By April Rudin
My readers know that I am continually surprised, shocked, and amused by the true-life stories that I witness every day. Colleagues and clients provide the fodder, which is enough for an ever-changing backdrop. Sometimes, I think I should just write “Wall Street – The Musical,” or create a concept for reality TV but, until then, I will just use my guest post here on HuffPost.
Frequently, I am an invited speaker at a wide variety of financial services conferences. While interesting, it keeps me fresh and close to many advisors and firms, funds and fin tech vendors. But, one day a couple of months ago, I received an invitation to speak on a panel at a conference that I had never been to before. A Compliance conference = ugh. The presentations are enough to scare the bejesus out of anyone. Was I the sideshow? Would anyone listen? Would anyone attend? Remember that I have been doing this for 6 years now–a proverbial founding mother in the social media space in financial services. I have faced down many a compliance officer in my day- and won. It’s about the rules, they decree, and it’s about protecting investors, I respond. My “I Have A Dream – That Wall St And Social Media Become Facebook Friends” has been coming about slowly – very slowly. Where other industries have run with social, digital sound bytes, and community, the very industry that needs it most – to create more authenticity and transparency while improving its PR reputation – has been dragging its feet to embrace what the rest of the business world already knows. It’s targeted marketing, it’s thought leadership, it’s technology expertise, and it’s the best way to hyperlocalize a big global brand. Even the SEC and FINRA are slow in embracing technology themselves, and even understanding what their rules are about. The terms and regulations are dated and worn, and this is new stuff. There they are: waiting for rules: “We can’t do anything until they tell us what to do,” they cry to me. I will give you the rules, my children. It’s as easy as Dr. Seuss “Green Eggs and Ham:” Do not do it in a boat, do not do it with a goat, do not do it here or there, do not do it anywhere.”
This is not difficult stuff especially for advisors who have been in practice many years. Don’t promise investments returns anywhere-at lunch, at a client meeting, or on Twitter. But “they” do not listen- they sit on the sidelines waiting for “rules” to be passed down to them like Moses from Mount Sinai. Another irony is that these are among the most compliant that have the greatest objections-they don’t need to worry. They are already the “good” guys. So I pack my bag to travel to the land of compliance, in this case, the beautiful setting in Phoenix, AZ. I don’t worry much about what I wear to the compliance conference – I have compliant dresses for such occasions.
A few disclosures before I move forward. I looked over the agenda and thought it was thrilling: insider trading, cybersecurity and more. I was excited to learn more, but I knew it made everyone afraid. Job security for compliance officers is a given. Cybersecurity is one of the most quickly moving challenges that we all have in technology. I have been downright scared myself by many sessions and conferences that I have attended, but it has not swayed me: I know that you can leave a file in a taxi, and other “crimes” that lead to loss of data. I was a bit taken aback when the conference organizer asked me to email my credit card information: Boy, lots of work to do here, I thought. She should attend the cybersecurity session herself. I wondered if the firm was secure themselves. Sure enough, a quick Twitter search yielded a couple of abandoned accounts. “Do as they say?” I wondered.
The conference opened, and the first panel of SEC, FINRA and other “expert” rulers, or rulemakers, were up. The disclosures came- I yawned and powered up my laptop. I was the only one in the front row. The SEC woman began to speak, I am sorry, she read. She read notes and did not deviate from the notes and refused to answer any questions. She closed with the following “guidance from SEC”, I am paraphrasing because I was too shocked “Don’t hire criminals, liars, or cheaters at your firms no matter how much business they bring.” WTF? Are you kidding, I thought to myself? Here you are with an opportunity to enable and teach people about how to make things work, and work well and this is what happens??? Before I could catch my breath (but I did manage to tweet that) an older gentleman stood up and asked, “Where is the cloud? I know that my data is there, but can I get it if I have an audit?” Did he really ask that of the SEC?? While I heard many in the room laugh, it made me want to cry. Out of the mouth of babe’s-he told the SEC that he had no idea where his data was stored, nor how to get it back. He was compliant yet clueless. The average advisor is around 55 years old. How are they supposed to figure this stuff out, get new clients and run a business that has changed dramatically over the past 20 years?
I have so much work to do, I thought to myself. In his defense, while everyone laughed, I stood up and asked SEC and FINRA beyond fiduciary and suitability, how are these guys supposed to learn how to put it all together? A weak answer of doing due diligence on vendors emerged; scarcely any answer and then the session ended. Ugh!
Our audience looked shell-shocked although it was only the morning of day 2. Deer in the headlights-I think I was the only one in the room smiling. How could I lighten their load? This is not a funeral nor a death sentence I thought. 6 years later, has anything really changed?
I smiled, said my name and even giggled in my usual happy manner. I felt like a worn comedian on the B-circuit. I tried to lighten up the room and even create some interaction by asking how many people had heard of the internet, and how many people thought “Twitter was the devil incarnate”? I promised the room of battered compliance people that digital/social media was a more transparent form of communication; inherently more compliant than not. I explained that people who were not compliant offline would be the violators online too. I promised to explain what they could do and how. I was the solution, I implored and not the problem.
My co-presenter, an attorney, and I had met for drinks (for him, not for me) in New York City prior to our presentation. He had sent me some slides that I would only view if I had been up for 4 days straight and couldn’t sleep. Here was his fix: He had a slide with the “rule” followed by a slide with the word “April”. Here was our moment of truth: our presentation. I was 20 years older than he, more social/digitally savvy than he, could I persuade this group to listen to me instead of the attorney? He zigged and I zagged through our presentation. The attorney looked at me frequently for “approval” and I smiled at him. I just heard that he changed jobs…
He said no and I said yes. We were voted couple #1 at the conference and they gave us a standing ovation. And they gave me an extra hour for questions during the afternoon.
Follow April Rudin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/TheRudinGroup