Focus: Exploring Career Paths in Financial Planning
Focus: Exploring Career Paths in Financial Planning
by Jim Grote, CFP®
Entering any profession is tough. Entering a fledgling profession still in the process of defining
itself is that much tougher. Currently financial planners are part pioneers, part established
professionals. Often the trouble with the pioneering side of the profession is that, as Andrew
Carnegie once quipped, "pioneering don't pay." The obstacles to blazing new career trails can be
frustrating and daunting to the point of causing a new financial planner to give up.
Recently the Journal of Financial Planning sent a call for interviews out to newly minted planners
establishing a foothold in the industry, as well as experienced veterans trying to support new
The response was overwhelming. New planners and veterans alike voiced strong opinions on
career opportunities and obstacles in the planning profession. While some respondents lamented
that "pioneering don't pay" in terms of hitting an early, successful career stride, others boasted
that they are trading in their covered wagon for the latest Lexus. Carnegie's dictum doesn't
always hold true.
Jean Cantey, director of learning for the Financial Planning Association in Denver, Colorado,
sees two major challenges facing career development in the financial planning profession. First,
given the fact that many financial planning firms are in the enviable position of having to turn
away business, consumer demand for planning services appears to be tremendous. Matching
supply and demand for these services is an enormous challenge. Second, because the
profession is relatively new, the current crop of established planners paved their own paths.
"Entrepreneurial by nature, they did not always leave clear sign posts behind them," Cantey says.
"As a result, new planners do not see clear career paths. Veteran colleagues may bring them in
to the profession, but they may not always know how to bring them up through the ranks." The
FPA is working diligently to ameliorate this situation and, as some of the following stories prove,
many new and veteran planners are creating reproducible career paths for others to follow.
New Planner: Young, Gifted and Back Office
Jamie Oder, a 22-year-old CFP candidate in Flower Mound, Texas, typifies the experiences and
attitudes of many young respondents—young, gifted, and a bit more back office than they had
anticipated. "My lack of gray hair is a real obstacle in this profession. As for a career path, this
profession definitely lacks one. There are many roads by which one can travel, but it seems to be
trial and error in this field. Most successful planners are career changers who started in their
Oder, who is sitting for the comprehensive exam this summer, graduated from a CFP Board-
registered undergraduate program last December at Kansas State University in Manhattan,
Kansas, with a bachelor's degree in personal financial planning. She interned with a trust
company in Kansas City the summer before her senior year. Today she works for Saunders and
Associates, a boutique firm with 200 clients and $40 million in assets under management. Her
firm has two CFP certificants, two associate planners (including Jamie), and one part-time
Stuck between secretary and financial planner status, Oder feels she does not always have the
opportunity to apply what she learned in college. When she sits in on meetings, clients often
remark on her youth. "My boss has been an excellent mentor and I have learned quite a bit from
my experiences with Saunders and Associates. But I wonder how the clients view me. Do they
see me as an associate planner/secretary, or as someone who may one day be their trusted
Still, she feels lucky to be where she is. "It's tough to find jobs with independent firms. It's easy to
get jobs with large firms where they throw a bunch of people against a wall and see who sticks.
The big firms literally hunt down graduates from CFP Board-registered programs and hire them in
Most people she meets are surprised to hear about her personal financial planning major.
"People think I'm a finance major, but at Kansas State my degree was from the School of Human
Ecology, not the Business School. We had to take lots of psych courses, learning to relate to
clients before we ever started looking at their assets."
Her advice to young financial planning students? Get as involved as you can with membership
organizations to network and to learn from experienced planners.
New Planner: Many Sales Jobs, Few Planning Jobs
Another Texan, CFP candidate Dave Ragan, feels less of the back-office experience, but sees
other obstacles to entering the planning profession. He passed the comprehensive exam in
March 2004 and is fulfilling his three-year experience requirement at Grunden Financial Advisory
Inc., a fee-only firm in Denton, Texas. Ragan is a financial planning specialist for the firm's
principal, Ricky Grunden, CFP®. The firm, which manages $53 million for 80 clients, also
employs two administrative assistants.
