Stewardship tools or license to kill?

    To put the world right in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order, we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right.

    James Bond is special kind of spy. He has his "00" license to kill. How he uses it is mostly up to him. Between charm, justice and English empire preservation, he knows his power and its implications. His license is a powerful asset in his regular struggles with bad guys. Still, he must show judgment and restraint. After all, his power is ultimate.
    The image of the "00" license provides an intriguing metaphor for Interior skills. This is especially true at our junctures of life and money. Though the "kill" metaphor is, perhaps, over the top, we can all acknowledge Interior skills can mortally harm when wielded by inept or ruthless financial advisors.   
We are all in the relationship business. Whether you believe that financial planning is intimate or calculated, whether you resonate to notions of so-called life planning, psychology of money or stewardship, the Interior is the space and place of relationships. This is where we ask for trust and confidence and where we communicate our trustworthy reliability. Conveying expertise, competency and best intentions, this is also where we ask for the order.
    The Interior constitutes the locus for our understanding of money wisdom and artful implications. As we all know, there is nothing more intimate than money.
    The Interior is where we work ... whether we think we want to or not. We just can't help it. People bring their insides in with their outsides. So, when we accept responsibilities for working with someone, even ostensibly objective relationships carry extraordinary Interior implications. Their emotions, histories, fears and phobias are right there with them as our work bumps up against that of psychologists, psychiatrists, coaches and clergy.
    Yet, it is dark and dangerous in there. It hides their irrational and psychotic aspects right there together with their best stuff.
    Increasingly, financial planners have such sensitivities. Increasingly, we are developing our skills and understandings, personal and cultural, for addressing them. It is nothing but fundamental financial planning to grasp what clients care about and understand, as Bill Bachrach puts it, what their "money means to them." If we understand their issues, their goals and objectives, we must understand their fears, their expectations and their fondest dreams. This means their Interior. This means those dark and dangerous places and our "00" license to kill. We must be mindful.
    Yet, in our processes, we can rarely avoid encountering their negatives. Why won't they do what we know is best? Why do they short-circuit the intuitively obvious? Why are they financially self-destructive? What about those credit cards? Those incompletions and broken commitments? Those failures to understand the financial implications of personal decisions? What's up with new cars, timeshares or kitchens?
Of course, Interior responsibilities are awesome; their powers extraordinary. Breakthroughs to trust carry huge clout-"00" level clout.
    Movie villains are obvious. In real life, with real money, villains parade as really, really nice guys. In Denver, at least, their daughters love them, they really, really will pay back the $15 million, they are just really, really sorry they took from trusting clients and they really, really, really don't belong in jail. "00" powers. Whoda thunk?
    Because, unfortunately, trust creation processes are replicable, regardless of character, knowledge or standards. When fiduciary advisors can generate trust and confidence and have superior knowledge, they have genuine power over others-whether or not they deserve it. The power's exercise depends on its holder's character and how they honor the "00" trust.
    As much as many seek to avoid this legally vulnerable status, we must recognize we have great powers for harm. We can destroy lives.
    The Interior skills of authentic advisors are marvelous. They bring with them opportunities for enabling stewardship and helping clients arrange their lives most productively and rewardingly. Yet, such powers, in the hands of the ethically challenged, lead all too easily to direct or indirect theft.
    Regrettably, experience shows us that trust creation skills, Interior powers, range from those who are thoughtful stewards to others who are simply outrageous frauds and conscienceless thieves. Lamentably, and less glamorously, our field includes, and has included, fair numbers of people who simply have the "script" even though they lack the character, skills and understandings to keep their promises. Truth is, with a good script, we all sound the same.
    We can acknowledge all this but we cannot avoid it, either in ourselves or within our profession. The "Interior" is not just where we explore hopes, dreams, loves, dangers and responsibilities. It is where we make our sales and generate our relationships. Even as we struggle with questions about our profession's central purposes, functions and responsibilities, there is always time to remind ourselves that book covers look pretty much the same whether the contents are trash or treasure. 
    Good advisors work to make the client's experience tolerable, even joyful. So do con artists. It keeps them coming back. For innately talented Interior masters, money relationships are rife with abuse opportunities. It's dark in there, but nobody need really know what we did when then lights were out.
    By the way, this is why they call us "fiduciaries." Authentic financial advisors properly use the "f" word to self-describe our roles and the operative legal natures of many of our relationships. We know they are relying upon us and we freely accept the responsibilities of their trust and confidence.
    Of course, this has always been the case. But it is different this time. There are changes within our promises and powers as we move from sales to service. This is a big deal; one requiring both noticing and thoughtful inquiry.
