Dec 23 2021 / Round the Table Magazine

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Best year ever

Six MDRT members share their secrets for achieving high performance amid disruptions.

By Tyra Triche

Topics Covered

While change has always been a constant in the financial services profession, the sudden pivot required in the early months of 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic tested MDRT members around the world. We spoke with financial advisors who quickly shifted the way they ran their businesses and connected with their clients. Rather than struggle during this tumultuous time, they found new success. These six MDRT members managed to have their most productive year ever in 2020 or 2021. We found out what they did differently to set them apart from others who were trying to keep up. The changes they’ve implemented have promise for a future of continued success.

Reevaluate and invest

Amid so much chaos and uncertainty during the early days of the pandemic, accompanied by economic disruption, the role of financial advisors became even more invaluable. Mark D. Olson, CFP, MSFS, a 22-year MDRT member from Austin, Texas, USA, found himself and his team handling an influx of business, like 401(k) rollovers, and had to shift the energy that would usually be focused on marketing efforts into building client relationships.

“With COVID, and everything being in flux and scary for people, there was a heightened need for financial planning,” Olson said. “Clients wanted to check in and make sure that what they were doing still made sense. It gave us opportunities to make changes for people.”

Just as clients needed to reevaluate their finances and life plans, the pandemic offered an opportunity for financial professionals to slow down and do the same for themselves. Many took the world shutdown as an opportunity to revamp themselves, their businesses and business practices.

Wong Tsz Ning Zita, a five-year MDRT member from Kowloon, Hong Kong, China, saw many of her colleagues adopt a negative attitude at the start of the pandemic. She said that some even went as far as leaving the financial services profession. She decided that it would be best for herself to maintain a positive spirit and view the time in lockdown as an opportunity for self-improvement.

“We have no way to change the environment, but we can change our mindset,” she said. Wong participated in numerous online learning courses and dedicated herself to reading one book per week to boost her creativity and to become more professional. With the help of her confident outlook, Wong managed to make 2020 her top-performing year, achieving her first Top of the Table qualification.

Laurie A. Leja, CLTC, has worked with several business coaches off and on for the entirety of her career. Around 2017, she hired a new coach to assist with the advisory and wealth management side of her practice.

“She has helped me visualize my goals by using notecards,” explained Leja, a 19-year MDRT member from Chicago, Illinois, USA. She decides which goals she wants to focus on and breaks them down into active sentences, writing each individual idea on its own notecard. The next step is to review these notecards daily to stay focused on the goals and avoid comparing herself to others. Leja experienced her top revenue year in 2020 and expects her numbers for 2021 to be even higher.

“In terms of continuing to make it a top year and increasing our business overall, I think it’s really important to visualize,” she said. Visualizing her goals has helped keep out the noise. Having fewer distractions in 2020 allowed Leja to direct more energy toward accomplishing the goals she prioritized. She plans to incorporate vision boards of her personal and professional goals into her business planning moving forward.

Aaron Kane, B Bus, AFA, a seven-year MDRT member, settled on seeking out a business coach in 2020. While his business, based in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, had a large clientele, this was not being reflected in revenue.

“It’s OK to change and let your clients know about it,” he said. “You don’t have to continually do the things you’ve done for decades if they’re not working anymore.”

With the insight of his business coach, he discovered that he was charging far below industry standard for his services and needed to create fee tension. Kane made the decision to reset all of his client relationships in 2020. He explained to each client the changing landscape of the financial industry, the increased cost to serve and why this profession is his passion. From there, he let the client decide for themselves if they fit the new business model. If they didn’t, Kane politely let them know that his team might not be the best-suited practice to help them, but that plenty of other practices out there could.

“The clients that are ideal to us stayed on, and we have a much more rewarding business model and relationship with our clients,” he said.

His business went from serving 270 fee-paying clients to about 150. Having fewer clients allowed Kane and his team of nine to deliver much more value and personal attention. Thanks to these changes, 2021 was Kane’s best year yet.

“We stopped trying to be everything for everybody,” he explained. “What we’ve done now is made sure that we have the right clients in our business that are willing to pay for it.”

Going virtual

During the third quarter of 2021, Olson projected that it would be the highest revenue year he’s had in his 30-year career. When he moved to Texas a few years ago, he first began incorporating virtual meetings to connect with the clients he could no longer meet with in person. He didn’t know at the time that having this technology in place would help him and his team to stay ahead of the curve as the pandemic forced the world into a lockdown.

“We weren’t stuck like a deer in the headlights for the first several months of the pandemic,” he explained. “We immediately got on top of it. We talked to every single client right at the beginning.”

