Do you expect a financial planner to be a strong leader? Most clients—89%, in fact—do. This finding, from a survey conducted last fall by Advisor Impact for the Financial Planning Association, is hardly surprising.
What is surprising, however, is the way survey participants described leadership. They said a strong leader should have these four qualities: expertise, skill as a guide, deep understanding, and vulnerability.
1. Expertise. Leaders typically have a strong base of professional expertise that goes beyond general knowledge of their field. This is why continuing education is paramount to good financial planning.
Even more important, leaders have wisdom, which is the combination of knowledge and experience. A new college graduate has knowledge. A 30-year planner has a high probability of having wisdom.
Clients want a planner to be an expert, to have knowledge about all things financial, and to know how to apply that knowledge to clients’ unique circumstances.
2. Skill as a guide. Guiding is the ability to use expertise and wisdom to help clients go, not where the planner thinks they should go, but where they want to go. An effective guide first finds out where clients want to go and then devises the safest, most effective route to get them there and leads the way.
I don’t know of any academic courses that teach financial planners how to guide. It’s something that’s learned experientially. Planners learn it by walking the walk, treading the same path for themselves that they will lead their client on.
3. Deep understanding. What’s surprising about this quality is the word “deep.” Certainly, leaders need to understand their followers. But to understand someone deeply is much more intimate and encompassing than a superficial understanding of a person’s general needs, intentions or desires.
Deep understanding comes through hours of genuine listening, asking probing and thoughtful questions, and having a genuine concern for the client’s well-being. It establishes a deep sense of belonging and acceptance.
For most financial advisors, the capacity and skills to understand someone deeply are not intuitive. They need to be acquired by learning and especially by experientially applying the principles of Motivational Interviewing, Appreciative Inquiry, and Positive Psychology. This training is rarely part of financial planning or finance programs.
4. Vulnerability. This was the most surprising quality listed for a leader. My image of a leader is that of a General Patton or President Lincoln: strong, resolved, visionary, courageous. Not vulnerable. Yet, in truth, vulnerability requires incredible strength of character, vision, and courage.
Financial advisors who are comfortable with their vulnerability are able to expose their humanity and failings. All of us can relate to someone who has screwed up. None of us can relate to someone who hasn’t. Planners willing to admit their errors beget trust and confidence in those around them. The strength to be vulnerable cannot be acquired academically; it comes from spending a lot of time in self-reflection and personal growth.
Of the four qualities people look for in a strong leader, only one, expertise, can be learned academically. The other three—skill as a guide, deep understanding, and vulnerability—are learned experientially. If you’re looking for a comprehensive, client-centered planner, keep in mind that someone with academic qualifications such as a masters in financial planning, a CFP®, or a ChFC, has gained only 25% of the skills you may want. Someone who adds a degree in counseling conceivably has 50% of the skills.
To find a planner who can become a trusted leader and advisor, look further. Such advisors need to develop and apply in their own lives the relationship skills and leadership they offer to clients.