Marie Swift is President and CEO of Impact Communications, a full-service PR and marketing communications firm that works solely within the financial services industry. Prior to establishing her own marketing communications firm in 1993, she served as Director of Corporate Communications for a group of top-producing financial advisors in California.
Swift is in demand as a speaker at conferences for financial services professionals including TD Ameritrade LINC, Pershing Insite, Fidelity’s Inside Track, Schwab Regional Advisor Symposiums, the Financial Planning Association, the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors, the Alliance of Comprehensive Planners, InvestmentNews’ Women To Watch, Financial Planning’s Women Advisors Forum, Bob Veres’ Insider’s Forum, Securities America, United Planners, Transamerica, Cetera, and other independent broker/dealer conferences.
A prolific writer, her articles have been published by Barron’s, MarketWatch, Forbes, WealthManagement.com, NAPFA Advisor, RIA Intel, Financial Planning, Financial Advisor, ThinkAdvisor, Morningstar Advisor, and more. She has been quoted in respected publications such as The Wall Street Journal, RIABiz, and Investment Advisor.
In 2021, Impact Communications earned recognition from WealthManagement in their annual “Wealthies” awards competition, and ThinkAdvisor named Swift to their Luminaries Class of 2021.
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Table of Contents
Welcome to your ValiantCEO exclusive interview! Let’s start with a little introduction. Tell us about yourself.
Marie Swift: As the founder and CEO of Impact Communications, I lead a small but mighty team of communications professionals who are dedicated, discerning, and driven to accomplish their goals and, more importantly, the goals of our clients — all of whom fit nicely within this vertical we call financial services.
One of the secrets to our success is honing in. We only work with independent financial advisors and allied institutions. Allied institutions could be any organization that serves and supports independent advisors — fintech companies, business management/practice management consultants, custodians, independent broker/dealers, asset management firms, etc. Bottom line: Our entire focus is on lifting up the financial planning profession and independent financial advisors. We believe strongly in their mission to bring the benefits of professional financial planning and investment management, without the inherent conflicts that come when an investor works with a commission-driven organization, to the general public.
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.
Marie Swift: When I was growing up in small-town Utah, I just wanted to be a homemaker like my mom and all the other women I saw as role models in the community.
My mother eventually became a nurse when as a young girl my parents divorced and she determined to go back to school, become an RN, and work the night shift at the hospital delivering babies. She worked the night shift so that she could arrive home in time to get the five of us – ages ranging from eight years old (that was me at the top – the big sister) to my baby sister who was then just barely sitting up (and three rowdy boys in the middle) – up and ready for school and/or the daytime babysitter.
Those were hard days, to be sure. But I learned to be responsible, to put my siblings’ needs before my own, to show appreciation and obedience to my mother, and to stand tall in a community and age where being a divorced woman with five kids was, at that time and in that community, a bit of a stigma.
During my high school years, I thought I might like to be a journalist so creative writing classes and working on the high school yearbook were good testing grounds for me. Those early interests would come back to help me in my 30’s when, after a slight detour into the hospitality and catering world, I became Director of Corporate Communications for a group of hard-charging financial advisors. In 1993 I launched my own marketing communications firm, Impact Communications, the firm I still own and operate today.
Tell us about your business, what does the company do? What is unique about the company?
Marie Swift: At Impact Communications, our dedicated, discerning and driven team helps our clients make that happen. Since 1993, we have been focused exclusively on the financial advisory industry – helping fintech companies, financial services institutions, and individual financial planners and investment advisory firms develop and implement their marketing and PR strategies. We know the ins and outs of the industry, understand the subtle (and not so subtle) distinctions among service categories, and are experts at crafting messages and communications that make a difference. Front and center is all we do.
Impact Communications has the experience our clients need to hit the ground running and make a difference. Whether they need to outsource a press conference or media tour, tap into a professional team of content creators, build a new website with corresponding social media and digital assets, produce video or print ads, do conference planning, or generate positive media attention, we can help. If it has to do with marketing or PR, we do it – and do it well.
