Yonhee Choi Gordon
A Trailblazer of Career Pathing and People Management
How Yonhee Choi Gordon found her place in the financial advising world and helps others do the same
Over the course of Yonhee Choi Gordon’s career at JMG Financial Group, an RIA headquartered outside of Chicago, she’s witnessed the incredible effects of having confidence in oneself and instilling confidence in others. Doing so has helped Yonhee and the teams she’s developed over the years reach their full potential.
As a brand new college grad in the mid-80s, Yonhee would have thought it unlikely she’d become a Principal and COO/CMO at a firm like JMG. In fact, she didn’t know anything about financial advising back then. Being from a Korean immigrant family, her parents made a lot of decisions for her during her young adult years, including where she would go to college and what her major would be (accounting, to follow in her father’s footsteps). She eventually changed majors, and had a short stint in insurance sales after college.
She decided she’d go back to school and during this timeframe, she ran into her old Sunday School teacher, who happened to work at JMG in Downers Grove, IL. He learned of her situation and tried to recruit her for a staff position at the firm. Lacking the confidence to accept, she politely declined. But he saw a certain quality in her and pursued the recruitment process further.
He suggested that he assign her projects for a few weeks to see if they were something she enjoyed. Equipped with a Wall Street Journal, a book of finance and investment terminology, and a computer with an early Lotus spreadsheet application, she began working through his assignments. Each day, she would review his feedback, learn from her mistakes, and tackle additional projects.
After feeling like she was figuring it out, she decided to give JMG a shot. “What I didn't realize until much later was: he was just really trying to give me some confidence,” Yonhee recalls.
She started off as an entry level clerk in 1986, and at the time there was no clear path for advancement. Being one of few women on staff (the only Asian woman, and the only one with a college degree), she kept her head down, worked hard, and learned whatever she could.
“My attitude was: learn everything and observe everything,” she says. She started to gain an understanding of financial planning, investments, and even tax preparation. She sat in on client meetings and observed her boss—and how he talked to clients—which helped shape her emotional intelligence. She became the organizer, the trainer and the teacher at JMG. She ran staff meetings, and enabled employees to share information and best practices, rather than working in silos.
Eventually, her boss accepted a position with a different firm and announced he was leaving. Yonhee assumed she would go with him.
“And he said, ‘no, I need you to stay because I need the clients to stay, and you are the one that knows the clients, and so you can transition the clients to the other advisors,’ ...well that also opened a lot of doors for me, too.”
Leadership took notice of the work she was doing, and the strong people skills she had. They gave her more responsibilities related to training and hiring staff, and she was promoted to an advisor. She was the first person promoted from a staff person to an advisor, which made them see that it was possible to develop staff internally.
After some time as an advisor, Yonhee was eventually faced with the challenges of balancing her life as a mother and as an advisor—a job she could only do from the office, as they lacked the remote work capabilities we enjoy today. She was offered a role in management, which meant giving up clients, but gaining more flexibility.
From there, she evolved and progressed into the COO role. She wears many hats, but is qualified to do so thanks to the breadth of responsibilities she has had over the years. Yonhee credits the success she’s had to those who enabled her to develop, her mentor included. JMG also had a woman CEO for 12 years, so she understood the challenges of being a woman and mother in the workplace. The woman CEO’s leadership set a standard that the advisors were used to, which Yonhee thinks has also helped her thrive in her own leadership role.
Yonhee knows that a lot can and should still be done to encourage more diversity in financial advising. And for some cultures, that means educating parents on the career choice and what it can bring to an individual—because parents often drive a lot of the decisions their children make and the careers they choose.
“I think the parents of these kids, they need to be more aware of the profession of a fee-only financial advisor and how important they can be to somebody's life,” Yonhee says. She went on to talk about how different cultures view money in different ways, so it’s important for the future of the profession to have financial advisors that understand these varying views.
“I tell young people what they need to really think about is having confidence with humility,” says Yonhee. She wants young advisors to feel good about themselves and what they bring to the table, but also realize they have a lot of room to grow. And she tries to enable this growth by setting up mentoring relationships. At JMG, they also encourage community outreach and introducing high school students to the profession.
Yonhee reflects on her career, very grateful for finding a role that allows her best self to shine: a positive attitude and a high level of care and empathy. She credits much of this to her immigrant upbringing, having a brother with special needs, and taking a chance on a career she knew nothing about at first.
She has built relationships in her firm that supersede business; she wants her colleagues to be happy and thrive, whatever they choose to do. So not only has she developed people to help meet company goals, but she’s also helped colleagues transition out of the firm with grace when it wasn’t a good fit for them individually anymore—a true mark of an empathic leader.
The common thread in all her roles at JMG has been the relationship-building factor. She thinks back to the way her mentor allowed her to explore whether it would be a good fit before taking a position.
“I think that really had a very profound impact on the way that I have worked and the way that I have developed people,” Yonhee explains. “And so because of that, I have created assessments for the interview process … I spend a lot of time on the front end with applicants, because I really want them to know what they're getting into. And because of that, we have extremely high retention.”
Case in point: Yonhee has been with the firm since 1986, and the average tenure of her partners is 24 years. That’s proof that they, like many of the 95 employees, have found a good fit at JMG.
“So why do I do what I do?” Yonhee reflects. “Because I enjoy seeing people become successful and I really get a kick out of watching them realize things that they never really thought they could do.”
Through her 36 years at the firm, she notes how special her experience has been.
“I think it's kind of neat to look back on my career. I have clients I was with as a staff person just inputting their data, then I got to see them prepare for retirement, and then I became their advisor during retirement…They even know my family; I've been working with them for a long time, and now they're starting to pass away. It’s very sad for me personally, but when their family says: what would we have done without you and your firm? I mean, what a rewarding and gratifying career. It’s truly a privilege.”