12 MIN READ
Study groups are a key ingredient for success. They provide a place for truth and honesty, positive feedback, and accountability, not to mention the chance to cross pollinate your skills. When I’m talking to a client about the best ways to grow, I typically recommend two things:
- A coach (even if it’s not me!)
- A study group
In fact, in some cases a study group can even have a leg up on working with a coach because they’re more collaborative. You’re working with your peers, so a lot of the pressure of moving forward can be set aside, and support and progress takes its place. In this post, I'll explore the pros and cons of joining a group and how to best structure your study group so that everyone can find success.
What’s a Study Group?
Starting with the simplest definition, a study group is a group of like-minded professionals who meet semi-regularly to review goals, hold one another accountable, and offer insights and advice. Just like the study groups you had in high school and college, your peers are usually all working toward a similar goal. In academic study groups, you’re all trying to pass a test, understand course material, or accomplish a project.
In professional study groups, you find common ground with peers who are at similar points in their respective financial planning practices and are looking to accomplish similar goals. These goals could be growth-, balance-, or financially-focused.
Keep in mind, not everyone in your study group needs to have identical goals for this to work. It can actually be better to have some diversity in the goals you’re all looking to achieve. As long as you’re at similar points in your practice and are experiencing similar roadblocks, you’ll be able to help one another maneuver around them.
A word of warning: I’ve seen study groups before where each member is at a wildly different point in their practice, serves different niches, and/or has different goals for growth. I’m not here to say that can’t work, but it’s a lot more difficult to pull it off. The point of the study group is that each of you is there to help and support one another. If someone is years ahead of everyone in the group and has “been there done that,” they may be taking on more of a mentor role and not receive the support they need.
Another good example of this is if someone is interested in keeping their practice small with a smaller number of, high-quality, well-paying clients, and everyone else in their group is working toward explosive growth. The conversations may not have a ton of value for them. Make sure everyone knows what the purpose of the study group is ahead of time, and that every member is getting value out of the time spent together.
Why Are Study Groups Important?
Study groups can achieve so many different things, and I think they can be productive for pretty much any advisor regardless of how far along they are in their practice. Through a study group, you can:
- Talk about financial goals and encourage one another to raise rates, weed out unqualified clients, and target your ideal clients.
- Swap marketing ideas.
- Work to improve each the client experience.
- Share resources for documenting processes and creating templates.
- Pass along referrals for clients who may not be a fit for you but are a fit for someone in your study group.
- Pass along referrals for contractors and staff (think paraplanners, virtual assistants, marketing help, etc.).
- Provide feedback on business practices, decisions, and more.
- Open up honest conversations about work-life balance (or work-life integration).
- Encourage one another to focus on life goals as well as business goals.
- Celebrate successes together and commiserate when you’re working through hard times.
- Hold one another accountable as you work toward goals.
- Track growth.
- Reduce the feeling of loneliness that so often accompanies business ownership.
Honestly, I could go on for hours about the other benefits of study groups, but this is a good overview. A study group can make growth significantly easier and make your journey so much more enjoyable. A dynamic shift happens when you go from laboring alone to laboring with a team of people cheering you on.
Typically, I don’t have trouble convincing clients of the value of a study group, but I do run into people who discount the value they add to a study group. It’s that old impostor syndrome rearing its ugly head again! Don’t discount your unique skills and insight that will add to the group dialogue. If you’re worried that joining a study group will mean that you’re the deadweight holding everyone back, you’re wrong.
Everyone has unique challenges in their business. Even the financial planner you think is totally kicking butt may fall down when it comes to a side of their practice you totally have nailed down. Finding a group of people with a range of strengths and weaknesses and who are all open to honest feedback and want to support each other is key, and I promise you’ll bring something to the table too!
How Do You Form a Study Group?
Forming a study group can be intimidating. Right now, I work with a client who assembled a study group of her favorite advisors. But she didn’t just jump in and go for it right out of the gate. She had to carefully overcome her reticence to do so. She was so worried she wouldn’t bring enough value to the group, or that the members she wanted to contact to get involved wouldn’t be interested. Guess what? All of the women she contacted were hesitant because they discounted their value!
I happen to know all of the women in this group, and I can assure you they’re a phenomenal bunch of financial advisors. They’re not identical and don’t have identical needs from the group, which is exactly what makes the group so dynamic. Each brings her expertise and style to the table and everyone benefits. Each member will have a time to bring wisdom and a time to be the sponge. It’s all about balance, not perfection or being in identical places on the path.
