The sliding economy and the roller coaster securities markets over the past several years have no doubt forced financial planners to keep both aspirin and antacid in close proximity.

Ongoing fears about investment portfolios and changing retirement timelines amidst a backdrop of economic uncertainty have prompted CPAs and financial advisors to often become more psychologist than planner as they strive to quell client fears of ending up in the proverbial poor house.

As such, the financial planners of today not only need to possess a savvy business acumen and comprehensive investment knowledge, but also the soft skills necessary to successfully manage their clients on both a professional and a personal level.

Toward that end, Accounting Today polled a number of executives from top CPA financial planning firms about the critical prerequisites they look for in new hires and what they're finding in the current talent pool as they seek to add staff.

 

What do you consider the most important skills for financial planners, and how would you rank them in terms of importance? For instance, is being able to manage clients more important than having in-depth knowledge of the markets? Or is an understanding of esoteric investments more important than organizational skills?

Steve Parish, president of Baker Tilly Investment Advisors: Soft skills are extremely important in an advisor. Investment professionals who are effective listeners and proactive communicators are able to provide a higher level of service. Deep knowledge of investments and a strong understanding of the markets is necessary as active managers of our clients' wealth. Tax awareness and estate planning skills allow advisors to develop solid strategies for family wealth preservation, charitable giving, and legacy plans. It's important that advisors have knowledge of the various insurance types to properly support the client's strategy and mitigate risks.

Formal education, whether through a finance degree, provides advisors with the foundation needed to understand clients' financial needs and create appropriate solutions.

Fred Schaard, president of Rehmann Financial: For our planners, it's a given that they must have aptitude and book knowledge of all aspects of personal and business planning needs. However, because of our overlap at Rehmann with over 200 CPAs, our planners need to have a strong understanding of the basics of tax matters, 1040s, 1120s, 5500s, depreciation, basis, state and local tax issues.

Having been a CFP for 25 years, I know it's equally important for our planners to have great people skills and a thorough understanding of emotional intelligence to address the full array of our clients' financial planning as well as personal planning needs. We expect our planners to have current and global market knowledge as well; however, we do have a strong Capital Management Group that does the in-depth market research and portfolio design, as well as trading. Having said this, many times we will allow an advisor to join us with the plan being to bring them along with a more seasoned advisor working as part of a team to help develop the total skill set required for servicing our clients.

Jack Thurman, president of BKD Wealth Advisors: The first skill that we feel is very important is the ability to earn the trust of a client. You can be brilliant and still not perform correctly and ethically when it comes to investments and helping people achieve their dreams. You can be a great salesman - Madoff was an excellent salesman, but was he trustworthy? It's expected that you are smart and can communicate, but the most important skill is being able to truly understand a person and build trust with them.

Also important are the basic technical and communications skills relative to financial planning and investment management. ... We really want people who can understand people's goals and dreams and utilize their skills in the areas of financial planning and investment management to help clients achieve these goals.

Thomas Haught, president of Sequoia Financial Group: It depends. The definition of financial planner is broad enough that the actual responsibilities of that individual - inside our firm, at least - could vary drastically. For our internal planners responsible for creating the financial plan, modeling scenarios or building investment portfolios, technical capabilities are the most important. Their deep and thorough knowledge of the markets, tax regulations, planning concepts and investment theories are invaluable.

For client-facing planners, communication skills and the ability to connect with clients are both critical. These planners must have the ability to take the extremely complex world of planning and investments and break it down so that the client can easily understand and make prudent decisions based on our advice. The most well-founded plan can go awry if the client doesn't understand it.

Marcus Heinrich, partner at Forum Financial Management: The single most important skill is the ability to relate to people. People skills are more important than technical knowledge. Knowledge of people, not knowledge of the market, is No. 1. In other words, the ability to understand a client, at a deep level, and then ascertain if what you have to offer matches their goals and objectives - as they've articulated them. This includes everything from the ability to ask discovery questions at an initial meeting and building rapport, to explaining the investment process, to conducting regular reviews.

Second, time management: concentration and focus with a single-minded purpose, versus falling prey to the daily distraction of the urgent. One of my mentors described it as being a "targeted specific" versus a "wandering generalist."

Third, a financial planner should have a conviction about how markets really work, and have the ability to communicate that effectively to clients.

