From Associate to Lead: Core Skills Financial Advisors Need to Master

Kristen Terpstra
Kristen Terpstra

11.01.23 in Marketing & Practice Management

Estimated Reading Time: 7 Minutes (1330 words)

Associate to Lead Advisor

You hired a new advisor—or you’re planning to. They’re young, green, and full of potential. How do you set them up for success? Make sure you have a repeatable training and development plan that teaches them the core skills they need to master for a successful career.

Why You Need a Plan

In 2022, more than 13,000 early-career (defined as three or fewer years in a role) advisors left the industry, according to a Cerulli report. Part of the reason for this rookie failure is inadequate training and development. But it could also be due to unrealistic expectations from more senior advisors.

New advisors—either young jobseekers or mid-career transitioners—need to be able to see a career path tied to specific milestones. And established advisors need to remember that the industry has changed. The days of cold calling are behind us, and building a book of business large enough to produce sustainable income won’t happen overnight. But it should happen, at a suitable stage established in your development plan.

What Should Your Advisor Development Plan Look Like?

You’ll need to ask yourself a few questions first:

1. What’s your ultimate objective? For example, are you focused on internal succession, moving someone into a senior management role, or perhaps both?

For our purposes, we’ll look at creating a development plan that maps out the core skills financial advisors need to master as they progress from a more junior role, like a paraplanner or associate advisor, to a more senior role, like a lead advisor or partner (if your firm offers a partnership track).

2. What skills or traits does the individual need to exhibit at each stage? Financial advisors have often focused on training associate advisors for technical skills like prospecting, sales calls, and closing a deal. But soft skills like negotiating difficult client conversations, showing emotional intelligence, and demonstrating leadership are just as important. Ours is a relationship business, which means building trust and rapport with clients. And in the independent space, you need business acumen, too.

Another way to look at this is to consider the objective of the role and what progression may look like from a leadership perspective:

  • Individual contributor. Consider the role of an individual contributor, such as an associate advisor, and ask yourself whether your employee has developed the traits needed for success. For example, do they exhibit technical and professional proficiency? Do they manage themselves effectively? Do they achieve results through personal efforts? Do they manage their time well?

  • Manager. Then, think about the different competencies a manager, or a senior advisor responsible for supervising others, might need to be successful. Are they effective at delegating? How well do they do at training and coaching others? Do they show self-awareness? Are they actively setting priorities for the team?

  • Senior leader. Now, do the same for any role that would fall under senior leadership; this could be a lead advisor or a partner. Do they drive the firm’s strategic vision? Are they developing the next generation of leaders? Do they hold ultimate responsibility for the firm’s output?

3. What does success look like? In other words, how long should an individual stay in each stage, and what makes them ready to transition? One way to gauge this development is presented in Smart Growth: How to Grow Your People to Grow Your Company, by Whitney Johnson. It presents the stages of growth and development as an S curve.


The early stages, or launch point, of growth are characterized by questioning and assessment. An individual might be trying to figure out whether they're in the right role, and their progress might feel slow.

As they gain confidence on the job, their development may accelerate, and tasks and responsibilities may come more easily. They're in the sweet spot.

As they gain more proficiency, they become true masters of their craft. But there's a risk at this level—without further challenges, they could plateau and begin to lose interest.

Now, think about how that might translate to the career path of your new hire. Try to visualize a series of S curves as roles along a defined pathway, from paraplanner to associate advisor to advisor.


There’s often an overlap between the S curves of two roles where you can identify an assessment window for moving forward. This is when you can schedule performance review sessions to decide if an individual is meeting the goals of the position and is ready to move up.

Remember, not all individuals will progress from one role to the next. Some will remain at the same level, either by choice or circumstance, and you can seek other ways to challenge them in their current capacity.