I’m telling you this story because I get the question, “How do I form a study group?” all the time. The answer is simple. Start asking around. You likely have an idea of who you’d want to be involved. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people you don’t know very well. If you’ve always admired someone’s business practices, or their growth, make a connection. Ask if they’d be interested in putting a study group together.
Your first meeting will be all about introductions. You may even want a third party to help facilitate that first meeting. I have done that with clients in the past with great success.
In that first meeting, take time to introduce yourselves to one another, discuss and set parameters for the group and future calls, and consider in-person meetings for the future.
Next up is setting your study group expectations. It’s critical that you do this ahead of time to keep your group on track. It can even be good to jot these down in a formal engagement letter that every member has a copy of.
Your group will have to determine standards for behavior together, as well as criteria for joining and guidelines for gracefully exiting the study group, should anybody need to. Typically, I recommend you cover a few different areas in your engagement letter.
I’m a stickler about this. Members should be ready to attend a minimum of 90% of the meetings. Of course things come up, life happens, emergencies can’t be planned for. But attendance should be a priority. It’s how you and each of your study group members grow trust within the group and understand the needs of other members. If you can’t attend a meeting, give your group as much notice as possible.
Participation and Attention
Members of your study group need to be fully present in meetings. If they’re unable to do so, it’s disrespectful to everyone else’s time and undermines the goals of the group. Distractions should be kept to a minimum. That means no email and phones on mute.
I find walking away from the computer helps me because I am prone to distraction. I also love a good fidget spinner. (I know, I mocked them, but I am now a believer!) Do what it takes to be there for your group.
This should be a no-brainer, but I always feel the need to bring it up. People are different. Everyone is going to have an opinion on running a business, because each of you are business owners. It’s okay to have different opinions, and you should all be open to creating an environment that fosters communication and respect through attention, honesty, and participation. This is absolutely key to your study group’s success.
Information shared between all members of your group is confidential except as otherwise authorized by the member, or as required by law, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. You can’t expect members of your group to open up and achieve the goals they’re working toward if you gossip about their revenue, business practices, or the areas they need to improve. You’re there to support one another, not tear each other down or back-stab.
Additionally, I love study groups for swapping information and resources, but make sure you ask first! Using someone’s processes and templates without their permission is super uncool, so make sure you request to use them or replicate them in your own business if it’s appropriate.
You should define what type of interactions you expect from one another. This ties back into the “respect” portion of your letter. Is there a support component across social media where you all are going to be promoting each other’s posts? Is it okay to call or email each other if you need advice, or are interactions limited to your meetings?
Members of your study group need to be as objective as possible, provide honest feedback, and keep things appropriate. Feedback should be clear, simple, and productive, not demeaning or brutal.
Clearly defining the goals of your group is important. I’ve seen study groups that are focused on business growth, operations, and some that focus exclusively on marketing. Personally, I like a group that can be a little flexible. Your business needs and goals are going to evolve, and so will your group members’.
Still, it’s nice to know loosely what everyone’s expecting to get out of this. This might not be a purpose for the group (that’s next!), but knowing what everyone’s individual goals are can help to guide the conversations and feedback you give one another.
Most group “purposes” are to hold one another accountable to objectives and support each other. However, if your group has a specific “to do” that everyone’s looking to accomplish, it’s okay to say that your group’s purpose is to accomplish Goal X (like gaining a specific number of clients) and that you’ll adjust once the goal is met.Leaving and Joining the Group
How does your group plan to handle it when a member needs to leave or when someone else wants to join? Typically, I recommend that, unless this is a paid study group, members can come and go as needed. However, the expectation should be that confidentiality is kept even after you leave the group.
It might also be smart to have parameters in place if a member stops holding up their end of the deal, for example by continuously missing meetings or making disrespectful comments. In other words, what’s the best way to politely exit someone from the group?
Defining these confrontational moments before they happen can save so many headaches later on!
What Do Meeting Agendas Look Like?
Generally speaking, I suggest having a meeting format for each study group call. It can look a little bit like this:
Yes, you’re all here to get things done, but don’t forget to be social! Touch base with one another, and check in on your personal lives. You wouldn’t want to go a whole meeting without being aware that someone had lost a relative or was going through a hard time. You’re there to support one another, first and foremost. Sometimes that means talking about life stuff, not work stuff.
