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Professionals vs. People in the Financial Services Business

By Mark DiGiovanni, CFP

In its summer 2005 issue, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences published a piece in its journal Daedalus titled “The Professions in America Today: Crucial but Fragile.” The article offered this definition of a profession:

Generically, professions consist of individuals who are given a certain amount of prestige and autonomy in return for performing for society a set of services in a disinterested way.

The article went on to define a profession as having the following six characteristics:

  • A commitment to the interests of clients in particular, and the welfare of society in general.
  • A body of theory or special knowledge.
  • A specialized set of professional skills, practices, and performances unique to the profession.
  • The developed capacity to render judgments with integrity under conditions of ethical uncertainty.
  • An organized approach to learning from experience, both individually and collectively, and therefore increasing knowledge through practice.
  • The development of a professional community responsible for the oversight and monitoring of quality in education, certification, and practice.

The Daedalus article also stated the following:

The primary feature of any profession – the commitment to serve responsibly, selflessly, and wisely – sets the terms of the compact between the profession and the society. (emphasis is mine)

Money is not the Cause – it is the Effect

Harvard Business School professor, Rakesh Khurana, defined the conduct of true professionals with this standard: “I will create value for society, rather than extract it.” Dr. Khurana’s words remind me of something I heard an American broadcaster, Paul Harvey, advise more than forty years ago: “Leave the woodpile higher than you found it.”

Anyone can be in business, but it takes much more to be part of a profession.The difference begins with a statement of purpose and a set of values.  In business, money is the cause, and there is never enough of it.  Money is the reason the business is in business, and everything it does is centered on increasing the amount of money it has. A profession, on the other hand, sees money as the effect, not the cause. In a profession, money is seen as the inevitable product of providing high-quality, ethical service to others.

Money is always the effect, never the cause. You earn an income because you provide a service of value to others and by providing that service you create wealth. Your income is the effect of the work you do; it is not the cause of your work.  To become a true professional requires you to first put money in its proper context – the inevitable effect of fulfilling your cause, the service of your clients in particular and society in general.

How are we Doing as a Profession?

I believe the financial services professionals are but a small subset within the financial services business. The professionals are the ones who make the effort to become CFP professionals, not because it will benefit them, but because it will benefit their clients (which should ultimately benefit the CFP professional, too). The professionals are the ones who join professional organizations, attend meetings, offer pro bono services, mentor young people, and even write blogs.

The non-professionals in the financial services business rarely do those things, and when they do, the motivation is a quick return on investment.  Of course, since most of the things professionals do, are not lucrative in the short run (though they can be in the long run), the non-professionals can’t be bothered. Because money is, as Richard Wagner calls it, the most powerful secular force on earth, the odds of getting most of the people in our business to make money secondary to a higher calling is a long shot at best.

If we are ever going to be perceived by the public as a true profession (current indicators show us a long way from there), we will have to start showing the public a clear delineation between those of us in the financial services profession and those who are merely in the financial services business. Look back at the six characteristics of the profession. The first and fourth characteristics are the ones that truly separate the wheat from the chaff. Those who are merely in the business, but not the profession, put their business interests first, the client’s interests second, and are oblivious to society’s interests. Those who are merely in the business have integrity that was merely cast, not forged, and that integrity is likely to shatter under the stress of ethical uncertainty.

As much as I would like to convert everyone in the business into a true professional, the forces holding them down are strong.  Since we professionals are a small minority in comparison, it is probably futile to try to raise them all up.  We would do better to make a clear distinction to the public between us and them so that the public will know who puts their interests first.  If we can’t raise them up, we can at least make sure they don’t hold us down.

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