Ragan, who graduated from the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas, with a bachelor's
degree in business administration (on a finance track geared toward CFP certification), found
entry-level opportunities in financial planning to be meager. "There is definitely a lack of career
paths for new planners. My largest obstacle entering the financial planning profession was finding
a true planning position after graduation. To overcome this obstacle I interviewed with 20 different
financial services/planning firms. Nineteen of them were focused on product-driven commission
sales, not planning.
"The position I have now is the only financial planning position I interviewed for. I'm the first
planner Grunden ever hired. I think I landed the job because when he asked me where I was
headed, I handed him a 'personal and professional goal sheet.' What I had on my sheet matched
what he wanted." Within this hiring process, Ragan discovered a major obstacle to finding work
with small firms—owners' fears of hiring and training new planners, only to have them quit and
become competitors. Grunden handled this issue openly and had him sign a three-year non-
compete employment contract, a great compromise, according to Ragan.
Ragan believes the profession needs to offer more entry-level planning opportunities. The
occasional ads he sees for planners at fee-based firms usually require five years' experience or
the CFP certification. The old chicken-and-egg problem: How do you get a job without experience
and how do you get experience without a job?
One way for new planners to get their foot in the door is by attending an FPA Career Day. Ragan
attended a Dallas-Fort Worth FPA Chapter Career Day and was impressed. "There was a Q&A
session, information on passing the CFP exam, interaction and contacts among veterans and
beginners, as well as interviews on-site. Local people had the ability to interview many people
right on the spot!"
Career Changer: If I Build It, Will They Come?
While, as Oder notes, career changers may have a leg up on young planners, career changers
have their own obstacles and opportunities. No respondent gave a clearer picture of the career
changer than Evelyn Zohlen, CFP®, president and CEO of Inspired Financial—A Zohlen Gagen
Group in Garden Grove, California. Zohlen's firm manages about $30 million for 85 clients.
After a stint as an intelligence officer in the Air Force, Zohlen landed a job with the Vanguard
Group as a relationship manager for institutional clients. At Vanguard she finished her MBA and
started on her CFP certification. But the work didn't make her "heart sing." And the horror stories
she heard about people's hardship withdrawals from their 401(k) plans drew her into the world of
personal financial planning. "After hearing all these stories I wanted to make a difference on an
individual basis." So Zohlen left Vanguard, finished her CFP coursework, passed the
comprehensive exam, and hung out her shingle.
Her dilemma? "If I build it, will they come?" It was quiet for a few weeks, but over time she built a
small practice of 12 clients in Philadelphia. And almost starved to death in the process. "Since I
only charged for assets under management, my first quarter's fee in my new practice was a
whopping $89. Soon I learned to charge for writing the plans. I also learned that it is almost
impossible to start your own practice without a financial safety net—either a spouse who works
full time or a sizable nest egg. The early days are brutal!"
After practicing on her own for a year or two, Zohlen decided she would prefer to join an existing
practice. She found the opportunities to be nonexistent, despite the fact she was a seasoned
professional in the financial services industry. "Everyone with whom I interviewed told me the
same thing. 'You're terrific but we can't pay you.' I was making in the mid-90s at Vanguard and
the most anyone was willing to pay me was $60,000, and that was in California. I couldn't find a
She discovered most firms were looking for low-cost people to crank out plans. Zohlen says, "If
someone had been willing to pay me $60,000 my first year and $95,000 my second year, based
on my reaching certain client acquisition goals, I might have jumped at it." But no such offers
came her way.
During this time she attended the FPA Residency Program to improve her skills as a planner. The
program director of the Residency Program introduced Zohlen to a planner who was interested in
merging her practice with another practice so that she could gradually ease into retirement.
Zohlen spent a week doing due diligence and realized how tough it was to value a practice. But in
the end she decided to merge. And now she runs Inspired Financial—A Zohlen Gagen Group.
Zohlen recommends merging with another practice or buying another practice as the best entrée
for career changers. "Don't write off the idea of buying a business because your funds are tight,"
she urges. "Planners can negotiate the financing with the seller and broker a variety of workable
arrangements." Furthermore, she encourages career changers to spend more time examining the
marketplace of financial practices available through companies like Business Transactions in
Portland, Oregon, through Schwab or Fidelity, or through a local FPA chapter.
