Ed Obuchowski: Exemplifying Reformative Tech Leadership

Ed Obuchowski, CTO at Advisors Group, Inc.

What once seemed impossible has become possible today, all thanks to technological advancements. Technology has played a significant role in changing the face of various sectors and, ultimately, enhanced people’s experiences.

Today, technology is evolving at a rapid pace, and thus, organizations are constantly adopting cutting-edge technologies to stay ahead of the curve and deliver enriching experiences to their clients. This evolution requires agile leadership. Advisor Group, Inc. found such an agile leader, Ed Obuchowski.

Ed Obuchowski is serving as the Chief Technology Officer at Advisor Group, the nation’s largest network of independent wealth management firms. He is leading the firm’s technology strategy to help advisors efficiently grow and scale their businesses.

Ed’s path to CIO/CTO is a unique one. However, looking back, he thinks it was exactly what he needed to prepare himself for the most challenging and rewarding roles in his career.

We at CIO Look got into conversation with Ed to learn more about his journey, challenges, and how he has spearheaded the technical aspects of Advisor Group.

Below are the highlights of the interview:

Brief our audience about your journey as a business leader until your current position at Advisor Group. What challenges you had to overcome to reach where you are today?

After college, I decided to change careers from one love of my life to another. As such, I gave up my flight instructing job and aspirations to become a commercial pilot and transitioned full time into technology as a system and network administrator.

From there, I eventually left that initial role and joined a trading firm in downtown Chicago. It was there I was introduced to the trading culture as well as, at times, stressful responsibilities of running a large trading floor and backend systems. I eventually left that firm and moved into a service and operations role where I learned what customer service was all about as well as the complexities of the financial services world. This role required that I obtain a number of securities licenses and thus learn the brokerage industry from a business perspective in great detail.

As my career progressed, my responsibilities shifted back to technology, where I ran a large Market Data Technology team that consumed data from all domestic and some international exchanges. The large team was responsible for all of the quotes, news, charts and other analytics for Charles Schwab and their subsidiaries.

After upgrading the technology and the team, I found myself with the opportunity to move into an SVP role that was responsible for all retail technology at Schwab. Both of these roles would not have been possible had I not understood the voice of our clients and the needs of our business partners. The role was almost purely software development, which remains a lifelong passion.

As fortune would have it, the head of Infrastructure decided to retire, and I was offered the opportunity to move to Phoenix from Austin and become the Infrastructure successor. After more than a decade, I received a late evening call asking if I would be willing to take on the role of SVP of Advisor Services Technology. It was the culmination of many different business, service, operations, and technology roles that eventually prepared me for the next major career opportunity, CTO/CIO of Advisor Group.

Tell us something more about your company and its mission and vision.

I sincerely feel that Advisor Group has an extremely honorable and rewarding mission, with a set of values that puts our Advisors and their clients first. Furthermore, AG remains committed to ensuring that we continue to invest in and uncompromisingly support a culture that empowers our teams and attracts top talent to every group and organization in the company.

What I truly love about AG is the fact that every business decision must successfully pass through our culture filter. In other words, the people, diversity, the culture, and our commitment to our Financial Professionals comes first. This is critical to a company that plans to grow substantially through organic and inorganic acquisitions. In my experience, a company whose primary lens is commitment and loyalty to their clients and their employees can successfully grow the company without impacting our secret sauce, our devotion to our clients, our employees, and our culture.

Enlighten us on how you have made an impact in the Financial Services niche through your expertise in the market.

As a CIO/CTO who enjoys a tremendous amount of empowerment and support from the CEO, the Executive Committee, and the Board of Directors, I have always felt it is my responsibility to innovate and differentiate through technology. While technology remains a key focus, the reality is that business-driven technology is what changes companies and industries. That goal is only achievable if there is unbending trust built upon strong foundational relationships between technology teams and all of our constituents across the company, including our Financial Professionals and their clients.

Technology must be an equal player at the table. As the technology lens allows the business and other groups to see solutions to opportunities and challenges that would have otherwise been overlooked. Conversely, the combination of technology ideas and innovations coupled with highly experienced and incredibly capable businesses and other teams can be game-changing.

Examples include hyper-integration between proprietary AG systems and third parties. This approach is applicable to both internal and client-facing systems. AG can thus focus on our core competencies, and in parallel, provide seamlessly integrated solutions and an exceptional user experience with third parties. This approach also enables AG to bring tools and capabilities to our clients much faster than if we relied on purely internal development. Having a well-defined technology and product strategy also provides our constituents with being able to use the platforms of their choice. As such, continued investment in innovation is certainly important, but so is the ongoing investment in modernization and automation which allows AG to be unencumbered by legacy technologies.

Truth be told, there are numerous ways that AG has influenced and pushed the industry. Partnering with Financial Professionals to keep their offices safe from a cybersecurity perspective was and will be a critical and significant undertaking. Helping our customers and our internal teams to become much more efficient through investments in data analytics and digital solutions has already yielded substantial benefits. And lastly, our ability to empower our advisors with the insights to effectively manage their business and aggressively grow their practices through data-driven insights is both a requirement as well as a differentiator for our Financial Professionals.

Undeniably, technology is playing a significant role in almost every sector. How are you leveraging technological advancements to make your solutions resourceful?