 

When it comes to hiring financial planners, does your firm prefer well-rounded generalists, or narrowly focused specialists? Or do you mix them, and if so, how do you divide the responsibilities?

Heinrich: Generalists. Our senior planners are supported by experienced, personable client relationship associates, as well as a well-qualified operations team. That said, each advisor has an area of specialty. For example, one partner specializes in business succession planning, another in retirement income planning, and another colleague heads a separate insurance division focusing on long-term care and other risk management vehicles. We will collaborate on various client matters depending on the need.

Haught: We desire a combination of both generalists and specialists. We have found that individuals are most productive, and happiest, if we can fill their day with the projects they enjoy working on. We've accomplished this by creating a team-based client service approach in which a generalist typically manages the client relationship and pulls in specialists as needed. We've also created a team-based compensation system where compensation is distributed equitably, so the generalist is never penalized for using specialists.

Schaard: We hire both skill sets, with the specialists tending to be more of an internal service provider and used on specialized client needs, and the generalist used for client interaction and relationship-building for our clients. The generalist is often included as part of a team with the resources available to bring in the specialist as the client's needs develop.

Parish: As active managers of our clients' wealth, our advisors need a general, well-rounded skill set with a deep knowledge of investments. Our advisors are able to easily consult with tax and estate planning specialists through our parent company, Baker Tilly Virchow Krause. This allows our advisors the ability to develop strong relationships with clients, serve their financial needs comprehensively, and easily connect with specialists when required.

Thurman: We have historically hired financial planners who truly understand people, along with financial analysts who truly understand the markets, and build a team that can comprehensively serve clients. Then we utilize our CPAs to complete the tax aspect. No one person is more important than the other. We utilize generalists and specialists.

 

Are you able to find the financial planning skills you want in new hires? Do you find that new financial planners regularly require training in particular areas?

Thurman: Yes, we can find basic financial planning skills in new hires. We are hiring people out of the University of Missouri as well as Kansas State, which have financial planning programs. These hires have the basic technical skills, but have not yet developed some of the communication and trust-building skills with sophisticated clients that have complicated estate and financial planning issues.

So, we are finding them, but you have to help foster the particular people skills that we at BKD are looking for. Estate planning skills are some of the most challenging skills to find. You cannot just learn this skill and it sticks with you. You have to practice. Estate planning is very complex and you have to practice these skills in order to become a great estate planner.

Parish: Experience is important in our practice. In new hires, we look for relevant experience, professional yet warm personality, fit with the culture of our firm, and depth of investment knowledge. We consider technical knowledge and experience, and personality equally. Specific financial planning skills can easily be taught, but the ability to listen to a client well and discuss private finances effectively is very hard to learn.

Heinrich: It has been particularly challenging to find new hires, in general. We take the position that a new advisor needs to build a clientele. Much of their time, initially, is spent on marketing. Lots of training is needed - particularly how to find, win and keep new business.

Schaard: Most of the planners that we hire are experienced from their previous employment and therefore bring the necessary skills with them. Having said this, we still need to enhance their skill sets with the teams in order for both the new advisor and Rehmann to benefit from fresh ideas. New planners tend to not have the depth of knowledge in tax matters, but given our strength in this area we can quickly move them along.

Skills that are difficult to find usually involve more of a personality issue, whereas in areas of estate planning and risk management we don't like a sales mentality to present itself with client interaction ... . We are servicing our clients' needs and avoiding selling to clients. Good listening skills are not easy to teach, so people that are "selling" tend not to be good listeners.

Haught: We have had the most success with hiring planners three to 10 years out of college and then placing them in our internal training programs. We've found that in this experience range, planners have a strong foundation of baseline knowledge and required licensing, but generally are not yet entrenched in another firm's culture and way of doing things. Hiring planners at an earlier stage in their careers allows them to grow within our firm and fully embrace its client service and team-based culture. A true commitment to our culture is what ultimately best serves our clients.

Regardless of years of experience, it is rare to find a planner with the perfect mix of client service skills, sales acumen, technical competence and leadership. Typically, the advisors we see in the marketplace excel in two or three of these areas. We help our new hires achieve the necessary balance by offering training or by pairing them with a planner that has complementary skill sets.

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