Career Changer: Lessons from the Legal Profession
Unlike Zohlen, Brad Flecke, J.D., did not feel compelled to go solo or to go into the merger and
acquisition business. He went from practicing immigration law in small-firm and corporate settings
to being a staff planner for the 18-employee, cross-border planning firm of Keats, Connelly &
Associates in Phoenix, Arizona. He is currently working on his CFP certification. "This is my
dream role in my dream firm. Immigration law issues play a significant role in cross-border
financial planning, and as far as I know, I am the only financial planner who is cross-trained in
immigration law. Though I do not practice law at the firm (the legal work is outsourced), I keep the
other financial planners informed about the ever-changing immigration scene."
But like Zohlen, Flecke's dream job did not emerge without some transitional birth pangs. In his
first move into financial planning he "settled" for a position in a major financial services company,
but left the company after six months because of what he perceived to be a conflict of interest
and because of the long hours.
"I had to be at once a good salesman and a trusted advisor to the same client. Though other
planners are comfortable with this dual role, I never adapted to it. In my personal experience,
what was best for the client usually did not comport with my sales goals. I still struggle to
understand how financial advisors can sell product as anything more than a minor adjunct to their
practice without violating their fiduciary duty to the client. In my law practice, I would have steered
clear of such a scenario."
"The second reason I left was the hours. Initially I was told I would have to work 60 hours a week
for a little more than a year in order to build a client base. Then I learned that the people working
60 hours were barely making it. Seventy hours was the magic number. Then six months into the
program I was informed that I would need to maintain this pace for at least three years, rather
than one. I quit within a week after receiving the news. The way I see it—and I understand that
other planners may disagree—modeling good lifestyle choices is part of my job as a planner.
Neglecting sleep, regular exercise, and time with loved ones in order to make money is not
modeling good lifestyle choices. If a planner can work 70 hours a week without neglecting other
important parts of life, then more power to that planner!"
Flecke's bumpy transition into his dream job may reflect the growing pains of the profession itself.
He notices many parallels between the emergence of the legal profession in America and the
emergence of the financial planning profession. Two hundred years ago, there were few, if any,
big law firms. Law was practiced by individuals and small partnerships. Gradually more legal
positions emerged and there were fewer starving lawyers and larger legal practices.
Today, as he says only somewhat tongue in cheek, "The planning profession is just starting down
the same road. Planning jobs are not plentiful and some well-trained people are starving.
Welcome to the year 1800!" The difference from the law profession is that financial planning is
likely to evolve at a much quicker rate due to the enormous demand for planning services and the
greater disposable income of today's clients. "The public just needs to gain confidence in the
profession and the FPA is doing a fine job of educating the public in this regard."
Flecke has one observation that may help planners who are exploring new opportunities. "Don't
discount the prospects for solo practices and boutique firms." He argues that if financial planning
follows the same path as the legal profession, at least one trendy financial planning forecast will
prove false: the coming extinction of the solo practice and the two-practitioner firm.
"The legal profession has long predicted the demise of the solo law practice and two-attorney
firm. When I read about consolidation and bigger firms being the future of the financial planning
profession, I have to smile. I have heard this before. The experience of the legal profession tells
me that by leveraging technology and outsourcing, there will always be lucrative opportunities for
solo and small-firm planners who think outside the box."
Apprenticeship: The Missing Link
Jim Barnash, CFP®, 2005 president of the Financial Planning Association, provides a seasoned
perspective on how the "sales culture versus true financial planning" debate applies to career
development. An industry veteran of 28 years, he started in life insurance, moved to an
independent financial planning practice, and then came to Lincoln Financial Advisors (a
subsidiary of the Lincoln Financial Group insurance company) in 1996 to help train and develop
As he warns starry-eyed new planners, "You can be the greatest financial planner in the world,
but you'll starve to death if you don't have any clients. You cannot start out as a pure consultant.
Umbrella groups get a bad rap for having a sales culture, but financial planning is like dating—
you can't avoid selling yourself. And you can't avoid selling a product. Even independent planners
use someone's product."
Barnash, who has personally trained more than 150 planners, is managing director of the
Midwest Financial Planning Group for Lincoln. He believes that building a clientele is the toughest
and most critical aspect of the planning business. "Teaching someone the technical aspects of
financial planning is a lot simpler than teaching someone the marketing and sales skills needed to
build a clientele. The big question for new planners is, How do you find and engage clients?"
