STEP Reflection

My STEP project consisted of a financial planning internship at Northwestern Mutual. I worked in an established team of financial planners to service an existing clientele and bring aboard new clients and help them reach their financial dreams and goals. My work at Northwestern Mutual included seeing clients, building financial plans, doing sales support, and helping our existing clients with service items as they came up.

Most of the transformations I went through throughout the course of my STEP project were not ultimately very large transformations, but nevertheless it’s important for me to share what changed about myself over the course of the project. The first thing I discovered is that I really enjoy working in a team in a professional setting. Having completed a similar internship in the spring of 2017, I had already learned a lot about financial planning, so my learning curve was less steep with this internship. However, I was exposed to what it’s like to work in a small business as a major part of a team. I realized that I would rather work with others for a common goal, and be able to learn from my team instead of working alone and being the only person in a financial planning practice or really any team for that matter.

Initially, this internship started off in the fall, but I decided that I would like to use my STEP funds for my spring semester leading up to graduation. To give a little background, the team that I am a part of was original just two guys, Matt and Jeff. Matt and Jeff had a good workflow between them, but unfortunately did not have enough time in the day to get to everything they had to get to. As a result, a lot of client service stuff was missed, and the practice suffered in certain aspects because they simply could not get to everything. In August, Matt decided to bring me and another associate on board named Eric. This meant that all of a sudden we had a lot more capacity to keep building the practice while still maintaining a high level of service with our clientele. Unfortunately, we struggled a lot initially to organize the business efficiently early on.

Initially, we tried to organize the business in a way that everyone would wear a lot of hats so to speak. This meant that Matt would primarily see clients, and phone prospects to schedule meetings and continue building the business. In a similar vein, Jeff and I would focus on service items, phoning,  and paperwork, and Eric would do almost exclusively back-office service tasks. What we failed to realize, at least at first, was how difficult it was to have everyone performing so many different tasks from a priorities perspective. In a small business like ours, it is very difficult to prioritize between tasks that drive business, and tasks that have deadlines. We quickly began to realize that our skill-sets were not being utilized well and that we needed to change something in order to be successful. We went through several iterations, and it seemed that we had started to figure it out, but we still did not feel like we were utilizing everyone to the best of their ability.

The second to last iteration we made to our process was to cut down on the amount of paperwork that Jeff and I were doing. Since it seemed like Eric was quickly adjusting to his new role, and was quickly needing more tasks to fill out his time, it seemed natural to shift some of the work that we were doing to him to free up more of our time to interact with client. This meant that Eric would do almost every piece of paperwork that the practice needed, Jeff and I would phone and do high-level service tasks, and Matt would almost exclusively see clients and do high-level planning. This seemed like an improvement, but we still were spinning our wheels. It became apparent that we needed to continue to innovate our process to get to a place where each of our talents were being best utilized.

The last change we made, and the iteration that has been our most successful to date, was to completely section off each part of the business to one person, and have that be their main focus. This meant that Eric would continue doing paperwork and back-office service, Jeff would work directly on all high level service work with clients, I would exclusively build financial plans and begin to see clients as I transitioned to a full-time employee, and Matt would exclusively see clients and do only the most sophisticated case preparation. This was a revelation for me because it gave me a lot of insight into how hard it is to organize business, and was a tremendous hands on application to a lot of the work I had done in my business education. I thoroughly enjoyed working through this as a team, and it gave me a great appreciation into how much fun it is to work in a small business. Perhaps one day I will use the skills I developed as a part of this project into a successful career in business beyond financial planning. I feel that this project gave me valuable skills in organizing teams, and I feel that this is definitely a skill-set that I can build a successful career on.

This project and the changes it caused in me were very important in that it ultimately lead me to a full-time career opportunity. Matt decided that he would like me to join his team full-time after I graduate in May, and that is something that is very rewarding for me. Before engaging in this project, I was very unsure about how I wanted to use my degree after college. After completing my STEP project, I am happy to say that I have found something that I am very excited to pursue. Without this STEP project, I would not have been able to build these skills, and I would not have been able to pursue this opportunity as freely. I am excited to continue to help grow our practice, and build a successful career as a financial planner.