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This may be hard to believe, but I can usually gauge whether a financial planning job applicant will make a good employee within the first five minutes of the first telephone interview. It’s not that I’m clairvoyant: rather, how a professional job candidate presents himself verbally speaks volumes about his training, experience, and maturity level.

It’s not that young planners can’t acquire a professional demeanor over time, but it’s the hardest thing to teach, and takes the longest to learn. As I tell my clients, it’s far better that your employees learn it on someone else’s nickel.

One of the most difficult tasks in the area of human capital management for independent advisors is screening and interviewing potential employees. That shouldn’t come as a big surprise: most advisors have little training or experience in hiring. Yet hiring the right people into the right jobs is also probably the most important part of people management. As we’re seeing in the NFL every Sunday this fall, it’s hard to have a winning team with subpar personnel. Here are some tips to ensure that your firm hits the field with an all-star roster.

First, the reason I can make accurate good employee/not-so-good employee assessments in the first interview is that I’ve prescreened candidates’ r?(C)sum?(C)s beforehand: I already know they look good on paper, so how they present themselves is only the final piece of the puzzle. Now, before you start with the “I-screen-r?(C)sum?(C)s-too” point, let me acknowledge that you probably do. But here’s the inside scoop: weeding out r?(C)sum?(C)s on the basis of typos, misspellings, and questionable formatting is just an unforced error. I think most advisors do this because they just don’t know what else they should be looking for. That is, unless you’re hiring a proofreader, secretary, or graphic designer. If instead you’re hiring a professional advisor, look first at her qualifications in and experience for the job you are trying to fill, and the job she can grow into. Only then, if she’s borderline, or you’re just not sure, should you consider the quality of the r?(C)sum?(C) itself. But to start there, is just, well, a rookie mistake.

Once you’ve screened the r?(C)sum?(C)s, you can conduct the first interview, which is by far the most important one. The first impression a candidate makes on you is exactly the same as the first impression they’ll make on your clients; any and all subsequent interviews will carry the baggage of this initial meeting. I prefer to conduct the first interview on the phone: it helps me disregard the specifics of a potential employee’s appearance so I can focus on the professional demeanor (you’d be surprised how many owner/advisors want to screen candidates on sex, race, or age–all of which are irrelevant, and most likely illegal). Sure, you can probably tell someone’s sex or race on the phone, but it’s far easier to ignore. Instead, focus on how they present themselves: Are they confident, well-spoken, polite, and attentive? Describing professionalism is hard to do: but it’s usually pretty obvious when someone has it, and when they don’t–in the first five minutes.

You also want to use that first interview to explore more deeply a candidate’s experience, qualifications, and perhaps most important, why they want the job you’re offering. Looking good on paper is, well, good, but r?(C)sum?(C)s can also be deceiving, while creative writing can cover up important issues and/or omissions. Be sure to ask what was covered in a planner’s education program, and what kind of hands-on experience they got. Delve deep into their work experience; what they really did, day-to-day; what their responsibilities were; how they related to their boss and co-workers; and what they liked and didn’t like. Try to look beyond their writing and canned answers to determine whether their goals and preferences truly match with the job and the opportunity that your firm offers.

Ask These Questions

Here are eight questions I ask on the first interview to get behind the job candidate and get a feeling for the real person. They can be asked in random order depending on the candidate’s responses to previous questions:

Question 1: Tell us a little bit about yourself. We’re looking for a brief overview of the r?(C)sum?(C), background experiences related to professional work, and future goals. Pay attention to those things prospects feel are important enough to mention, and unimportant enough to omit. Both are clues to how a candidate thinks about their profession and their job: what they are looking for and what will make them happy, and successful. Also note how they talk about their past accomplishments: Do they feel good about what they did, or are they apologetic? Do they admit their mistakes, or do they make excuses for them? No one is perfect, but winners constantly strive to learn from their failures and use them to get better.

Question 2: What interested you most about this job description and the opportunity? What prompted you to apply? We are looking for answers suggesting professional growth, the ability to contribute to the company, and motivation to work on a team toward shared goals. These are not self-serving answers. In other words, to paraphrase John F. Kennedy, an interviewee should talk about how they can serve the company, not how the company can serve them.

Question 3: Describe yourself in one word. In other words, what do you feel is your best professional strength and why? What is your weakness? Look for words like detail-oriented, drive, motivation, determination, and innovation. For the weaknesses, we are looking for “positive” words. For example, “My professional weakness is perfection. I sometimes strive to make things too perfect, so it takes more time for me to complete a task.” Again, we want to hire folks who feel good about what they’ve done. Let’s leave turnaround projects to other firms, and then hire them away once they have a few wins under their belt.

Question 4: Tell us a little about your educational background. Here we are looking for experience or educational background in the financial planning profession or a strong desire to learn. Is this person a member of professional organizations? Does she read trade publications? Did she receive a degree related to financial planning or hold licensees in the profession? Suppress the urge to disqualify candidates who don’t have the specific education you’re looking for. Folks from related disciplines, such as accounting, who have realized that they are more suited to financial planning make some of the best advisors.

Question 5: What do you know about financial planning and its processes? Whether obtained through formal training or on their own, we’re looking for specific knowledge about financial planning, and how well their approach to planning and planning philosophy matches yours. People approach planning from so many directions that it’s far easier to start with an employee who is compatible with your philosophy from the start. If you want to convert people, write a book.

Question 6: What software programs do you have experience working with, if any? How comfortable do you feel with learning new programs? We are not looking for experience with specific software programs with this question (although that’s always a plus). Instead, we’re looking for a desire to learn new ones or a willingness and openness to change. Technology changes so fast, it’s likely the software that your firm uses will change many times over an employee’s successful career. Therefore, willingness and comfort in adapting to new technology is virtually a prerequisite these days.

Question 7: Describe your ideal working environment. What does it look like? What would be your major, most fulfilling contribution? Look for a response that mirrors the job description and the expectations of the job, and your firm. One of the hardest things to gauge in the interview process is how well someone fits into your company culture. The recruit’s “ideal working environment” should match your firm’s culture. In other words, if this person likes to work late and come in late and most everyone else comes in early and leaves early, then it’s likely this person will not fit into the culture you have created and thus, will cause your systems to run a little out of sorts.

Question 8: What questions do you have for us? Mature professionals do their research. If they haven’t, it reflects on how they will work with your clients. Do you want an employee to walk into a client meeting unprepared to answer questions a client throws at them, or walk into a meeting without having prepared questions to get to know that client better? A job candidate should have questions for you. Good questions include: “Tell me a little bit about the types of clients you work with, or about your management style,” and, “What do you value most in an employee?”

Finally, don’t hesitate to ask any questions that come to mind during the previous Q&A. Keep in mind that–more than merely gathering additional information–this first interview will be your best insight into how a professional candidate thinks, what he is looking for and expecting to contribute to your firm, and most importantly, whether he has a mature professional demeanor, that intangible “it” that will enable the candidate to raise the stature of your firm with clients and potential clients, and within your local community.

Angela Herbers is a virtual business manager and consultant for independent financial planning firms. She can be reached at [email protected].


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