Land Bridgers is CEO of Integrated Financial Group (IFG), a consortium of independent financial planners dedicated to leading the fiduciary standard for the wealth management industry, providing business support services, regulatory compliance oversight, human resources, business consulting, investment solutions, marketing, and professional coaching to its members. Anyone who knows Land sees his dedication and passion for helping those around him achieve their goals and reach their full potential. Land has been in the financial services industry since 2001 and joined IFG in 2013. In 2020, Land took over the role of CEO from IFG’s Founder, Don Patrick. Throughout his career, he has helped advisors all over the country with practice management and partnering with them to help them become business owners. In addition to working with independent financial advisors, Land manages a team of over 20 professionals in Atlanta.
Land is a native of Atlanta. He graduated from The Lovett School and received a BA in Political Science from Tulane University in New Orleans, where he played baseball for the Green Wave. Currently, Land serves as the Chairman of the Board at Wesleyan School. He is actively involved at Passion City Church and Young Life/Johns Creek. Land and his wife, Katie, have two teenage daughters and reside in Peachtree Corners.
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Table of Contents
Welcome to your ValiantCEO exclusive interview! Let’s start with a little introduction. Tell us about yourself.
Land Bridgers: Where to start? I grew up in Atlanta, GA, and never guessed I would be where I am today. I have been married for eighteen years to the best wife and friend anyone could ever ask for, Katie. I have two amazing girls who are both in high school, and the days are flying by. In fact, as I write this, we are on college visits for my older daughter. It is amazing how family dynamics change over time, and they most certainly will continue to change even more as the girls head off to college in the next few years.
One thing that is very important to me is my involvement in our community. I serve on the Board at my daughters’ school and am very active in our church. I get my biggest kicks out of helping and investing in others – watching others grow and strive to reach their full potential is one of my greatest joys. I tell really bad dad jokes to anyone who will listen, much to the listener’s dismay. I love history and am fascinated when reading biographies of many historical figures.
NO child ever says I want to be a CEO when I grow up. What did you want to be and how did you get to where you are today? Give us some lessons you learned along the way.
Land Bridgers: The dream growing up was to play Major League Baseball, or to be a lawyer like my dad was. Both dreams were dashed my junior year at Tulane University in New Orleans. Injuries and the inability to hit an off-speed pitch ended the ideas of playing in the Major Leagues. By that time, I could see the impact on life that working as a hard-driving litigator for a big law firm could have on someone by watching my dad. So, with dreams dashed, I left Tulane with a major in Political Science and a minor in History, without a clue what was in store for my career.
It was an early interview that changed my perspective on what could be. In talking to an executive at Invesco, he told me something that would change the trajectory of my career. When I mentioned I did not know much about finance, he said, “I really do not care what you studied or what you know. What I care about is if you’re smart enough to learn what we are going to teach you. Can you work with people and can you solve problems?” Those words opened doors for me that I never knew were even a possibility.
I would find myself in the financial services industry a year later and have been there for the past twenty-one years. Learning from others’ experiences, along with the ability to work with people and constantly solving problems, have all been hallmarks of every stop along the way!
Today, I am the CEO of Integrated Financial Group (IFG) based in Atlanta, GA. We are a consortium of independent financial planners with offices in nine states. We call it “The Brain Trust”, as our independent financial planners learn and grow together and solve problems for each other. It is unique in our industry, and really any industry, to have a collection of individuals who know they can go further together than anyone could do on their own.
Tell us about your business, what does the company do? What is unique about the company?
Land Bridgers: As I mentioned above, IFG is a consortium of independent financial planners. This means they are all independent business owners and IFG provides services to them to assist in running and growing their businesses. It is similar to a franchise model. We provide compliance, marketing, operations/HR, investment solutions, business consulting and coaching, and a multitude of other resources to our financial planners. Today, we have close to sixty teams located in nine states. Collectively, we manage over $6 billion in assets on our various platforms.
