Today’s guest is Charles Goldman CEO of Assetmark, Inc. We’re going to spend today talking about values and why you put your company in peril if you don’t pay attention to both your values and culture in your company.
Charles has had senior positions at Charles Schwab as well as Fidelity Investments. To put it simply, Charles is a star in the financial services world. I’ve seen his leadership first hand and can tell you that this is an episode you’re not going to want to miss.
Here are some of the things you’ll learn in today’s podcast:
- Why your company has to be mission driven.
- Learn the importance of keeping your mission statement simple and easy to understand.
- The importance of being able to communicate your strategy in a way that others can understand.
- Know that starting meetings by talking about mission and strategy will help everyone in your organization understand what they should be doing.
- You can’t talk about mission and values enough…..to your employees, customers, and suppliers.
Narrator: Welcome to The Sustainable Business Radio Show podcast where you’ll learn not only how to create a sustainable business but you’ll also learn the secrets of creating extraordinary value within your business and your life. In The Sustainable Business, we focus on what it’s going to take for you to take your successful business and make it economically and personally successful.
Your host, Josh Patrick, is going to help us through finding great thought leaders as well as providing insights he’s learned through his 40 years of owning, running, planning and thinking about what it takes to make a successful business sustainable.
Josh: Hey, how are you today? This is Josh Patrick and you’re at The Sustainable Business. We’re in for a big treat today.
I have Charles Goldman with us. Charles is a really interesting guy. He is the CEO and chairman of AssetMark Inc. And full disclosure requires that I let you know that AssetMark has been in integral partner of ours for helping us with investment management – oh, for probably the last 15 years or so. And during that period of time, I’ve seen AssetMark be an incredible startup, be bought by a major insurance company and go rapidly downhill.
And since Charles has stepped in and has taken over the company, I have to say that “Boy, it feels like we’re back to where we were 15 years ago, with great service, great support and a company who truly is a partner.” The reason for that, I think, and so is going to be the most of the topic of our conversation today is Charles’ use of values within the company. So, I’m going to ask Charles to join the conversation and we’ll start talking about values and what he thinks made the difference at AssetMark.
Hey, Charles. How are you today?
Charles: Hey, Josh. I’m glad to be here. Nice to speak with you.
Josh: Well, thanks so much for joining us. I really enjoyed the conversation we had in Hartford a month or so ago. And during that conversation— or not during the conversation even – during your remarks. And then we had a conversation about that later. You were talking about values and how important is for values at AssetMark to make a difference in how you provide services. Could you tell me what you meant by that and kind of go into where values were important for you?
Charles: Yeah, Josh. I’d be happy to.
You know, at Asset Mark – and really all the companies that I’ve run or been a director of. And in fact, as I try to invest and think about great corporate governance, there are really four things that we think about that make a great company. The first is to be mission driven. And we all go back to reading about what missions are. And people write these long complicated mission statements that have really very little to do with the customer. But for us, mission-driven means a focus on the client and a focus on client outcomes. And we think of it as a bright shiny light that everybody can look to when they make decisions, when they here about decisions in their everyday interactions.
Josh: You just hit one of my favorite things in the world which is a mission that’s less than words long and can be answered with a yes or a no. So, can you talk for a second—we’ll get to the other stuff certainly. But can you talk for a second why a short mission statement works so much better than a long mission statement?
Charles: Yeah. I think it’s as simple as people cannot remember a long mission statement. And oftentimes, a long mission statement is convoluted with a bunch of phrases that in and of themselves probably mean something, but when stringed together mean nothing at all.
Josh: Absolutely true. So, for folks who are listening, this is your first lesson for the day – make your mission statements short and can be answered with a yes or a no, whether you’re doing it or not.
Okay, Charles, what’s point two?
Charles: Point 2 is strategy. Oftentimes, people, executives, entrepreneurs think they have a strategy but they’re unable to articulate it. And for us, the mission should drive the strategy, and the strategy should again be two, three, four or maybe five ideas. We call them strategic pillars here but those two, three or four – we have four of them, should be clear. They should be aspirational. They should be supported by some facts. But also, they should be the things that differentiate you in the market place. And so that when you talk about strategy in that concrete way to your clients and your employees, you can say, “These are the things that differentiate us.” And you can ask your clients, “Is that right?” and get feedback on them. So, strategy is second.
