Wilderness, Leadership and Planning

A group of planners have created a scenic canoe trip as a way to get away and talk about their lives and careers—and also pick up some rare leadership training.

Scott Oeth, of Cahill Financial Advisors in Lake Edina, MN, loves the wild side of the outdoors.  “I went through Boy Scouts, became an Eagle Scout and did some wonderful wilderness trips there,” he says.  After paying his way through school on a volleyball scholarship, he worked as a branch manager at a bank before discovering financial planning, continued his career at two different independent advisory firms before becoming a silo of a larger firm, with 100 clients, and taking an active role in the local and national FPA. 

Along the way, he returned to his wilderness excursion roots, and in 2013 his hobby of taking canoe trips and adventure treks in the countryside turned into a side job as a trip organizer, guide and blogger for his own Bull Moose Patrol adventure travel website  (www.bullmoosepatrol.com).  “It’s a fun way to take people out into the woods and create a new experience for them,” he says. 

Among the dozen or so trips that Oeth has organized were a canoe journey in northern Maine, backpacking in the Cascade mountains in northern Washington and a backpacking trip in Alaska.  Most of the excursions are local, due to an abundance of natural settings in his home state.  “I want to travel all the significant rivers in Minnesota and northern Wisconsin,” Oeth says. 

A couple of the canoe trips in northern Minnesota included former FPA president (and outdoors enthusiast) Mike Branham, who Oeth worked with at one of his previous firms.  These excursions quickly took on a different flavor.  “We’d sit around the fire and talk into the evening,” says Oeth.  “We’d talk about work, the challenges we were facing, client issues, technical issues—and then afterwards, we always felt like we were doing it wrong.  Like: we’re supposed to be getting away and not talking about work.  Right?

“But then we finally decided: why don’t we just embrace it?” Oeth continues.  “Because you can really have some great conversations about your life and career when you’re away from the office, with no time constraints or other distractions.”

In fact, the conversations were so productive that other local planners were invited on these excursions, which led to what must be one of the most unusual regularly-scheduled study group gatherings in the profession, where advisors get together twice a year at a cabin in rural Minnesota, with an agenda that includes everybody critiquing each others’ business plans, discussing their careers and talking about technical topics—but only after a long day of paddling, hiking or cross-country skiing. 

“We’d sit around the fire at night and share a few beers and talk shop,” says Oeth.  It became a really good way for us to talk about our businesses, and have fun as well.”

One memorable getaway was an impromptu post-meeting get-together after one of the national NexGen conferences, where Oeth and Branham, Aaron Coates of Relevant Financial Advisors in Elkhart, IN, Jude Boudreaux from The Planning Center in New Orleans, Bill Winterberg, Michael Kitces, Sabrina Lowell of Mosaic Financial Partners in San Francisco and others visited the cabin for a long debrief.  “We would get on the pontoon boat at night, floating around the lake, and it was a chance to talk outside of the conference room, unplugged,” says Oeth.  “We had some really great conversations, and a lot of fun.”

Wilderness retreat

Now that Oeth has pioneered the wilderness planning retreat concept, he wants to take it a step further, and invite others to join in the fun.  He’s inviting planning practitioners from around the country to join him on a guided canoe trip down the San Juan River, flying in and out of Grand Junction, CO, October 15-20.  Everyone is welcome to join the river experience, enhanced by a chance to get unplugged and discuss the profession, careers, goals, issues—and also gain leadership training provided by the guides, who will be certified instructors with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS).

“Leadership training is taught in universities,” Oeth explains, “but I haven’t seen anything that provides intensive leadership training in our profession.”  Having taken NOLS training himself, Oeth believes that the leadership skills learned on the river can be applied to your professional life.  Participants are given rotating leadership roles, and the training specifically covers things like competence, communication, judgment and decision-making, tolerance for adversity and uncertainty, self-awareness, vision and action, and something called “expedition behavior,” which appears to relate to safe conduct in potentially dangerous environments.

“We have this whole body of knowledge about risk management in investments and the markets,” says Oeth.  “The NOLS training, which has been written up in the Harvard Business Review, puts these concepts into a context of crossing raging rivers, or climbing snowfields.  The expedition gives you an opportunity to explore where you’re going, why you’re going there, and to develop an up-front awareness that things will not always be easy, that you don’t know what the challenges are going to be, but you think about how you’re going to handle them. 

“That is exactly what we do in our business lives, and what I try to do with my clients,” Oeth continues.  “We talk about planning for retirement, sending kids to college, all the goals they may have, knowing there will be challenges like bear markets, life events—and this experience will be about how to have that conversation, understanding up-front that there are going to be challenges in the client’s journey, knowing how to assess the situation, making sure you are properly equipped for it, cultivating self-awareness, understanding the different roles of a leader and leadership styles.  Instead of being a passive participant where you hear someone give a presentation on leadership,” says Oeth, “you’re forced to work on practicing your leadership style in a real-world environment.”

In addition, he’s found that simply getting away from emails and his cell phone can be therapeutic.  “I’m leading a trip this weekend up in northern Minnesota,” he says.  “It can be the most meditative experience, where you’re unplugged and not picking up the phone every few minutes.  Just paddling down the river, looking at the sunsets, sitting around the fire at night—it’s a wonderful way to decompress.”

The trip is expected to include two NOLS guides, plus Oeth, who has NOLS training, and at least two persons—Branham and the female chief operations officer for a Minneapolis planning firm—have signed on so far.  Oeth hasn’t personally canoed down the San Juan River, but he’s researched it.  “the canyon lands are beautiful,” he says.  “USA Today just ran an article on it a few weeks ago, calling it one of the top ten paddles in the country, and compared it to the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.  Seventy five percent of the scenery and wonderment for a fraction of the price, and less wait list.”  (You can find the article here: https://www.usatoday.com/story/travel/destinations/10greatplaces/2018/04/06/river-trips-canoe-kayak-rafting/490731002/)


If this first wilderness adventure retreat goes well, Oeth plans to schedule more, at least one a year going forward.  “I have clients who are dentists, and they will be going on meetings where they earn their CE credits, but they also go scuba diving or skiing during the day, and then there are CE talks in the evening,” he says.  “And I think to myself, why can they do that, while financial planners just go sit in a conference room someplace in a big city?  For some people,” he says, “this could be the trip of a lifetime.”

You can find out more about the expedition and register here: https://www.nols.edu/en/about/custom-education/clients/bull-moose-patrol-leadership-expedition/. The cost is $3,450, and interested parties would be advised to check out the equipment list link to make sure you have everything you’ll need to go on the water.  If enough people sign up, the profession’s most unusual study group could become the profession’s most unusual annual meeting.

Meanwhile, Oeth has his eye on a potential destination for 2019.  “There’s a famous trekking trail in Iceland,” he says.  “It isn’t a hard-core backpacking trip,” he adds; “you can pack a little bit lighter because they have these huts along the way with supplies.  A leadership trek,” he says, “might be an interesting next experience.”