From the May 2007 issue of Wealth Manager Web • Subscribe!

May 1, 2007

Helping Hands

What if you had someone in your office who could pick up when you had extra work, who could help you harness some of the new technologies available to advisors, who could do the analysis and help with client communication that you don't have time for? If you think that might be helpful in your office (and who doesn't?), it might be time to consider an intern.

There are now some 300 academic programs in the U.S. training people in financial planning and preparing them to take the CFP exam. There is almost certainly one in your city or not far from you. While some students are taking the courses simply for their own edification, most are there because they have "the calling." They want to work in financial planning firms, helping clients to find the right path and achieve their goals. Some are career-changers while others are students in the typical sense. The best are smart and becoming well trained in each aspect of the financial planning process. What they lack is experience.

We've had interns join our firm in several different forms. Some have come in for a specific period, receiving academic credit for the time spent. In some ways, these are the most challenging because it is incumbent upon us to come up with one or more interesting projects that will help both them and us. What kinds of projects might you consider? Have you done all the investment research or due diligence that you consider desirable? Have you heard of some new software that you would like to learn more about? Have you needed someone to take notes during client meetings and then summarize the discussions as a "to-do" list? Have you ever wondered if your paperwork process for new accounts and transfers is as effective as it might be, representing an opportunity to create some new procedures for your firm? Do you have a few clients in need of analysis on a particular question they've raised or an issue they face?

Some interns come in as part-time employees while still attending school. Lou Stanasolovich of Legend Financial Advisors in Pittsburgh sticks to this approach exclusively. He'll hire college juniors, or preferably sophomores, so they can be trained to learn his systems and still have plenty of time to contribute to the organization before they graduate. Most of these interns work part-time, except in the summer when they have more time to commit. With proper training--depending on their individual skills and preferences--they can make important contributions in virtually every area of the business.

Finally, still others are looking for full-time work, and an internship is a way to prove themselves while learning the business. In my firm, this is the approach we've used most often. We give them good training and after a year, they are prepared to contribute to almost any firm. If we like them, and they like us, we get to keep them. If they haven't performed as well as we hoped, they'll still be prepared to find another job where they will be able to make useful contributions. Because they fill an intern slot, we have generally paid them a lower level of compensation for that year. However, we treat them as full-fledged employees, including benefits. We also put them through a full hiring process, just as we would any other kind of employee.

What does our training program look like? For a one-year internship, we'll commit about three months to the initial process. We want them to come out at the other side with an understanding of the everyday processes and procedures associated with client services--filling out forms to open new accounts and transfer assets, dealing with deposits and withdrawals. We want them to understand our investment process and philosophy; to get involved in trading, helping to determine buys and sells, and sitting in on investment committee meetings. Finally, we want them to understand our financial planning process and what that entails with respect to meeting preparation, conducting a client meeting and following up afterward. We don't expect them to become super experts in each area, but achieving a basic understanding of each part of a financial services practice will serve them well for the rest of their careers. In each area, we have them learn by doing. Watching someone else fill out a form or develop an analysis is not nearly as helpful as trying to do it yourself--and finding out what you don't know.

While their training may last for three months, that doesn't mean the interns aren't contributing to the firm during that period. If they prepare an analysis or complete a form, that means another employee is freed up to do something else. When the formal training period is over, the learning process will continue, but now our interns can focus on the job for which we hired them--continuing to learn as they go. Over time, the complexity of the assignments we give them will increase. We want them to succeed, but we also want them to grow and be challenged. Once they've become accomplished on "the bunny hill," we can take them to steeper slopes and ask more of them.

How long did it take you to get to the point where you considered yourself a knowledgeable professional? That's about how long it will take your intern. In most cases, I'd say that is three to five years. Before they reach that point, they are not only learning, but they are also contributing. With just a little bit of explanation, your intern can pick up the ball on many projects around your office and accomplish a lot.

If you think of yourself as building a team, you'll realize that you want people with talents and interests that are different from your own. Each team needs players with varying skills, and so it is for your business. There are undoubtedly areas of your business that suffer because you don't like to do that kind of work, don't do it very well, and/or generally don't pay much attention to them. For example, many advisors are uncomfortable with new technologies and lack the time and the savvy to evaluate options to find the hardware, software or phone system right for them. Many advisors are great at new ideas and getting things started, but not as good at following up on commitments they've made or bringing those ideas to fruition. If you don't enjoy writing, creating a client newsletter might seem like torture, and if you start one, you are unlikely to follow it with subsequent regularity. Maybe you've wondered about what other advisors in your area are charging or what services they are offering, but you haven't had the time or know-how to find that information. Or perhaps you are not using some of the new alternative investments because you've lacked the time or inclination to educate yourself about them. These are all great opportunities for an intern's assistance

Many advisors shy away from internships because they don't believe they have the time to do the proper training, or they think they can't afford it. I don't believe either is a good reason. Who needs help more than the person who can't get everything done? While early on it may cost you as much time as it saves you, that ratio improves quickly. Soon you'll find that new intern ready to take on more and bigger tasks--adding significantly to the total amount of work that you two are able to complete.

As to cost, in my early experience I found that every time I hired a new person, my revenues doubled, which easily paid for itself. While that may not be everyone's experience, it certainly makes sense. Ideally, we would each do only those things that 1) we enjoy, and 2) generate the most revenue. If you can get help with the rest of the things that need to be done to run your business, you'll find yourself happier, able to accomplish more (as a result of the extra help) and increase your revenues. Having good help has made such a positive difference for me and, undoubtedly, it will for you.

How do you find an intern? Be creative. If there is a local college offering financial planning classes, call the program director for information. At some national programs--like those at Texas Tech, Kansas State and Virginia Tech--students are so excited about financial planning that for the right situation, they'll travel across country. The FPA national conference always uses students as "ushers," but what they are really there for is to meet potential employers. Attend the conference, and take advantage of the chance to meet them. Advertise on the FPA Web site, or those of other organizations. Or simply place an ad on Monster.com or CraigsList.com (if it serves your area); advertise in your local FPA or NAPFA newsletter. Your intern is out there; you just have to let him or her know you are looking.

Over time, your interns will become a valuable part of your firm, and you'll wonder how you were ever able to run your business without them.

Norman M. Boone, MBA, CFP, is the founder and president of Mosaic Financial Partners, Inc. a San Francisco-based fee-only financial planning and investment firm. He is also co-creator of the award-winning IPS AdvisorPro, a Web-based Investment Policy Statement software solution for advisors.

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