealth Management Industry Awards is kind of like our industry's version of the Emmys or the Grammys, and you were actually up for an award yourself as CTO of the Year in the category for RIAs and then your colleague was up for the Rising Star Award. So, tell us a little bit about why Michelle didn't come and why you got to stand on stage and accept her award for her.
Phillips: Oh, sure. So, Michelle Katzen is a managing director here at HCR and she is an absolute rising star, a total rockstar. She is going to be welcoming baby number two in about a week now, so traveling to New York was definitely not on her doctor's okay list. I was able to go in her stead to accept the award, which was really fun. The event was really well attended. I think there were almost 700 people there. It was amazing to see everyone in person and all dressed up for the gala. It was a really great experience for the evening portion, and I really also enjoyed the afternoon portion of the event as well.
Swift: So, you got to be on stage at the gala in your ballgown, accepting the beautiful award on behalf of Michelle. But you were also up in the category for Chief Technology Officer, even though your title is actually COO. You handled some of the technology at your firm and you were a finalist, and you were also a speaker there at the afternoon event. Tell us a little bit about what you said from the stage in the afternoon.
OPERATIONS, TECHNOLOGY AND MARKETING GO HAND-IN-HAND
Phillips: Sure. At the afternoon event, I spoke on the CTO Buyer’s Panel and we talked about a lot of different things. It was a pretty robust conversation, having a bunch of technologists in the room together.
We talked about technology in the RIA industry, where it is now and where it's going. We talked a lot about challenges that we're facing with having to select different systems and tools with features that are necessary, or things of that nature. Also, on the implementation side, once you pick the system, that's only part of the battle. You have to get it implemented into your firm.
We talked about our roles having to almost be a CMO, a chief marketing officer, as well, because you have to sell it. You need to garner the buy-in with your team to make sure that the system that you're putting in place is actually going to be embraced and utilized.
We talked a lot about an all-in-one system versus a best in breed system, and which one is the best strategy. Different panelists had different thoughts on that. We also talked a lot about budgets and cybersecurity, which yes, is still a thing and very scary and only getting more sophisticated as we continue.
It was a really fun conversation, I really enjoyed it. The breakout sessions after the panel were also really exciting. It was a really fun event to be a part of.
Swift: Fantastic. Surprise question: what's your favorite application that you use? Are you an iPhone user, an Android? What do you like to hit for your applications?
Phillips: Yes, I am team iPhone. Definitely team blue, not the green messages.
Swift: Exactly right. What do you like on your applications on your iPhone?
Phillips: Oh, which apps do I like? Oh my gosh. Let me think. I have lots of different ones that I use a lot. I think one of them, and this'll just tell you my level of organization, is I use Google Sheets because I do my meal planning, so I'm always thinking about different recipes and things like that. I put it in my spreadsheet, and I get teased all the time about it, but it's fine. It makes it easier when you go to the grocery store. I'm an advocate for the Google applications.
Swift: I love my iPhone. I use it for everything. Videos and notes and calendar. I couldn't live without this.
Phillips: Yes, the Reminders app really gets me through personal and professional. I try to remind myself of things on a certain day at a certain time when I know that is when I need to remember. So, the Reminders app is another fan favorite over here.
Swift: Absolutely, and the Starbucks app. I have to have that there to reorder, and when you go to keep that caffeine high. So, we've talked about technology and at your firm there, it's more than technology, of course, to be successful. It's about the people too. Let's touch on that. Technology's just one aspect. How do you train and empower the people at HCR Wealth?
Phillips: Well, we have a pretty robust system here and it really goes from recruiting all the way through keeping our people happy. I think a big part of it is you have to start by knowing your people. What motivates them? What are their learning styles? What do they aspire to?
There's not really a one size fits all sort of approach. But we have very comprehensive training programs and we try to make it a team effort. There'll be multiple people involved in the onboarding process. We're actually doing that right now. We just hired a new person yesterday and we had another additional new hire start two weeks ago, so we were very much in this stage.
We do try to break up the training so that they can start to build rapport with their coworkers. They can start to establish expectations and communication and workflows, things of that nature. And beyond that we set up a performance alignment system. Once they're onboarded, once they have the resources they need to meet our expectations, we put the performance alignment system in place so that they know what is expected of them and where they stand on all that. We have KPIs, which are key performance indicators, and it is all role specific.
CULTURE AND HUMAN CAPITAL
We also have OKRs, which are objectives and key results. The OKRs tie to our higher-level firm strategies. For instance, we want to be a technology forward firm. So, what sort of workflows and key results can individuals work on and be successful with that are going to help us as a firm move forward so they can see how their job and their performance aligns with our overall strategy.
We also have 360 reviews, where it's a peer to peer review system, because not only are the hard skills important, but also the soft skills. We wanted to make sure we had a mechanism to address that as well. So that's all part of our performance alignment system.
