What Constitutes a Profession?

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In late October, I attended my first NAPFA conference. One illuminating session, “The Critical Issues Facing the Financial Advisory Profession,” was led by Bob Veres of Inside Information. Among other issues, a provocative dialogue between Bob and the audience focused on how we differentiate between real professionals and other advisers.

During and after the discussion, I wondered, “Who are the real professionals?” More specifically, how would I, a consumer, know one if I met one? A number of ideas engendered by the audience discussion offered the following as possible characteristics that distinguish real professionals from others in this industry. Real professionals:

  • Are fiduciaries
  • Are trusted by the client
  • Offer lower-cost products
  • Accept only fees
  • Hold a degree achieved by mastering a bona fide body of knowledge
  • Practice comprehensive planning
  • Plan only and offer no products

But no consensus emerged.

Wikipedia lists seven criteria for what constitutes a professional, but more interesting is the note attached to the definition: “The neutrality of this section is disputed. Please see the discussion on the talk page. Please do not remove this message until the dispute is resolved (October 2009).”  

I guess ours isn’t the only profession that struggles with the issue.

In fact, every group I have ever been a part of engages in this discussion. Do we call ourselves dietitians or nutritionists? Are coaches credentialed or do we simply refer to ourselves as members of the coaching profession. And forget about trying to define consulting. MD and JD are typical examples that most of us would point to as professions. Does the issue matter more to those who practice than it does to clients?

The discussion ended with me wondering about disreputable individuals who seem to invade every line of work. Is data available showing that certain groups have fewer or none? Perhaps the group without a single nefarious practitioner wins the title of “professional.”

What say you? Will the true professionals please stand and respond?

Joni YoungwirthJoni Youngwirth
Managing Principle of Practice Management
Commonwealth Financial Network
Waltham, Mass.

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