To become a Certified Financial Planner, one must pass a rigorous examination that focuses on the profession’s more technical aspects, such as retirement, estate and investment planning. But does it begin and end there?

There is an alternative interim step many successful planners consider essential: It is the Financial Planning Association’s residency program in which a small group of resident students are subject to a week of role playing and other exercises designed to provide real-life experiences. Participants say the experience boosts confidence and creates long-term connections between senior planners and newcomers that can result in lifelong friendships.

The role-playing program is designed to teach candidates how best to listen and respond to grieving or traumatized clients who are in the midst of a life-changing event, such as the loss of a spouse.

The FPA has for many years offered the program to candidates who are eligible to sit for the certification exam or who have three years or less on-the-job experience.

Although there are other programs available, this one is so popular, it can fill up more than a year in advance and has recently added additional sessions to accommodate the demand.

The program is not inexpensive, but the cost is often covered by the employer who wants staff to receive the finishing touch in learning how best to communicate with clients.

According to the FPA website devoted to its residency program, the fee for a member is $2,900 and $3,500 for non-members. There is a slight discount for those who pay in advance: $2,500 for members and $3,000 for non-members.

Kyra H. Morris of Morris Financial Concepts Inc. in Mount Pleasant, S.C., became a CFP in 1986 and was instrumental in designing a version of the residency program in the 1980s. But it did not flourish until planners tried again a decade later.

“I wrote the actual program and cases that we use today,” Morris said. She explains the failure of the initial program in the 1980s as growing pains in her profession. “I think the maturity of the profession is one of the things that happened,” she said. “In the 1980s, the profession was too young.”

Leaders realized that advisors would need additional training to learn empathy and other skills that turns a good financial planner into a good listener, particularly because many client encounters occur amid great changes in a family, such as the loss of a spouse or the birth of a child.

Morris and other senior planners put together the residency program with three deans and three mentors. Next, about 30 neophyte planners are brought in, arranged in teams, and for the next week, they confront three role-planning scenarios modeled on real-life, but especially challenging, situations.

This is not a high-tech program. In fact, during her tenure, Morris learned that technology interfered. “You solve them with your brain and Magic Markers,” she said of the exercises put before the residents. “We’re trying to get people to think about (their clients and their thoughts), she said. “Computers do not help you do that.”

But beyond the role-playing and the team-building, the mentors and deans make themselves available for after-hours Q&A sessions. If it works the way it is envisioned, residents leave the session with lifelong mentors who are always just a phone call or email away.

Rianka R. Dorsainvil, the founder of Your Greatest Contribution financial planning firm, named by Financial Advisor magazine in 2016 as one of the 10 top young advisors to watch, was a resident in the FPA's program in 2013. “It was such a positive experience,” said the 29-year-old one-time math major at Virginia Tech who gradually found her way into personal finance and financial planning. “It was very enlightening, especially for those who are newer to the profession.”

Sandi Bragar, a principal at the wealth management firm Aspiriant in San Francisco, confesses to being “a huge fan” of the program in which she has been active for the last decade.

“Every couple of years, I do it,” Bragar said of being a mentor. Such a fan, Bragar said she has tried to bring aspects of it to internal training programs at Aspiriant. “What is so special about the FPA residency is it offers people a very transformative experience. They come to the residency in a sort of cocoon and by the end of the week, they are ready to spread their beautiful butterfly wings.”

The role-playing is essential, explained several mentors, because presenting the information in a lecture format does not provide the one-on-one experience new financial planners need to feel prepared for the most challenging appointments.

“Just telling them what to do is not helpful,” conceded Bragar. “What makes a good financial planner is someone who is intellectually curious and can put puzzles together. That is part of the magic of the residency program. It allows exposure to a group of peers and then offers great training.”

Debbie Grose, a managing member of Lighthouse Financial Planning in California, attended the residency program in 2008, the same year she became a CFP. She accepted Morris’s invitation to become a mentor, performing those duties in 2011, 2012 and 2013. Seeing the program from both ends, she is a chief cheerleader.

"I just felt the timing could not have been more perfect for me,” said Grose of establishing her career in 2008 and then going on to mentor other newcomers in the following years. “It was such a nice transition … It was a whole new way about how to get clarity about how to talk to people.”

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