Dakota Wealth Management’s Chief Experience Officer Talks Diversity, Leadership and Creating a Firm Culture in Today’s Challenging Landscape

Kristen Oliveri, Head of Private Wealth Content at Markets Group, sits down with Carina Diamond, the chief experience officer of Dakota Wealth Management, to discuss how Diamond has cultivated a unique firm culture within her RIA, helping both clients and employees flourish in a time of great change.

Markets Group: Your background as an advisor has led you to the role you currently have: chief experience officer. What exactly is that?

Carina Diamond: Quite honestly, I made it up when I was joining Dakota. Then I found out that there were other people with that title. Basically, it means that I'm in charge of organic growth and I oversee the other advisors as well as the client experience, so what's it like to be an advisor at our firm and how we support the advisors. And then also what's it like to be a client at Dakota.

MG: I'd imagine part of that is creating a dynamic firm culture because that's part of what you do and your description of chief experience officer. Where does one even begin to evaluate a firm’s culture, let alone curating one like you are?

CD: Well, in our case, we were building it. Dakota has only been around for four years, and I've been there for three of [those]. We've been helping to create the culture, but it really starts at the most basic level, like what does it feel like to be a part of this firm, whether you're working there or whether you're a client. How are you greeted every day? What's the tone coming from executive management? How do you feel? Do you feel appreciated? Do you feel heard?

It really trickles down to the clients as well because they can tell right away if they're dealing with people that are happy and feeling nourished and feeling cared for, or if they're people that are just answering the phone for the heck of it.

I think that culture is made up of lots of little things like that. Like how does our CEO thank people for something? Our CEO is actually extremely sincere and will personally do it. I wrote personal notes to everybody at the company several times during the pandemic, which my wrist is still recovering from. But to get a personal note, even just a couple lines, shows you that you're really valued and that you're cared about.

MG: And when you're establishing a firm culture, I think something that comes to my mind is this concept of diversity. How do you see that fitting into the idea of a firm’s culture?

CD: To me, diversity is so all encompassing. One of the biggest things in the ways that I look at diversity is that it is really critical to the succession of any firm. So, what's diversity? Diversity could mean race, gender, but it could be, do you have anybody under 30 working at your firm? I think age is also a big part of diversity. And the fact of the matter is we've all seen these statistics about more people are over 60 than under 30 in this business and if we don't expand the pool of people that might be working here, you’re going to be out of business.

Some other things are bringing diversity of thought, whether it's again from age, from background, religion, LGBTQ, just all these different things. What's going to happen is our client base is getting more diverse and so if we don't have the diversity of thought, we're not going to be able to relate to clients as things continue to progress – and they're only progressing faster and faster.

MG: Where do you see the women in wealth piece coming into play? Can you talk a little bit about how you're seeing women enter this industry, if you are at all?

CD: It's a fact that more and more clients are female just because of demographics and longevity. Most of the women that I know want an advisor that's going to be a great advisor and going to be respectful and educational and not use a lot of jargon. A lot of women I know would be happy with a man who did that, but also the fact of the matter is that I think women traditionally have connected better with other women and are not condescending and are going to ask questions and make eye contact and understand. It's also about personal goals, not just about beating the S&P 500. The rise of the female as a client is part of what's driving this.

There are lots of misconceptions about wealth management and financial services, one being that it's all about math. It's all about numbers. It's all hard sales. In reality, you have to be decent at some of those things, but it's really a helping profession, which is something that tends to come naturally to many women. I think that’s what we are as a profession and we need to just continue to articulate that, not just to the public, but also to very targeted groups like, for example, guidance counselors, teachers, superintendents. We are a profession that is just starving for talent.

MG:  How else do you see the industry bringing in the next generation of talent into wealth management, whether it be women or men?

CD: One program that I'm very involved with at the University of Akron is called Diversitas, which is Latin for diversity. We started it over five years ago in Northeastern Ohio having programs where we invited teachers and gave them continuing education credit. We also invited high school students and college students to try to show them what this profession is all about.

Then the pandemic hit. We weren't sure if we should just shut down, and instead we exploded and we went virtual and now we have over 30 other universities. Some of the top universities in the country, including historically black institutions, Hispanic serving institutions, some of the biggest programs in financial planning, are now part of Diversitas.

We have amazing speakers of all different backgrounds so that anyone who's viewing this can see that there's someone who looks like me who's doing this. I led a panel at last year's program that had a lesbian, two African American men and a Hispanic man, all 30 or under. And they were talking about their experiences and kind of showing employers: ‘Hey, we might need a little extra help to make sure that we fit in, and we might need a little bit of extra coaching, but we're hungry. We may not look like the broker that your mom or dad had. But we have the skill set as well.’

MG: Managing teams is never easy, regardless of the time. Then you mix in a pandemic and people coming back to a remote/hybrid world. What are some lessons learned leading through all of that?

CD: It's reminded me very much of becoming a parent for the first time and thinking there's no playbook. We're all in this. We're all in the same boat. What do we do? A lot of it, I would say, was instinct, but driven by caring for people as individuals.

I think the biggest lesson is that regular communication is so essential. I think we communicated a lot with our staff as well as our clients beforehand. But we just ramped it up even more during the pandemic and it was hard because we ourselves, the leadership team, were suffering too. I mean everybody was suffering and whether they were sick or affected by someone who was sick or just completely freaked out by this craziness that was happening in the world.

