Everything changes. That includes the financial advisory business. If it's not growing, then it's stagnating or regressing. Clearly it is growing in size, both overall and as independent practices merge and add partners. But will it be able to keep the fire alive as it grows?
I ask this because of the crazy notion I have of the perfect financial planner as Charles Lindbergh making his solo flight across the Atlantic. One man with bravery, courage, integrity, compassion, discipline and determination. These are rare character gems that do not necessarily transfer from one person to another. So how can you continue to protect values, principals-these intangibles that cannot be taught-as the profession grows? Or can you? Does size mean that you've got to lower your standards in order to bring enough workers in the door to service the clients?
When I started covering the financial planning industry 20 years ago, serious planners were already trying to quantify this indefinable quality, to find a name that would distinguish the "real planner." Yet that effort has not succeeded in most other professions. Does a "good" doctor have a special label? Or a "good" insurance agent? Like Dr. Good? Agent Good? If so, what are the barriers to getting that "Good" name and preventing others from copying it?
You remember the attempts to name the quality as "fee-only" or "NAPFA member," or most recently "fiduciary," some name that would guarantee consumers access to one of those handful of planners who would address the client's values, all without considering how decisions would affect his own pocketbook. Is it ridiculous to think that such an ephemeral idea can grow to accommodate a larger and larger industry? That you are not ever going to let a planner in the door of your practice who always thinks first of his own wallet?
I don't think it's ridiculous. Neither is it simple. I've watched the financial planning business struggle with this concept for two decades. For me, I took the backward view that keeping a practice small, very small, was the best way to guarantee that values were upheld. I was impressed when planners succeeded in making CFP the must-have designation, in raising the bar for obtaining that designation and fighting their own industry leadership boards when the boards wanted to water down the CFP. There is a lot of money in those membership coffers now. Think how much more there might be if you opened the doors to everyone. That seems to be the way some folks are thinking now.
Ten years ago, a core of financial planners believed that financial planning meant creating a new life for the client, a new money plan but also a dream list, and helping him achieve it. One of the advance guard was George Kinder, a planner in Cambridge, Mass., who also built a practice in Hawaii so that he could live his own dream and be freed up to help others do the same.
I gave a keynote address at the National Association for Financial Planners (NAPFA) national convention in June 1999, in Washington. I had just finished writing a book on financial planning (Best Practices for Financial Advisors) that led me to a tiny epiphany. When I started the book, I believed that financial planners were for other people. Of course I liked many of them. But I didn't realize until I finished the book that every person in the country (the world?) could be helped by a financial planner. A planner's money management skills are dwarfed by the changes he could make in a client's life, the ways he could help the client identify goals and remove clutter. That's what I talked about in the NAPFA speech: How can you find the courage to really help your clients by pointing out the destructive patterns they have around money? If you can do it, you can change lives.
After the presentation, advisors had an opportunity to get together with the speakers. Our room was packed. People wanted to know how to do this. They wanted to know the pitfalls. Some of them wanted to talk about how they'd tried to reach out to clients on another level only to be given a cold shoulder.
These were the days when "life planning" became the buzzword. Magazines added stories and columns on the life planning movement, more and more stories until the "others" out there, wannabe planners and giant wirehouses, started to use life planning as a marketing tool. They reduced "life planning" to a formula: A life planner doesn't forget to send flowers on a client's birthday. He doesn't forget to send little notes to tell the client how much he is appreciated. He doesn't forget to ask about the kids' drug problems. And the overbearing mother-in-law and the wife's agraphobia.
Formulas and workbooks were developed. Life planning was considered a tract at conferences. And then "life planner" was the label everyone wanted. It was easier to get than a CFP or a NAPFA membership. And there was no way to disprove that someone was a life planner. Nearly every planner I interviewed said: "I'm a life planner," or said their services encompass life planning.
O.K. So I'm going to make some confessions, admit to biases that make me an unfair judge in the way planning has grown:. I don't like big corporations. I don't like mass rules. I don't like the big guy telling the little guy what to do. And so of course I don't like the big guy swallowing up the little guy, my little guy who used his skills and integrity and knowledge to make a better life for clients.