Future Mastery: Evolution or Revolution in the Financial Planning Profession?

Journal of Financial Planning: December 2017



In our networking with financial planners around the globe, we find that the true masters of our profession have equal parts creativity, the “art,” along with mastery of the planning knowledge, the “science,” to advise a wide variety of clients at an exceptional level. Ten thousand hours of study and training is the criteria experts say will give us “mastery” of anything. Change is coming faster than ever, suggesting that ten thousand hours of study may not be enough in both the art and science of financial planning to achieve and maintain “future mastery.”

Even the top masters are finding that change anxiety, leading to increasing behavioral finance mistakes, is accelerating in themselves and their clients while overall trust by the public in politicians and Wall Street is waning. Geo-political wildcards like North Korea and Iran are magnifying anxiety.

How does a future master become indispensable to clients? He or she will invest more time listening and coaching clients, finding new resources to help them succeed or survive, and integrating new technology to meet client demands. Emotional or social intelligence, called EQ, will become more important than IQ knowledge. IQ is easily replicated by machine learning and artificial intelligence. EQ is harder for computers to master, and it is the area clients are craving—someone who can make sense of a world seemingly going haywire and discussing change in terms they can understand. The good news: EQ can be taught and learned.

Several thought leaders in our profession believe the “average” financial planner may be marginalized in income or even cease to exist in the next five to 10 years. Thomas Friedman declares in Thank You for Being Late (a great book of super trend stories) that “average is over” in most professions as a result of the techno-industrial revolution. The quest for true mastery lies in our ability to balance old school skills (like better people skills) and new school skills (like AI-enhanced tools). Friedman describes it as AI = IA, or artificial intelligence equals intelligent assistant. Future masters will adapt intelligent assistants to leverage and expand their ability to delight clients.

Let’s focus on demographics, one of the four powerful “super trend” areas, and how future masters will sharpen their skills:

Baby Boomers

Baby boomers have long been the economic growth engine of the United States, rewriting the way businesses operate. Boomers view aging differently than past generations. Medical advancements are allowing retirees to remain active later in life and are extending the golden years. As these trends continue, traditional asset allocation strategies, life stage assumptions, and spending models may prove to be antiquated.

Client considerations. How would it affect your planning assumptions if some of your clients lived to age 100 or beyond and were still active and spending money similar to today?

The future masters will help their clients with multiple coaching and referral resources such as encore career specialists, fourth-quarter or late-life socialization skills, and health care wellness services.

Planning practice considerations. Larger firms will have aging specialists within their firms. Smaller firms will need to source and vet outside resources.

It’s not just what you do, it’s who does it and how they do it. Is the right person in your firm delivering these critical “better aging” messages? Do they understand the issues, want to do it, and have the capacity and skills? This could be the biggest disconnect we see in the planning profession. Mastery includes well-thought-out advice seasoned by thousands of hours of study delivered in the right way for the personality of the client.


Women are another key demographic trend that will shape the future. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women outnumber men as a percentage of the U.S. population and are now outpacing men in college graduation rates. Women will continue to gain influence in the workforce. Some studies suggest they will control the majority of wealth in the future. The financial services industry is furiously launching women’s initiatives, many of which fall flat with their intended audience.

Client considerations. Future masters will achieve superior listen to learn skills, versus listen to respond, and they will understand the unique issues many women face. While men tend to be overconfident, causing behavioral finance mistakes, women tend to be underconfident. True masters will figure out how to educate female clients without sounding condescending. Studies show that the larger financial services industry is dismal when it comes to this skill, which is the reason more than two-thirds of women switch financial planners within a year after their spouse’s death.

Women generally use more intuition than men and are not as prone to trading risks. Many women have more interest in security than performance. Today’s masters are already trying to figure out what this important distinction means in a techno-industrial revolution where security will be more fragile as the disruptive forces of change transform the world.

Gray divorce is one of the fastest-growing trends in divorce, more often initiated by women. Longevity trends are mostly to blame. Future masters will help clients recognize the risks to their financial plan and encourage a healthy marital relationship as being just as important as maintaining good mental and physical health. Failing that, masters will help older divorcing clients better navigate a future with fewer resources.

