In No Necktie Needed, A Woman’s Guide to Success in Financial Services, Juli McNeely is upbeat but candid about what it takes to succeed in an industry where men still outnumber women and continue to hold more leadership and ownership positions.
McNeely is president of McNeely Financial Services in Spencer, Wis., and is the immediate past president of the 40,000-member National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors. She was the first woman to be elected secretary, and then president of the 126-year-old association.
Despite being outnumbered by men, women are particularly well suited to succeed in financial services, McNeely writes, because women are deft at “ferreting out and recalling details,” cultivating relationships and educating people. She is a Certified Financial Planner and Chartered Life Underwriter.
McNeely admits she was hobbled by uncertainty and lack of confidence when she first entered the field 20 years ago at her now-retired father’s firm.
“The industry was set up by men, for men, and for the most part training was geared toward more direct, cold, hard “just the facts” kinds of sales that did not favor the way women are likely to approach a client.”
Instead, she used her strengths as an educator and at building relationships to become a confident achiever. And, she says, she insisted on having “a work-life balance,” unlike her father, who was so consumed with building a successful firm he was largely absent from family life. Her parents divorced, and starting in 1986, her mother, McNeely’s mentor and role model, achieved success selling life insurance in rural Wisconsin. When her mother became an affiliated agent, 13 percent of agents and advisors were women; today,  22 percent are women.
McNeely urges women who value a work-life balance to consider financial services: “Something about being in control of my time and the idea of unlimited earning potential provided ample incentive for me,” she writes without irony.
Insurance sales and advising, which McNeely says have become part of the overall financial services industry, offer women strong opportunities: in the United States, 100 million adults 18 and older lack life insurance, and by 2026, the insurance sales force will be reduced by about 40 percent due to retirement, death or attrition.
McNeely offers another eye-popping statistic, provided by, that argues for more women financial advisors: “Eighty-five percent of consumer purchases today are made by women … women pay the bills, decide what goes into which account, and handle most, if not all, of the family’s financial decisions,” she writes.
“As a rule, consumers like to work with an advisor who looks the way they do and speaks their language -- literally or figuratively.” McNeely says an advisor’s flexible schedule is especially appealing to women with children or who care for an aging parent. In 2013, the average age for financial services industry recruits was 44, which makes the profession a good choice for women returning to the job market.
Books by financial advisors often say learning how to listen is essential to success; McNeely says, “Women tend to listen with the intent to understand, where men often listen in order to speak _ to use what they hear as a prelude to “What am I going to say next?”
Teamwork is essential for success, McNeely writes: aside from her office team of six, there is a five-member group of women financial advisors that she meets with several times yearly to exchange information on practices, goals and employee issues.
“Teaming today is more expected and accepted by clients than it was 30 years ago or even 20 years ago when I joined my father’s practice.”
In her chapter, “Transitioning Your Practice,” McNeely says that 22 percent of financial advisors are women and an even smaller percentage of firms are run by mother-daughter teams. But, “increasing the presence of women advisors and the opportunity for mother-daughter teams for succession in the industry”  would be a “huge boost to move things forward.”
In “Saying No to Negative Voices in Your Head,” McNeely says women must overcome an innate sense of inadequacy so they can become as good at promoting themselves as men are.
She writes that even today, Gen Xers like herself and millennials still struggle with negativity generated by themselves and within the industry. Her comments in the chapter “Avoid Misunderstandings in Business and Social Settings” are reinforced by a July 10, 2016, New York Times’ op-ed piece by Sam Polk, “How Wall Street Bro Talk Keeps Women Down.” Polk, a former hedge fund trader, writes revealingly about the culture of objectifying and debasing women by male traders.
McNeely says her fears, negativity and lack of self-esteem caused her to cry every day when she started in the field, but she gave herself pep talks, saying “I’ve got to pull myself through this and I did. It helps me to remember those moments as a point of reference so I can remind myself how far I’ve come.”
No Necktie Needed. A Woman’s Guide to Success in Financial Services, by Juli McNeely. 136 pages. $15.95.

Eleanor O’Sullivan is an award-winning freelance journalist who writes for Financial Advisor magazine.