So, we just tried all sorts of things and did different kinds of campaigns internally. Some people liked my crazy hat day. Some people thought it was really dumb. We did contests and games and we sent little gifts to people and one of our most successful things we did was a virtual cooking class. We invited our employees, but we invited their families to join as well.

MG: You're obviously a leader within your own management team at Dakota and you’re a leader, in my opinion, in the RIA/ wealth management space. How do you view leadership from your perspective and what would you say your approach is to it?

CD: It's kind of like sales; people fail. I'm not a salesman; I'm behind the scenes. I think leadership is the same way. People think they’re not a leader, but everybody is a leader of something, and everybody has a role. What I've really learned about leadership is that it really needs to be fluid and responsive to what’s happening. We did not lose a single employee during the pandemic, which is amazing considering everything that was going on, and we had a very low client attrition rate as well. Being fluid and responsive has become such a part of my leadership style.

I was asked to speak at a local university recently to a group of female chemical engineers, a really rough field for women to be in, given that there’s huge attrition. I was asked to present to this class and I got there and looked around and I read the room and I just said, ‘Would you all mind just pulling your chairs up front and let's just make a circle and have a conversation like people rather than me lecturing you on all that?’

I could just see everyone exhaled and was in the moment with me. We ended up having this amazing conversation about first jobs and employee benefits and what to look for, what HR isn't going to tell you.

You just have to keep evolving and listening to what people are saying. And if you don't, you're just going to be left behind. No one will follow you.

MG: In your estimation, how is today’s leadership better than in past generations?

CD: I think the workplace and today’s effective leadership is a lot more flexible. I'm not sure I would even say that it's necessarily better than it used to be, but I just think that's what fits the needs of today. Leaders have to realize, when you show up, it's showtime. Just like when you go into a client meeting, it's showtime. You’re nothing without the team behind you and in front of you. I always say I'm just steering a little bit, trying to communicate. I'm always trying to be a better leader. I'm always trying to communicate better. I'm always striving for better clarity.

I think the best leaders don't take themselves too seriously and are always willing to keep morphing and growing and learning and being. It's the most humbling, sometimes humiliating, experience, maybe next to parenting.

MG: Where do you think mentorship falls into the broad theme of leadership? How do you approach that?

CD: I started a leadership program for graduate school women and what I learned was that those women are actually the loneliest because they have the least support, and they have the most personal conflicts and families. Other things I found was that there's so many people out there that could be good mentors.

More and more people are willing to be a mentor. For one thing, I would say is that sometimes mentoring isn't enough. So like, what's a mentor? What's a guide? What's an advocate?

We talked about diversity earlier and what I'm finding more and more is that what diverse people need is not always just mentoring, but advocacy. It's great that behind the scenes you told me that I need to get a manicure and I need to wear this kind of clothing every day. But are you advocating me when an opening comes? There's a fine line between the two. I'm trying to get people to focus in on it because sometimes all the best advice in the world behind the scenes doesn't necessarily help somebody navigate an actual work environment.

MG: What are some overarching trends that maybe we haven't touched upon that you think are really shaping the future of wealth management?

CD: I think of two things. One is, of course, the impact of fintech. There's just so much to learn when it comes to technology, and there's so many new tools coming out. If you can't get on board, you better have someone close to you who is on board because you’ll be left behind. But the good news about all of that is that relationships still matter.

So even with all this technology, I think more than ever people are seeking community and personal connections, whether it's a client connection, whether it's a coworker or a boss. Personal connections are not incompatible with the rise of fintech. And there may be people who've gotten super used to working from home and maybe haven't kept up with their connections. I think that those people and their careers are going to get affected negatively if they have not been able to do that.

The other thing is mentoring and being an advocate and all that diversity. What I would love to see is more help given to the people doing the mentoring and the guiding. A perfect example would be so many wonderful men in the profession and they're a little lost because they're hearing about all this diversity stuff. They know it's a good idea, but they aren't quite sure what to do without stepping in it. My heart goes out to these men, so I would love to see more support for them as a group and teaching them to be the best mentors and advocates that they can be for others. I think that's part of this equation of us all growing together and all rising together.

MG: My final question to you today, Carina, is one that I love asking people in wealth management because everyone seems to be a renaissance person. Tell me about your personal background and how you got into the wealth management space.

CD: If there's any Star Trek fans out there, everyone knows Mr. Spock. But when I was growing up, there was a Dr. Spock that my parents read. He was a psychologist, and so I was this dorky kid in the late 1960s, and I was sneaking them [from] my parents’ bookcase and I was reading psychology books. As I grew up, I was pretty sure I wanted to be a child psychologist.

As time went on, I found out that I was good at math and good at numbers, so it was sort of like a melding of those two skills and really wanting to help people. I like to joke around that I wanted to be a child psychologist and when dealing with many people in their money, I have become one.

My first job out of college, I was an investment analyst at a bank and because of my creative side, I would be given a company to research and then to present, I would try to buy some of their products or just be able to show something. I think I was the first person that brought props to an investment meeting.

MG: Any final thoughts?

CD: I would just say to everyone: remember that relationships matter. Remember that you probably are a leader, whether you think you are or not. And for anyone in this business, it is such a great, broad profession, there's so many ways to go about it. It's not all about math and sales. And do us all a favor—try to bring a younger person into the business.