Becoming a financial planner (after completing the education process) involves four stages,
according to Barnash: (1) an internship, (2) back-office work, (3) an apprenticeship that includes
direct work with clients under a mentor/planner, and (4) full planner status. What's usually missing
in the real world is step three, where a new planner teams up with a senior mentor/planner and
learns how to work with clients.
Barnash's team places a heavy emphasis on step three in training new planners to establish
credibility and build a network. Both these tasks often are accomplished by having new planners
call on clients with a mentor/planner. Watching how a mentor handles clients is the best learning
"In our firm, the planner is a quarterback, not an expert. The planner can always call on one of
our specialists to handle 1031 exchanges and other technical issues. As is happening in medicine
and law, financial planners need to move from the solo practitioner model to a business model
that includes specialists as part of the group. I believe that financial planning has been
recognized as a profession. We now need to build the industry and create opportunities for the
apprenticeship stage of the financial planning career."
Internship: Moving Beyond Summer Programs
Lou Stanasolovich, CFP®, CEO and president of Legend Financial Advisors in Pittsburgh,
Pennsylvania, has a particularly successful internship program that adds to his bottom line and
provides a wealth of experience for students. With a core staff of 14 employees (5 planners) and
the same number of interns, Stanasolovich's firm manages $230 million for about 200 clients.
He has employed interns since 1994 and the secret to his success is quite simple. His first rule of
internship is to switch from the summer intern model to a year-round model. According to
Stanasolovich, "Summer internships are a waste, both for the planning firm and for the intern.
Summer interns do not add value to your firm, nor do they acquire any real experience
themselves." In contrast to the summer approach, Stanasolovich has positioned interns to be a
critical component of his firm's day-to-day operations. By leveraging his core staff with intern
support, he has generated a revenue growth of 20 percent plus in the last three years, a growth
that has coincided with an increase in the number of interns.
His second rule of internship is to grab students early in their college career and keep them until
they graduate. "A lot of students don't look for internships until their senior year and we think that
is a huge mistake. We look at juniors and actually prefer sophomores. Currently we have eight
finance interns (finance majors) and four marketing interns (marketing or communications
majors). We even have two high-school interns."
His third rule is to provide plenty of training. Stanasolovich's finance interns rotate under all five
financial advisors and receive about 150 hours of training annually. They work on average 250
hours each semester and 500 hours in the summer. The pay is modest (starting at $7 an hour
plus bonuses and moving to about $10 by their senior year), but the experience and training are
invaluable. "Our interns walk out of here as well-trained employees. In fact, they're so good, they
help us train new interns."
The fourth rule? Give interns a list of very specific tasks. "For example, our finance interns do
stock research, compute cost basis, identify where to harvest tax losses, prepare financial
statements, make securities trades, do income tax projections and interest-rate sensitivity
analysis, and help develop portfolio proposals. They do heavy Excel work and end up Excel
experts. Our finance interns know how to use a Bloomberg Terminal, BNA Income Tax Planner,
Centerpiece software, Thompson Financial software, Morningstar, Zacks (for stock research),
and various modules of Money Tree's software suite."
Marketing interns do proofreading, handle all of the firm's mailings, write for the firm's e-mail
newsletter (13,000 member subscription), draft press releases and financial advisory briefs, write
for the firm's Web site, arrange media interviews, and track inquiries and leads. "Our interns allow
us to push the envelope on marketing. In fact, our director of marketing used to be one of our
Stanasolovich generally hires an intern or two each year. But even when he can't, he keeps in
contact and takes former interns out to dinner whenever he can. As he sums up his experience,
"Interns are good for us and we are good for them. We can show anybody how to use an intern
Technical Expertise: An Emerging Model
New planners averse to sales might be interested in what the global financial services firm, UBS
Financial Services Inc., is up to. As financial planning operations officer for the United States,
Chris Russo, CFP®, ChFC, CLU, is busy building a Financial Planning Services department to
serve as internal consultants for UBS offices throughout the country. Russo's team has no sales
component. Its members are technical wizards, or as Russo likes to call them, "the intellectual
capital for financial planning at our firm."
