Three Ways to Address the Lack of Adviser Diversity

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The financial advice profession is objectively one of the least diverse professions in the United States. Many of us in the advice industry are painfully aware of this from an anecdotal perspective; one only needs to attend almost any industry function and simply scan the room for it to be clear.

The actual statistics are even more sobering. Of the more than 83,000 CFP® professionals in the U.S., less than 3.5 percent are black or Latino. Women enjoy somewhat better representation, at 23 percent. However, once you look at all advisers, not just CFPs, women only make up 16 percent of the total, and the black and Latino representation among all advisers is almost infinitesimal.

The reality is that advisers are a fairly homogenous bunch. With some exceptions, the average adviser is a 50-year-old white male, who likely began his career as a broker or insurance salesperson. In fact, the largest cohort of advisers is between the ages of 45-54. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, however, the average American is a woman, with a median age of 37, who makes around $47,000 annually. She also happens to live in a city (and leans Democratic, for what that’s worth).

Meanwhile, America, already a diverse nation, is becoming even more diverse. The Census Bureau projects that the U.S. will become a minority majority nation by 2043. Non-Hispanic whites will still be the largest single group, but no one group of people will have the majority. The implications of this should serve as a wake-up call to our profession. We need to be prepared to better serve the retirement planning needs of a much broader swath of Americans in the future. And it’s important to note that retirement planning needs have changed significantly, as most Americans no longer have pension plans to sustain them in retirement, and the median income is $60,000.

As such, these Americans are mostly unprepared for retirement, unfamiliar with investing and underserved from an advisory point of view. The Center for Retirement Research calculates a measure of retirement readiness, the National Retirement Risk Index (NRRI), which reports that 50 percent of Americans are at risk of declining living standards in retirement. These are people who desperately need to save for retirement, and currently have little in retirement savings. The majority of Americans need behavioral coaching around saving, financial planning and even basic personal finance assistance. There is most definitely a market for this type of advice; however, the reality is that this type of advice will not be anywhere near as lucrative as the high-net-worth individuals many advisers pursue today.

Coincident with the above is the fact that there happens to be fairly significant demographic changes taking place within the wealth management space. Almost 40 percent of advisers are expected to retire in the next 10 years, according to Cerulli Associates. Combined with the fact that over the next 20 years we will experience “the great wealth transfer”—the migration of assets from baby boomers to their heirs (most of whom do not currently have advisers) by 2022—the U.S. wealth management industry is likely to face a shortfall of at least 200,000 advisers.

The advisory practice of tomorrow is going to be very different than that of today. And the systemic changes described above just might help position the industry for the changes that I believe are necessary, including:

  1. Advisers becoming much less sales- and investing-oriented, and instead looking and feeling more like financial counselors, deploying soft skills such as emotional intelligence, empathy and compassion.
  2. Practices pivoting away from being profit-oriented toward being client-oriented.
  3. The profession embracing diversity and inclusion among advisers.

The question is how, and what are the practical steps we need to take in the meantime, as an industry, to ensure a more diverse adviser population positioned to serve an increasingly diverse population?

Recruit and Hire Purposefully

Too often, we hire from a rather closed network of friends and family, or even friends of friends and family, which directly contributes to the homogeneous culture we have today. Instead, we must make a conscious, purposeful decision to hire diverse candidates, and this commitment must come from the top and permeate the organization. Recruiting from historically black universities and colleges is a great start. Targeting appropriate affinity groups, professional networks and community associations is another way to identify diverse candidates.

Closely tied to a firm’s recruiting efforts is the overall messaging of the firm, which also needs to be consistent with a commitment to diversity and inclusion. Candidates will naturally review advisory firm websites, social media and communications before deciding to accept an offer, so firms need to ensure all internal and external communications and images align with the core commitment to diversity and inclusion.

Education is important, as well. Oftentimes, college and high school students simply do not realize that financial planning is a career option, or if they do, they view it as a hard-charging, Wall Street-type of role. It is critical for high schools and universities to offer classes in financial planning and/or financial literacy, and for industry leaders to do their part in enabling success for the next generation with programs such as the Envestnet Institute on Campus.

Rethink the Advisory Business Model

Technology must be incorporated in all areas of advisers’ practices in order to address the changing industry. From client acquisition and onboarding to aggregation to online meetings and scheduling, even elements of investment management. These practices will need to be automated in order for advisers to scale their practices and take on additional (perhaps lower margin) business. Independent RIAs with advanced technology integration generate around 50 percent more financial plans and investment proposals compared to their peers that don’t benefit from advanced integration. According to Envestnet-sponsored research from the Aite Group, this increased advice activity translates into a greater number of clients served by the practices (57 percent more), larger books of business (78 percent larger) and greater practice revenue/production (46 percent greater).

As many elements of the traditional advisory business model become commoditized, such as trading, asset allocation and even security selection, advisers must concentrate their efforts on higher-value—and more impactful—activities. They must do more with less and segment their clients appropriately. They must move away from providing advice on investments, and toward advice on life events, long-term goal planning, financial planning and relationship management. Everything else that is or has become commoditized must be automated.

For the more diverse adviser of tomorrow, this means supporting the industry’s move toward holistic financial wellness—an approach that incorporates all aspects of wealth management with less of a focus on pure investment management. Rather than relying on a data-driven approach to the handling of money, an increasingly diverse population of clients prefer a deeper focus on life goals for themselves and their families. This shift will attract advisers who care more about making financial wellness a reality and who respect the differences in communication styles when it comes to helping clients reach their goals.

Modify Compensation Approach

The way advisory firms are structured today from a compensation standpoint provides a self-selecting mechanism for hiring talent, which also contributes to the current lack of diversity. On the matter of hiring and onboarding practices, there is an emphasis on bringing in candidates who already have a strong network of potential clients. In fact, a vast majority of hiring professionals (86 percent) are looking for prospects who can bring in clients right away, according to CFP Board research.

This has a twofold effect of bringing into the firm primarily sales-focused individuals, and discouraging candidates who do not have friends and family with substantial-enough savings. Instead, firms can institute a team-based salary and bonus framework that would incentivize service, client retention and bringing in any new business, not just large books of business.

With a compensation strategy that includes a team-based incentive, firms reward everyone involved in the client relationship, with a scaled reward structure based on the level of personal contribution. That way, the need for financial security for all team members is addressed, and the team is motivated to work together and deliver strong results.

Conclusion

There are both aspirational and practical reasons to champion diversity. We should want every industry, including wealth management, to be diverse, because it’s simply the right thing to do. But also, countless studies have shown that diversity—of culture, gender, race, background, thought and more—objectively leads to better outcomes across the board. In order to ensure our industry thrives amid all the changes ahead, we must all do our part to enable and create a diverse, vibrant workforce.

Estee Jimerson

Estee Jimerson is the managing director, head of asset manager distribution at Envestnet.

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