    Though we have come a very long way, we, too, must look inside at our own Interiors. This means understanding ourselves, our profession and our "00" powers. It means grasping common emotional and spiritual phenomena and social contexts, as well as comprehending money in the world. It also means understanding our roots, including our good parts, our bad parts and our motivations.
    Core issues do not revolve around Interior versus Exterior. Core issues revolve around whether our motives for using Interior skills are for keeping promises or artful manipulation.
    The issue is not new. Advice/Sales dialectics have been ever with us. For example, in my early years financial services industry training was all about sales. "Advice" was for real professions-and we were frequently reminded of the distinctions. Back in the day, they taught us to know how folks thought and bought. Serving genuine needs, putting client interests above our own? These did not come up. Product quality reflected sales volume. As my former partner frequently noted, sardonically, "If it sells, it must be good."  And, oh my, did some weird stuff sell.
    In the early days, financial services companies loved the concept of financial planning. As far as they were concerned, financial plans were superior product delivery systems and they wanted more of it. They read the industry studies where sales statistics heavily favored financial planning product sales in strong contrast to simpler, traditional sales techniques. "00" Interior skills meant understanding a client's values and decision-making processes in order to fully access our "share of the wallet."
    Financial services companies taught psychology to their representatives specifically for purposes of opening and closing cases, not for making their representatives better advisors or assisting clients with non-product financial issues.
    Even today, I clearly recollect financial services industry leaders universally declaiming that "we," after all, were "just salespeople." Though many of us were, even then, participating in the development and maturation of the financial planning profession, for industry types, "interior skills" just meant good "sales skills," just as "producer" meant "One who sells a lot."  It meant "funnel talks," "nine second diamonds," "elevator speeches" and "closing techniques." It meant putting one hundred of your closest friends and relatives on your "prospect" list and making "cold calls." In my environment, at least, nobody ever made "planner of the week" because they taught their clients good budgeting skills or helped them learn to shop efficiently.
    This was not all bad. After all, sales skills are essential business skills that we must all master. In fact, when compared to law school training. our sales training was truly impressive. "Listening" skills were valued. We "heard" meanings behind words and learned fundamental respect for the person in front of us. "Everybody got to be somebody...,"-a wonderful attitude of mutual respect that continues to serve.
    But there were always disconnects. Though we had the words "financial planning" drilled into us, nobody ever really told us what it was. They did not know. When an insurance sales conquest generated the supervisor's proud exclamation, "And if that's not financial planning, I don't know what is!"-at that moment, I saw the man behind the curtain in magical recognition that Interior skills are "00" dangerous. It remains vivid.
    We are talking some real trash here. With advancing age, many us are cheerfully forgetting our mid-'80s exposures to such stinkers as most real estate limited partnerships, miscellaneous collectibles, sundry tax shelters (oh how I miss bull semen stories), penny stocks, tax-avoidance schemes, 9% commission annuities, investment contracts, 12% cash value interest rate assumptions, 25% interest rates for some truly nasty Ponzi schemes ... The "00" license was accessed and abused.
    Yet, even then, we were told it was "all about the relationship."
    Truth is, I have been hearing that "it is all about the 'relationship'" long before I ever had anything to do with the underlying philosophies of financial planning, "To Think ... Like a CFP," "integralism," or "psychology of money," or, even, any single stage of money maturity. The "relationship" was the mother's milk of sales in the 20th century. It still is. And it is still "00."
    "Figure out what people value." "Think about how you can help them accomplish it." "Know what they value and who they love." I did not learn such things as a part of my professional skill base so much as for transactional purposes. And every one of them is a valuable lesson.
    When we are worthy of our craft and trust, the implications of our "00" licenses are obvious and we honor the attendant responsibilities. We can understand why people are scared, and we treat them gently. We know their net worth is at the mercy of our skills, understanding and senses of fiduciary duty. Yet, as financial planning continues its maturation, extending its understandings of Interior implications, it is wise for us to reflect upon their full implications and the nature of our license. Whether we call it "life planning," "financial planning done right" or other terms, our intimate and Interior work is imbued with extraordinary powers of persuasion and coercion. Our "00" status is no joke.
    Financial planning's stakes, visions and promises are profound. Taking our stewardship seriously, we know financial products are clearly vital, and likewise their sales. Yet, we must know we possess "00" capacities for intentional and unintentional harm. Done right, we help clients marshal their assets most harmoniously with their dominant values, priorities and ambitions. We help them best utilize their time, treasure and talent for great lives. Done right, this is fabulous stewardship. Done badly ... shame on us.
    Let's face it. No other profession demands the depth and breadth of skill and wisdom of what we now call financial planning. Nor does any other profession have such a need to demand that its practitioners absolutely grasp their roles as stewards and fiduciaries. Accordingly, for each of us, as a thoughtful steward and confirmed fiduciary, our "00" license serves both us and our clients for good.
    It is an awesome power. 

Richard B. Wagner, JD, CFP, is the principal of WorthLiving LLC, based in Denver.