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Three drivers of progress for women in advisory industry

The financial advisory profession has never been more in need of talented women — particularly given the growing and increasingly wealthy female investor population. Yet women account for only about 30 percent of financial advisors, with an even larger gender gap in the profession's top practice management and client-facing roles.

What's needed for women to advance in this challenging yet opportunity-filled environment?

To find the answer, I went straight to the source and recently hosted a registered investment advisor Leadership Summit for Women in Advisory, with C-Level executives from some of BlackRock's largest clients nationwide.

In a session titled "Challenges Women Face & Personal Stories," senior women reflected on personal journeys to achieve success and critical lessons learned along the way.

Woman financial advisor
John Wildgoose | Getty Images

The dual-pronged message was loud and clear. Change won't happen on its own. Advisors will need to take concerted, proactive steps to advance their standing in the profession — and it's the responsibility of the industry leaders of today to leverage their roles to help grow the next generation of women advisors.

Narrowing the profession's gender gap begins with each of us individually — and with a collective commitment to maximize the contributions of the young women just starting out.

The perspectives voiced at this summit pointed to three key imperatives for progress in the financial advisory:

1. Be alert to new opportunities. As investor survey after investor survey demonstrates, women tend toward risk aversion in our financial decision-making and beyond. There's also no playbook about how to progress professionally in advisory.

"Can I learn something new? If I'm not learning something new or developing a skill, I'm not happy. And if I'm not happy, I'm not doing great work." -Colleen Lindstrom, CEO of Merriman Wealth Management

It's up to each of us to stay attuned to career development opportunities — particularly when they come in unexpected forms. Many women at the summit described their most important professional decisions as moments when they opted for a new challenge that propelled them out of their comfort zone and into uncharted territory.

Colleen Lindstrom, CEO of Merriman Wealth Management, said that when she looks at risk — in particular, career risk — she looks at two things. "One, can I learn something new? If I'm not learning something new or developing a skill, I'm not happy," she said. "And if I'm not happy, I'm not doing great work.

"And then I look at what's the upside," Lindstrom said. "What's the very best it could be, and what would I do if it failed?"

The willingness to "stretch" oneself to maximize opportunity can make all the difference over the lifespan of a career. When such a moment comes along, being adaptable enough to make a change — while staying self-aware about your own values, strengths and limitations — can help guide a strong decision.

2. Embrace your "voice." Speak up. This is still a problem for too many women. Some of the professionals at the summit experienced an implicit assumption that they'd stand behind others rather than take on true leadership roles. Most felt expected to bring their perspectives to the table, but some had also been "dinged" for being too vocal.

Achieving a leadership role usually requires taking a stand — including voicing unpopular opinions and making tough decisions when called for. Women at the summit reinforced that seeking to be liked cannot be a career strategy.

It's critical to find your voice and get comfortable using it. Your point of view deserves to see the light of day — and it's how you'll move your career forward, too.

I think Tina Powell, founder and CEO of SheCapital, said it best in describing why this was such an important part of her journey to success.

"Being adaptable enough to make a change — while staying self-aware about your own values, strengths and limitations — can help guide a strong decision."

"Nobody said, 'Here's the mic, Tina,'" she said. "You have to take the opportunity. And so I did.

"It took about 18 months of just showing up and being relentless and firmly rooted in providing the case and the analytics that I had to back up my opinion."

3. Pay it forward. Fixing the pipeline to attract female talent is a critical part of the solution to closing the gender gap — and one that we all can, and should, help to address.

Seizing platforms to tell our stories as women advisors is a powerful way to inspire new interest in the field. It can be a win-win situation to spread the word about the benefits of financial advisory in your local community and at nearby colleges and universities.

You can also provide hands-on experience by sponsoring an internship to help young women learn the business.

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It's important to think about how we're framing and telling our stories as professionals. A successful advisor is much more than a financial "technician." We're also in a relationship business, with real and consequential impacts on our clients' futures.

Young adults want jobs that are both personally fulfilling and let them make a difference.

"We need to help the next generation see that advisory can satisfy both of those goals," said Jessica Heffron, vice president of advisor services at Charles Schwab.

— By Hollie Fagan, managing director and head of BlackRock's registered investment advisor business