Columnists work in a rather bizarre environment. We periodically cast out our thoughts onto pages and the Internet and the airwaves in the hope that they might add to–even stimulate–the current conversation. Yet the impact of any particular column is small at best, and if noticeable at all, usually occurs long after the writing, and almost always in some unforeseen way.
So it’s more than a little unsettling to raise questions about the actions of a leader in our little niche (in my September 2006 column), only to see them resign before the letters to the editor are done coming in. I’m not suggesting that anything I wrote caused Sarah Teslik to resign as CEO of the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards. Far more weighty voices than mine were critical of her testimony before Congress and the Board’s proposed changes to its ethical standards, both before and after my column hit the presses. But with the Board’s traditional stonewall, party-line PR approach firmly in evidence, the financial planning community is left to speculate about such an abrupt departure at the top of what passes for its official regulatory body.
Somebody should suggest to whomever the Board turns for its PR advice that simply repeating a favorably spun sound bite (which politicians and governments employ to great effect) only works if the mantra you’re chanting is at least plausible. The explanation that Apache Corp.–where Teslik has landed–had been trying to recruit her “for many years” doesn’t tell us why she’s accepting their overtures now rather than two years ago, when she took the Board position instead, does it?
Nor does the notion that in her two-year stint, she “accomplished what she set out to do,” when that list comprises: 1) firing most of the staff and replacing them with what’s rumored to be a small cadre of former cronies who have no experience with or affinity towards financial planning; 2) coming off like a loony in front of the United States Senate (and the follow up Nightline interview in primetime) by suggesting the widespread challenges of personal finance might be overcome through drugs and gambling; and 3) overseeing the proposal of new ethical standards that include allowing CFPs to choose their own level of client responsibility–which inexplicably resemble the ill-fated “CFP Lite” proposal–and which was met with a predictably similar grassroots outcry by CFPs across the country.
Not exactly a litany of deeds anybody would want on their resume. In fact, it’s not a stretch to wonder if Teslik’s leaving resulted from one or a combination of these “accomplishments.” Chances are the real truth will be added to the long list of mysteries that fall into the black hole of the CFP Board. Which leaves us with only one question about the whole affair to which the prospects of getting an answer seem good: What will the Board do now?
The current party-line answer is that they’ve retained Don Tharpe as the interim CEO, who (we hear in an almost reverential tone) is a man of great experience in running associations. As if turning over a newly hired, inexperienced, skeleton staff to a guy with no knowledge or experience of financial planning is supposed to make CFPs feel warm and fuzzy. Given the Board’s historic penchant for handling tough situations, that doesn’t sound like a recipe for disaster, does it?
But that’s only the short-term strategy (assuming the Board survives it). The bigger issue is what the Board will do for a long-term solution. I suppose the chances are they’ll just end up hiring Don Tharpe, because once he’s in the job, keeping him will be easier and cheaper than finding, attracting, and relocating someone with experience, stature, and passion for financial planning. But in the hope that the Board gets into one of its quirky moods and decides to look for someone who might actually help lead the profession of financial planning to attain the next level, here are a few modest suggestions (in addition to hiring back some staff who know what they are doing).
First, forget about hiring a CEO, at least until the Board has answered some fundamental questions about what it is and where it’s going. If the Board truly has a competent administrator, and rehires people who know their business to point him in the right direction, there’s no hurry to find a permanent replacement.