Validation Under the Radar

Carl Richards has a really good idea.  Let me tell you why I think so.

I recently went on a bit of a rant about the direction of the profession (“Anthem;” you can find it here: https://www.advisorperspectives.com/articles/2019/09/12/anthem) and then amplified on the rant “Anthem Redux;” (here’s the link: https://www.advisorperspectives.com/articles/2019/10/14/anthem-redux), but the gist of it is that I don’t think real financial planning gets nearly enough attention, and I don’t think the way our system works, real financial planners get the feedback they deserve.

I ranted that the people who get the most attention from our trade press are either asset gatherers (many of them astute markets who are ex-brokers) or empire-builders, and these are also the people you see headlining major conferences.  The consumer press, of course, is even worse; forests go to the blade so that newspapers and magazines can report on the white noise of the day.  Chances are when you talk to the press, they ask you about the markets and how you’re positioning client portfolios, which may be the least important thing that you do.

As I think more deeply about it, I realize that the biggest problem is that the media always seems to gravitate toward the sexier topic of the ever-changing markets, what the markets are doing, the competition (as they see it) for how to generate the highest returns, what the latest trade negotiations mean to the markets—and the other sexy topic is what I consider to be gossip: which brokerage team left which broker-dealer to join which other one.

The media tends to shy away from articles with low sex appeal, like (random example here) how a financial planner helped somebody give away highly-appreciated assets into a charitable remainder unitrust so she could receive income for life, in a way that can be structured flexibly with catch-up distribution provisions—and look at the savings in unrealized capital gains taxes!  How boring that is, compared with the daily excitement of a 2% movement in the investment markets!  The technical aspects of financial planning are boring and complicated and ultimately very much in the control of a competent advisor—unlike the Dow. 

Even more complicated and boring is the time so many advisors take to understand their clients, their goals, and most importantly helping them discover that they HAVE goals which (astonishingly but regularly) may have never been prioritized until the financial planning engagement begins.

The result is that the best work of the profession happens well under the radar.  Tens of thousands of financial planners toil diligently in obscurity, changing the lives of their clients in profound ways that make the financial and industry press yawn disinterestedly.  As you know better than me, it’s hard work, highly specific to the person you are working with, and confers far more benefits on the client than the asset management work that gets all the attention by the press.  What makes the whole situation worse is that the press seems to think brokers, reps and sales agents do exactly what you do, and perpetuates that dangerous myth in article after article.

While, as I said, the trade press treats the empire builders and high-profile ex-brokers like rock stars.

My rant focused on the damage to the profession.  The public is getting the wrong idea, and our conferences and press are promoting exactly the wrong message—a message that is the opposite of creating a profession of people who diagnose financial ailments and fix them with their training and expertise.

What to do?  Step one is for me to affirm that the work you do, as real financial planners, is more valuable by far than the work that asset gatherers and empire builders are doing.  Just because the press isn’t giving you the attention you deserve doesn’t mean you don’t deserve that attention.  The real financial planners really do matter, even if you aren’t getting a lot of real-world affirmation from the outside.

Step two is for me to recommend a really interesting antidote to the fatigue and imposter syndrome that you may be feeling.  Most of you know Carl Richards, who draws those line drawings that convey so much wisdom about how the world works, about the differences between perception and reality, and about how to succeed.  One of my favorites shows how most people think success is achieved: an optimistic line that starts low and smoothly moves upwards and to the right, without any messy backtracking.  Then, right below, it shows how success is actually achieved—and here the line moves up, and then goes into a hopeless tangle where the line doubles back on itself, moves up, down, around and back, and finally emerges from this muddle of trial-and-error, success and failure, to finally reach that same level of success. 

The point: nobody realizes how much not-success happens in the journey to success, and the stories we tell tend to leave that messy part out.  Therefore we tend to think, as we find ourselves in the muddle, that we aren’t on the path to success, because our journey is so twisted.

Recently, Richards has created a new program called The Fellowship, designed to bolster the courage and reinforce the esteem of what he calls “real” financial planners and advisors.  The term “real” here refers to people who are sincerely working on behalf of their clients, and who take seriously the mission of improving their clients’ lives. 

This is not a list of advisors who are pure of heart and mind.  “I’ve had lots of conversations with lots of people around that idea, but I have never been able to figure out how to judge that,” Richards says.  Instead, he created a program that will address the professional self-esteem issue.  “I am just here to help them feel like they can do this,” he says.  “You are not alone.  That crazy dream you have of doing financial planning the right way, of serving your clients, is incredibly important and valuable and impactful.

“This is a place,” Richards adds, “is for us to say: we know what you do.  Your dream is not crazy.  You are not alone in feeling this way.”

What place?  You can sign up for The Fellowship (aka The Secret Society of Real Financial Advisors) here: https://realfinancialadvisors.com/

“Members” who sign up will receive 21 “declarations,” one a day, with a short essay describing the declaration of purpose and intent.  For example: marketing equals impact—another way of saying that as a fiduciary, you have an ethical obligation to communicate with your community and the press.  If you’ve been shy about marketing, and believe that it represents a conflict of interest, then this declaration—and the explanation of it—will strengthen your marketing resolve.

Others: “We share our work.”  “We diagnose before we prescribe.”  “We tell the truth.”  I don’t want to give away all 21, but I doubt anybody will come away from this 21-day program without a strengthened resolve to be the kind of professional our society needs, and feel recognized and even endorsed for it.

As a member of the professional press, I’m committed to focusing on the real financial planning profession, rather than the exciting white noise of the markets.  But I’m afraid I’m nothing more than distant background noise in the profession as a whole.  Richards is delivering a jolt of pure validation to anybody who wants it, and I think it’s about time somebody did.

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