We have received numerous awards and recognition for our work. In 2021 alone, we were recognized with two AIVA Communicator Awards, an APEX Grand Award, a ThinkAdvisor Luminary Award, and a WealthManagement Industry Award.
Impact Communications is family-owned and operated, founder-led, and focused on producing results that smaller firms can’t due to capacity issues and larger firms tend to overprice due to top-heavy org charts and shareholder profit demands.
How to become a CEO? Some will focus on qualities, others on degrees, how would you answer that question?
Marie Swift: I don’t have a string of fancy initials after my name. I came up through the school of hard knocks. First, I had to learn to be an entrepreneur and to deal with the inherent ebb and flow of being a small business owner. As my business grew, I saw that I’d need to add new skills and hone my natural abilities in order to become an effective leader and businesswoman.
Much of what I’ve learned in the way of leadership and business management skills came from studying others I admired and emulating their qualities. For instance, I studied friends who were entertainers and adopted some of their performance qualities when I spoke to groups. I worked with a communications coach, attended business workshops, and participated in leadership seminars. I watched other executives in the financial services industry and tried to emulate their good qualities, including body language, vocal tone, language, and general countenance. A respected colleague taught me the importance of the 3-L’s – look, language, and leadership. Good CEOs have a great executive presence. I’ve tried to develop my executive presence and reputation, internally and externally, over time.
What are the secrets to becoming a successful CEO? Who inspires you, who are your role models and why? Illustrate your choices.
Marie Swift: I don’t think there are any secrets. Becoming a successful CEO is hard work. It can also be a lot of fun, but it requires tenacity and the ability to focus on what matters most.
CEOs who inspire me include Oprah Winfrey and Ron Carson.
Everyone knows Oprah Winfrey. To me, she embodies all the qualities of a great business leader – she’s a bright light in any room, has a reputation for treating people well, and is a smart business visionary.
Ron Carson is the Founder and CEO of Carson Group, which serves financial advisors and investors through its businesses including Carson Wealth, Carson Coaching, and Carson Partners. I’ve followed Ron’s career for over 30 years. When I was Director of Corporate Communications for a wealth management firm in California, my then-boss asked me to study Ron’s methodologies and communication style because my boss was competing against Ron for business opportunities. Ron has natural abilities, which I’m sure he’s worked to hone over time – leadership qualities that engender trust and motivate people. He definitely embodies the 3-Ls mentioned above.
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.
Marie Swift: The CEO must model the characteristics, behaviors, and attitudes they wish to see in their firm. For instance, kindness and a positive can-do attitude are two that I always try to model for the team here at Impact Communications. Other top activities include: generating focus and vision; inspiring the workforce; building trust with strategic partners and clients; keeping an eye on the financials; ensuring that promises made are promises kept; and staying healthy, resilient, and strong when times are tough.
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.
Marie Swift: My friend Carl Richards, also known as the “Sketch Guy” for the New York Times, taught me that good leaders see themselves as “Sherpas” or mountain guides who are trained and equipped to help others – many of whom will be paralyzed by fear – move through perilous times and changing landscapes.
When things started to fall apart in March 2020 here in the US, I knew I had to, as they say on commercial flights before takeoff, put on my own oxygen mask first. So, personal health had to come first. Of course, that was closely aligned with family and company well-being. I was just as scared as everyone else but needed to compartmentalize my own fears in order to reassure others. Being a bit of a Stoic has always helped me.
Many of Impact’s clients were scared too and asked to dissolve or reduce their contracts with my firm. Of those making the appeal, I could clearly see who was actually in need of dispensation, who needed reassurance to stay the course because there was momentum and opportunity present, and where some form of untruth or self-interested manipulation was present. I tried to be kind even when I said no or held my ground. I was successful in persuading the right clients to soldier on with us. I refused to be manipulated. I let my tribe know that we had openings, and low and behold, new and better clients raised their hands and said, okay, let’s do this.