We weren’t stuck like a deer in the headlights for the first several months of the pandemic. We immediately got on top of it. We talked to every single client right at the beginning.
— Mark Olson

Having this virtual conferencing technology on hand allowed well-prepared financial professionals to maintain an advantage in the industry. For Leja, there was no transition at all, as virtual meetings had long become a large part of her business for years leading up to the pandemic.

“We are in Chicago. People here are very busy, there’s traffic and I work with people who might not want to be driving to the office,” she said. “We were doing virtual meetings five years before the pandemic. Everything was seamless for us; we already had everything in place.”

While some were prepared and well-equipped to brave the new frontier, many advisors can admit they were caught off guard, as 2020 was the first time that face-to-face meetings weren’t an option for them. Advisors had to scrap the way they’d operated for years, and technological upgrades became more necessary, as the change was inescapable.

Carla Brown, FPFS, a 24-year veteran of the profession, established her own business a decade ago. After building and redesigning her business practices, she enjoyed her best year ever in 2021. Her team implemented a new client portal, bringing together video conferencing, secure messaging, electronic signing, documents and storage, all in one place.

“That was a huge game changer,” said the four-year MDRT member from Cuddington, England, U.K. “For us, it’s meant that we’ve been able to be more proactive with and better prepared for our client meetings.”

Moving forward, Brown’s preferred method of communicating will be on the new virtual platform. She was a bit hesitant to change at first, nervous that virtual meetings would negatively impact her client relationships. During the past two years, though, she’s found that she and her colleagues can engage with their clients just as well virtually as they did before. She said meeting virtually has allowed her clients to feel more comfortable because they’re in their own environment. “They’re totally focused on the meeting; they’re not distracted with anything else,” she said. “We’re able to dig more deeply into conversations with them. I think that has really enhanced the service we’re able to offer.”

Brown shared that in the future, she will be sure the hardware in her office remains fit for purpose. Laptops and monitors will now be replaced on a regular basis, rather than sitting until they are broken or no longer useful.

“We’ve got to be more proactive in terms of embracing change,” she said. “But most importantly, not to fear it.”

Strengthening client relationships

Gaining referrals and expanding clientele has been top of mind for Chun Ling Ho, who experienced her top-performing year in 2020, a year in which she also won many industry awards.

“Everyone needs love and care, especially during this pandemic,” said the 18-year MDRT member from Kowloon, Hong Kong, China. Reflecting on the success she’s had during the past two years, she said that maintaining a regular relationship with her clients has been fundamental. During the pandemic, Ho has put more effort into connecting with her clients by doing small but meaningful things like sending greetings cards and WhatsApp messages to check on their well-being.

Many financial advisors have found that virtual meetings have allowed them to invest more time in their clients and the opportunity to forge more solid relationships.

Leja said that her success in the industry has been a gradual progression, as she began her business 30 years ago working with physicians. Over the years, she’s stayed consistent and reliable. These frontline workers still make up much of her client base, so the pandemic has been a particularly unique and sensitive time. The relationships she’s spent decades building became more intensified in 2020.

“I believe that reaching out to every single one of them, making sure they’re OK, and making sure they have their wills and legal documents in place was really important,” she said.

She mentioned that one of the most crucial factors of success in the profession is gaining trust. “You’re not going to Google a financial advisor; you’re not going to listen to an ad on a radio station or TV station or go to a library. You’re usually going to ask somebody you know, ‘Who are you using?’” Leja said. The trust that her clients have instilled in her has led to numerous referrals and the continuing expansion of her clientele.

Accepting help and taking a break

As working from home became a requirement, feelings of being overworked, stretched thin and burned out have been at an all-time high. Knowing when it’s time to take a back seat and let someone else help you is essential. Adding assistants to the team, delegating tasks and taking time off have been imperative to the success these producers have seen since 2020.

Kane has invested in virtual assistants who are based overseas. “They work for us full time and they’re part of the team,” he said. “They’re there to help us with admin work that’s not so much client facing. They make sure the team onshore can focus on more high-value work for the client.”

Brown also brought on an operations manager to her team in 2020. This team member has been given the responsibility to handle the day-to-day running of the practice. This has allowed Brown to spend more time doing what she loves, which is building relationships and working closely with her clients.

According to Leja, a team that plays together stays together. Creating a company culture that values time away from work and time to come together for fun is great for employee morale.

These high-producing MDRT members took more time off in the past two years than they have in previous years, before they were forced to slow down. More time off is something they have decided to incorporate moving forward.


Carla Brown

Chun Ling Ho

Aaron Kane

Laurie Leja

Mark Olson

Zita Wong