Josh: So, can you give us an example of what a strategic pillar might be?
Charles: Yeah. For us, there’s four – asset management, excellence, compelling technology, thought leadership and deep relationships. And so, I won’t go into it. It doesn’t really make sense on this podcast, to talk about what they all mean. But each one has meaning to our clients. And they can both understand what it is. They can tell us that we’re doing it or we’re not doing it. And when we talk about future vision, they can get their heads around what that vision looks like and help us understand if in fact we are differentiating on those strategic elements or pillars.
Josh: I also would bet that when you’re having a conversation with your employees, that it’s really easy to wrap those strategic pillars around your conversation.
Charles: It’s very easy, Josh. And in fact, every quarter, when we sit down with all of our employees and talk about how we’re doing, we share a great deal about our financials and client feedback, I always start every meeting with mission, strategy and then the two other elements – values and culture. And so, when we sit down and we talk about asset management excellence, for example, we can point directly back to the major projects that we’re working on, the metrics around it, the client feedback related to it. So, it becomes a reinforcing system that is integrated into pretty much everything we do.
Josh: So, your next one is values, am I correct?
Charles: You are correct. And I know that’s an area we wanted to focus on today. So, maybe we’ll go a little bit more in depth on the values. Values are the way we do the business. And so, when you talk about values, it’s again one of those things like mission that you can either write up in a complicated way or you can make it simple.
And it’s another thing that you can throw up in front of your clients and your employees and say, “Are we doing these things? Hold us accountable.” And, believe me, when you articulate what the values are that you have and you don’t do them, you are pilloried. You are ridiculed. You lose the good face that you have with clients and employees very, very quickly.
And so, for us, I love that. I love being held accountable. I realize that I lead and work in a system of– we have 550 employees here. And so, there’s no way “it’s just me”, it’s all of us. We all have to do it. And so, by articulating it and holding each other accountable to values, we have a much higher likelihood of behaving in the way the values prescribe.
Josh: So what are some of the values that you guys have? And how did you decide that these values were the values you wanted to focus on?
Charles: Let me start with the second part of that question – “how did we decide”. We have four values. But the first three were values that really our founders described years and years ago. It was the company that they wanted to build.
And when I came on board about three and a half to four years ago, one of the great, great assets that I found were a set of employees that really believed in these set of values. And so, we took those values and then added one more. And that consistency is actually quite helpful.
There are certainly situations where you need to describe values that are new. And certainly companies in turn-around situations where you have to change things. But here, we were really fortunate that the core values of the company existed. And what we really needed to do was to clarify the mission and really focus on strategy and culture.
Josh: So, I’m going to bet that the values were core values when the founders were running the company. And then when the big insurance company bought them, those core values either became what Patrick Lencioni calls “permission to play values” or aspirational values. And then you had to take those values and once again make them core values. How did you do that?
Charles: Well, again, I come back to the four – that nothing on its own matters that much. It’s the combination of mission, strategy, values and culture. And the way we make those things real – I mentioned a little bit before but it’s in every employee engagement – in the quarterly employee engagements. When we talk about it in staff meetings, you’ve seen me present it at numerous client meetings. I always present them.
We just had our national client conference last week. And true enough, mission, value, strategy and culture were a key part of my presentation. And we say it so much, I often wonder, “Are people bored of it? Do they roll their eyes?”
But the truth of it is if you don’t hold yourself accountable to something and make it totally transparent, what it is, you have no chance of people following. You have no chance of getting the true, honest input that you need. And so, we make it a core part of our management structure. We also – just to put an exclamation point on it, incorporate it into our annual goals and our approach to goal creation. So, it’s very much a part of the fabric of the company – who we are and how we interact.
Josh: Okay. So, I’m going to go back to my question. You know, back 15 years ago, it was clear that AssetMark was a values-lead company. That went by the wayside after they were sold and you brought it back again. So I have to believe that you did something along the line besides just saying, “Hey, let’s talk about values a lot.”
Charles: Yeah. And, again, I want to tell you how lucky I was to come to a company where the values, regardless of the fact that we were owned for a number of years by a large company that had a different approach to the world than we do, the values were still core to many of the people here. And the service model still hung on to those values.
