A year ago I received an email from a young financial planner facing a fairly common career problem—passing the CFP exam. While their circumstances may differ, I think many young advisors today can learn from his experience, and there’s an interesting kicker at the end of the piece. Here’s what he wrote: 

I started in a financial planning support role and within a year, was promoted to Financial Planner with shared oversight of a section of our firm’s clients. When I first started at the firm, it was agreed that I would obtain the CFP designation within three years. I took it twice and didn’t pass it. I sat for the exam again last year after studying all year and taking a refresher CFP course and a review course. Again, I didn’t pass. The company told me that I was at risk of losing my position to a support person who also sat for the exam at the same time if he passed and I didn’t.  

Well, the support person passed and I didn’t. I was told they wanted me to be the client service director, which sounded okay at first. But then they said that I wouldn’t have time to be a Financial Planner, too, and the other support staffer would take my place as planner. The biggest blow is that they have a clear plan for how they want me to train this support guy and transition my job to his, but they have not a clue what my new position will look like.  

I’m extremely unhappy. I’m transitioning my job to the support, who thinks that he knows more than me; we have had several arguments. I’m feeling a little betrayed by my company after all I have done for them and don’t know if I can mentally stand it anymore.

Here’s my response: 

This is a very hard situation to be in and I feel for you. It’s very hard when employees don’t understand their roles, get demoted and/or get little feedback from their firms. This may be hard for you to hear, but you need to be careful not to focus on the wrong things.

First, instead of putting your energy into where you “stand” in the company, you need to put all your effort into studying for your CFP. In order to be a great advisor and earn respect in the field (whether we like it or not) you have to be able to pass exams, and many companies today want you to have the CFP. I am not a good test taker myself, so I empathize with you—it’s just harder for us, but we can do it! 

Unfortunately, no matter what you do, how hard you work, how much effort you put in, if you cannot pass the exam your employer is not going to look at you the same. I know this from the thousands of employers with which I have consulted who view differently those people who can pass tests. If I were you and really wanted this job to work out, here’s what I would do:

1. Show up every day with my head down and do what is asked of me.

2. Don’t waste stress and energy worrying about my role.
You made a promise to pass the exam in the first three years of employment. They are extending you an opportunity here.

3. Do anything I could to avoid conflict, and do everything to support and help my team.
As hard as it is, you have got to put your pride on the shelf and start to just shine through all this. By pushing, not getting along with your team, asking about your role, and not passing the exam, you are just setting yourself up to be a target.

4. Spend every waking hour and extra money on studying/getting a tutor to get the exam passed.
I wouldn’t tell anyone I was doing all this. I would just do it and take the exam again and again until I passed.

Your frustration is getting in the way of your progress. Think progress. Change what you are doing. Pass the exam. I guarantee if you do this, things will instantly change for you. If you don’t want to do this, (to say it bluntly), you need to find a new job that doesn’t have CFP requirements or except a new career.

Flashing forward to today, this individual has now passed the CFP exam. The overarching message here for employees is that yes, you can get the results you want in your career. If you spend all your time and energy on the wrong things, you get outcomes you don’t want.

The goal is to put your energy into doing the things you need to do, to get the results you want. If you do that, you will win every time.