I am part of the first generation of financial planners. Thanks to many visionaries behind me, financial planning began to take on a glimmer of the profession it was destined to become. Much of the time when we got together we spent networking, sharing our best ideas and coaching each other through our firm, client and even personal issues.

My friends and I started the first national study group, the Alpha Group, specifically to interact and support each other. We often found ourselves “making it up as we went along.” Should all plans be comprehensive? What form of compensation is best for us?

What’s best for the client? How can we get more information about the investments that we recommend to our clients?

My study group grappled with these and many more complex questions as we began to learn and grow. I remember sitting at an Alpha Group meeting in the early ’90s when one of our members asked, “How can we get more information on what mutual fund managers are doing with our clients’ money? How can we encourage them to talk with us about their philosophy, strategies and forecasts?” From this simple question, a campaign to have monthly calls and quarterly strategy reports with various fund managers was born. As time went on, it wasn’t necessary for us to call managers to beg them to talk with us; they were calling us and sending material that made us better advisors to our clients.

In the early days, Alpha became the core of mentoring and support for our firms, our staff and even the planning community as a whole. We relied on each other for practice management, product knowledge and even software advice.

I bring this up because a few months ago I received a call from an advisor in India asking if I would be interested in being his mentor. Actually he had signed up with the Mentor Match program at FPA (check out http://connect.fpanet.org/Mentoring/MentorMatchOverviewandRequirements.) and when asked if he had anyone in mind, he asked for me. When I agreed, we set up an agenda and began to discuss those items that he felt were most pressing to the development and growth of his practice. I was impressed at how he had analyzed his situation and how easily he was able to verbalize his expectations from this relationship.

These are difficult times for advisors. The markets are volatile; clients are worried about the worldwide economic future, as well as their own plans for a stable lifestyle and a successful retirement plan. The competitive environment is complex; despite the heightened recognition of financial planning, few people in this country understand the nature, need and value to their lives.

While many advisors have been successful delivering advice to upper-income clients, we are only now seriously exploring ways to deliver excellent, affordable advice to the middle-income people where the value and impact of planning is most critical.

To meet this competitive environment, to be able to attract and retain good staff as well as provide sustainable growth and momentum in their firms, advisors must have good business knowledge and management skills, or at least be able to hire them. Equally important, the average advisor is in his 50s, faced with the challenge of designing a successful succession strategy and finding good advisors and successors to fulfill their plans.

This is where mentors are invaluable. Having been through these issues, albeit in different business and economic environments, mentors provide historical perspective and depth of experience to your thinking. Oftentimes your ideas and strategies don’t crystalize until you’ve spoken them aloud or shared them with others who can help you formulate them into actionable plans.
Mentors make great sounding boards, helping you lift up your ideas, examine them and fit them into your future business plans, much the way you would pull together pieces of a jigsaw puzzle to create a completed picture.

A good mentor/mentee partnership is reciprocal, collaborative and comfortable. While the mentor/mentee relationship may take many different forms, I find the most effective ones work within a structure that focuses on the ultimate business mission or vision, rather than relying on the Band-Aid approach patching in the short term and revisiting as necessary later.

I usually start by asking the mentee to list what he believes are his (and his firm’s) strengths and weaknesses. If there is no firm mission and vision statement, we craft one so that as time goes on, we are able to measure progress by determining how much closer we are to their desired vision by affecting the changes that we develop. Additionally, I ask the mentee to answer the following question: “As a result of working with a mentor, I would like to accomplish the following … ” Together, we write our action plan, listing what areas we want to discuss and approximately when and how we will discuss them.

Once the partnership has structure, it’s a good idea to set benchmarks and other indicators to help determine when and how we have accomplished our goals. Finding the right match is probably the most difficult and the most important decision of all. If you are looking for a mentor, it’s a good idea to sit down and list what attributes are important for the success of the relationship. Although I believe these relationships take on a unique complexion, depending upon the personalities involved, there are some fundamental characteristics that make a good foundation. Here are some to consider:

1. Be a good listener. The idea is not to solve the problem for the mentee but to provide guidance and counseling so that the mentee can find his own way and his own confidence.

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