The path into Russo's department is steep, the jobs are few, and the clientele sophisticated.
Currently there are only 30 professionals in the department. "I tell new planners that there are not
as many options for them as we would like, but they do exist and they are not just in sales." He
hopes that, as this model takes off, job opportunities will follow.
Trainees for the Financial Planning Services department pass through four distinct stages. The
first stage (maximum of three years) is the financial planning desk. In addition to completing an
internal training program, new planners must pass the CFP exam within 18 months of their hire
date. At this stage they field phone calls and handle casework for other planners in the
Stage two (minimum of two years) is the plan-writing desk. Trainees handle higher-level financial
plans and act as a knowledge backstop for the financial planning desk. At this stage they work
with clients during the first two or three standard meetings (the verification meeting, the current
meeting, and the proposed meeting). At the verification meeting they begin gathering client
source documents to establish an accurate balance sheet. At the current meeting they provide
clients with a snapshot of their current financial situation.
At stage three (minimum of three years), the trainee turned private planning associate handles
the third meeting, the proposed meeting where specific recommendations are made to clients.
Private planning associates also check the work of trainees at the plan-writing desk.
The final stage is that of relationship manager. Relationship managers work only with clients
whose asset base is at least $10 million. They implement the financial plan for these clients and
work with all of the clients' outside advisors. In addition, they do internal marketing to UBS
advisors, educating them on how the financial planning process can help their clients.
Relationship managers often have a CPA or J.D. in addition to their financial planning designation
and tend to specialize either in estate planning or tax planning.
Career Development: Pay It Forward
As these stories illustrate, forging career paths for new financial planners remains a tough but
attainable goal. The obstacles confronting entry-level advisors are enormous. How do firms
accommodate new advisors? How do new advisors establish their clientele? How do career
changers enter the field without taking large cuts in pay? No one can brag about the high quality
of life for new entrants in the financial planning profession.
But a significant amount of pioneering work has already been accomplished. Lincoln Financial
Advisors has created an apprenticeship process using a mentoring model to tackle the
unavoidable challenge of finding clients and selling services. For those averse to any and all
sales cultures, UBS Financial Services is establishing a model for producing technical experts in
the planning field.
For career changers, Evelyn Zohlen has pointed out the oft-overlooked advantages of the merger
and acquisition route. And Brad Flecke has clarified parallels with the legal profession similarities
that may show solo practices and boutique firms are not dinosaurs. For sheer "how to make it
happen" elegance, no one can beat Stanasolovich's year-round internship model. He turns
internship into a win-win situation for planner (profit) and intern (experience) alike. Furthermore,
the Financial Planning Association is providing an impressive array of resources for new planners
and veterans alike (see sidebar).
Jake Engle, CFP®, ChFC, CASL, with Financial Planning and Education in Seattle, Washington,
epitomizes the "glass is half full" approach to the career development issue. While the "glass is
half empty" crowd may complain (often legitimately) that "pioneering don't pay," Engle has a
different take on the profession. "We are a helping profession, and from the first time I went to a
convention, I was amazed at how many people took an interest in my career. I intend to 'pay it
forward' and help others enter this profession."
Jim Grote, CFP®, a freelance business writer, won Certified Financial Planner Board Article
Awards in 2003 and 2004. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
FPA's Career Development Resources
Go to www.fpanet.org. Click on Members and Professionals. Click on Career and Practice. Or go
Job and internship listings: Ability to submit and search job and internship postings.
Résumé listings: Ability to submit and search résumé postings.
FPA Residency: Weeklong programs on college campuses built around small teams, experienced
mentors, and three complex case studies. Designed to move planners beyond the technical
aspect of planning into building client trust and real-world scenarios. For a great introduction to
what Residency Programs are actually like, see Paul Palazzo's "Boot Camp Memoirs" at
Bridge the Gap: This program is held in conjunction with the annual FPA convention and is
designed for financial planning students, for planners who have had their CFP certification for two
years or less, and for career changers. Practical information from experienced planners on how to
find business opportunities and build a practice as well as career networking among employees
FPA chapters: Informal networking at the local chapter level along with Career Days.
A Web-based internship program for FPA members and FPA chapters. Clearinghouse for
prospective interns and planners offering internships also has guidelines for planners on how to
design a beneficial internship as well as guidelines for prospective interns.
