I’ve written a lot about how being a financial advisor is the best career in the world. And it is, for me. Lately, I’ve come to realize that it takes a certain temperament and skill set to enjoy the work. This is not a job you can leave at the office at night or on weekends. It sticks with you always, in your brain, even in your dreams. The stakes are too high. Advisors are responsible for the financial stability, goals, hopes, and dreams of their clients. Or at the very least, advisors are responsible for providing peace of mind that a client’s plan will work despite inevitable market downturns and crises du jour. The weight of that responsibility is heavier during bear markets. These are the times that advisors earn their stripes.
For anyone curious about a career as an advisor, here are my thoughts on the good, the bad, and the ugly aspects of the job. I’ll start with the negative stuff and work down to the positives. Because despite what I am about to share, I know this is the best job in the world for me. I have to pinch myself sometimes. I get to wake up every morning and do what I was born to do and what brings me immense satisfaction even on the hardest days. So here we go ….
I knew a broker in my early years who was afraid to leave his desk to use the bathroom. His largest, and most demanding client, might call to execute a trade. If he missed that call, the client would be angry and could accuse him of missing the right price on the trade. He was miserable, but he depended on that client’s sales commission revenue to pay the bills. I’ll never forget the day this broker decided to part ways with that client. He took a leap of faith, that he would be able to find enough new clients to fill the gap in his income. It was like an enormous weight was lifted from his shoulders. Not only could he use the bathroom without inducing a panic attack, but he could also go out for lunch meetings with other clients and colleagues. He’s still in the business, so I can only assume he had no problem making up for the lost revenue. His health, both mental and physical, was improved by his decision.
In my first job, I was a sales assistant on a large team at a brokerage firm. The team had several clients who would yell and scream at me on the phone while I fumbled through client service requests. On my very first day, I was asked to send a $4M wire out for a client who was leaving for another advisor. I had no idea how to enter a Fed Fund wire into the system and very little support in my office to teach me. The client had already made the decision to fire my team, so let’s just say there was no reason to filter his frustration with the new girl transferring his millions. I’m pretty sure I drowned my tears in a bottle of wine that evening. There were times in those early days when I felt like an incompetent service person answering a 1-800 number in a call center. It toughened me up but also frayed my nerves.
When I left the brokerage world after the Great Financial Crisis, I learned that there was a different way to be a financial advisor. On the advice side of the business, my mentors chose not to do business with clients who were mean-spirited or treated them with disrespect. Life is too short to work with people who cannot be satisfied. There’s an advisor out there for everyone, and it’s OK that I am not a good fit for every client.
Even when working with amazing clients who all appreciate the work I do, there are still bad days. Beyond the obvious difficulty of keeping clients calm during bear markets, clients will inevitably run into difficult challenges that require my help. Illness, divorce, providing care for sick family members, layoffs, failed business deals, and even death occur with regularity. As an advisor, I experience tough times alongside my clients. Sometimes I am able to assist with financial planning, insurance, and advice. Other times, I can only offer an open ear and a shoulder to cry on.
I’ll never forget a client at the brokerage firm who called to ask questions about her IRA account. She wanted to know if she was eligible to make a contribution that year. I explained that since she was retired, with no earned income, and over the RMD age limit, she was not eligible to make a contribution. She asked several follow-up questions, and we ended the call. Less than a minute later, she called back and proceeded to ask me the same exact question. We had the same conversation as if the first conversation never happened. That was the first time I witnessed the cognitive decline of a client. It was frightening. We didn’t know her family members and had no way to assist her in setting up Powers of Attorney to protect her from making a major financial mistake.
In my very first internship at a local Smith Barney branch in Athens, GA, I worked for course credit and assisted the brokers with various tasks. I will spare you the story of the broker who had me rewrite (in ink) his entire Rolodex! Another broker brought me a stack of annuity forms and asked me to contact each company to file a death claim. One of his clients had died, and he was assisting their beneficiaries with the annuity withdrawal process. As I faxed copies of her death certificate (my first time seeing one) to the annuity companies, I realized that death is a regular part of a career in wealth management.
Advising clients through the most challenging times of life isn’t always a walk in the park. Their grief, anxiety, and fear live in my head and my heart. It is a constant reminder to live my own life to the fullest and never to take today for granted.
I saved the best for last. The good parts of being a financial advisor massively outweigh the downsides. At its core, my job is to help people accomplish their hopes and dreams. I am able to provide peace of mind that the nest egg they’ve accumulated will be enough to last through retirement. I celebrate their achievements; marriages, births, graduations, retirements, family vacations, second home purchases, career changes, and charitable endeavors.
On multiple occasions, clients have shared their pregnancy news with me before the grandparents or any of their friends. After all, it’s important to get a jump on college savings and life insurance. I get to celebrate with clients who tell me that yet another grandchild is on the way. I’ve witnessed clients buy their dream home, certain they can afford it based on the plan we created. I get text messages and emails with photos from their travel around the world. When my children were born, many sent me small gifts or handwritten cards.
My absolute favorite call is the one from a client who is ready to make a major life change. They want to retire earlier than planned, buy a second house overseas, start a new business, or move to a low-tax state with better weather. I love when plans change, and I can show them the financial path to make that change. These are the real-life decisions that help clients build a better life and find more happiness. And while I am only one small part of that process, I never take it for granted.
A career as an advisor may not be for everyone. You have to be comfortable forming deep relationships with the people you serve. It requires giving a lot of your headspace to those clients. It requires the willingness to have difficult and uncomfortable conversations. But the joy is in the struggle. Seeing the results of your work have the power to change lives for the better is an incredible reward.
Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. – Theodore Roosevelt