It’s been said that if you don’t know where you want to go, then it doesn’t much matter which direction you’re headed, because you are certainly bound to end up somewhere. This parable, while likely outdated, could not be any truer in today’s world of infinite choices.
There are literally thousands of different things clients could be doing with their lives every day. The number of trips, shows, apps, movies, jobs, people and organizations that people have the opportunity to watch, visit, work for, talk to or engage with is dizzying. Fifty years ago there were five channels, now there are 500. The same proliferation of choice can be applied across virtually every aspect of life. iPhone apps anybody?
It is this proliferation of choice that makes focus and clarity so critically important in our lives today and therein lies the opportunity for financial planners.
The Idea of a Chief Editing Officer
Jack Dorsey, the chief executive officer of Twitter and Square—yes, he works 60 hours a week at both companies—has been often quoted as saying that as CEO he is the “chief editing officer” of his organization. What he means by this is simply that each and every day, every employee has brilliant new ideas and visions of how to enhance each respective company. Engineers have ideas on how to redesign Twitter to engage more users. Square marketers have ideas on how to build a stronger brand to help drive sales growth.
And as chief editing officer, Dorsey sees his most critical function as being able to provide clarity of direction for his organization by sifting through all of the noise—amazing ideas from really smart people—and pulling out and focusing on the one or two things that are critically important to the long-term success of the company. Everything else is cut in favor of pinpoint clarity around one main purpose.
What if, as financial advisers, we operated as the chief editing officer of clients’ lives? Sure, ultimately the client must choose what their main purpose is, but what if we could help facilitate that process in a more structured way?
And no, “How much do you want to spend in retirement on a monthly basis?” is not clarity of purpose.
Clarity Around Values
Financial planning is about creating an orderly framework for evaluating trade-offs in a world of limited resources—time being first, money being second. Which is why skipping over this critical first step of clarifying values (i.e. what is most important to clients) can be a huge mistake. Most plans require some give and take, whether that is “we’ll spend a little less now, so we can save a little more to be able to retire a little earlier,” virtually all planning requires trade-offs.
And without clarity around values and purpose, there’s essentially no great way to decide what that trade-off is. Which is why it is essential for us to create a consistent process for uncovering what is really important to clients before jumping into the trade-off discussion.
Take for example, an exercise that behavioral coaching firm, Think2Perform, offers. There are roughly fifty cards in the Think2Perform card deck, all listing out certain values. From money to health, work to religion, friends to family, cards list out all kinds of different values a person could hold. During the exercise, which works great in an initial discovery meeting—or what I like to call the clarity and organization meeting—clients are asked to narrow down their selection from half the deck, then to their top 15 choices, then to top 10, then to top five.
Once a client has narrowed in on their top five values it becomes considerably easier to make the hard trade-off decisions later on. For example, if a client lists: family, health, integrity, security and community as their primary values, then we have a framework for helping to evaluate trade-offs once we get into the planning.
Clarity Around Critical Behaviors
Enter the technical side of financial planning. Yes, after all, the technical side of financial planning is important, but it isn’t the only piece to the overall puzzle. Once clarity is established with a client it becomes our job to determine what behaviors are critical to success (i.e. the plan).
Just as there are a million different things clients could do each and every day, there are also thousands of different options when it comes to how they might arrive at their ideal destination safely. This is where the chief editing officer comes back into the picture. We must help clients understand—and then hold them accountable for—the critical tasks and behaviors that must occur consistently over long periods of time to achieve their vision of a perfect life.
For example, should a client be saving into a Roth or traditional IRA? Saving into an HSA? Buying term or whole life? The decisions are endless and our job as advisers is to help build clarity around where exactly a client wants to go and then edit out all of the less desirable actions that are necessary to get there.
Editor’s Note: The following Financial Planning Association content may be of interest to you:
- The winner of the 2016 Montgomery-Warshauer Award, “From Functioning to Flourishing: Applying Positive Psychology to Financial Planning” by Sarah D. Asebedo, CFP®, and Martin C. Seay, Ph.D., CFP®. This Journal of Financial Planning paper examines how people can optimize their well-being to thrive, prosper and flourish in life through positive psychology implemented through financial planning.
- Hear Asebedo and Seay present this award-winning research at the FPA Annual Conference—BE Baltimore 2016. Register today.
- Stay tuned for the May 2016 issue of the Journal of Financial Planning, where Chris Venn and Todd Fithian, of Boston-based consulting firm the Legacy Companies, will tell you how to differentiate yourself in the time of the new fiduciary standard. We’ll give you a hint: it’s along the lines of Asebedo’s and Seay’s research.