In 2020, a publication asked me to write an opinion piece regarding who did or didn’t take PPP loans and how some in the financial services industry – particularly on social media but also in media interviews – were slinging mud at those who did avail themselves of the government provided a lifeline. After discussing with my partners and sleeping on it a couple of nights, I did indeed write the piece and it was published by RIA Intel. Being a leader means taking calculated risks and standing up for what you think is right. I’m happy to say I received more complimentary emails and positive social media comments than I did negative comments or hate mail.
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?
Marie Swift: Some business leaders I’ve noticed make the mistake of hiding their own emotions. It’s okay to be honest and be vulnerable from time to time – especially when something stressful is happening. We are all human. This is not to say that we should let fear and uncertainty sweep us away, but being authentic is important – especially when times are tough.
Another mistake is some business leaders put a pause on their marketing efforts in 2020. They were either overwhelmed with other concerns or they were worried about cash flow and economic uncertainties. Other business leaders doubled down on their client communications and marketing efforts; as a result, they had banner years in 2020 and 2021 – and are poised to continue the momentum in 2022.
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?
Marie Swift: One of my early mentors, Tony Reguero, founder and CEO of Worldwide Investment Network, told me (and everyone in the firm), “If you’re not growing, you’re going.” By this, he meant ongoing personal and professional growth is a large part of the company’s culture. He also used the term C.A.N.I. (which stands for Constant and Never-ending Improvement) and Kaizen (a Japanese word for improvement related to business activities that continuously improve) to remind us of that key component of success. I still use these principles and sayings with my team today.
In times of duress and extreme challenge, such as the Great Recession and banking/real estate crisis in 2008/09 and the global pandemic made worse by social unrest and a highly-charged political environment in 2020/21, I try to focus on one phrase as a guiding light: What Matters Most? The answer is always “my people” and “our clients.” This means that there have sometimes been times of financial erosion for the business, but in the long run, putting people and clients first has always paid off.
For example, in 2020 everyone was scared for a while. Due to the big stock market dive in early 2020 and ongoing volatility, our investment portfolios seemed to be at risk. Due to the national lockdown in 2020 and ongoing health/safety issues in 2021/22, our individual and family health plus livelihoods seemed to be at risk. Many of my clients asked to either reduce their financial commitments or to dissolve existing contracts. My partners and I decided how to navigate the waters and did make some concessions and worked out special deals with some of our clients. The silver lining was that client demand came roaring back as things stabilized and businesses resumed a semblance of normal operations that included a work-from-home, digital reality. 2020 was a build-back year for us. 2021 was a banner year for us.
Another saying I hold dear is, “Keep the faith.” Call me a cockeyed optimist, like Betty White, but it has worked for me all throughout my entrepreneurial journey.
What is the #1 most pressing challenge you’re trying to solve in your business right now?
Marie Swift: The most pressing challenge right now for Impact Communications is finding the right new team members to add, keeping our existing team members motivated and encouraged in spite of new personal challenges that continue to crop up, and grooming the next generation of leaders as a part of an internal succession plan.
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?
Marie Swift: The most useless skill? That’s a hard question because, for me, everything has a lesson or a silver lining attached to it. Seriously. I can’t think of any useless skills. All skills are good, in my opinion. You never know when the ability to cook a gourmet meal or to create the perfect cappuccino will come in handy. Similarly, understanding history and other cultures – as well as being up-to-date on current events – can be helpful in conversational settings.
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?
Marie Swift: One of the most difficult decisions we had to make in 2021 relates to travel. We basically shut down all business travel in 2020 due to the CDC guidelines and general concern for our people; in addition, none of our clients wanted us to travel to see them – and most of our usual business conferences were moved from in-person to virtual – so that was good because it took the pressure off us. We did start traveling strategically in 2021 for onsite business meetings and conferences, but only if we felt the risk/reward was worth it. There are so many benefits to meeting in person versus doing a digital meeting. Good safety precautions and a decent supply of at-home Covid tests helped us feel more confident as we navigated through 2021.
Jed Morley, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Marie Swift for taking the time to do this interview and share her knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Marie Swift or her company, you can do it through her – Linkedin Page
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