Stephanie McCullough is the founder and CEO of Sofia Financial and co-host of the Take Back Retirement Podcast. She talked with Matt Fizell, CFP®, about building confidence in your work when you’re not a traditional advisor, what the financial planning conversation is lacking for women, and how to find and connect to the parts of the industry that excite you.

Getting comfortable as an advisor

Stephanie had an unusual start in the industry, launching into client care right out of the gates rather than spending years practicing behind the scenes. This upside-down intro was perfect for her, as a self-professed non-salesy person working at an RIA firm.

She would go in and do enrollment meetings for the firm’s groups and have one-on-one discussions with participants. She helped those people understand how the RIA’s financial vehicle fit into their financial picture, so that they could make a wise decision on how to best take advantage of their services.

Although Stephanie had her licences and technical knowledge, it took a lot of conversations with clients before she found a stance that felt confident and sincere. She says, “I finally realized if I didn’t know the answer, I could say, ‘Tell me why you're asking?’ Then I'd find something I could speak to within that. I also got okay with saying, ‘I'm going to get back to you on that.’”

What kept her going through those anxious early days was a note to herself that she kept coming back to that said, “What do I love about this profession?” For her, it was having conversations with people and hearing their stories, then bringing her knowledge to serve their goals. She told clients, “I'm your guide in a foreign land. I speak the language, I know the pitfalls of the different routes we could take. But it's your vacation.”

She also learned that this kind of experience built her confidence — and helped her get even closer to her ideal clients. A pivotal experience was when her firm worked on a hospital’s 403b plan. She says, “I met with everyone from the CEO down to the women who cleaned the rooms, and heard all of their money hang ups and their situations. I think that helped me feel comfortable that I could provide something of value to anybody.”

Making the conversation compelling for women

During their conversation, it was very clear that Stephanie’s focus has been on changing the financial narrative for women. This passion came to her while she was working with the hospital staff. She says the majority of employees at the hospital are women, and she had so many conversations with women. During that time, she realized that the financial services industry as a whole doesn't always speak in a way that's compelling to women.

She was surprised to find that many women had outsourced their financial planning in terms of investment and long-term planning. She says, “Even if the women were doing the household budgeting and paying the bills, they often outsourced the big picture thinking to a man in their life.” Whether they deferred to a spouse, father, cousin, or brother-in-law, Stephanie met many women who just assumed that men were better at understanding money, even if they didn’t always make the  best decisions on their behalf. She says, “Maybe it’s because the men were a little bit more braggadocious about it. But as we know, that doesn't always square with being good at it.” 

Other women she talked to had nightmare stories of someone in the finance world who sold them a high commission product and never answered the phone again. She says, “That's what finally gave me the impetus to feel like, ‘Okay, even if I don't know all the answers, I'm not going to be like that guy.’”

So, during her money conversations with women, she flipped the focus from competition to values. She says, “It's not, ‘Let's beat the S&P’ or ‘Die with the most money.’ It's about how you can use this thing called money as a tool to build the life you want, to secure your future and your family's future.”

She starts by asking her clients,”What's most important to you, and who are the people who are most important to you? What do you want to create in your life?” Then she shows them how to look at their money, assess what’s there and figure out how to put it to work to support their vision. She’s careful to make the initial conversation very human, and refuses to send her clients a 35 page fact-finding questionnaire to fill out before they meet with her. She says, “That is such a barrier to the people that I'm speaking to.”

Overcoming the fear of selling

As most of us in the profession experience, Stephanie had a slight fear of selling. She grew up believing that financial advising meant selling insurance and investment products, which is what her father did. It took awhile to realize there were other ways of doing this work.

After joining her father’s firm, Stephanie says she gradually met more people in the profession and started to hear about different ways of serving. She did some training with the Kinder Institute, and admitted that was really an aha moment for her. She found the concept of life planning very compelling, and was introduced to the world of financial planning, where investments were just one piece of the whole picture.

Realizing she could make an impact without being a salesperson, Stephanie admitted that it opened up so much more for her, and really helped her love her work even more. Having conversations with people and hearing about their excitement or fear about money helps her tap into her natural ability to listen and guide.

She tries to help clients and other women in finance to understand the greater possibilities in the field, beyond investment management and $500,000 minimums. She says, “I've met so many women who say, ‘Oh, maybe someday I'll have enough money to need your services.’ Well, I know that they need my services today. But it's up to me to explain that.”

Find the people who think differently

For women who are listening and just getting started in finance, Stephanie urges them to broaden their perspectives. She says, “Wherever you're first introduced to the industry, you tend to think that's the only way.” She recommends listening to a wide range of information sources, like podcasts and blogs from different parts of the profession, to get a truer sense of what type of roles are out there. There is a need for all kinds of interests, like marketing and content creation, operations, research, paraplanning and more. There are also more opportunities to work remotely.

When she was starting out, the only way to meet people and learn about the larger profession was to go to conferences. She mentioned the XY Planning Conference, as well as a few she had been to that were specifically for women advisors. She also found a lot of inspiration at impact investing conferences, which was considered a fringe philosophy at the time. She eventually became involved with the Advisor Growth Community.

With COVID-19 still limiting conference opportunities, she thinks new advisors and planners should go to the internet to connect. She says, “Don't feel shy about reaching out. Join a LinkedIn group, whether it's women in the industry, or people who pursue a particular interest of yours. Be active in that group and reach out to people and say, ‘Hey, can I learn about your career path?’” You can reach out to podcast guests who’ve inspired you, too. While some people might ignore you, many will be willing to talk. The long and short of it? Don’t be afraid to expand your network and find support within the profession.

What You’ll Learn:

  • How to build your confidence when you’re first starting out
  • How the profession can do better for women
  • How to succeed if you’re not a natural at sales
  • Online and offline places to connect to broaden your mind about the industry

In this episode of YAFPNW, Stephanie McCullough and Matt Fizell, CFP®, talk about:

Interested in following Stephanie? Follow her on LinkedIn!