Where we got lost, under that ownership, was really about who are we? What are we trying to be? What’s our differentiation in the market? Where are we placing our bets, our investments? And how much are those investments?
And then we also got lost on the culture piece which we’ll come to in a minute, I’m sure. But values, in and of it themselves, we were fortunate that the company and the leadership that we’re here – and many of them are still here, retained that focus on doing the right thing. And I can tell you what the values are, if it’s helpful. But that was not a part of where we fell apart.
Josh: It would be helpful actually to find out what they are.
Charles: We have four values. And again, I come back to – I can only remember three or four things at a time. And I’m not unusual. I think most people – if you have a zillion things, it doesn’t really help.
But our four are – first, heart. We start with heart. And it ties back to our mission and what we’re trying to do. We’re in the business of helping investors have great outcomes and working with advisors to support them in doing that. And so, at the core of what we do, is about human goals and how humans reach their goals. And so, doing that, in your everyday job – whether it’s opening an account, or writing code, or doing reports – whatever it may be, realizing that the output makes a difference in somebody’s life is, no pun intended, at the heart of what we do. So, heart is number one.
Number two is integrity. We are in the money business. We have to remember that, that we hold people’s retirements close. And that Integrity means that every decision we make, every time we make a mistake, we’ve got to do the right thing at all times. We’ve got to be compliant at all times. There’s just no two ways about it. We can’t have compensation structures that encourage people to do the wrong thing and then somehow try to manage that. We have to have high integrity in everything we do.
The third one is excellence. And it’s this idea that words are helpful but it’s where the rubber meets the road. Like the examples I gave a minute about opening accounts and generating reports. Those are things that touch clients, and they have to be right and they have to be on time, and they have to be usable. And so, we focus on that excellence and we measure that.
And then the fourth is the one we added. And it is respect. And it’s this idea that we live in a diverse culture and that no human being – no one person has all the right answers or even many of the right answers, that when we come together and we respect different ideas and different perspectives from different backgrounds, we’re all better off.
And so, it’s those four – heart, integrity, excellence, and respect.
Josh: I like all those values a lot. They’re all important to me also. So let’s talk culture a little bit. So where does culture fit in?
Charles: As I said, the four mission, strategy, values and culture. Culture is one of those things that I talk to many people in business and they say, “Yeah, we have a culture here.” And you ask them what it is, like “what is strategy?” People don’t know. They don’t have an answer. And the other thing you often hear is, “well, you can’t dictate culture. It just happens.” There are a lot of books about that. I think both of those views are incredibly wrong and actually quite dangerous.
Josh: I agree with you 100%.
Charles: If you don’t set culture, there’s no chance that your culture will be the culture you want. And that, I believe, most people lean toward doing the right thing. But if they’re in a culture that is not leaning towards doing the right thing, then people will lean towards doing what the culture accepts because they want to be successful in that culture.
And so, as leaders, whether you’re in a two-person shop or a 200,000-person shop, if you don’t say how people should interact and debate it. And then again – an exclamation point on this, be held accountable to it, you have no chance of operating the way that you want.
Josh: So, Charles, I am going to try an experiment right now because I know that you are avidly in favor of what’s known as a fiduciary standard. And I would like to have you spend a few minutes with us talking about how AssetMark’s values, and mission, and culture support your belief about the fiduciary standard. And maybe you want to spend a minute or two telling us what your belief is around that.
Charles: Yeah. I appreciate that opportunity, Josh. And for those who are listening, if you google my name and Barron’s I wrote an article that was published in both the paper and online versions of Barron’s, just a little over two weeks ago, talking about the fiduciary standard. And so, that will give you a little bit more insight into my thinking.
But in short, it is, I think, irrefutable that if you’re a financial adviser and you’re working with clients, you have a duty of care to put the client’s needs ahead of your own and then you have an equal duty to disclose any conflicts of interest that exists, in writing, in a way that’s understandable by your clients. And to do anything else is, I think, inexcusable and inappropriate to say the least.
And so, we at AssetMark are huge supporters of a common fiduciary standard that is defined as I described it which, by the way, is the 40 Act. It’s the Advisers Act that was written in 1940. It’s worked really well for a certain set of advisors.
