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The Financial Planning Profession at War: Which Flag Do You Fly?

by Mark DiGiovanni, CFP

I grew up in New York State, but I’ve lived my entire adult life in Georgia.  As a result, I’ve heard a lot about the American Civil War over the years. One of the most iconic symbols of the American Civil War is the Confederate Battle Flag, familiar to anyone who ever saw an episode of “The Dukes of Hazzard”. The official flag of the Confederacy is much less familiar and is not dissimilar to the flag of the United States. In the early battles of the Civil War, the similarity of the flags of the opposing forces created chaos on the battlefields. In the commotion and smoke of battle, troops would rally around their respective flags. The problem was, it was hard to tell the flags apart in battle conditions, and many troops inadvertently advanced toward the enemy’s position, with dire consequences. The Confederate Battle Flag was created to help both sides identify where their comrades were, and where relative safety could be found.

What do these flags have to do with this month’s topic, identifying and overcoming our biggest practice challenges? I believe that one of the biggest challenges today, for myself and for many other financial professionals, is the public’s inability to know where to go on the battlefield, to know how to identify and separate friend from foe.

Those of us who are engaged in battle need to first recognize and accept that we are in a battle.  Then we need to clearly identify the enemy. In my case, the public and I share a common enemy. That enemy is anyone in this business who purports to be acting in the client’s interests, but whose actions are designed to benefit their own interests, often at the expense of the client.  Those people and institutions are my sworn enemy. They attack my citizenry, which is anyone who seeks financial help and is instead harmed by the “helpers”.

It isn’t bad enough that this enemy takes advantage of my people – they do so while claiming to be on the same side as me! They fly my flag and convince the naïve populace that they will make them rich, while their only goal is to make themselves rich. They steal money, which is bad enough.  But they also steal trust. Once these people have been victimized by someone waving my flag, they will never trust anyone or anything associated with that flag again. Their reluctance often means that they will never give their wounds the chance to heal.

My flag contains six letters – CFP and RIA. I want people on the battlefield to know two things about me instantly. First, as a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER professional, I have met and am held to education, experience and ethics standards that those without the designation simply do not have. Second, as an RIA, I am paid directly by clients through transparent fees, not indirectly by them through opaque commissions. For those who share these letters and who accept the obligations that come with them, I am proud to welcome you as comrades in arms. I don’t even think of you as competitors, as there are not nearly enough of us yet to meet the demand for what we offer.

Those who do not meet these criteria, I challenge them to fly their true colors. I challenge them to own up to their lack of our most important professional credential, and why they don’t think it’s worth the effort to obtain it. I challenge them to let the client know how they get paid, how much, by whom, and for what. If those on the other side will simply fly their own flag, I have no doubt who wins this battle for the hearts and minds of the citizenry. However, whenever anyone from the other side appropriates my flag for the purpose of exploiting my people, they better be ready to do battle.

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