Morgan Stanley's Hassan asks advisors, why not let technology do what it does best? (Photo: Shane O'Neill)

Big challenges call for bold moves and the right people to make them.

Charles Schwab seemed to have found the perfect leader for its robo-advisor initiatives in Naureen Hassan, who joined Schwab in 2003 from McKinsey. The initiative, rolled out for retail clients in March 2015 and for advisors in June 2015, amassed $6.6 billion in assets by March 31, 2016.

The success of the Schwab Intelligent Portfolios and the Institutional Intelligent Portfolios platforms drew attention not just to Schwab but also to Hassan; Morgan Stanley lured her away this year to lead the strategy and marketing of digital tools and platforms for the wirehouse’s 16,000 financial advisors and 3.5 million clients.

“We are delighted to welcome Naureen to the Morgan Stanley team,” said COO Jim Rosenthal in a statement earlier this year. “Her record of successful innovation bringing exceptional digital resources to financial advisors and clients will sharpen our ability to compete for today’s high-net-worth individuals as well as those emerging in the next generation.”

Hassan, tapped as the firm’s chief digital officer, remains in San Francisco, where she can keep tabs on the latest Silicon Valley developments. 

Why the move? “My decision […] relates to my views of the future of wealth management,” Hassan explained in an interview. “I believe successful firms in wealth management will combine the power of relationships through a financial advisor with the ease, simplicity and convenience that technology enables.”

Like many in the industry, she believes robo-advisors cannot replace their human counterparts, pointing out that investors have to make “decisions and plans about their lives, finances and investments — they need financial advisors to help them.”

But, the Princeton and Stanford Business School graduate asks, why not let technology do what it does best? “Modern technology has the power to simplify advisors’ lives by automating mundane tasks — opening accounts, rebalancing portfolios — freeing them up to spend more time with their clients,” she explained.

The plus side for clients is that more technology means less time and energy spent on paperwork. “Now it is about managing your finances anywhere and anyway you want: online, mobile, video,” Hassan stated.

“The winning firms will be able to combine the power of financial advisors with leading-edge technology.” She said that Morgan Stanley “is incredibly strong with one part of that combination. I wanted to help complement that strength with technology to lead the industry.”

Hassan appears to have the powerful mix of skills and practice to make that happen. At Schwab, she worked on investor strategy, segments and platforms, as well as the Intelligent Portfolios platform. Prior to that, her focus was on client experience and strategic integration.

The new chief digital officer of Morgan Stanley also served as COO of Schwab Bank as part of her 12-plus years there. Earlier, she was an associate principal (five years) and business analyst (nearly three years) at McKinsey, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Hassan knows that technology isn’t just about making things simpler and easier for the financial-services industry. “There are legacy processes, legacy technology systems — and in the case of firms that have merged, multiple legacy systems. This makes it hard for advisors and hard for clients,” she admitted.

On the other hand, established firms can “take a step back” and ask how they can make their processes “dramatically better […] and use technology to make that happen,” Hassan stated.

Her role is to bring “a fresh set of eyes” to Morgan Stanley, since “a different perspective is always healthy when trying to make significant change.”

As for the role of women in the field, she said she “would love to see more women enter the financial services industry, particularly as advisors […]. The number of women in the industry has been stubbornly stuck, and I hope I and the other [female] leaders can be role models and show the younger generation that it can be done.”

Today, there is “an incredible group of women leading the industry right now,” Hassan adds. “Shelley O’Connor here at Morgan Stanley is a great leader who rose through the ranks. The leaders of the wealth management businesses at Morgan Stanley, Wells Fargo, Schwab and Fidelity are all women right now. That’s so great for the industry and a sign of the changing face of wealth management.”

— See the full 2016 IA 25 in the May issue of Investment Advisor, and find ongoing coverage of the honorees, including extended profiles, all month on the IA 25 homepage.