We have formal check-ins on a quarterly basis. We also have informal check-ins throughout, just kind of depending on what's going on and what's needed. So that's one of our big systems that helps us keep our thumb on the pulse of what's going on with the team. We've also built out pretty robust career path development plans.
A lot of times in our industry as an RIA, a career path development plan, if you want to be an advisor, is pretty well worked out and understood. But a lot of RIAs don't have career path development for operations or client service associates. Some of those folks do have career aspirations where they want to ascend. Hello, I'm a COO, right? This is what it's about. I wanted to make sure that our career path development plans were firm-wide and not just based on one particular job role.
We've built those out on the advisory team side, and we've also built those out for our operations and client service professionals who are interested in that sort of an opportunity to move forward. We also work on a lot of knowledge sharing opportunities. We are very fortunate to have a lot of very tenured people here.
I have staff who have been here for 17, 20, 23, 24 years. I wish I could just plug them into a computer and download their brain, but apparently technology doesn't work like that. Maybe not yet. We try to set up mentorship opportunities with more junior advisors or operations professionals.
We also use that as part of our requirements in the career path. If people do want to ascend, then having that mentorship relationship with others on staff is one of the requirements if they would like to move forward in that regard. We have weekly team meetings departmentally, where there's a round table with rotating meeting leaders and the whole point is knowledge sharing.
They can talk about kind of an issue that they're facing and ask for advice with their team, or they can talk about something that they actually were able to figure out and say “hey, this is what I ran into. And this is how I figured it out.” We want the entire team to benefit from that sort of knowledge. That's another kind of element in the team that we wanted to make sure was in place because that only helps the firm at large as we grow.
Swift: Yes. When I was there for an onsite visit, I remember sitting in as a fly on the wall, so to speak, watching one of the round tables happen, and I don't remember the topic, but I remember two people were asking questions of the co-founders and they were just like downloading wisdom from their brain. That's the best thing, and everybody else got to be a part of that. It wasn't in a silo. I loved that.
Phillips: Absolutely. We very much have an open-door policy here, and that's really part of our culture as well. I'm surprised my door isn't opening now, actually. The staff is very comfortable coming to us on the executive team and letting us know what sort of concerns they have, or bottlenecks or obstacles they're facing because it's really up to us to alleviate those sorts of things. But we can't do it if we don't know it exists. The open-door policy definitely is something that we encourage firm-wide and that goes for everyone here.
Swift: Do you actually track the mentorship? I know some of the firms I'm talking with use software or a program, or have you just kind of homegrown this?
Phillips: Yes, we started home growing it, but then we started using a system that tracks all of the performance alignment. It's the KPIs, the OKRs, the 360s, all of that is part of it. It's called TINYpulse. We can also use that system to send what they call pulse checks, which are essentially surveys to, again, keep our thumb on the pulse of what's going on with the team.
It’s not just on the performance side, it's also on how people are feeling, which especially in recent years has been incredibly important to make sure as leaders we are aware of how our people are feeling.
Swift: Absolutely. For culture building, what do you do socially with each other, if anything?
Phillips: Lots of things. We have lots of ideas that come up. The founders are very generous when it comes to our cultural budgets. We'll have in-office activities, and out of office activities. It can be anything from going to an escape room, to going to a suite at the Dodgers game, to a VR kind of fun place called Dreamscape that's local. We'll go to the movies. We'll do happy hour, we'll do wine tasting. We actually did a wine tasting kind of trip. We loaded everyone up on the bus and went around Malibu to taste wines. That was a lovely weekend.
What I want to do this year is to have a dessert potluck, but a cultural dessert potluck. We have a very diverse team, and so as the holidays are approaching we're going to have a lunch together and something that we will have catered. But I'm going to ask people to bring in desserts that are something close to them and maybe something that has some sort of cultural significance just so we can continue to learn from each other and appreciate the food.
Swift: Oh, absolutely. I think that's so great because it brings back so many fond memories. Like for my family, it's special toffy that my grandmother taught my mother, and my mother taught me, and now I teach my kids. People ooh and awe over this homemade toffy because I have a secret ingredient in it. I think that if I could share that with my coworkers, it would bubble up all sorts of heritage and things about me that they might go, “aha, that's why she is the way she is in business.”
Phillips: Of course, right. It just gets to know people on a deeper level. I mean, I love to experience culture through food. That's probably my favorite thing to do when traveling. I think having those open conversations with the people we spend almost half of our waking lives with, our coworkers, totally makes sense.
We actually have a DEI initiative at the firm, where we dedicated ourselves to a two-year education program. It talks about unconscious bias. Everyone has it, but it's what do you do with it, and how do you be more conscious of those biases? Bias isn't a bad or a negative thing, it's natural. Our brains need to make shortcuts so that we can assess everything around us and function, really.
But how do we become conscious of those, and what sort of elements and layers are involved in that? It has opened up a lot of conversations here at the office, I think that would never have happened before, and around topics that can be considered very sensitive, like race, gender, LGBTQIA+ issues, you know, things of that nature. I really appreciate that our team in particular has that connection to one another to where we're very open to share, even if the content matter can be somewhat sensitive.