Planning practice considerations. Today’s masters are already creating safe communities for their female clients to learn and share information. Tomorrow’s communities will likely be some integrated mix of in-person and digital, with every financial and non-financial resource that women need to deal with their unique responsibilities pre-vetted and readily available.

Future masters will have a good mix of male and female planners in their firms. Masters recognize the importance of the intuitive mind, more often seen in women, measured by social or emotional intelligence (EQ).


Millennials are now the U.S.’s largest demographic, and they face a different path than their parents. Growing up with Google and YouTube to answer questions, the millennial generation exhibits do-it-yourself tendencies with a dollop of validation. Future masters will embrace this desire for validation balanced with their current delivery models. This may be a difficult shift for those accustomed to clients who delegate authority.

Client considerations. Millennials are not as impressed with the awards and bling of the baby boomer planners. They value authenticity and a better “experience.” Future masters are studying their habits and learning how to interact at a different level.

Millennials have seen much economic unrest and several major stock market calamities. They embrace new investment approaches but may respond differently to market volatility and risks.

Planning practice considerations. Many successful millennial strategies today involve some form of retainer fee or retainer/AUM mix. Today’s masters are considering how to train a new group of younger, future planners who can use new digital tools and compensation systems to make a longer-term client relationship more likely. Future trend warning: millennial experts say these young planners often need even more EQ coaching than prior generations of employees.

Most millennials grew up as digital natives and expect a client experience that offers immediacy, personal and unique resources, and validation. Master planning firms may find themselves evolving to a robust online presence where millennials can link and analyze their financial information, receive instant feedback, and engage in live Q&A sessions.

Cultural Shifts Across Demographic Segments

Mounting effects from technological disruptions, social media asphyxia, and demographic shifts will keep change anxiety elevated. Emotional coaching will become indispensable to clients, and mastery could yield greater financial results than any single training investment made by financial planning firms.

Client considerations. Today’s masters simultaneously hone their own behavioral skills and help their clients sharpen their behavioral finance and change coping skills. In the future, they will do this intensely with clients before the next crisis hits via meetings, newsletters, and by sending clients custom curated resource recommendations, including books, articles, and TED Talks.

Planning practice considerations. Future masters will make sure that their entire staff is well drilled and skilled in behavioral finance and change anxiety. They will take advantage of resources such as OnlineChangeAcademy.com, which is being adopted by many Fortune 500 companies, to help their staff and their clients prepare in advance for the massive change that lies ahead.

Preparing for future mastery in our profession is not going to be easy. The ideas discussed here are only a few of the ingredients needed for mastery in the techno-industrial revolution. Other super trend forces will profoundly impact us and our clients, including reinvented long-term care and educational institutions. If you want to maintain both your income and your mental health, and be a future master, invest in yourself and your teammates to sharpen the future skills needed to navigate the great change that lies ahead.

Dennis Stearns, CFP®, is a planning practitioner and partner in Stearns Financial Group, a fee-only wealth management firm with offices in Chapel Hill and Greensboro, North Carolina. A leading scenario expert and futurist in the financial planning profession, his latest book is Fourth Quarter Fumbles: How Successful People Avoid Critical Mistakes Later in Life.

Andrew Clark, CFP®, is a senior financial analyst and adviser with Stearns Financial Group and a member of the firm’s investment committee. He has a passion for all things economics, with a particular interest in super trends and how demographics, innovation, and human behavior collide.

Learn More

Reading List:

Future Smart: Managing the Game-Changing Trends that Will Transform Your World
by James Canton, Ph.D.
Da Capo Press, 2015

Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations
by Thomas L. Friedman
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016

The Truth About Your Future: The Money Guide You Need Now, Later, and Much Later
by Ric Edelman
Simon & Schuster, 2017

Dennis Stearns on Super Trends, Predicting Change, and Scenario Planning
Journal of Financial Planning 10 Questions interview
March, 2017


General Financial Planning Principles