The problem is just that we have three fiduciary standards now. We have that one. We have what— if you’re a broker, is called the suitability standard, which they like to call fiduciary but it is not. It basically says that, “if you are under the suitability standard, a product only has to be suitable to the client but it doesn’t have to be in their best interest. It can be in your best interest, as the advisor.
And then we have a third one which was proposed by the Department of Labor under the Obama administration which is entirely different and compensation based, and only applies to retirement accounts – 401Ks and the like. And so, I look at this as an incredible, complex, array of poor regulation.
I’m a proponent and hope that we can simplify the world, adopt the 40 Act across all advisors regardless of the way the licenses and the rest work. And that we can simplify that experience so that every advisor – and more importantly, every consumer can understand that their advisor, again, has a duty of care to put the investor’s needs ahead of the advisor’s, and a duty to disclose conflicts that exist.
Josh: So, can you just take a minute or two and tell us how your belief around the fiduciary standard is an absolute lock step with what AssetMark does as a company?
Charles: Yeah. I go back to the values that I described a minute ago. We always put client’s needs ahead of our own.
Josh: So the word that comes up for me, Charles, is the word consistency in that because you’re consistent with your values and the fiduciary standard, you’re really walking your talk there. And what that does for me, and I hope for the people who are listening, so “gee, this is a company I can trust.” And too much today, we have companies we can’t trust because they’re not values-led. Does that make sense?
Charles: I believe that to my core. And I think it’s more than companies. I think it applies to many, many parts of our word. The collapse of institutions and sort of institutional value – whether it’s government, whether it’s the press, whether it’s companies, corporate America, or global corporations, I think there’s something going on and pulling in two different directions. One direction is the direction you just described where people are putting personal gain ahead of other attributes which, by the way, I would argue that these other attributes end up with personal gain. I’m a capitalist to my core so I have no problem with personal gain. But I believe that when you put your needs ahead of your client’s or your employees, when you put shareholders ahead of clients and employees instead of a result of how you work those other areas and work on those other areas, you lose in the long run.
But I think there’s something going on where in our political environment, in our news environment, in our corporate environment it’s about winning – winning in the short term as opposed to winning in the long term by helping others. And I think that’s a real negative. On the other side of it, I see many people in all those institutions trying to push in a different direction. And so, I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful that more and more people are really focused on values and focused on outcomes for others to drive growth.
Josh: Well, I do know that the whole B Labs, B Corp movement is certainly moving in that direction. And I would like to see more of that happen myself. And we’ve done some episodes on B Corps. And I’m sure we’ll do some more in the future.
Charles, unfortunately, we are out of time. We could go on with this for a really long time and get into the weeds. We only have a few minutes. So, I am going to take that Barron’s article and it’ll be linked to in the show notes. Is there anything else that you would like people to go look at if they have a chance afterwards?
Charles: Well, I’m happy to have people visit our website. You know, just stay focused on companies and people that are doing the right thing. And it’s really much easier, in my view, to find them than people think. Just pay attention to people’s words and then map them to their actions and you’ll see it all over the place. A lot of good’s going on, a lot more good’s going on than is reported.
Josh: I agree with that 100%.
Charles, thanks so much for your time.
And I have an offer for you folks. I have a one-hour physical audio CD which you can get free from us. And what the audio CD is about is the five things you need to do in your business to create an economically and personally sustainable business.
To get it, it’s really easy, just take out your smartphone. Open up your messenger app – and don’t do this if you’re driving, but do it when you’re not driving, and text the word SUSTAINABLE to 44222. That’s the word SUSTAINABLE to 44222. You’ll get a link. Give us your address and we’ll have that CD on its way to you.
This is Josh Patrick. You are at the Sustainable Business. I thank you so much for stopping by. And I hope to see you back here really soon.
Narrator: You’ve been listening to The Sustainable Business podcast where we ask the question, “What would it take for your business to still be around 100 years from now?” If you like what you’ve heard and want more information, please contact Josh Patrick at 802‑846‑1264 ext 2, or visit us on our website at www.askjoshpatrick.com, or you can send Josh an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for listening. We hope to see you at The Sustainable Business in the near future.