A Sample Advisor Pathway

But what does this mean for the actual core skills advisors need to master? Let’s look at a sample advisor pathway and the characteristics you can expect in each role as they grow from paraplanner to lead advisor:

 Paraplanner​Associate Advisor​Sr. Advisor/Partner​Lead Advisor/Sr. Partner
Professionalism​Creates positive 
first impression​
Demonstrates adaptability and self-awareness​Acts as role model​Demonstrates strong professional presence​
blog posts​
Starts to build social media presence​Regularly writes 
for newsletter; joins professional organizations​
Maintains board membership and strong community ties
Leadership​Produces high-quality work in timely fashion​Learns how to 
use influence to engage others​
Starts to work through others; provides timely, actionable feedbackManages change; mentors and coaches future leaders
Development​Joins a firm committee​Actively participates 
in firm committee​
Actively participates 
in firm committee​
Leads firm committee​
Client Relationships​Builds rapport with clients through friendly and inquisitive interactions​Demonstrates consistent value, 
so clients rely ​on them for day-to-day help
Becomes clients’ 
first call for major financial decisions​
Develops deep trust to help clients navigate adverse conditions​
Business Acumen​Observes, shadows, and absorbs​Becomes SME and demonstrates value 
in client meetings​
Gathers assets from existing clients, closes new clients, hones value proposition​Attracts and closes new business​
Problem Solving​Takes 
initiative to identify issues​
Anticipates issues, offers solutions​Navigates ambiguity​Thinks holistically about the firm​
External Communications​Supports marketing initiatives​Creates content​Builds professional credibility in local community or niche​Becomes a thought leader​

How to Monitor Growth Milestones

The feedback loop will be a critical tool for evaluating advisors in your development program.

You could start by setting up a regular cadence for check-in meetings—daily, weekly, or monthly. There will likely be a greater need for support early on, so plan for that and adjust meeting frequency as the advisor settles in. Less formal than a performance review, check-in meetings offer an opportunity for you to see how the advisor is managing their responsibilities. Are there obstacles in their way? Do they need more training before taking on a new task? Do they need help setting goals for the week? What questions do they have for you?

Another important tool is the periodic performance review where you look back over a set period (either the past quarter or past six months) and assess advisor performance against the competencies for their role. What went well, what may not have gone so well, and what should the next period ahead look like?

Performance reviews are a good time to set new goals to measure against. You might consider adding opportunities to build on a new core skill, like leadership:

  • Leading a project, such as updating a key process

  • Managing a direct report or team

  • Planning a client event

  • Authoring an article or blog post

  • Giving a presentation on a new regulatory change

  • Researching and implementing a new technology

  • Organizing a day of service or fundraising initiative

  • Joining or leading a committee/board

For leadership roles, you might also consider incorporating 360-degree assessments. This will allow you to gather feedback about the senior advisor’s performance from colleagues, managers, and even clients. Positive feedback will, of course, confirm that the advisor is on track, while constructive feedback will provide information about where the advisor’s development may be lagging. Don’t forget to let others in your firm know they’ll be on the hook for providing actionable guidance.

Get the Support You Need

You may have started your journey as a financial advisor in a very different industry than the one we find ourselves in today. You likely built your book from scratch with a lot of blood, sweat, and tears—and you probably learned how to be a business owner the same way. The good news is that neither you nor your new hire need to embark on this new journey alone.

Reach out to your firm partner for support. At Commonwealth, our practice management consultants regularly engage with our affiliated financial advisors to help build and refine advisor development plans, supplementing an advisor firm's approach with our own programs and workshops designed for the newcomer to experienced practitioner.

In fact, our programs have been successful in helping many advisors develop into leaders: 80 percent of graduates from Commonwealth’s Associate/Lead Mentor Program have gone on to become lead advisors/principals at their firms.*

With the right components in place, you too can be ready to help your associate advisor master the core skills they need to become a future leader of your firm.

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*Per 2018 Commonwealth Practice Management program data

This material is for educational purposes only and is not intended to provide specific advice.

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