There it was, gain. "The Question." Posted right there on the April cover of Financial Advisor magazine for everyone to see. It mocked and cajoled, "What makes a profession, and will we ever meet that standard?"
It got me thinking. What standard? There is so little out there on the subject. How would we even know?
Of course, "The Question" is not new. It has looped in and out of our conversations from our beginnings. Then it was fitted especially for us. For as long as I can remember, we have wondered if we could qualify, then wondered when we would qualify. Then we wondered who would qualify us. After all, there is no certifying authority to confer status upon us or tell us what we need to do.
Let's understand something right off the bat. For this article, at least, we are talking about the authentic professions traditionally understood to be divinity, medicine and law. We are not addressing run-of-the-mill occupations, trades or crafts. Here, we take "The Question" to mean whether financial planning can become the real deal. What would it take for financial planners to join these learned, elite groups? It means accepting significant responsibilities, being charged with the warp and woof of social fabric and cultural contexts, earning esteem and respect within our communities while performing essential public and private services for our fellows. We are not talking about suits, haircuts or office furniture. We are not comparing 1040s or production quotas. We are talking mission, meaning and purpose.
"The Question" is not so easy as it might seem. So-called authorities take two tacks. On the one hand, they anoint the big three: divinity, medicine and law. Otherwise, they spend considerable effort describing "profession" solely in terms of attributes. Typically, these are described in terms of bodies of knowledge, educational curricula, regulation, formal qualifications, monopoly power, eleemosynary (public) purpose, codes of ethics, associations and governmental licensing. Of course, these are framed to include just about everybody.
Obviously, financial planning has all these attributes, except maybe the governmental licensing bit. Yet, these qualities seem strangely unsatisfying in our attempts to answer "The Question." Even though we have probably completed the punch list, I wonder: Do these qualities put us in a league with clerics, doctors and lawyers? Or do we feel more than a bit short in our self-comparisons with those from the "big three" "authentic" professions? If so, what are we missing? Could it be that we have yet to develop strong, consistent senses of mission, meaning and purpose?
I suggest all of us have it backward, including those pretending to authority. The proper inquiry is not into miscellaneous attributes. They give us no standard. Truly, meaningful attributes can come only after we have identified our unique function and the reasons why financial planning has come into being.
Once upon a time, I was a potter. I made pots. I took clay, prepared it, centered it, determined my path and proceeded to craft a form. Then I took that form through finishing steps, bisqued it, glazed it and put it through intense fire for several hours. When I combined effective craft with cogent purpose, the results were functional and attractive pots that could last forever with proper handling. Poor craftsmanship or unresolved purpose resulted in recycled mud or useless trash.
In fact, throwing pots is a lot like the six-step process. Every step must be done competently, with proper sequence, technique and intention or it just does not work. Pottery skills inform the financial planning process in many ways. From learning the vital distinctions between art and craft to recognizing the need for skill, order and process, to grasping the importance of vision and inspiration, pottery's many lessons become life skills. Of these lessons, none is more important than the axiom "form follows function." Its only rival is its corollary, "function does not follow form." In other words, you don't just throw some clay on a wheel, mess about a bit and declare that you have a bowl. Rather, you set out to make something that holds liquids, accepts solids, interfaces nicely with spoons and has aesthetic appeal.
Indeed, this seems to suggest the path of most invention. A need emerges and is observed. Responses follow, attempting to meet the need. Appropriate responses surface. Some stick, some do not. Some are improved. Some are rejected. Designs change as perceptions are refined. Questions must be asked: What is the need? What are we trying to accomplish? What is the point of the activity? Form flows from mission, meaning and purpose.
With regard to financial planning, it is not enough to have that body of knowledge, educational track, public purpose and code of ethics. We have coveted the baubles of authentic professions without understanding how these attributes developed, what they do and how they are maintained. We like to think we have the importance of an authentic profession. But what do we mean when we make the claim? I suggest we need to look more closely at essence.
Instead, we start with the perceived need. Then we go to the organic consequences of that need. Why do we need financial planning? Why now? Why is it sweeping the planet? How could a few visionaries meeting in a basement so quickly give rise to such a substantial movement? If we ask for the effects of a profession first, we have it backward. We're focusing on form rather than function.
If we can answer the "function" question, forms flow. From there we can answer "The Question."
Why should financial planning become an authentic profession while so many other occupations are not? It cannot be just the academics. In truth, there are literally thousands of academic fields unconnected to authentic professions. Nor can it just be an inchoate motive to "serve." Most folks want to make the world a better place; most businesses are not motivated by profit alone. Codes of ethics abound. Hundreds of occupations have them without pretense to the stature of authentic professions.
No. These attributes are not it.
Let's look at the classic professions. What do their mission, meaning and purpose have in common? What makes them so special?
As it happens, the big three have much in common. It has to do with function. They work with essential needs common to most cultures. Each addresses essential functions. More particularly, they take on essential work that requires focused wisdom and judgment. They have applied select knowledge, learning, discipline and wisdom to the public's interest and well-being. They aren't like craft guilds exactly. Instead, the concept of "profession" has enabled folks to group duties and functions together and specialize. This, in turn, allowed traditions to flourish, and knowledge and wisdom to grow while permitting people to develop trust in practitioners' judgment, wisdom and skills.