Virtual Learning Center
For this particular site, go to www.fpanet.org. Click on Members and Professionals. Click on
Meetings/Learning. Or go to http://www.fpanet.org/member/meetings/online_education/index.cfm.
The Virtual Learning Center provides access to educational presentations by nationally
recognized experts, including question-and-answer sessions. The most popular learning modules
are archived for those who could not participate in the scheduled session. Continuing education
credits are available for most sessions.
Insights from New Planners
Tom Adams, CPA
Mentor Capital Management
I recently left the accounting profession (in which I'd worked for 21 years) and became a fee-only
financial planner. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to join a fee-only firm that had
been in existence for over a decade. It would have been career suicide to go out on my own, and
I benefit greatly from working with someone who is a CFP certificant and has been in the
business for about 15 years.
Michael Anderson, J.D.
Evensky & Katz
Coral Gables, Florida
It is up to us (new planners) to change the profession to the way we want it to be through hard
work, a little patience, loyalty, and integrity. Senior planners will be more than happy to turn the
profession over to us in time. One of our most lacking qualities is patience. But to our credit, once
we have a little time under our belts, I believe senior planners will be amazed at what the younger
generation can do.
Aaron Coates, CFP®
Compass Wealth Advisors LLC
My experience as a new financial planner has been extremely beneficial for me and for the
company I work for. From the beginning I was allowed to be directly involved with all aspects of
the business. I was given ownership in 2001 when we restructured the company.
Stacy Curtis, CFP®, ChFC, CLU
Columbia, South Carolina
I started at an insurance business, opening mail eight hours a day. I worked my way up to
become a consultant and now an agent who specializes in financial planning. The main obstacles
were people obstacles—managers who thought I was going "above my station in life," who
doubted my success and therefore prevented me from moving forward into this opportunity. On
the other hand, the most helpful resources have also been people—mentors who did believe in
me and encouraged me.
Genell Hollahan, CFP®
Prior Lake State Investment Center
Prior Lake, Minnesota
During my internship, the advisor I worked for was extremely helpful in showing me real-life
situations and teaching about the different strategies and products used to help the client.
There are so many areas of planning and each area needs its specialists. As long as an
individual is passionate about financial planning and willing to work hard for it, there is a spot on
the path for them.
Paul LaViola, CFP®, ChFC, MST, MSFS
RTD Financial Advisors Inc.
I have seen many of my friends in this industry fail, and I struggled so often early on that I almost
quit. It has taken me seven to eight years to get where I am, and I sincerely hope it will be easier
for the next generation of planners. The key to my success was having good mentors, and
seeking out and gaining knowledge by earning designations and degrees.
Boone Financial Advisors Inc.
San Francisco, California
As a young planner working in a larger financial planning firm, I find the two largest obstacles to
be getting advisors to delegate certain client projects and the need for a defined career path. To
tackle those obstacles, we've created systems and more clearly defined job descriptions within
our company. We've also started to define various career paths for both client contact-related
positions and back-office functions.
Waddell & Reed
Fort Worth, Texas
Teach your young planners where and how to network within your given community. Bring young
advisors into your fold of networks and use their technical capabilities while they grow. Give them
responsibilities above filing and making coffee.
I don't see a lack of career paths for new planners. If you can't find what you want, you have
every capability to hang out your own shingle. It may be scary but it can be done.
Elaine Scoggins, CFP®, ChFC
Scoggins Financial LLC
I was a bank executive for 20 years before starting my own financial planning company. The
biggest obstacle for me is fighting that inner voice that all new business owners hear: "Can I be
successful at this?" When that voice speaks too loudly, I e-mail my mentor, whom I met at the
FPA residency program last summer in Chicago. By far, he has been my most helpful resource.
Jack D. Stevison, Jr., CFP®
Roark Financial Advisors Inc.
Saint Cloud, Florida
I earned my CFP certification in 2004, after nearly 14 years working for a regional bank in the
trust department and brokerage division. Now I am a solo practitioner, having launched my own
fee-only financial planning practice in January 2005. I think the best planners are the ones who
forged their own paths. When the path is laid out before you, it could get taken for granted.