Keys to Successful Collaboration - Part Two

Getting the most out of a multidisciplinary team (second in a series)

By Randy Fox

Key Takeaways:

  • A professional collaboration is more work than simply sharing referrals—but the rewards can be huge and will truly differentiate you from other advisors.
  • A collaboration typically involves a tax or estate planning attorney, an accountant and a financial advisor, but many other specialists may be brought in to perform specific tasks.
  • Successful teams have a single leader and group members who are honest with each other and who respect established timelines and deliverables.

In a previous article, we discussed the concept of professional collaboration as it relates to working with high-net-worth client families. Too often, professionals work as individuals, each in his or her own silo, with little communication between them. The result is usually an incomplete and uncoordinated plan that will ultimately fail the client. While many advisors have yet to embrace the collaborative planning model, those who have are in a unique position to differentiate themselves from other advisors by providing a better experience for their clients and by creating plans that will stand the test of time.

Of course, successful collaboration with other advisors can be tricky and challenging. However, understanding what it takes to collaborate successfully and having the ability to communicate and identify those traits and capabilities in your fellow collaboration partners can make a tremendous difference. What will make a professional collaboration successful? The following elements must be considered in order to have a chance at success in professional collaboration. Paying attention to these elements won’t guarantee success, but it will certainly guide you in the right direction.

Putting the team together

The first step in establishing a working collaboration is to identify the various professionals who will make up the team. There are several ways this selection process begins. In some cases, the client begins working with one professional and that professional recognizes that the course of the engagement will be more complex than expected and will require other experts. This is the ideal opportunity to initiate a conversation with the client regarding the benefits of creating a team to provide better service. At this point, you, the lead advisor, have the opportunity to select an “All Star” team of experts.

The typical team consists of a tax or estate planning attorney, an accountant and a financial advisor. However, other specialists are often brought in to perform specific tasks or to execute tactics that have been designed into the plan. They might include a life insurance specialist; a business valuation expert; an appraiser; a number-crunching design specialist; a captive insurance expert; an asset protection lawyer; a family business psychologist; a legacy services provider; and an investment banker. While these professionals may not be involved in the entire process, their roles may be vital to the success of the planning, and they should be included in critical discussions about the plan. Having access to these resources is another key asset that collaboration can provide to the client.

Working with a client’s existing team

Often the client has one or more professional relationships already and feels that these professionals should be part of the team. In some cases, the intimate knowledge of the family that the current professional possesses may be invaluable to the team. Conversely, that same advisor may be entirely entrenched in his or her current role and may better serve the family by serving as a professional sounding board for the new team’s thoughts and strategies. Certainly a discussion of these options is in order. Adding an unfamiliar member to your team may be a challenge, so think carefully about how this new person will work within your team.

For any group, especially a group of multidisciplinary professionals, to work together, they must trust each other. Trust is developed easily by some and with great difficulty by others. How you build trust between team members depends on a number of things, but essential to the process is your communication. Each member of the collaboration must be open, honest, transparent and respectful. While this makes sense intellectually, it is not easy. All team members must be willing to discuss everything and anything regarding their professional approach, their practice, how they get paid and how they view their part of the engagement. Disappointment is often the result of unmet (and frequently unvoiced) expectations.

Real-world example

Recently a colleague of mine, a family psychologist who works with successful family business owners about issues of communication and family governance, expressed concern about collaborating with a financial professional he knew pretty well because he believed that if he brought the financial professional onto his team, “he would try to sell the family something.” After much discussion with the advisor about his reluctance and his fears, he agreed that the best path for the family was to bring in the advisor, whom he already knew well, understanding that if the client required financial products to solve some issues, this advisor would provide the appropriate solution. In this circumstance, open, honest communication on the part of both professionals enabled them to better serve the family.

Will there be a leader? Should there be a leader? Each case is different, of course, but it is generally best to have one member act as the point of main contact. This doesn’t mean that no one else is allowed to talk to the family, as that would not be practical. It does keep the client from feeling overwhelmed and confused, and it also keeps the advisors from being triangulated by the client. It is also best to have established timelines with reasonable expectations and someone who holds the other team members accountable. High-net-worth cases are generally very complex, and it is common for them to get bogged down waiting for one person or another to finish a portion of the work. One of the major advantages of collaborating is that as a team member, no one is working in isolation. While each member may carry a large portion of the responsibility for a while, all members will have their share of work to do. The ultimate result should be far better for the client.


The effort needed to collaborate successfully is more work than simply sharing referrals. It requires team-building skills, patience and a deeper level of professional involvement than one finds in a typical advisor-to-client relationship. However, if the purpose is to provide a higher level of service and a sustainable, well-executed plan for the client, then there is no better approach. Remembering a few of these simple principles will enable you to begin this process.

About the Author

Randy Fox is Editor in Chief of Planned Giving Design Center and is the regional representative of Charitable Giving Resource Center.