It's not surprising that, according to a 2014 study, almost 90% of clients want their financial planner to be a strong leader.
What is surprising, however, is the way those clients described leadership.
In the study, conducted by the Financial Planning Association's Research and Practice Institute—and which Julie Littlechild of Advisor Impact discussed in a recent speech—clients said a strong leader should have these four qualities: expertise, skill as a guide, deep understanding, and vulnerability.
Let's examine those qualities.
1. Expertise: Leaders typically have a strong base of professional expertise that goes beyond general knowledge of their field. This is why continuing education is paramount to good financial planning.
Even more important, leaders have wisdom: the combination of knowledge and experience. A new college graduate has knowledge. A 30-year planner has a high probability of having wisdom.
Clients want planners to be experts, to have knowledge about all things financial, and to know how to apply that knowledge to clients' unique sets of circumstances.
2. Skill as a guide: Guiding is the ability to use expertise and wisdom to help clients go where they want to go, not where the planner thinks they should go. An effective guide first finds out where clients want to go, devises the safest, most effective route to get them there, and leads the way.
I don’t know of any academic courses that teach financial planners how to guide. It’s learned experientially. Planners learn it by walking the walk, treading the same path for themselves that they will lead their client on.
3. Deep understanding: What's surprising about this quality is the word "deep." Certainly, leaders need to understand their followers. But to understand someone deeply is much more intimate and encompassing than a superficial understanding of a person’s general needs, intentions, or desires.
Deep understanding comes through hours of genuine listening, asking probing and thoughtful questions, and having a genuine concern for the client's well-being. It establishes a deep sense of belonging and acceptance.
For most financial advisers, the capacity and skills to understand someone deeply are not intuitive. They need to be acquired by learning and especially by experientially applying the principles of Motivational Interviewing, Appreciative Inquiry, and Positive Psychology. This training is rarely part of financial planning or finance programs.
4. Vulnerability: This was the most surprising quality. My image of a leader is that of a General Patton or President Lincoln: strong, resolved, visionary, courageous. Not vulnerable. Yet, in truth, vulnerability requires incredible strength of character, vision, and courage.
Financial advisers who are comfortable with their vulnerability are able to expose their humanity and failings. All of us can relate to someone who has screwed up. None of us can relate to someone who hasn’t. Planners willing to admit their errors beget trust and confidence in those around them. The strength to be vulnerable comes from spending a lot of time in self-reflection and personal growth.
Of the four qualities people look for in a strong leader, only one, expertise, can be learned academically. The other three—skill as a guide, deep understanding, and vulnerability—are learned experientially. Anyone who completes the course of study to obtain a financial planning degree has gained only 25% of the necessary skills to become what their clients are looking for in a planner. Someone who adds a degree in counseling conceivably has 50% of the skills.
Becoming a trusted leader and adviser goes further. It requires us to develop and apply in our own lives the relationship skills and leadership we want to offer to clients.
Rick Kahler, ChFC, is president of Kahler Financial Group, a fee-only financial planning firm. His work and research regarding the integration of financial planning and psychology has been featured or cited in scores of broadcast media, periodicals and books. He is a co-author of four books on financial planning and therapy. He is a faculty member at Golden Gate University and the former president of the Financial Therapy Association.