What makes IFG unique is what we call “The Brain Trust”. This collection of type-A business owners is chosen through our mutually beneficial selection process, which considers their willingness to share and care for each other. As hokey as that sounds, it is real, and it is tangible. Our planners share ideas and are very engaged with each other. They participate in small groups and interact with each other to help with cases, business decisions, and a host of other items. We turn down over 90% of the prospective financial planners we talk to, as they are simply not a fit for what we are looking for when it comes to this idea of “The Brain Trust”. They are all fully independent, but they are certainly not alone. It is truly about the people!
How to become a CEO? Some will focus on qualities, others on degrees, how would you answer that question?
Land Bridgers: The best leaders are not the ones with all the degrees who feel like they know every answer. The best leaders empower their team and understand people. They are leaders worth following because they set a vision and then invest in their team to help make that vision become a reality.
My experience with CEOs can be viewed this way. There are some who manage by using the power of their position. They have people who work for the CEO, and they call it a job. Then, there are CEOs who use their position to empower their team to make decisions and take ownership of their role. They lead by serving, and their team follows them because it is now so much more than a job. A team member who is empowered is a future leader themselves, and a great CEO should be all about creating future leaders.
What are the secrets to becoming a successful CEO? Who inspires you, who are your role models and why? Illustrate your choices.
Land Bridgers: Without a doubt, my role model is Don Patrick. Don is the founder of IFG and the one who hired me to be his successor back in 2013. He had a ten-year succession plan and by working together, we completed it in seven years. Don now serves as our Chief Strategy Officer. He epitomizes our concept of “The Brain Trust”, as well as what it means to be a servant leader.
The ultimate entrepreneur, Don has amazing vision and sees the very best in people. He sees potential and his greatest desire is to see our financial planners reach their full potential. There is nothing he would not do to help one of our members reach the next level.
Here is the greatest secret that Don does that made him successful – and it really is a secret to Don, because I do not think he even realizes he does it: there is not a single thing Don asks of others that he would not do himself. He has this humble mindset of leading by serving. So, if he looks at one of our financial planners and tells them how hard they are going to have to work in a certain area to be successful, he is going to be right there beside them, helping them and working hard with them. Our whole team knows that Don would never ask us to do something he would not be willing to do himself. It creates this feeling that we are all in this together.
Credibility is another secret of being successful. Does your ‘yes’ actually mean yes and does your ‘no’ actually mean no? Don is a man of his word, and it is rock solid to those who hear it. You know that if he says something, it will happen and he will deliver on it. Building up a track record of following through on what you said you would do is key to being successful. Don has almost five decades of credibility, built up one word at a time!
Finally, Don cares for others and wants the best for them. You can see it in his vision for IFG, and I like to think that my vision matches his very well. We both realize and share the desire that IFG needs to be here for our financial planners long after we are gone. This means making decisions that sometimes might not be the best for us as individuals but will serve IFG and our financial planners long-term. When you lead by serving and know it is not all about you, becoming a successful CEO is a byproduct of living your life that way.
Many CEOs fall into the trap of being all over the place. What are the top activities a CEO should focus on to be the best leader the company needs? Explain.
Land Bridgers: CEOs can easily fall into the trap of thinking they have to be everywhere and involved in every decision. It comes from human nature and is a natural feeling to have. However, it is detrimental to the company and the team members. Ultimately, it often leads to the demise of the CEO as well.
Pushing decisions down into the organization is key to being a successful CEO. Two of the best words a CEO can say to their team is, “You decide.” When you say that, it empowers your team members to lead and take ownership of their role, while also allowing the CEO to focus on what matters most.
I believe there should only be three to four things a CEO should be focusing on in their role in leading a company. If they are spread too thin, then they are not serving the company, team, or clients very well. For me, I have narrowed it down to four things that I need to focus on with around ninety percent of my time.
First, I need to be focusing on and investing in our independent financial planners. Working with them and talking with them is key to my role. They are our main purpose and what IFG is all about, so it makes sense that they should be my top focus. The more time I spend with them or working with them, the better for all.
Second, I need to invest in my team members. I call them team members because that is truly how I see them. These are the people we hire to serve our financial planners that are key to our success. I spend a lot of time investing in our team through individual and group meetings. We also focus on training them to improve their skills and leadership abilities. We believe that no matter what role they serve, they are leaders.
