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Embrace ‘Beginner’s Mind’: Don’t Let Your Expertise Hold You Back

During a recent lunch with a well-known venture capital investor, I asked him what is the secret formula behind his spectacular success. His answer was laconic, “Beginner’s mind.”

He explained that in spite of his in-depth venture capital expertise, he still looks at any new investment opportunity with the same child-like curiosity and desire to learn he applied to his very first transaction nearly four decades ago.

His response made me reflect on the countless times in our daily life we miss the opportunity to use this sage approach. Our highly competitive and individualistic culture force us to approach people and situations with an expert’s mind rather than a beginner’s mind. The former, far too often, triggers in us the very familiar “been there, done that” response, which leads us to believe that once we have achieved some level of knowledge about something, there is no longer anything for us to gain.

“Beginner’s mind” is a Zen principle, expounded by Shunryu Suzuki in his classic book on Zen Buddhism titled Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. In the book, Suzuki teaches that the beginner’s mind is a mind that is fresh, curious, unbiased, awakened to numerous possibilities and void on any preconceptions. This type of mind profoundly differs from the one that habitually governs our daily activities and customary ways of thinking and responding to people and situations.

Suzuki’s central message is that, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” Beginner’s mind is about purposefully setting aside our beliefs, conjectures, preferences and existing ideas to create space for new and potentially better ones. When we resolve to learn something we know nothing about, we must begin from the beginning. We don’t know anything about it, ergo our mind is empty and receptive. That’s beginner’s mind.

This should exhort us to never feel as if we have something all figured out when discussing with a client a financial plan or an investment. We must train our mind to be as inquisitive as that of a child, unhindered from bias and unencumbered by our existing knowledge. This will foster in us the desire to listen mindfully to our client or prospect to gain more knowledge and learn about their fears, needs and goals. Ultimately, life never ceases to present us with endless opportunities to learn more.

But, why should we resort to being a beginner when discussing topics or devising strategies that we dealt with innumerable times during our professional life and that have become almost second nature to us?

Having a beginner’s mind approach is of vital importance, because, as we become experts at something, our mind unfailingly leads us to believe that we already know everything there is to know.

Children are a powerful example of beginner’s mind in action. They never cease to surprise us with how fast they learn new things. This is because they embody the view of John Locke—a seventeenth century British philosopher—maintaining that the mind begins as a “tabula rasa”–the Latin expression often translated as blank slate upon which layers of experience accumulate.

Very often in our daily life those layers of knowledge turn into a hindrance to critical investigation and end up curtailing our ability to identify the best option. The beginner’s mind approach is cultivated by being curious, open to hear or observe all that is said or manifests before us without predeterminations. Ultimately, it means tending to a client or a situation wholeheartedly, in the present moment, refraining from rushing to pass judgments or offering solutions until we have absorbed all there is to absorb.

Investing demands beginner’s mind. It is a highly competitive profession. Identifying objective investment strategies to address clients’ increasingly complex needs and situations—amidst fierce competition—is a dynamic process that requires an unusual openness and clarity of mind. Failing to experience greater openness and awareness for new ideas can lead advisers to feel overconfident and prone to implement poor decisions on behalf of their clients.

Claudio PannunzioClaudio O. Pannunzio
President and Founder
i-Impact Group
Greenwich, Conn.


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More Intelligent Referrals Step 3: Specialize and Target for Increased Results

Take your referrals to the next level. Now that your process is thought out and you know how to approach your clients in a way that builds trust, you can be even more strategic and thoughtful in how you earn new business. Over time, your message and the materials you use to implement your referral plan will become more defined.

These final few strategies from Frank Maselli’s book Referrals the Professional Way: 10 Strategies for Networking with Top Clients & Centers of Influence, can be used as an approach for expanding your referral plan and message:

Target a Specific Industry or Client Niche

Specializing in a certain industry or a type of client can dramatically increase your referrals from those groups. The goal of becoming the “go-to” adviser for an entire industry can be a major career driver with benefits that go far beyond referrals. Selecting an industry or client group to target is a simple process that can be replicated for scalable business results. Develop a genuine interest and expertise in the niche areas you choose by reading industry publications, talking to leaders, and attending regional or national conferences. This will take time, as you have to become a known insider and provide value to the group before you can seek a business relationship.

New Specialty Referral

Your long-term clients may be the perfect source of potential referrals, but asking for a referral can change the implied rules of the relationship game as you’ve both played it for many years.  The new specialty referral lets you go back to your best clients for referrals without looking like you just blew up your business. It also sends the right emotional messages about your success and development as a professional. Pick a critical topic of importance to your people and master it, then use your new specialty to approach your client with a new opportunity that themselves, their colleagues or their friends might also be interested in.

Use a Referral Guide

High-net-worth clients and centers of influence want to know that you take referrals very seriously and that when they give you a name of a client, friend, or colleague, you are going to treat that person with extreme care and professionalism. Using a “referral guide” is a psychological positioning tool that sends all those messages and allows you to expand your client’s story-telling ability beyond a two-sentence conversation fragment. Combine your referral materials into a binder to give as a resource to your client—items like an introductory letter, sample newsletters, articles, list of services, team biography, referral questionnaire, ideal client profile, etc. These items should convey your brand and your expertise in an organized, serious and professional package.

Take it a step further and enhance your referral guide with a book, authored by you, targeted to your specific industry or niche that highlights your knowledge in your specialty area. With a referral plan in place that is created out of genuine service to others with a targeted message, derived from a place of expertise, and supported by professional client-driven materials, you will find that referrals can become a powerful business growth tool.

Allison LooneyAllison Looney
Marketing Associate
Advantage Media Group
Charleston, SC