An interview with a pioneer—Paul Kearney

For some time I've been meaning to experiment with the notion of interviewing those I consider to be pioneers in their field. I encounter many inspiring folk in my travels. One of which, whom I’m very lucky to know, is Paul Kearney—the CEO of the award-winning Kearney Group Financial Services. Paul’s business philosophy business is inspiring—and so, I thought it might be nifty to share his perspective here.

Thus, please do enjoy this mini-interview. And know that, if we had the time, we could go *much* deeper on any one of these elements.

Righto, let’s ease into it. 

Paul! What’s considered ‘taboo’ in the financial world (which really ought not be)?

It’s actually one of my personal peeves… I have to say a lot of financial services firms pay lip service to this idea of providing ‘holistic’ advice.

The fact is—truly holistic advice is still very rare because it’s really, really hard to deliver. 

From our earliest days (30 years ago now), I had a vision of a multi-disciplinary practice that could care for the needs of individuals, families and businesses without a beat in service.

We know that businesses are an extension of, and indelibly entwined with, households for much of their lifecycle. And, many individuals are involved with businesses to one degree or another. But Financial Services legislation dictates that we must look at those things separately. Whilst this distinction is artificial, its impact is very real; most accountants are pretty ill equipped to deal with the needs of households at a high level, as are financial advisers who struggle to grasp the needs of businesses. What’s actually required is a truly interconnected service offer, delivered by skilled advisers and multi-disciplinary practices who understand both sides of the coin, simultaneously.

So be aware—working with an accounting firm that just employs a financial planner doesn’t make your advice ‘holistic’. Good advice requires a whole network of professionals, from within and across disciplines, rowing in the same direction, in the best interests of the client. The firm requires systems and tools and infrastructure that supports this view of the whole client and these things are just now coming into existence. 

Pioneering practices are out there, already paving a new path. They’re getting their advisers cross-skilled. They’re developing technology. They’re integrating their service model and re-imagining how advice will be delivered well into the future. But overall, the pace of change in Financial Services has been glacial, and for a long time, the profession has lacked strong leadership… 

But there’s hope—the pioneers are emerging and they’re doing amazing things for their clients. And like working with any coach or mentor, finding a good financial adviser can be a game changer to a business or a family’s wellbeing.

SMART goals work for many, but when you are pioneering—venturing into unprecedented territory, with no map to follow—they’re a bit manufactured and of dubious value. Or are they? How do you work with folks who know the direction they’re heading in (but not the destination)?

The issue with SMART goals, is they’re short-term and they can close us off to thinking deeply about the big picture.

At Kearney Group, we believe a key responsibility of a good adviser is to lead, mentor and actively wedge conversations open so clients are aware of the many possible futures that lay ahead.

Our job is to help them embrace that ambiguity and create habits and processes (in their lives and businesses) that force them to stay open to and watchful for opportunities that lie just over the horizon; those ‘futures’ that may still be out of reach or aren’t even visible just yet.

When we coach people, we ask them not to invest too much of themselves in one, specific future. We create a space where it’s okay to abandon an idea and carve a new direction entirely. We constantly question what their customers need (especially if, like many, they’ve never really asked). We look at precisely what it is that their team must do to perform (Do they have the right mix of skills to deliver to customer needs? Where are the gaps in capability?). And, we give a long, hard look at legacy systems, processes and business measures (Have they been measuring the right things? Do their systems and processes entrench ‘one possible future’ and make it hard to be nimble and adapt?).

The most successful people we work with are ‘many futures’ types—they’re happy to embrace the discomfort of ambiguity and find ways to channel this into something exciting and positive. They surround themselves with visionary people who share ideas and challenge assumptions and ultimately, help each other to become their ‘best self’ and/or the best version of their business.

And how does one increase empathy for their future selves? It’s so much easier to just… buy more stuff from Mr Porter…

‘Future selves’ is such an exciting prospect because it implies hope, optimism and opportunity for evolution. 

For me, empathy naturally stems from potential for growth. Knowing we have agency and the ability to design and constantly reinvent ourselves… that’s powerful. It provides the oxygen needed to take important risks and really challenge ourselves. When you understand that opportunities to reinvent yourself and change direction are endless, it’s easy to see that failure is not a permanent state nor does it define us. This knowledge lets us go a bit easier on ourselves when it happens (and it will happen).

The other crucial way to increase empathy for your future selves is to be uncompromising in your ethics. As long as your values and ethical principles underpin your decision-making, and ultimately, the evolution of your future self/selves, empathy and compassion will naturally follow.