My belief is that all technology organizations must balance their investments between core and innovation. Many people believe that investing in legacy systems or upgrades in infrastructure is not innovative. While most of the time not overly sexy, core investments can absolutely be innovative and game-changing. As an example, AG recently moved two of our data centers onto state-of-the-art technology. This investment will reduce costs, increase automation, improve security, scalability, and performance. When we made this decision, we were careful to be on the leading but not bleeding edge. This approach, which was ingrained in our strategy, was and is game-changing.

On the more traditional innovation front, there are a number of areas and approaches, and decisions that we consciously make to differentiate AG while avoiding the need to reinvent the wheel. Integrating proprietary systems and experiences into many different 3rd parties in a manner that is fully digital and virtually transparent to our customers is an area that allows AG to offer solutions that others are still years away from bringing to market. Another example, which is one that I am incredibly proud of, is the approach we have taken to protect our advisor’s business from external security threats. In a model where Financial Professionals chose their own equipment and connectivity, we challenged the team to bring forward solutions that would help them comply with policies and regulations as well as detect and remediate certain threats and vulnerabilities. This initiative will persist in perpetuity as the threats advance. However, with AG in their corner our customers and their clients will remain as protected as possible across an ever-changing threat landscape.

If given a chance, what technological change would you like to bring in the Financial Services industry?

Frankly, I feel very strongly that my team and I are constantly given the freedom to influence or even change the industry. From my perspective, real industry change isn’t accomplished via the guide rails of regulations and policies alone. Instead, true industry change occurs through example. Although overused, Amazon is probably the best example of how a business model and strategy wrapped in truly impressive technology with a great user experience can not only change but upend an entire industry across the globe. Social media, while despised by me, is another example of how new capabilities that people didn’t know they needed would also change the world (perhaps not for the better).

Personally, as a very values and customer driven person, I would like to help our industry to become the most ethical and trusted industry in the nation. Over the years Wall Street has been a place that has brought prosperity to millions. A country that invests in their country’s industries are true patriots. Investing in stocks and other instruments, whether directly or through a Financial Professional, amounts to that person’s investment in their dreams and aspirations. Perhaps they want to retire at a reasonable age, purchase their first house, put their children through college, or donate to worthwhile causes. All of these things, and more are achievable in a system built upon trust and transparency. As such, instead of putting in place more barriers, creating unwanted administrivia, and using the threat of fines and other methods to drive behavior, I would rather implement industry-wide capabilities that ensure mistakes are minimized and best practices are always follows.

Where do you envision yourself to be in the long run and what are your future goals for Advisor Group?

In the not-so-long run, I envision seeing Advisor Group in the top three largest providers for Financial Professionals. I expect AG to be the number one most trusted, the number one most customer-focused, and the most innovative provider of digital and data driven solutions that allows our FP’s to grow at an incredibly fast pace via a fully digitized and hyper-efficient set of platforms.

While bold and courageous, it is all extremely feasible. In many regards, our size, our culture, and ability to innovate, and deliver creative business and technology solutions puts AG at an advantage that can be positively exploited as compared to many other firms.

What would be your advice to budding technological entrepreneurs who aspire to venture into the financial services sector?

Have the courage to take chances. Step out of your comfort zone, even if the challenge is “beyond you” from your perspective. Remember, when you are offered an opportunity, regardless of your experience, someone really trusts in your capabilities. Take the tough jobs, especially in the growth stage of your career. People will have empathy and respect you for it. Have a mentor. Let me repeat that, have multiple mentors. Experience and perspective must be learned over time. However, mentors can help you see things about you, your personal life and even your work life that you cannot. Everyone needs a mirror or two during their journey. Build relationships in your community, in your industry, and in your company. Never ever under any circumstances burn a bridge. DO NOT fear change or the future. Instead, embrace it. Delegate and empower by (as my mentor told me) “giving up control to get control”. Learn to work effectively in high-stress conditions. This can jump start your career or set it back if you are not careful.

Be kind, brave, and always respectful. Don’t be negative or engage in gossip regarding the firm or a fellow employee; you’re not going to like the outcome. Never talk down to a person or get into an argument in public. A lot of times behind the scenes private conversations can resolve issues and even strengthen relationships.

Be solutions-driven. It is great to find issues, but you must be willing to come up with solutions that you are prepared to take on. Always help your peers and partners. You all work in the same company. Your pay checks come from the same place. Build aligned teams. Share your values, you mission, your strategy, and your objectives; and be a broken record about them. DO NOT micromanage your career. Be assertive, aggressive, and have the courage to ask for what you deserve. Be willing to accept the positive and negative outcomes. People who are very engaged in their careers, but don’t manage the journey on a daily basis, can find their way up the ladder more effectively, because going up the corporate ladder is rarely a straight line. Be a mentor to others. Coach them and help them. Build successors not fiefdoms. I don’t know anyone who got fired for building a team that is capable of taking over your job. However, the inverse happens constantly.

Live a balanced life. Love and be there for your family and friends. On their death bed, no one ever said, “I wish I worked more”! Treat yourself well. Stay healthy physically and mentally, especially as you age; trust me, I know! Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It doesn’t make you weak, but it can make you more effective and respected. Don’t be someone you are not. Your long-term success will come from what is inside of you. Be willing to put in the hours. If you don’t like them then be a leader in changing the applicable dynamic. Complaining won’t get you anywhere. On a personal level, sometimes bad things happen to good people. It is critical that you take the time you need to get through the difficult times so you can again reengage when you are ready. You may not always see it, but everyone suffers in their life. It is how you handle it that makes all of the difference.

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