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Life Health > Life Insurance

Walking Your Talk

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With all the buzz about the need for more corporate integrity, many of us might benefit from a closer look at how well we practice what we preach. Even if you’re doing good work in general with your clients, you may sometimes find yourself recommending actions or attitudes that don’t jibe with your own behavior. Do you just talk the talk, or do you walk it by living and acting in ways that mirror your advice to clients?

Bringing your practice into line with your principles can help you experience more self-acceptance and growth in every part of your life. Here are some examples.

I’ve begun signing new clients to fee agreements, and I truly believe this is the wave of the future. However, I hesitate to ask my existing clients to convert from commission-based compensation, since they seem to be happy with it. Trouble is, I sometimes feel like I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth. How can I overcome this? I think it’s okay to have a mixed practice if that sits well with you–but not because you’re too chicken to broach the subject with your current clients. If you feel that fee arrangements are more advantageous, you owe it to these clients to confront the subject head-on with them.

That said, it’s perfectly natural to fear that a change in compensation might upset some of them enough to leave. To reduce this risk and alleviate your anxiety, I would suggest that you address the issue in small increments.

Starting with one or two clients with whom you have a solid history, explain the pros and cons of a fee conversion and ask for their feelings about it. Though scary at first, this kind of exploration can also provide an opportunity to clarify and clean up old, messy aspects of the relationship.

Slowly but surely, you will find out whether your client connections are strong enough to weather the change. And by discussing the matter personally with each client, you will make them feel respected and valued. Little by little, you’ll have the satisfaction of aligning this important aspect of your practice with your own beliefs.

As a relatively young planner, I take discretion seriously. I make a point of assuring our clients that the information they provide will remain confidential. But in a restaurant yesterday, I overheard a senior member of our firm telling a third party about a client’s financial and marital problems. My conscience says I should confront this upper-level guy, but I just don’t know how to handle it. What do you advise? For the sake of the firm’s clients, I hope you’ll talk to your loose-lipped colleague. The fact that he is senior to you makes it a bit touchy, but here’s how you might proceed.

First, ask to meet with him in a neutral and private place at a non-stressful time. For example, you might get together with him over coffee in a small conference room, before the workday starts.Tell him that something’s been bothering you. Recount what you overheard. Without attacking him, tell him that you assure your clients of total confidentiality, and that overhearing this distressed you.

Then give him space to respond. It’s possible that the “third party” was someone who needed to know about the client’s situation (for example, a tax attorney retained to help in divorce planning). Even so, your senior colleague will probably feel embarrassed that you, and perhaps others, overheard him. He may react defensively to your pointing the finger at his inappropriate behavior, even if you have made an effort to avoid preaching or accusation.

His response will cue you about what you should do next. If he reaffirms that confidentiality is important to him, regrets his indiscretion, and thanks you for being tactful in calling it to his attention, you may be able to continue promising privacy to your clients in good conscience.

As a successful insurance agent, I can’t tell you how embarrassed I am to write this letter. Years ago, I told my wife that I was setting up excellent life insurance for her and our children. I fully meant to do it at the time, but never got around to actually buying the coverage. Now my wife wants to borrow against the policies to pay our daughter’s college tuition, and I don’t know how to tell her that they don’t exist. What in the world can I do? To prevent this omission from causing a serious breach in your relationship, you need to address it with your spouse sooner rather than later.

Find some quiet, private time to sit down with her, and with deep humility and sincere regret, level with her. At some point, you may want to get together with your own advisor and brainstorm alternative ways to fund your child’s education. However, your wife will probably be unwilling to discuss this right away and may well need time to deal with her feelings of betrayal.

In similar situations, spouses have told me that what feels irreparable is not the action or omission itself, but the fact that when it is discovered, their mates avoid talking about it. From now on, the most important thing for your marriage is to communicate more fully about actions you take or don’t take, so your wife can rebuild her trust in you.

When one of my clients recently asked what to do with several stocks he owned, I told him that I still felt they were good long-term investments he should hold onto. He asked then what I’d done with the same stocks in my own portfolio, and I had to admit I’d sold them. Naturally, he wanted to know why I don’t practice what I preach! I explained it as a matter of different investment objectives, but it occurred to me later that I enjoy the challenge of market timing (Heaven help me!) and have even toyed with day trading. I feel like a fraud. If you respect your clients, you’ll want to walk your talk in order to be a good model and strengthen your relationships with them. Otherwise, preaching one course of action while pursuing a different one yourself is bound to erode their trust in you. On a deeper, subtler level, it will also affect your own feelings of personal and professional integrity.

As someone who enjoys the thrill of frequent trading, consider the possibility that you may be addicted to peak experiences and high risks. A visit to a local Gamblers Anonymous group may tell you whether the shoe fits. If you’re definitely a risk junkie, how about trying hang gliding, rock climbing, or bungee jumping instead? (First, be sure you have a succession plan in place.) Transferring your quest for excitement to some high-intensity sport may leave you free to make less thrilling but more rational choices in your financial life.

In the meantime, don’t judge yourself too harshly. I’ve heard bank officers who deftly handle millions of dollars tell me their personal finances are a mess, and there are many financial planners who have never made time to plan for their own families. You’re far from alone.

I’m a dedicated life planner who advises clients to slow down and smell the flowers. But in looking at my hours for the first half year, I realize I’m working harder than ever and taking no time for myself. How can I rectify this when people need me more than ever? Slowing down, relaxing, and living in the present are an ongoing challenge for me, too. You’ve already taken the first step by sharing this concern with me. The second step is to confront the reasons you say you can’t take time to do this right now. (e.g., “People need me more than ever.”)

Unless you walk your talk, your clients will intuitively sense that something is amiss in your advice about enjoying life. They’ll wonder whether you really believe in what you’re telling them to do. Meanwhile, you’ll be burning out.

Paradoxically, taking more time for yourself can make you more efficient at work. And even if some tasks are postponed, you’ll find it’s not cataclysmically important to clean off your entire desk every day.

A good way to begin taking better care of yourself is with simple new rituals of self-care that can become habits, then traditions. Make these personal commitments as binding as a promise to a client. Twenty minutes of walking every weekday? An hour every Sunday to call or e-mail old friends? Meditation early in the morning or before going to bed? Whatever activity you choose, starting it and keeping it up may not just lower your blood pressure, but allow you to feel greater harmony with the clients you are helping to heal.

I’ve always been a big proponent of parents communicating honestly and openly with their children. When it comes to my own adult kids, though, I realize that I’ve never made time to tell them what assets I’m leaving them and why. What’s the best way to repair the omission? Before talking with your children, sort out your own feelings. If there are reasons why you’ve hesitated to tell your offspring about your money, write them down. Consider discussing these concerns with a trusted colleague or advisor, and explore ways to minimize or overcome them.

The next step is to get together with your kids. It’s okay to see each one separately, but you’ll want to have a group meeting at some point to avoid sibling distrust.

To get the ball rolling, apologize for taking so long to have the meeting, and explain what finally motivated you to act. Then allow plenty of time to listen to your children. They may be relieved that you’ve taken the initiative, sparing them from having to open the emotional Pandora’s box of love, approval, trust, dependency, and control after you’re gone. The more thoroughly you can work out your thoughts and feelings and communicate with your kids now, the more positive a legacy you’ll leave them.

When you become aware of areas where what you say diverges from what you do, be gentle but firm with yourself in bringing your actions into alignment with your values.

Walking your talk may not always be easy. But when you live your values, your power will be enhanced as clients sense this congruence of your work and your psyche. And deep inside, you’ll find that a more integrated sense of self will do wonders for your serenity and self-respect.


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