Third, I spend a big percentage of my time identifying prospective financial planners to join IFG. Our continued growth and success depend on bringing on the right financial planner, and we need to make sure that we are the right fit for them and they are the right fit for us. It is a huge decision for them, and it is the same for IFG. Our culture and future depend on it, and it is paramount that we get that right for all involved.
Fourth, and finally, I focus on the vision for IFG. Where are we now and where are we going? What new resources do we need to invest in for the future? What is happening in the industry that is an opportunity for us and what is a threat? Where do we want to be in three, five, and ten years from now? What do we need to focus on now to make sure we are ready for what is to come in the future?
I tell my assistant that if I am not spending ninety percent of my time on these four things, she needs to call me out and hold me accountable. Being intentionally purposeful in these four areas ensures that I am fulfilling my role in leading IFG. It also empowers our managers in each department to see themselves as the leaders in their respective areas. When they know I will not be micromanaging them, it fulfills them and helps them to take ownership of their role.
The Covid-19 Pandemic put the leadership skills of many to the test, what were some of the most difficult challenges that you faced as a CEO/Leader in the past year? Please list and explain in detail.
Land Bridgers: Being a leader during uncertain times, including during the Covid-19 pandemic, is filled with challenges and difficult decisions. The challenges that come about because of the lack of clarity and reliable information causes a leader to adapt to how they make decisions. In usual times, you can rely on the data and information you have, which is not the case in times like these. Every aspect of your business is impacted, and a plethora of decisions need to be made – and made in a hurry.
The first challenge is really around your staff and your clients. You are obviously concerned for their safety and health. However, you also know that for the company to succeed, they need to keep operating and functioning in their roles – but business as usual is thrown out the window.
The first thing I did at the onset of the pandemic was communicated as clearly as possible with the information we knew to our team and clients. For our team, we were blessed to be able to communicate clearly to them that their jobs were safe. I learned soon after that how huge being able to do that was, as that was the immediate fear of many of our team members.
A few weeks before we went fully virtual, we did a trial run with everyone working remotely. This showed us the need to buy several new computers, scanners, and other items certain team members needed to work from home. Because of this, we were ready when the day came where we became fully virtual, and we did not miss a beat when we switched to being fully remote. Our team members felt good about their roles because they were prepared and properly equipped.
In the third week of March 2020, it was clear that our team would need an outlet socially, a way to talk casually. One big thing we all missed working remotely was the conversations around the ‘water cooler’. So, we implemented a Monday afternoon Zoom call that was not about work. The main purpose was just to be social, to talk, to laugh, to cry, and to share with each other about our personal lives. This was instrumental in allowing our team to have a way to personally share what they were experiencing during the pandemic. Of course, some days, we would just play trivia or some other game that would lighten the mood and lead to our team’s camaraderie being strengthened.
With our clients, our financial planners, we set up a depository of daily information and suggestions for them to share with each other. We would communicate with recorded videos that were both informative and encouraging. We knew we had to be strong so that our planners could also be strong for their clients. It ended up being a two-way street, with many of our financial planners sharing what communications were working for them and providing great suggestions.
Communication was key during this time, but so was making tough decisions without having a lot of clear information. A major adaptation we made during the pandemic was in how we made decisions. We hold training sessions each month with our team, and one lesson we talked about is “going with your 7s.” What this means is that there is no perfect answer or solution that one would call a perfect 10. The idea is that making a decision now is better than waiting for a decision or solution to be a perfect 10. During the pandemic, with murky information, the best decision or solution was often only a 7 and usually nothing close to a 10. More often than not, it was better to go with the 7 solution now and adjust versus waiting for more data that might never come.
A good example of this occurred in early summer of 2020. We had a new financial planner wanting to join us and the question was whether to move forward or not. Knowing he could not see his clients face to face, we all wondered if it would make sense for him to transition to our current firm. We ended up making the decision to move forward not knowing how several usual steps would play out, and that decision ended up being the right one, with several adjustments and obstacles being overcome along the way. Today, that planner is thrilled he moved when he did versus waiting for things to normalize.
Prioritizing decisions was also key for us during the pandemic. With my team at IFG, at the onset of the pandemic we made a list of issues or decisions that needed to be made. We prioritized them in order of the importance, placing at the top the ones that were urgent. From there, we put all our focus on the top of the list and one-by-one, we worked our way down the list. We did not try to solve all of them at the same time. Taking the extra time to make a list and prioritize the decisions ultimately helped us and saved us a lot of time in the long run.
