Mike Harris, CFP®, MPAS, CRPC, is the chair of retirement studies and a professor at the College for Financial Planning. He’s been in the profession for over 40 years and has watched it evolve. He spoke with Hannah Moore, CFP®, about how the life of a financial adviser has changed, how professional designations will impact your career, and what it will take for you to thrive through the changes ahead.
From Gathering Assets to Achieving Goals
Mike jokes that, when he first entered the profession, they had to bring a slate and a chisel, and their calculator was an abacus. That’s about how far back his professional roots go, but he is fascinated with how the profession has changed. From the late ’80s to today, he says that financial planning has become more complicated and stressful.
Like most of us when we got started, Mike admits that he thought he could be an expert in every area of financial planning: insurance, taxes, investments, estate planning, retirement planning, you name it. And while he thinks it was possible to be an expert in a number of areas when he first started, “Today, it’s a real hard ask.” From the increasing complexity of our financial lives to ever-changing tax laws, there’s just too much information for a planner to master it all.
When Mike first started as an adviser at a mutual fund company, his objectives were simple: close deals and grow assets. But the general public’s expectations were unrealistic. People would ask him, “What’s going to happen to the stock market?” as if he was a fortune teller. There was (and still is) so much misunderstanding around the work that we actually do. The cure for him? Getting his CFP® designation.
Mike got his CFP® certification when the designation was still rare, and he started teaching in the program shortly after. He says, “The greatest thing to me about the CFP® designation is it doesn’t come with that pressure of, ‘Which stocks are going to win?’” Making the switch from trying to beat the market to helping clients accomplish their goals made more sense to him.
Keeping Up with Constant Change in the Profession
From ever-changing tax legislation to fintech, cryptocurrency, and next-gen trends, there’s just so much for us to learn and keep relearning in this field. “It’s not easy,” Mike says. “One of the things you can do is read books.” Two of his top picks are Retirement Savings Time Bomb by Ed Slott, and Stocks for the Long Run by Jeremy Siegel.
“It’s always difficult to take time for training because our lives are so crammed full.” Mike finds that the profession has done a great job of teaching planners how to close deals and grow investments, but there’s always been a gap around building technical skills and knowledge.
Mike remembers back when the CFP® program was about to start requiring the difficult comprehensive final exam. He was trying to get people from his mutual fund company to take the estate planning exam while it was still a standalone test. He says, “I told them, ‘Hey, come to class!’ And they said, ‘No, I’ve got to make one more client call!’”
In spite of the pressure to grow your book of business, Mike says that taking time for training is essential—and working toward designations can really help you advance your career.
Whether your clients need more guidance around investing, high-net-worth planning, behavioral finance, or socially responsible investing, you can find designations that will improve your skills for those scenarios. The College for Financial Planning has programs in all of those areas. Something interesting about their structure is that their courses and designations are stackable; smaller trainings can become part of your CFP® certification or master of science degree.
How Professional Designations Affect a Career
Every year, the college runs a survey asking planners who’ve just passed a designation, “How much of a difference has this made in your business?” The average response of all the designations is revenue growth of about 11 percent. Mike thinks people are reporting gains after doing a designation because it gives them a great lead-in for conversations with their clients.
“You can say, ‘Hey, I just did the Chartered Retirement Planning Counselor program. I learned a lot of new things and I’m going to apply them.’ Compare that to saying, ‘OK, it’s time for our annual evaluation. What’s up with you this year? Nothing? Well, can you refer somebody? That would be awesome.’”
The Four Ts to Thrive in Financial Planning
What are some of the best changes Mike has seen in his time in the profession? Students coming to the CFP® exam from all walks of life. Some have just gone through a college program. They register and take the final exam through the college. Then there are career changers, who make up about a third of the program.
Mike says, “A lot of people have had a career and now they’re ready for a change. I find the older you get, the more interesting finances are.”
He estimates that the last 30–40 percent of the program are advisers who’ve been in the profession a while and are being encouraged by their firm or organization to get certified. No matter where you’re coming from, Mike believes that if you’re passionate about finance, you can find a successful role in financial planning.
This is where his four Ts come in: “If you’ve got the time, the talent, the training, and the temperament to be in the industry, you’re going to be OK. Just start learning, and hang in there long enough to gather some assets or to start working for a good firm.”
Three Tips for New Advisers
Mike left us all with some parting wisdom for new advisers:
- Find an employer who will develop you. “When you’re just starting out, you want to be with an employer who will mentor you along. If you work for a firm that generates the clients, and they pay you a salary, I think that’s a gentler way to get started.”
- Figure out what type of work you want to do. “If you are going to be independent, then it all has to do with your ability to make sales. If you are working for a client generator, like a broker-dealer, then it all has to do with your ability to do whatever they tell you. If you really like numbers stuff, but you don’t want to talk to people, there are all kinds of jobs in the financial services industry for you that are not client-facing.”
- Never stop learning, so you can serve your clients better. “If you’ve already got your CFP® mark, that’s a great foundation. But continue to learn, and make your continuing education count. Always be interested in changing and learning and doing more.”
Mike’s final words? Remember that your work matters.
“Dealing with people’s money is really important. Money means food, it means shelter, and it means education for your children. It’s the ability to accomplish the things you want for your family. So strive to be good with people and good at helping them accomplish their goals.”