Dennis J. Moore, CFP®, is chief operating officer at Quest Capital Management Inc., where he leads operations and manages personnel, technology, and financial initiatives to support the firm’s clients and growth.
As a relatively young profession, the career path for financial planners is not always clearly defined. Finding one’s niche within the profession takes time, patience, and experience as you progress through your career. So how do you know you’re headed for the position that’s best for you?
The key to building a financial planning career is to constantly learn and grow—from your first day of college to achieving a senior position, partnership, or ownership of a financial planning firm.
Start with Internships
One of the best ways to learn about the profession and the career path you want to take within it is through an internship. Students receive real-world experience and exposure to what financial planning is all about, and employers gain access to the next generation of planners who will help them grow their businesses. If done right, internships are beneficial to both the intern and the employer. However, realistic expectations must be set by both parties in order for the internship to be a success. Firms need to establish a clear set of responsibilities and objectives for the internship and be able to effectively communicate that to the intern.
For the intern, whether you enjoy the internship is not always the point. Either way, it’s still a good experience because it gives you clarity on what you’re really looking for once you graduate from college. And for employers, creating an environment where interns can learn not only about the business, but your firm’s culture, is essential to furthering your firm’s reputation and brand on college campuses so that you attract the best candidates.
At our financial planning practice, we take a lot of time to interview and select candidates for our intern program. Even though the internship is only for a summer, it’s important to us that the intern understands and fits in with our culture and that the relationship will be mutually beneficial. We encourage our interns to ask questions and provide feedback and suggestions. We also encourage interns to seek out a mentor at the firm and build relationships. From my experience, the more you put into the intern program, the more you’ll get out of it, and that goes for both the intern and the company.
If you are able to, you should complete more than one internship during college. Students who work with a variety of firms gain insights into the broader perspective that helps them define which aspect of the profession would be the best fit for them. Some may find their skillset applies more to the business side than the planning side and vice versa. Or, they have more of an affinity for investments versus planning. Having multiple internships is also a great way to set yourself apart from other candidates in your job search.
Take Initiative and Stand Out
After graduation, it is important to remember that for the NexGen planner working as a paraplanner or an associate planner, the responsibilities for those positions and the timeframe for promotions will vary from firm to firm. One of the ways young planners can stand out is by proactively offering feedback and contributing to the conversation for the strategic vision of the firm. Take initiative and share your ideas, but be prepared to explain why your ideas will add value to the firm and how they can be implemented.
Keep in mind that not every idea or suggestion you have will get implemented immediately, if at all. Whatever the outcome, you have demonstrated that you’re thinking and trying to bring value, and that effort will not go unnoticed.
Many firms have internal committees or initiatives for which you can volunteer. Additionally, you can further your visibility within the firm by speaking up in internal meetings, offering topics for the agenda, and/or volunteering to present on a topic that would bring value to the firm. This type of information sharing does not always have to be technical in nature. Non-technical topics such as time management, wellness, or communication are just as important for running a successful business and having a successful career. Remember that little steps can add up and help you position yourself for more responsibility.
Hone Your Communication Skills
Advancement in any business means acquiring a deeper range of skillsets. This applies to everyone from NexGen to seasoned planners. Technical and analytical skills are crucial, but it takes more than book smarts to really make an impression.
One area to focus on is communication skills, which are needed to create connections that lead to long-term relationships, whether with clients, peers, or supervisors. It’s important to understand that your personal communication style and preferences may or may not be effective with everyone, but that doesn’t mean that you cannot be an effective communicator.
Continue to hone your communication skills in order to be aware of your communication preferences and to be able to pick up on those of others. Simple things—such as knowing how much small talk a client or colleague likes to make before getting down to business or whether they prefer in-person meetings or conference calls—can have a significant impact on the effectiveness of the conversation.
Find a Mentor
One way to expand your skillsets while increasing your networking within the profession is to participate in organized mentoring programs either through your college or professional organizations such as FPA (as an FPA member, you can conduct a nationwide search for a mentor based on your unique needs through the FPA MentorMatch program). These programs provide opportunities to be matched with mentors who can serve as sounding boards and assist you with defining your career goals.
The sooner a young planner gets plugged into these programs the better, but there are guidelines to keep in mind with the mentor/mentee relationship. Don’t view mentors as a tool to be used solely in crisis mode. Seek advice and be open to what you learn, because mentors may not always tell you what you want to hear. A mentor is someone you trust and respect and is willing to take time to listen to your ideas and/or challenges. Although the formal mentor programs are excellent resources, keep in mind that not all mentoring relationships have to be so formal.
In addition to mentoring opportunities, professional organizations offer another way to grow your career and your reputation by getting involved. When I volunteered in college to work at the Texas Tech University booth during the FPA annual conference in New Orleans, I was just entering the personal financial planning program (PFP) at Texas Tech and did not know anyone. It was a great way for me to step out and meet people, and I saw firsthand how people were networking and connecting. Since then, I’ve participated in many committees and held leadership roles within the PFP program at Texas Tech University, as well as locally and nationally with FPA.
Involvement does take a time commitment, but the amount of time will be determined by the role. A board position requires more of a commitment than a committee position, for example, but starting with a committee position is an opportunity to get exposure to the organization, various leadership styles, and perspectives. It’s a great way to grow both personally and professionally. If others can make the time, you can, too. You never know whom you might meet or where it will lead you.
All you need is the confidence to jump in and get started. Don’t let fear of failure keep you on the sidelines. Get out of your comfort zone, learn, and keep moving forward. Expect to make mistakes and for things to sometimes take a different route from the way you planned—that’s all part of professional development.
In my experience, the more involved and the more effort you put into your professional growth, the higher the reward overall in your career. Success won’t happen overnight, but there’s no better time to begin than now.