The historian David McCullough regaled attendees at Fidelity’s Executive Forum last month with stories about the nation’s founding fathers and the way their characters were rooted not only in the Enlightenment–John and Abigail Adams read and quoted Shakespeare and Cervantes in their letters–but also in the classical Greek world of Plato and Thucydides. His speech was certainly focused on those dead white men of the past, but his point of passion was all about the present: “We are raising a generation of historically illiterate Americans,” he thundered, then went on to quote the subject of one of his biographies, Harry Truman, who said that “the only new thing in the world is the history you don’t know.” McCullough then quoted himself: “Planning for the future without a sense of the past is like trying to plant cut flowers.”
McCullough could have been sending a warning to you.
The financial advice profession is, in its adolescence, in need of that “sense of the past” to help guide the next generation of practitioners into the future. I was struck by IA columnist Angie Herbers’s comments to Staff Editor Kara Stapleton in the May issue about her place on this year’s IA 25. “The biggest mistake the industry would make,” she told Kara, “is not educating the young or seeing their ability, and on top of that, losing the wisdom of the older generation. You have to connect them. I’m living proof that if you take the wisdom of the older generation and transfer that wisdom, there’s a lot of success to be had.” Herbers went on to say that she couldn’t have had the success she’s had with her business “without having the guidance, support, and mentoring that I have,” citing in particular Sheryl Garrett and Bob Clark. “The older generation has helped me,” Herbers concluded, “and that’s what the younger generation is looking for.”
Other professions have a long history of mentoring through formal apprenticeships or informal arrangements. I had a mentor at my last job at The New York Times, where such people were called “rabbis.” (The fact that my Times rabbi has yet to summon me to assist him with his difficult assignment for the International Herald Tribune in Paris for the last few years is, I am sure, an oversight he will soon correct.)
The FPA’s residency program, first put together by Ben Coombs, remains a great place to mentor, and be mentored, as is the less formal group Coombs helped develop called the Rat Pack. The folks at NAPFA have a long history of mentoring each other at their national conference and in their individual practices–Bernie Kiely of Kiely Capital in Morristown, New Jersey comes to mind as a serial mentor.
Developing a corporate memory for advisors by linking the pioneers and the next generation will benefit the profession and the profession’s clients, and will inform the powers in Washington as to what’s best for those clients. Yes, there may be differing agendas and priorities between the callow newcomers and the grizzled veterans, but the effort is well worth it. As Stephen Sondheim wrote in a different vein, “Children may not obey, but children will listen.” Make sure you talk, and take care to listen.