Elevating the Profession by Reimagining What’s ‘Professional’

Journal of Financial Planning: March 2021


Before changing careers from culinary arts to financial planning, I often found myself depositing weekly takings at a local bank. On one such occasion, a dapper financial professional in a suit began soliciting me for business. “Sorry, but I never trust a man in a suit,” I quipped.

A great privilege of working with food is that feedback is terse but abundant: if the food sucks, you’ll know quickly. This isn’t a pleasure enjoyed (often) by financial professionals. We pride ourselves in intuiting clients. That said, we are not as good at mindreading as we might think we are, or so says a team from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Los Angeles. So, starting a conversation on how clients are affected by an adviser’s appearance makes sense.

Subtle ways advisers conduct themselves truly matter. Things we don’t often consider can tremendously impact clients. In fact, simply by your heart rate quickening, you may unintentionally make your clients more anxious, according to research from HeartMath Institute.

Clients may benefit from advisers presenting themselves more authentically. That’s a message in the acclaimed CFP® commercial that features a “planner” in a suit asking potential clients if they’d trust him with their money. All the potential clients said yes, and he revealed he wasn’t actually a planner, but a DJ. The commercial dispels the notion that professionalism should be synonymous with business suits and close shaves—stodge.

In fact, many lacking a planner are so intimidated by finances, the last thing they want in adviser interactions is a three-piece suit. I suspect I am not alone in having a preconception that for some clients and young professionals, three-piece business suits indicate slick salesmanship.

We should also expand how professional is visually framed in our profession—not just to build trust, but to attract more young talent to our profession.

Long after my “I-don’t-trust-suits” moment, I attended a financial planning career fair. Donning the suit, necktie, leather shoes, and folder, I was ready to show what I had to offer top-notch firms. With that, I also decided to keep my beard and head covering as per my cultural normality, a decision apparently more considerable than I realized for an aspiring planner. Just one example: I was actually scolded by the fair coordinator who said my outfit was disrespectful to the firms.

Reducing experiences like this will prevent thinning out the talent pool for our profession. Expanding how firms define professional attire could improve perceptions that interns, prospective recruits, and career fair coordinators have of us. Besides, the 21st century offers many competing lucrative career paths where you don’t have to fret if you already wore that necktie on Monday.

Financial planning originates in salesmanship. Teams were required to look akin to Glengarry Glen Ross. But to elevate the profession, we must expand this antiquated image—not just to better relate to clients, but to become a more appealing career choice. There is certainly a place for business wear; but carving out a clearer path for those who can’t entirely conform to that traditional image, or for those who don’t wish to work with demographics who are impressed by suits, may be beneficial.

At In Good Company, where we test and learn how financial professionals can best deliver financial education, we are comprised of folks who come from various professional backgrounds. It’s a conducive environment for debating how the public desires the adviser of the future to present themselves. With many aspects of financial planning evolving at light speed, I’d like to see this discussion accelerate

Rafael Bernard, CFP®, is a subject matter specialist at In Good Company, a MassMutual collaborative learning lab that provides accessible financial education. He is an alumnus of Bentley University’s financial planning program and Kansas State University’s financial therapy program, and a member of FPA of Massachusetts. You can contact him HERE.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and may not accurately reflect those of Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual), or its affiliated companies.

In Good Company is a “doing business as” name for MML Investors Services, LLC (member SIPC). Our financial professionals are investment adviser representatives and registered representatives of MML Investors Services, LLC and are licensed insurance agents or brokers of Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual) and/or other affiliated or unaffiliated insurance companies. The material, classes, and financial events are general in nature and not tailored to any specific situation. Financial professionals will not recommend specific securities.

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