Imagination — Breaking the Rules Is Different Than Breaking the Law

There are a lot of respectable financial services firms in existence today — but only a few great ones.

Since you're reading this for ideas on how to get better at what you do, let's just assume you're one of those people who want to work at, or run, a truly extraordinary firm.

If that's the case, then here's a key: imagination.

Wait — imagination? Not operational efficiency or some pricey back-end technology that will revolutionize how you track and expand client relationships? Those may not make you the best possible leader for your business.

Imagination and a healthy sense of confidence will help you make it happen.

Charles Schwab, the founder of The Charles Schwab Corp., said, “A man to carry on a successful business must have imagination. He must see things as in a vision, a dream of the whole thing.”

Imagination. Vision. Dreams. Sounds more like a Pixar movie than the financial industry, but stick with me. Though the financial services industry doesn't have the reputation of being a particularly creative one, it's no excuse for not being an exception to the rule. Ignoring the value of creativity and imagination is a bad strategic move.

Intentionally Different

Imagination fuels creativity that's useful in many areas beyond ad copy or website design. It could be the catalyst for an ingenious system for reaching a new, tech-savvy generation of clients. Or for an investing strategy that achieves higher alpha with lower risk. Just because something hasn't been done before doesn't mean it can't be successful. Cue the clichéd adage: There's a first time for everything. So why not now? Why not your firm?

Firms that stand out are not only better — they're intentionally different.

The usual response has something to do with: “That's just not how it's done.” So what? There is this “rule book” associated with success in financial services that has nothing to do with the Securities and Exchange Commission or the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority Inc. It's the one that says using navy blue, Greek columns, handshakes and the exact same mission statement as every other firm in the business is the best way to show you are a leader in the industry and worthy of trust.

That just isn't true anymore. Sticking to that formula is just going through the motions. It will get your firm only so far, and that won't be anywhere close to extraordinary.

Breaking the rules is different than breaking the law.

It's not that the rule book needs to be thrown out altogether, but we need to adopt a more critical viewpoint on what factors are critical to success in financial services (trust, service and delivering solid results for your clients) and the areas that could stand a shot of imagination (branding, websites, operations, relationship building and communications).

I'm certainly not advocating that you break the law — but if you break some “that's just how it's done” rules to serve your clients better, then good for you.

There's no time to waste wondering whether to investigate if your firm is simply going through the motions. You can start with an assessment of your marketing efforts.

If the content is vague, eerily similar to your firm's nearest competitors or outright uninspiring — it's likely a symptom of bigger issues at the brand level. If those issues exist, there is absolutely no way they can be solved without creative thinking.

So you might as well go ahead and give yourself permission to use your imagination right now. But that's only if you really want to be great — firms that want to be merely good need not apply.