Family Office Advisors Thinking Outside the Box: Finding Innovative Solutions to Common Problems

Date: Sep 21 2018

Timothy P. Duffy, Esq., General Counsel, Family Office Exchange with contributions from Sandy Leon, Senior Vice President, Private Client Group, Risk Strategies

As lawyers, we are taught to zealously advocate for the client or the position we represent. At its best, this advocacy almost always entails thinking outside the proverbial “box.” Having a lawyer who knows when and how to solve problems with creative thinking can make all the difference, but what happens when advisors apply the same mindset? 

Technology is evolving at a rate at which many argue is faster than our ability to adapt, and as fee compression continues, advisors need to find new ways to differentiate their offering.  I recently met Sandy Leon, Senior Vice President, Private Client Group at Risk Strategies, and quickly learned that not all advisors are created equal. 

Sandy described that when soliciting quotes from the same insurance company, brokers will come up with different results for terms, pricing, and coverage. As Sandy went on to further explain, I realized thinking outside the box is not just a metaphor, but a skillset she routinely utilizes on behalf of her clients.

When a Car Isn’t a Car

Sandy recently received an inquiry from a CFO for a family office asking her to look at the family’s existing policies—a request that is not unusual for her. Upon arrival, she was surprised to find the patriarch of the family also sitting at the table.  

“Why are you here?” he asked in a firm and authoritative voice, his skepticism apparent.

“I’m not here to sell you anything. I’m only here to offer an outside perspective on the family’s coverage,” Sandy calmly answered.

The patriarch stared at Sandy for what seemed like an eternity. As the silence continued she pondered what he would say next. 

Suddenly the patriarch spoke, “Ok then, very good.” 

Before diving into the policy review, Sandy learned how he created his wealth and the fact he was living on an estate he purchased primarily because it could house his exquisite collection of antique cars. After hearing the family elder describe his collection, Sandy seized that moment as an ideal place to start her review. 

After a quick look at his car policy, Sandy asked if he knew the definition of fine art.

“No, not specifically,” he responded. 

She looked down at the policy for a moment and then counseled him saying, “In insurance, fine art is defined as anything collectible, of significant value, or that’s bought at auction.” 

His car collection, she suspected, could be classified as fine art within his insurance coverage--something his current policy failed to do and a classification most brokers would not make. 

“You don’t drive these cars, do you?” She asked.

“Of course not,” the patriarch quickly replied as if almost offended by the question. 

Sandy explained, “The way your policies are written, the implication is that you’re driving them every day. If I were your broker, I’d put your cars under a fine art policy which in return would provide broader coverage and significant savings.” Moved by to the power of her unique and valuable advice, the patriarch hired her on the spot.

Unpacking the Box

Lawyers often speak about thinking outside the box, but what exactly is this the “box” and what does that mean? It usually means the lawyer is thinking unconventionally, differently, and from a fresh perspective while imagining innovative ways to solve problems. 

The process starts by defining an issue in any given situation and then going on to explore alternative, often unconventional solutions that would be considered beyond the norm. When facing a seemingly insurmountable problem, train yourself to take a step back and not only focus on the specific issue at hand, but also think more expansively about all the factors that led to the issue. Contemplate every option and hypothetical application. When you take this approach, alternative answers will likely materialize giving you solutions you initially did not see. 

It’s also important to deviate from organizational norms or common expectations. Thinking outside the box means confronting issues in atypical ways and making nonconformity the norm when approaching problems. Hence in Sandy’s story, a car isn’t always a car. 

Thinking outside the box is a mindset that all advisors can utilize. Learning to tap into the more creative right hemisphere of your brain takes time and practice. Consider the following steps to get started: 

  1. Frame the issue. What is the problem?
  2. Determine whether a traditional solution to the problem exists. Don’t settle with a solution that is obvious or traditional. The key is to find unconventional applications to the problem. Ask “Why?” “How might we...?” and “What if...?” 
  3. Map out every factor associated with creating the issue. No detail is too small, and every fact should be considered. Keep widening the lens to take in different and broader perspectives.
  4. After you’ve fully mapped out the issue, start looking for ways to address the problem outside of the conventional course of action and try to apply solutions not previously considered. Be creative in how you define and categorize subjects/factors within the issue. Again, take a wide perspective.  
  5. Apply every possible solution until you know for a fact it can or cannot be done. Break away from traditional answers while engaging an open, free wielding brainstorming of what might work. 
  6. In the end, pick the solution that best achieves your desired result.

The goal is to not only survive, but also to thrive in a fast-changing world. This demands that you be creative. By thinking outside the box, advisors can be more effective and resourceful problem solvers, enabling them to better serve the needs of clients. It’s time for all advisors and not just lawyers to forget what’s comfortable, familiar, and known, and then to go against what comes naturally. It’s time to think outside the box.