During a crisis, a leader must communicate and make decisions on the fly. I believe the key is to be transparent with what you know. Encourage your team, but do not be over the top or unrealistic about it. Be real, provide direction, and encourage as much as you can.
What are some of the greatest mistakes you’ve noticed some business leaders made during these unprecedented times? What are the takeaways you gleaned from those mistakes?
Land Bridgers: It is important to watch your peers and understand how and why they make the decisions they make. My grandfather only had a 3rd grade education but was the smartest man I ever met. He told me he watched people do things the right way, and then he copied them and followed their lead. When he saw others doing things poorly, or just flat out wrong, he vowed not to do what they did.
The biggest mistake I saw from other business leaders during the pandemic was taking it all upon themselves. It is human nature to say, “It’s my role to fix that.” However, your team is closer to the battle and often has a better perspective than you do. Instead of centralizing every decision, continue to involve your team and delegate those decisions to them. Be there for advice and consultation but avoid the trap of thinking you must do it all on your own.
Also, I saw a lot of reactionary decisions instead of taking time to process what was going on in certain situations. I even saw myself doing that a few times during the pandemic. I overreacted thinking the sky was falling instead of really taking the time to think through what was occurring. Often, those situations involved an urgent meeting or a call where I just reacted and made a decision on the fly. I should have said, “Let me think on this for a bit and get back to you.” Truth is, whoever you are talking to will appreciate that more than making a reactionary decision. Most of the time, things are never as bad as they seem and never as good as they seem. Processing a well-thought-out decision is key, and you often have more time to do that than you think.
In your opinion, what changes played the most critical role in enabling your business to survive/remain profitable, or maybe even thrive? What lessons did all this teach you?
Land Bridgers: Since March of 2020, IFG and our independent financial planners have not only survived, but truly thrived during this period. I credit that to our business model, and because we are blessed to be in the business we are in. I know many businesses are gone because they were dependent on customers coming into a store to buy a product. No matter the product, if the customers could not come in to the store, they were in trouble. The business of financial planning was able to quickly pivot to a virtual/remote model. As our clients adapted to communicating through virtual options, it became expected that meetings would continue to occur that way. In addition, having a reoccurring revenue model was a huge positive during this period.
Moving to more of a virtual communication model was our biggest change. However, what was most critical during this time was not a change at all. We have always believed that it’s best to bring in great people who love their families and our clients, and who are always wanting to improve themselves through continued learning. When you get great people who are willing to work together and help each other, there is no mountain that cannot be climbed, and no obstacle thrown at you that you cannot overcome. I saw more experienced financial planners who have been through major downturns supporting and encouraging younger planners. I saw younger planners sharing new ideas and ways to communicate with clients with more experienced planners. It was a give and take that was mutually beneficial to all.
Also, despite all the unfortunate tragedy and difficulties, I believe the pandemic and political environment actually impacted our financial planners in a positive way. Many Americans, forced to remain at home with more free time on their hands, really thought about what was important to them during this time. Many who knew they needed help with their finances used this time find and hire a financial planner and get their financial life in order. That reality, along with the certainty that taxes are going to change in the near future, led to our financial planners gaining more clients than usual during the past twenty months. After a few tough months with the markets reacting to the pandemic, it responded and rebounded quickly. Our financial planning clients saw the pandemic as a health crisis that would be solved by a healthcare solution – a very different situation than the tech bubble or banking crisis of the past.
What I have learned during this time is that why you do what you do will not change during difficult times. However, how you might do things could definitely change. Again, when you have great people on your team who love what they do and who are willing to share ideas, I think you are well equipped to handle difficult times.
What is the #1 most pressing challenge you’re trying to solve in your business right now?
