CJ Miller, CFP®, RMA®, is a financial planner at Sensible Money LLC and a board member of the Greater Phoenix chapter of the FPA. He sat down with Matt Fizell, CFP®, to talk about how he found a career in a small firm where he can see himself growing happily for the rest of his working life. He shares about the essential values, habits, and supports that you can cultivate to build your own big dreams in small businesses.

Why not follow the corporate career path?

CJ had an entrepreneurial spirit right out of the box. Growing up, he helped out in his dad’s small boxing studio in Illinois. He moved out to Arizona to go to University of Arizona, and hustled with jobs in other small businesses to pay his way through. He always took ownership of his career, and it gave him a bit of an edge when it came to job hunting. He says, “I knew if I didn't find something I enjoyed doing that could make money after I graduated, I might have to go back to Illinois. And the winters there are rough.”

Thanks to advice from a career coach at the university, CJ got introduced to a network of independent RIA financial planners. They ran weekly meetups for students with workshops about a wide variety of roles and topics in the profession.

That's how CJ learned about the CFP® and the work inside the profession. Up to then, the only jobs he’d seen recruited at the university were with the typical corporate firms, like Vanguard, Edward Jones, and Northwestern Mutual. None of them had ever mentioned financial planning.

CJ could see himself in the shoes of the advisors he met who worked at independent firms, but realized those roles were already taken. He told himself, “If I want to do what they’re doing, I need to start somewhere that doesn’t have that role yet, so I can build it for myself.”

Find a mentor, get your foot in the door

“I am a big believer in this concept called engineered serendipity,” CJ says. Although many young planners take the traditional corporate career path, it was always a little different for him. “I think you need to create room for those chance encounters and special moments in life to happen. And when they do, your gut will scream at you and say, ‘Pursue that!’”

After his first internship at TCI in Tucson, CJ networked around and found an opportunity to apply for Charles Schwab's RIA intern program in Phoenix. Interns there got the opportunity to meet with hundreds of different firms and advisors that Schwab deals with. 

“That's where I met Dana,” CJ says. Dana Anspach, CFP®, RMA®, Kolbe Certified™ Consultant, is the CEO and founder of Sensible Money. “She came in to do a presentation about branding and marketing, which is something that her agency is known for industry-wide.”

After Dana’s presentation and her story about why her firm does things differently, CJ was intrigued. He sent Dana a message on LinkedIn that night, saying “Hey, I'm in school in Tucson. I'm graduating next year, and if you have any entry level job opportunities, please keep in touch.” Dana responded with an offer to set up an internship for him that he could complete virtually.

Feeling that shout of engineered serendipity, CJ jumped at the chance and has never looked back.

Build the place where you want to work

“One of the things that I love about working [at Sensible Money] is that we say to people all the time, ‘Figure out what you like to do,’” CJ says.

With hands-on mentorship from Dana, including weekly one-on-ones and careful guidance of his skills, CJ took ownership of his strengths and became a driving force behind the growth and culture strategy at Sensible Money. He helps mentor younger planners and initiates them into a growth mindset and ownership of their interests, which keeps their team balanced and poised for long-term success.

CJ says, “I really enjoy doing intros with new clients. But I'm not great at going in and updating instructions. But you know, as we train interns or entry level planners, I've learned that I have to do those things to be a good boss. If I don't follow the workflows or organize my email inbox, they won't either.”

CJ is very motivated by the accountability inherent in mentoring. There's a feeling that if he doesn’t do the work, the buck will stop with him, as he believes it should. But he also really enjoys mentoring because he knows the reward is there, for him and the firm.

“I wouldn't be here without that leadership from Dana,” he says, “and I need to pay it forward if I want to be part of a successful firm.”

Advice for planners who crave small firms

CJ admits that he got extremely lucky in finding an excellent fit in his mentor relationship. To help other young planners engineer some serendipity in their careers, he recommends the following:

Look for good leadership and team culture.

He says, “Before Charles Schwab, I only had jobs in small businesses. I learned that your culture there really matters. It's a lot harder to build it in a small business and it's easy to wreck it quickly. So, if you have a bad boss, you're gonna have a really bad experience at a small firm.”

Another key takeaway is to take responsibility.

At smaller, independent firms, every dollar they’re paying to an entry level employee is coming out of the owner's pocket. That’s why it’s important to justify your role from day one. It made CJ very ambitious to get really good, really fast at the things he was asked to do, and to take it very seriously.

His third recommendation: Seek out a stimulating community.

“One of the reasons I got involved with the FPA is that it was very apparent to me that if I wanted to meet anybody in Phoenix, I needed to go out and do some networking.” At Sensible Money’s Phoenix office, CJ is only one of six employees, and they mostly work virtually.

He adds, “If culturally, you just stay in your bubble, then you don't grow and you can't bring in new, innovative ideas.” Recently, he’s also been engaging in the Advisor Growth Community.

CJ’s final rule for small firm success is to be coachable.

“One of our values at Sensible Money is ‘Own It.’ If we say, ‘Hey, you did this wrong,’ and somebody gets defensive, that's a red flag. Because I can teach anybody financial planning, but I can't teach people how to take responsibility for themselves, to be polite and have a really positive outlook, or when they make mistakes, to learn from them.”

While large firms will always offer a number of opportunities for those entering the profession, these smaller firms and businesses offer different ways to grow in your career.

What You’ll Learn:

  • Some signs that the traditional corporate career path might not be for you
  • Why focusing on finding a mentor can pay huge dividends
  • How to build the place where you want to work
  • Four key takeaways to help you find a small firm

In this episode of YAFPNW, CJ Miller, CFP®, RMA®, and Matt Fizell, CFP®, talked about:

Interested in following CJ? Follow him on LinkedIn!