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The world is accelerating on three fronts, according to Nathan Gehring, CFP®, citing Thomas Friedman’s 2016 book, Thank You for Being Late: climate change, individuals’ ability to contribute to society, and artificial intelligence and intelligent assistance.
“Things are changing so quickly that we are no longer able to adapt to it,” he said. “We can look to history to guide us, we can make predictions about the future, [but] every plan that’s ever been written is wrong because all we can see is the world as it is today.”
Gehring is a financial planner at Kahler Financial Group in Boca Raton, Florida, and he shared his vision for financial planning with participants at the 2022 FPA Retreat in Lost Pines, Texas.
“In my 20 years, I’ve learned one thing for certain: there are a multitude of ways to do this work,” he said. “As long as you’re trying to do good work for clients, where you’re trying to help them live the lives they hope to live and make good financial decisions, that’s real financial planning however you go about it.”
New Realities for Planners, Clients
Along with accelerating change is accelerating uncertainty, Gehring said. He listed some of the ways that the world has changed just since 2019: the pandemic and widespread remote work as well as the war in Europe.
“We have seen change in two years that is just dramatic. We might slow down for a while because of the pandemic, but we might just keep speeding up,” he said.
Financial planners “play in uncertainty” as they help their clients prepare for the future, he said. The assumptions planners base their recommendations on will be outdated more quickly.
Artificial intelligence and intelligent assistance could significantly impact planners by shifting more of the grunt work of financial planning to computers. Software is already helping with data analysis, and the robo-adviser panic of a decade ago didn’t send financial planners down the same road followed by lamplighters and travel agents.
“We’re now almost 10 years in, and we can see they’re not replacing us, but they sure can help.”
Gehring characterizes this offloading of analysis onto software as more opportunity than crisis. Even planners who don’t relish the relationship management part of financial planning have an opportunity to participate in financial planning at a technical level by learning to code and working for software companies, according to Gehring.
“We need CFP® certificants involved in that since they understand the financial side,” he said.
Advisers who do want to work closely on building relationships with clients will benefit greatly from automation.
“If we really have all of this work removed from us . . . we finally get to be with our clients in a way that we’ve never gotten to do before. We finally get to move toward the vision Dick Wagner put in front of us all these years ago.”
Lifelong learning is not an option—something CFP® professionals and other designation holders are familiar with as they acquire continuing education credits. However, Gehring believes that as the amount of knowledge planners are expected to have increases, it will be harder to be a master. Planners may pursue certification programs to gain a better understanding of more topics, but only a few will become masters.
For example, the CFP Board recently added Psychology of Financial Planning to its Principal Knowledge Topics and began testing CFP® certificants on the subject in March, and behavioral finance and financial therapy have become much more important in planning conversations.
“You have to know some of it at least well enough to know, ‘I’m walking into a space with a client that’s dangerous, and if I’m not trained in this, I need to back away and bring someone in who is because I could cause harm here,’” Gehring said.
‘Priests of Uncertainty’
In the face of these accelerating changes, Gehring recommends that planners slow down. He suggests “slow financial planning” as a way to be intentional in serving clients and their specific needs.
“We are the priests of uncertainty,” he said. “We help them envision a future that is yet to come. We are always playing in uncertainty, and yet we are always trying to hide it.”
Gehring believes planners can do more for clients by leaning into the uncertainty and helping them build resiliency to handle change.
“We’ve just been through two years of incredible change and incredible uncertainty manifesting into reality,” he said. He offered ways that planners can help their clients build resiliency.
Clients and planners should document strategies they used, or people they turned to, to get through difficult times in the past. “The next time uncertainty manifests in their life, you pull that document back out,” he said.
Well-defined investment policy statements that establish rules for how certain situations will be handled helps clients and planners make decisions when emotions like fear might impact judgement. “You have your rebalancing rules outlined, you have your tax loss harvesting rules outlined, and when these things happen, you just do it. The decision’s already made.”
Dick Wagner’s idea of integral finance involved planners helping clients with everything that touched their financial lives, including financial resources and goals, money beliefs and traumas, and larger social systems that impact how clients make decisions, Gehring explained.
“Policy-based integral financial planning combines these two ideas so that planners draft policy-based financial plans that “try to pursue a client’s goals and values that are based in their financial reality, that honor their values, and that are reflective and can adjust to the way they make decisions and the emotions that impact them.”
These plans take a lot of time to build well, he warned, and come with the risk that a client may eventually be so empowered that they leave their adviser. His firm has developed policy-based integral financial plans with a couple of clients and has seen this play out.
“The client chose to leave us. They didn’t need us anymore. We had built a policy that considered so much and was so robust that [we had to say], ‘Unless something changes in your life that we haven’t anticipated, you don’t need us. Call us when that happens, and we’ll go through it again.’”
Slow financial planning meetings are client-led, Gehring said, instead of expert-led. He suggests keeping meeting structure to a bare minimum needed to meet compliance requirements and letting clients focus on what’s on their mind. That might mean meetings only cover a single topic.
Gehring noted that the best financial answer and the best suggestion for a client may be different. “It’s easy to find the best financial answer based on the assumptions we make about the world we live in today, which we know are wrong. Instead, help the client understand all the different potential answers that fit well, and then support them in that decision.”
Slow Planning Skill Sets
- Empathic, active listening. Planners should avoid thinking about how they will answer while their clients are talking. They should ask questions instead of assuming they know what they client is talking about.
- Appreciative inquiry and motivational interviewing. These conversation techniques help get clients unstuck when they’re struggling to express themselves.
- Patience and listening quietly. Some clients need time to sit quietly and process ideas, while others talk their way through complex ideas. Planners must learn to recognize when to jump in.
- Financial life planning and therapy. Gehring said that financial life planning helps clients “envision a limitless future and guides them through that exercise,” while financial therapy helps them get “unstuck from things holding them in their past.”