What mistake have you made twice?

Oh where to start! They’re endless. If you’re not making mistakes regularly though, you’re not taking chances… but if you make the same ones too regularly, you’re not learning. So it’s a balance.

I’m absolutely guilty of regularly underestimating the amount of time and effort involved in a worthwhile project. I love ideas and I’m a fraction excitable when something new and interesting comes along—so I’m at risk of bouncing from one great idea onto the next before the first is fully delivered. Many times in my career, this has ended up with me delaying the delivery of one project or both (not to mention driving our team crazy).

What do you think it takes to genuinely pioneer in business?

I’ve actually just spent the last couple of months touring Australia talking about adaptive change, imagineering and thinking like a CEO (no matter how big or small your business is, or your role within it).

The premise of my talk was this: too many people incorrectly believe CEO or leader’s primary job is to drive profits. Let me be absolutely clear… it’s not (though profits follow in a successful business). Rather, the job of a pioneering leader is actually the very people-focused and highly creative work of:

  • Imagineering products or services for your clients or customers; and
  • Creating Futures for your best people.

Imagineering to me is exactly what it sounds like—imagining what could be and then engineering so it is. It’s both philosophical and process-driven, and it requires huge stores of creativity and simultaneously the ability to design systems and execute on your vision. And—it’s really, really bloody hard. With that said, being the catalyst for Imagineering in our firm it’s also one of the most exciting and energising things about my role as CEO.

The other crucial responsibility of a leader in a pioneering organisation is creating futures for your best people, and getting them to believe in that future. Like Imagineering, creating futures requires conscious investment; investment of our money and our time into a whole range of things that will help us develop and retain great people, over the long run. 

It’s about investing your time in your people, in a culture of constant learning and development, in ways to make progress visible, in encouraging mastery, celebrating success and rewarding your people—not just with good salaries—but with genuine opportunities to shape their futures within the business.

This is why we have a Participatory Strategy Program that includes everyone—from the most junior to the most senior people in our team. When we do Business Advisory & Strategy Coaching with our clients, we encourage them to do the same—giving your people the opportunity to have a say in the future of your business… it’s an incredible gift to those you’ll want on your team for the long haul.

It’s also absolutely crucial that as leaders, we make succession possible and visible. Co-ownership or shareholder opportunities should be exclusive, yet attainable for the right people. The best amongst us know that retiring (or worse, dying) as 100% owner is a terrible waste—your legacy and your business’ legacy is too important to fizzle after you’re gone. The only way to ensure it doesn’t is to flag talent early and get your people on board.

What gets you out of bed in the morning? What impact would you like to think your business has on its clients and the profession?

At Kearney Group, we empower people to make a lifetime of great financial decisions. Empower and lifetime are the key words here—we want to coach and guide, and create genuine lifelong partnerships with our clients that go beyond the surface.

In interviews with prospective team members, we always say, “if you’re looking to be an adviser because you love numbers or the markets… we’re probably not the place for you”. Rather, we look for big-picture thinkers, who are genuinely interested in improving the lives and wellbeing of others—because at the end of the day, a household’s financials or a business’ numbers, they only matter because the people behind them do.

We’ve seen the difference good advice and a good advisory team can make, time and time and time again. And that’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.

Where is the next step-change in business capability going to come from?
20 odd years ago now, I witnessed a major revolution in business with the dawn of financial reporting software. Tools like MYOB allowed businesses, for the first time, to really figure out where they were at and access detailed financial reporting.

More recently, with cloud-based software, businesses can now collaborate with their advisers, in real-time—and this has been a game changer. 

But, in my view, there’s a big change is still coming—and this time, it’s not software. 

The next big step-change for SMEs will be one of capability; a future where every day small and medium businesses begin developing the strategic know-how that’s required to make good businesses great. 

The best businesses I’ve come across understand that building a product or delivering a great service is a completely different skillset to running a good operation—and they are already seeking out pioneering advisers to assist them with this. As advisors, we’re charged with tasks above and beyond the financials. We help facilitate strategy programs. We act a board of directors of sorts. We give access to benchmarking data, and help owners to unlock and interpret business insights. And, ultimately, we facilitate and foster the growth of in-house strategic capability for our clients.

I firmly believe this will be the future for businesses (and advice practices alike). For SMEs, gone are the days of just plying their trade. For advisors… no longer are we useful from a strictly compliance and financial reporting stand point. This is definitely the next big shift. It’s already started but it would be amazing—revolutionary—to see it in full force.