Land Bridgers: There are always a host of challenges. Today, I think any firm in the financial services industry has a similar #1 challenge, namely that the average age of a financial planner is in the mid to late 50s. How can we get great people who are younger into the financial services industry? It has high barriers in getting started and is perceived as a highly regulated industry. While both statements are true, I believe being a financial planner is one of the most rewarding careers someone can get into. You become your clients’ trusted advisor, as one’s finances are typically one of the most emotional issues many face outside of family relationships and faith. For our financial planners, they are usually the next call after clients have shared good or bad news with their immediate family. It is a humbling position to be in, and truly a meaningful profession.
Financial planning is often like trying to determine what is the most important piece of a jigsaw puzzle. Some say it is the corners or edges. Others will tell you that it’s matching up all the like colors of the puzzle. A financial planner will tell you that it’s the image on the box so we can see what the full picture looks like. Our financial planners help our clients determine what the full picture should look like, then start to put all of the pieces in the right place.
At IFG, we are trying to help our advisors bring younger financial planners into their firms and into the industry. It is paramount that we invest resources into their success, because they are the future – for IFG and for our financial planners’ clients and families.
You already shared a lot of insights with our readers and we thank you for your generosity. Normally, leaders are asked about their most useful qualities but let’s change things up a bit. What is the most useless skill you have learned, at school or during your career?
Land Bridgers: How to use a fax machine! That is a great question and one I have not really considered in the past. I would say that a skill that is often taught that really is more detrimental than helpful is multitasking. You often hear that this is a desired skill, and companies even put it on job descriptions as a required skill. But ask yourself: How is the quality of your work when you are multitasking? If you answer that question honestly, we all know the quality of our work goes down when we multitask.
A few years ago, my business coach and I focused for months on training our team on priority management. How do we prioritize our time by what matters most versus trying to just get things done? It made a huge impact on our team, and we saw productivity, fulfillment, and quality of work increase significantly. Of course, there are times where you are required to multitask. However, if you can set up a system of priority management, the results are significant and immediate. I would rather hire someone with good priority management skills over the ability to multitask.
Thank you so much for your time but before we finish things off, we do have one more question. We will select these answers for our ValiantCEO Award 2021 edition. The best answers will be selected to challenge the award.
Share with us one of the most difficult decisions you had to make, this past year 2021, for your company that benefited your employees or customers. What made this decision so difficult and what were the positive impacts?
Land Bridgers: One of the most difficult decisions we made in 2021 was whether or not to hold our IFG Annual Retreat for our financial planners. Not many firms were holding their conferences in-person and had switched to a virtual setting. We know the value of in-person meetings and the impact of the conversations that happen between sessions or at meals. We felt strongly that if we could pull it off, we needed to do this for our financial planners and our team. We made the decision to go with a hybrid setting. If you wanted to come in-person, the option would be there. If you wanted to be virtual, you had that option as well!
We hired a production company and said let’s do it! It ended up being one of our best retreats ever. About fifty percent of our advisors attended in-person. Our location was great at meeting health and safety guidelines. We even had a person whose role was to wipe down microphones between speakers and continually sanitize other items and areas. We were able to maintain required spacing and we ended up having zero issues with Covid. Our advisors who attended in-person loved it and had a great time. Some of our speakers said it was the first time they got to speak in-person in almost a year. It could not have gone better for those who chose to attend in-person.
For those who were virtual, our production company made them feel like they were really there. It was truly amazing how our virtual financial planners felt like they were part of the retreat and they loved it as well. For me personally, I had never interviewed speakers where two were in-person and one was on the screen virtually. I remember doing the opening kickoff talk and bringing up one of our financial planners in North Carolina eight minutes into my talk. As he popped up on the screen, I was so nervous if it would work. Well, when we heard him loud and clear, I knew that it was going to be a success! It was like one big live newscast without a rehearsal. The feedback from those who were virtual was incredibly positive!
As I look back at our retreat, which was held early in 2021, that decision to move forward with it was a turning point for IFG. It was a return to normalcy and needed by all. It was a chance to say, “We are back, and we will get through this pandemic.” The theme of the retreat was GRIT and that could not have been more perfect. Our team and our financial planners have shown a huge amount of grit during these difficult times, and I fully believe that has played a huge role in the success of IFG. They have always had grit – but it was fully revealed during the pandemic.
Jed Morley, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Land Bridgers for taking the time to do this interview and share his knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Land Bridgers or his company, you can do it through his – Linkedin Page
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