These professions began most notably within theology-linking humans to the sacred. From there, humanity generated healers and the creators and keepers of social order-all known to us in modern cultures through theology, medicine and law. Ultimately, the professions came to include designers; builders and other creators of the built environment; career military/law enforcement; and arguably various others, such as accountants and educators.
Typically, practitioners of authentic professions acquired significant education, including practical training, some form of peer review and extensive apprenticeship. Typically, they worked within the constraints of some governing rules or codes. These were important aspects of their identity. As with modern authentic professions, such rules and codes superseded profit motives. Only recently have profit and profession bonded so completely.
We need authentic professions because we cannot reduce life to predictable recipes. Too much needs wisdom and judgment. How else could societies deal with life's weird stuff?
We need clerics. We require the knowledge, insights and care of those who work with health. We need healers. We must have folks to create, communicate, maintain and enforce the rules. We need lawyers, leaders and lawmakers. We require the art, craft and insights of builders to assure the aesthetics, safety, integrity, feasibility and sustainability of our built environments. We need architects, engineers and planners. Ideally, government uses its monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force (or its "monopoly on violence") respectfully and wisely. Regardless, it must also restrain its power wielders by demanding professionalism and emphasizing such qualities as judgment and self-control. We need soldiers and police who embrace duty and honor.
Obviously, this means that practitioners of authentic professions have particular functions. Though they necessarily have their own approaches from culture to culture, healers, rule makers, clerics, designers and soldiers seem to have much in common across cultures and throughout time. They have served special roles that are, in fact, indispensable to their communities. Each profession has a discrete mission. The functions of each are essential functions.
From this perspective, authentic professions transcend individual cultures. For the most part, humans need this work done. Communities need access to folks with both the skills and wisdom to do it. This work is both essential and intangible. Accordingly, it follows that the phrase "essential intangible" describes the core purposes of authentic professions.
Authentic professions work with such intangibles as culture, emotions, loyalties, justice, customs, "human nature" and other imprecise human qualities. Even though these intangible functions are literally essential to working orders, they elude precise definition or replicability.
We cannot define authentic "profession" by surface attributes, just as we cannot understand "What makes art?" simply by describing museums, auctions and marketing, brushes, paints and canvases. The latter also requires notions of aesthetics, beauty, sculpture, music, literature, marketplace, politics, psychology, sociology and so forth.
The point is that "professions" emerged because individuals and cultures needed them to emerge. To serve these essential intangibles requires intense mixtures of craft and wisdom. They require extensive lifelong educations, mentorship, legacies, cumulative wisdom and learning and sharing among contemporaries. They are like gardens of knowledge that never stop growing. Carefully cultivated, they flourish. Let go, they go to seed and fail to flower.
Today, individuals and cultures need financial planning to emerge in this manner. They need us to help them meet the demands of a particular essential intangible: Money and the forces it generates.
Why financial planning? Why now? Simple. Money and the powerful forces it generates are engaging individuals and cultures with ever-increasing intensity and complexity. Money is different. People's relationship with money is different. The demands of money and the money forces present a new "essential intangible" of the sort that requires a new authentic profession.
Looking back at our history, it is increasingly obvious that financial planning was born amid post-World War II cultural shifts around money. Financial planning has continued to evolve in response to increasing demands that individuals learn to live and thrive within money's demands. The money forces are complex and merciless. Money skills are 21st century survival skills that do not come naturally to human beings.
Forced to live within money's restrictions, most folks need help. Just as most of us rely on the professional skills and wisdom of healers and health care professionals, lawyers and theologians, we now collectively need the professional skills and wisdoms of a profession that works with people and their money.
Financial planners have a mission. We help society and individuals work with the unprecedented forces generated by money. We must help cultures and individuals find life, meaning and sufficiency within them.
As with traditional authentic professions, we will do this by cultivating our gardens of knowledge, responding to our environmental realities, including our own financial realities. In the process, we will no doubt need to be strengthening our educational processes, including our ties with academia, recognizing the relationships between money and liberal arts curricula and enhancing communications between our generations. This will also require more vigilant attention to our codes of ethics, particularly focusing on our implicit and explicit fiduciary standards.
We need to separate our identities from industry while necessarily maintaining relationships with it. At the same time, our stature as an authentic profession can only increase as we strengthen our appreciation for the service and stewardship implications of our work. As with folks in other authentic professions, we cannot be motivated to work "just for the money."
We answer "The Question" as we fulfill our promises for helping people address the demands of money and the money forces. By honoring this mission, we serve an extraordinary, unprecedented and meaningful purpose.
"Can financial planning become an authentic profession?"
Richard B. Wagner, JD, CFP, is the principal of WorthLiving LLC, based in Denver. He is the 2003 recipient of the Financial Planning Association's P. Kemp Fain Jr. Award, which recognizes a member who has made outstanding contributions to the profession.