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Keeping it in Perspective: A Woman’s Take on the Profession

Financial planning adviserIt’s amazing how much things have changed. Back in 2004, I was recruited by my adviser and changed my career from forensic accounting to financial planning. I can clearly remember my first day in the firm’s Monday morning training; I was the only woman in the group and the firm owner addressed us as, “Guys… and gal.” I imagine his limited experience with women in this role (the firm had only employed a few other women advisers) caused him to want to tread lightly. His effort to include me was sincere, but in the process he made me feel different. It may not be surprising to hear that many financial planning firms simply do not have a large number of female advisers on staff in 2016, but they were even more scarce in 2004.

Today, I own Sonstein Financial Group and 40% of my advisers are women. This is good news all around; not only are more women studying financial planning, they are converting that education to a career in the profession. A female adviser is no longer a novelty and my firm’s success demonstrates that a diverse workforce is good for business.

While a number of scientific studies, conducted by McKinsey & Company and others, have concluded that gender diversity is advantageous to businesses, sometimes the specifics of that conclusion are harder to see in practice. Rarely does a client walk through the door and request a female instead of a male adviser, but that doesn’t mean they won’t naturally gravitate to one over the other. The psychology of likeness is undeniable. In some cases this can mean gravitating toward a female over a male and vice versa.

About 10 years ago, one of my clients referred a female business owner to me. I was told that she didn’t “like” financial advisers and that she could be difficult to schedule an appointment with. Once I contacted her, she told me immediately that she was hesitant to meet because, “I’m so busy, I barely have time to do everything I have to already.”

I had been trained on how to respond when someone says they’re too busy to invest the time in planning for their future, but that training didn’t feel appropriate here. I recall pausing before responding, “Mike shared with me how successful your company is; though he did not share if you are a mom. As a business owner and a mom, it is obvious to me you are a mother as well. I find myself saying often that there is never enough time in the day to do it all.  I can hear your stress in your tone of voice and I am familiar with that tone.  Normally, clients meet me in my office; would it be easier for me to meet you at your office or home? Personally, I have an infant and I know how hard it is to be pulled in so many directions. Can we find a time and place for you to invest 30 minutes to focus on your personal and business goals and dreams? Running a household and a large company, you must be focusing on everyone else all the time, right? If you will allow me to, I will commit to learning what is important to you and focus only on that.”

She told me years later that she became a client of mine in that moment. She shared in that first meeting with me that she has a child with special needs and wanted to provide for him. Additionally, she had concerns about the future of her business due to changes in the law, as well as her goals and dreams for her family and business. Today, she remains one of the firm’s largest clients.

Having a diverse workforce creates an opportunity to serve clients of all stripes. Working with a culturally and gender diverse firm, that has advisers who offer a range of life experiences, professional experiences and yes, genders to a client allows them to:

  • Create a more personal connection with their adviser.
  • Share openly what they truly value, as well as their goals and needs.
  • Be more receptive to professional advice.

Similarly, financial planning offers value to women in the profession. As a working mother, work-life balance is important to me. It’s true that building a successful business often means long hours, hard work and dedication, but financial planning also offers flexibility. I can schedule my time around school concerts, class trips, softball or soccer games. We’ve built a collaborative, cooperative environment at Sonstein Financial Group, not merely a group of producers. Advisers frequently fill in for one another during maternity leave and other absences. It takes a village, as they say.

As financial planning evolves and parts of it become more commoditized, I believe the firms most likely to survive will be those that recognize the importance of a diverse work culture, and value having a robust female perspective on the work they do. Doing so will better serve and will provide more value to our clients, in turn improving the bottom line for the firm. Additionally, it will model the advantages of the industry for women considering a career in financial planning, perpetuating even more inclusion. It’s been a successful model for my firm, and one I’m confident would work well for others.

Amy Sonstein, CPA/PFS is principal of Sonstein Financial Group in Marlton, NJ. Her practice offers a full range of strategic personal, business and estate planning advisement.

Financial planning adviser courtesy Shutterstock.

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