Note Taker Checks In
Someone should be taking notes, or you should be recording the meeting and having them transcribed. That way everyone can touch base and look over suggestions made after the call.
Touch on Group Challenges
I don’t recommend spending all of your time on what challenges the group is facing, but it’s worth briefly touching base with everyone. Has something new cropped up in their practice? Did they run into something unexpected?
This can be done in a round-robin fashion, where everyone shares what they’re dealing with and what steps they’ve taken to solve the problem they’re facing. Even if this is a brief moment to vent, it can be necessary. If anyone has feedback or ideas to help, feel free to share now.
Compliance Check In
This is a big one. I recommend making a shared calendar for compliance tasks and having everyone hold each other accountable on each call. It’s so easy to fall behind on compliance, and you want to help avoid that whenever possible.
I know, I know. Homework? As an adult? Not fun. But having homework for your study groups that’s “due” at each call can actually help you move the needle for your business and work toward your goals. Your homework may be the same for each member (like completing CE credits), or it could be individual for each person based on what goals are on their horizon.
Topic of the Week
Usually I suggest that each week have its own defined topic that guides the large part of your conversation. A few topic ideas might be:
- Technology (this might take several weeks to wade through)
- Client experience
- Plan-related/improving as a planner
- Custodian selection
- Contingency planning
- Office tools (e.g. phone, scheduling, calendar)
- Niche networking
- Networking with other advisors
- Conferences (and where you want to meet up this year)
- Finding leads
- Prospect appointments
- Center of Influence (COI) relationship building (with CPAs, attorneys, etc.)
- Templates for your back office tasks
- How to onboard team members
- Time management
- Balance (or reaching personal goals)
- Leveraging industry memberships (XYPN, NAPFA, etc.)
- Closing ratios—share your numbers!
- Profit margins—again, share your numbers!
- What KPIs you should be tracking (e.g. number of prospects, number of conversions, number of renewed contracts)
These are just some ideas to get you started. I usually recommend going with the flow. If someone wants to change topics that’s okay, but make sure everyone has a chance to speak and get the feedback they need.
Before everyone leaves the meeting, each group member should know what their homework is for the next call and what topic(s) will be covered.
Although some groups function well without defined roles, I think it helps to have two people running the show - the note taker and the facilitator. The people filling these roles should switch every time. This allows for each group member to participate in different ways during each meeting, and everyone is taking equal responsibility.
The Hot Seat Meeting Format
I’ve also seen several study groups adopt the hot seat meeting format, which is a little bit different than a traditional “round robin” approach to each meeting. This format is more structured and allows the group to really focus on one person’s challenge at a time.
Like the round robin study group format, the group starts with a brief welcome and catch-up session. I like to start the meeting by sharing “wins” that happened between the last call. The notetaker and facilitator will settle in and get ready to start the meeting.
During each meeting, two people from the group are selected to be in the “hot seat.” They need to have prepared what they want to discuss and have come with questions for the study group. Typically, these questions don’t follow a particular theme. The study group member should be allowed to decide what their challenge is when they have the hot seat. The member gets the “hot seat” for 40 minutes to discuss the issue they’d like help with. The conversation between group members should be dynamic during those 40 minutes and only focus on helping the person who has the hot seat. Then, when their 40 minutes are up, the meeting switches to the next “hot seat” member, or ends if both have had time for their discussion.
This structure is unique because it allows for each member to have in-depth conversations about the challenges they face, and each member gets to discuss these things once every couple of weeks. It can also help prevent any one member from not discussing what they’re going through because they’re more soft-spoken, or from the reverse happening where one member takes up all of the spotlight. Group members can volunteer to be a hot-seat member’s accountability partner if they need to complete certain tasks to overcome their roadblocks.
Nothing makes me happier than seeing advisors support one another. If you feel like you’re struggling to find a study group, or you don’t know how to start one and facilitate meetings, please reach out to your XYPN team! We’d love to connect you with some incredible XYPN members or help you launch your study group with a rock-solid agenda.
About Arlene Moss, Executive Coach
Arlene gets a kick out of helping financial advisors get over being overwhelmed and take on their frustrations so their businesses soar. Arlene works to ensure XYPN members are able to help their clients prosper while creating a sustainable business model. Through XYPN Academy and one-on-one coaching, members get the support they need to grow their businesses and overcome the challenges that come their way.