GRIT AND DETERMINATION
Swift: I love that. I love the TINYpulse too, I had not heard of that before. But let's go into our final topic for today, which is around showing up. All of us have a backstory and kind of hints around who we were before we got into our current positions or into this current career path. Maybe you could just talk about grit, determination, and how you were able to be so successful and land in a great firm like HCR.
Phillips: Sure. Grit and determination are definitely a bit of the story of my life. I come from humble beginnings and so it wasn't even something that I was aware of that I could go to college, let alone I should go to college, and all of the great things that come from that experience. So, it was kind of that level of grit and determination to really focus on that path forward.
I didn't even know exactly what that looked like back then, but just really showing up every day and trying to be better than I was yesterday. That's kind of my personal and professional philosophy. It's Kaizen, it's a Japanese philosophy. It essentially means continuous improvement, and change for the better. That's just really how I approach things and how I live my life. I really think it comes from those humble beginnings because I knew that, once you're old enough to understand, you may be in an abnormal sort of situation, I was trying to figure out how do I make this better.
Education was definitely a big piece for me. It would be shocking for you to learn I was a star student. I was very organized. I have never in my life done an all-nighter. When I was in college, I did not understand how that was such a badge of honor. Some folks have a little more trouble getting acclimated to the college environment.
Because of that grit and determination I had from a younger age, it was something that I think I was a little bit more adept to adapting to the new environment and what needs to happen. I think that sort of character that I have has really served me, especially professionally because in business, you have to figure it out. Before this job, I built a startup. Talk about figuring it out, we were in a garage. We had to figure a lot of things out. Google was my best friend. I had my MBA by that time, but you're faced with challenges you never saw coming as an entrepreneur.
That sort of experience really just kind of catapulted me forward and making sure that I'm being resourceful and aware of what's around me, and how do I use these different resources and push us all forward. That sort of approach has really served me professionally and personally.
Swift: I love that. Talk about showing up. You know that old saying, 80% of success is just showing up, right? So, I'm still here, I'm still chipping away at it. I'm going to figure this out. I love that. My best employees, my best staff people have worked in careers or enterprises where they had to figure it out, or they maybe were in hospitality, where if they weren't good to their people, they were not going to get a good tip.
Quarantine, let’s talk about that. I know you have a bit of a story about quarantine.
Phillips: Oh, absolutely. We are in California and Governor Newsom gave us 24 hours, I think, to completely shut down our office. Before we had quarantine, our office in particular was a bit more traditional. Five days in the office, we didn't have any sort of hybrid environment available, so it was a huge change for us.
We didn't have all of the technology in place yet. Some of our people didn't really have the hardware necessary to convert to working from home successfully from day one. We really had to pull together as a team, and figure out, how do we support the logistics of now working from home? How do we adjust our workflows? How do we continue to stay connected to one another? Also checking in with each other because it was a very layered, very complex time for all of us, and it wasn't just professional. One of my staff members actually didn't have the internet. I expected I'd have to buy some laptops, maybe some scanners and printers, but the internet was a new one.
We really had to back it all the way up and take that bird's eye view of where everyone was, and what we needed to do in order to set them up to be successful in this new environment that none of us ever saw coming, and that most of us had never worked in. It was something that maybe 20% of my staff in some of their previous roles encountered some level of hybrid work or something to that nature, but the rest of my team had never done that before. So that was really an experience for all of us. But I'm extremely proud of how we all came together and just figured it out.
Swift: There you go. Figure it out. March on people, march on.
Phillips: Exactly. That's my tagline.
BLOOM WHERE YOU'RE PLANTED
Swift: You and me both. I love that. I'm kind of a stoic warrior. I just keep marching through the pain some days. Thinking, okay, this is going to get better.
Phillips: Yeah. You have to believe it. There are always going to be times where, maybe there's chaos or there are these external factors working against you, unfortunately. You can't control what happens, but you can control how you respond to it.
That's another part of my character that was developed very early that you really just have to kind of keep on and carry on. I think that's something that our team really did well with, especially during those very, very complex circumstances.
Swift: I know that you have a footprint in LA. Do you have any other offices across the country?
Phillips: Not yet, but it is definitely something that our CEO and founder, Greg Heller is very interested in. He's having some communications with some opportunities on the East coast that we're very excited about.
Swift: So, if you're within the sound of my voice, you're listening to the podcast or you're watching this on video, and maybe you have an advisory firm and you'd like to tuck in with a great RIA, you can see that this is a great one to be a part of and to be affiliated with.
With that, Alyssa, I think we have covered everything that I had hoped for. Thank you so much for being here today. Would you, in closing, just tell us the best website for people to find you at?
Phillips: Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me. Our website is www.hcrwealth.com.
Swift: All right, Alyssa. Thanks again for being here.
Phillips: Thank you.