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Bridging the Next-Gen Divide

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It has been two very short years since I was a financial planning graduate student given the charge to write about the trials and triumphs of the job hunt. At the time, anything was more exciting than finishing my graduate capstone project. I was delighted to have the opportunity to be the voice of a person standing outside the door of the industry trying desperately to get inside. Now inside, there are a few things I have observed as a very small cog in a very large wheel.

After a few long months of waiting, I took my first job at TrustCore, an independent, privately-owned firm. What attracted me to them was their model of hiring people to a career, not just to fill an immediate open position. My job offer, for example, presented a path not so narrow that I felt constricted, but not so open that it lacked clear goals to work toward.

Most of the staff here work in different departments. I like to think of them as launch pads. Each one is large enough to give people the ability to specialize, but also open enough to provide them the opportunity to become full-time planners. I work alongside a good mix of people, some honing a specific skill set and others working toward building their own book of business. Many of our current planners are former staff members, so the launching process works and is repeatable.

I took on the role of research assistant in the investment research department. Admit it or not, investment planning can be the part of a planner’s practice that has the most influence on his or her success. Often, it is the first place clients look to judge whether or not their expectations have been met. I knew it would make sense for me in the long run to cut my teeth on one of the most difficult pieces of the financial planning pie.

After week one on the job, I felt like I had been buried under a pile of pie charts and ticker symbols. The amount of information you can elect to receive daily in your inbox is inconceivable to me, but I would not trade my front row seat watching events in the investment world unfold for anything.

Learning to Talk the Talk

Every industry has its jargon, and financial planning is no exception. The process of learning my job was like a language immersion program: slow and grueling with remarkable results. If you have ever studied a foreign language, you know that completely immersing yourself in it is one of the most difficult ways to learn, but it is also undoubtedly the fastest path to improvement.

The first few months on the job, I felt like I did not understand a word. It seemed for a while that my level of comprehension in really technical meetings was limited to interpreting the body language and facial expressions of other participants. Time passed, and I began to understand nearly every word that was being spoken, but I was not able to participate in the discussion yet. Then came the long-awaited day when I structured my first sentence. It may have been a little choppy, but I made a contribution to the conversation nonetheless. I would like to think I am approaching fluency, but there is always more to learn.

Getting Up to Speed

The biggest surprise in my experience so far was how long it took me to get up to speed so that I could operate independently and take on a measurable amount of the workload. At the start, I was under the ambitious assumption that after a few practice laps, I would be on task and driving at record speeds. When the end of the short amount of time I thought I would need for on-the-job training rolled around, I was still a passenger in the pace car. My expectations were forced to become a little more realistic. Every month that went by, I could go a little faster because I knew a little more about the process. It was an exciting day when I was able to start driving on my own and creating real output.

The Great Divide

In my transition from school to the workplace, I have observed that a real divide exists between those who identify themselves as members of academia and those who are “real world” practitioners. Practitioners say academics sit in ivory towers and are out of touch with the day-to-day operations of a planning practice. Academics argue that practitioners cannot see the forest for the trees.

This perplexes me. Having now spent an equal amount of time in both camps, I know firsthand that both are fighting for the progress and growth of the profession. Each brings a very different set of skills to the table, but both are necessary for our advancement. Is it not essential to have boots on the ground and others studying the big picture? You have to have both and they have to communicate.

When I think back on the academics that I studied under in graduate school, I realize there are really two different types. The more traditional ones build fences around the settled territory that is traditional financial planning. Their research examines the lay of the land and interprets the vast amounts of information gleaned from practitioners working out in the field. Their output is repeatable processes and investment theories that are meant to make sense of all the complexities. They build and maintain frameworks to help simplify our efforts.

The other group is made up of those who roam outside the traditional fences of our industry. This group studies the great wide open: the areas of our work yet to be defined. Financial therapy, for example, is a non-traditional area of financial planning that is up and coming. Researchers in this field are attempting to create new ways to effectively communicate rational advice to clients who have the tendency to behave completely irrationally when it comes to their finances. Their goal is to teach the analytical how to better communicate the abstract.

Practitioners cultivate the portion of the land, big or small, that is their own planning practice. They put these processes and means of communicating complex information to the test. They learn what works for their particular set of clients and what does not. Oftentimes something does not work, but they do not have the time to study what happened. Herein lies the value of providing feedback to researchers. This exchange could be the catalyst to a new idea or way of preventing the same negative result from happening again.

Bridging the Divide

People like to say you cannot complain if you do not vote. You cannot complain that academia is out of touch if you do not actively participate in their research. Take the time to fill out their surveys. Go to industry conferences and participate in the conversation that takes place between the two camps.

In the short time I have been working, time has become a luxury. It seems to only get scarcer as you get older; however, taking the time to be involved in local industry associations and to attend related conferences should be a priority. Conferences are a place where research and practice close the divide for a brief period to compare notes. At the end of their time together, both go home with fresh ideas and our profession reaps the benefits.

Another bridge across the divide is interns. Internships provide the opportunity for students to meld their book knowledge with real-world experience. Ideally, firms who put interns to work should ask nothing less of them than they would new hires. At the end of their time in the field, interns return to the classroom as messengers knowing how to speak the language of both academics and practitioners. They know from hands-on experience if what they saw in the real world matches what they are being taught in the classroom. Their feedback can help shape the ongoing discussion of how to make our industry better and our message more effective to the end client.

A newer, less-traveled bridge is social media. My husband is a social media guru. I remained a skeptic of its uses until I learned by observing him that getting retweeted by a person of influence can be as exciting as meeting them in person. Social media has a way of connecting people who would not have had the opportunity to connect otherwise. It is more than a digital Rolodex; it provides a platform for the exchange of ideas in a way that was not available to us just a few short years ago. The great thinkers and great practitioners of our profession can be counted on to provide much food for thought in this new medium of exchange. By strategically connecting yourself with these people, obtaining access to new ideas and new research now requires a lot less effort than older, more traditional ways of staying informed.

These are exciting times. It is fun to be a part of an industry that is one part grassroots, one part establishment. There are enough blank pages to allow any planner the opportunity to write his or her own model, but there are also plenty of already-written chapters to join in and not go it alone. If our clients’ interests are the ultimate priority, I think there is room for all of us.