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Advisory firms turn to life coaches, psychologists

  • Some financial advisors, finding many clients' questions and issues are more life-oriented than financial in nature, are employing counselors and coaches or referring clients to them.
  • Many such counselors focus on clients' psychological challenges around money rather than broader issues.
  • In-house counselors can also help advisory firms with internal issues, such as reduced turnover, increased productivity and greater accountability.
Some financial advisory firms now have licensed professional counselors on staff to aid clients.
mediaphotos | Getty Images
Some financial advisory firms now have licensed professional counselors on staff to aid clients.

Financial advisors are finding it beneficial, in various ways, to include life coaches and counselors into their operations. Some advisory practices are referring out or contracting with these professionals, while others are developing them from within.

"So much of my job includes conversations that are more life-oriented than financial," said Doug Kobak, certified financial planner and principal and CEO of Main Line Group Wealth Management. When someone is at a senior level or running an organization, their personal and professional lives can become very blurred, he said.

"Clients sometimes need to step back and assess what their true goals are and to understand that not working 24/7 doesn't mean they don't care about their businesses," Kobak added.

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To address this need, Kobak refers out to a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in working with clients to attain life balance. She provides counseling to help them look at where they're putting their energy and why, he said.

"It takes me out of an area I'm not trained for — life planning," Kobak said, adding he finds it "very complementary" to have an independent third party ask questions and sketch out a process to help clients reach psychological goals. "It opens the door for me to do more robust and realistic planning."

Rick Kahler, CFP, owner of Kahler Financial Group, has formally included a contracted licensed professional counselor as part of his practice for many years, including him in team meetings for every new client.

"We do this to normalize the idea of a referral to a financial coach or counselor," Kahler said.

COACHING VS. COUNSELING

Rick Kahler of Kahler Financial Group, an expert in financial therapy, provided definitions for two commonly used terms:

• Financial coaching: Helps clients look into the future they want to create, especially with respect to financial goals.

• Financial counseling: Helps clients look into the past at events that formed what they think, feel and believe about money.

Who is a coach?

Because financial coaching is a new discipline, coach training standards are still evolving. One way to evaluate coach backgrounds, said Holly Kindel of Mosaic Financial Partners, is to do a search on the International Coaching Federation site to determine if they went through an ICF-approved training program.

Who is a counselor?

According to the American Counseling Association, "professional counselors have a graduate degree in counseling. A master's degree is the entry-level requirement. Counselors focus on client wellness, as opposed to psychopathology." Counselors are a separate category from psychologists and psychiatrists.

One of the firm's certified financial planners is in the process of becoming a licensed professional counselor, and will serve in both roles when she finishes next year. Currently practicing under supervision, she is providing financial counseling to clients, as well as teaching so-called psychoeducation classes to the staff. (Psychoeduction, in general, refers to providing those seeking mental health care, and their families or other concerned parties, with information related to suspected or diagnosed condition[s] and related issues.)

Kahler clarifies that his in-house counselors focus on clients' psychological challenges around money and therefore do not provide life coaching or other therapy.

Holly Kindel of Mosaic Financial Partners is a CFP who became a life coach 10 years ago to enhance her financial advising effectiveness. She holds the Certified Professional Co-Active Coach credential from The Coaches Training Institute in San Rafael, California.

"It's a win-win," she said. "For the advisor, there's a lot more clarity and purpose around what you're doing and why.

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"For clients the process is more effective and efficient because the practitioner knows what they want to deliver," Kindel added. "When coaching questions exist as part of the financial planning process, the answers are more beneficial."

Kindel serves as a trainer and role model for her colleagues, three of whom are now pursuing the credential.

Susan Zimmerman, co-founder of Mindful Asset Planning, is also an established financial planner who decided to pursue a psychology-related credential. Now a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, she serves as a therapeutic coach for her firm, along with her role as financial planner. Her additional expertise has impacted the firm in multiple ways:

  • Client assessments. Zimmerman developed a money personality assessment to help clients understand their money motives and patterns, which are discussed without judgment. "We don't want people to feel pressured to modify their behaviors, but empowered," she said.
  • Counseling. Clients are invited to meet with Zimmerman separately if they want to go deeper into non-financial issues, such as family dynamics.
  • Communications. She trains the other advisors in therapeutic language, such as softening questions to avoid triggering defensiveness
  • Practice growth. "It is such a relief that we don't ignore the emotional component," Zimmerman said. "It has really built our practice up and attracted both clients and new advisors to us."
  • Improved returns. As clients understand themselves better, they are also understanding risk, and are often more confident about their ability to make informed decisions, she said. According to an internal study, these insights improve their returns by 2 percent to 3 percent annually.

Psychologist Harold Weinstein has had a similar influence and more in his role as director of talent and organizational development for Wescott Financial Advisory Group.

In addition to serving as an in-house coach and counselor, he has been involved in developing the organization's systems and culture. For example, he established processes for career paths, talent selection, performance measurement and employee development. Weinstein also focuses on the firm's culture, facilitating a service-oriented mindset of curiosity, collaboration and accountability.

The results for the firm, Weinstein said, are reduced turnover, increased productivity and greater accountability. "My work has helped create a common sense of caring, which impacts the staff, the clients and the community."

OTHER FINANCIAL COUNSELORS

There is another category of "financial counselors," who hold the Accredited Financial Counselor certification. With a general focus on serving a lower- and middle-income clientele, these counselors offer services such as helping clients understand sound financial principles, overcome financial indebtedness, identify and modify ineffective money-management behaviors, develop successful strategies for achieving financial goals, work through financial challenges and opportunities, and understand the dynamics of money in relation to family, friends and individual self-esteem.

— By Deborah Nason, special to CNBC.com

(Editor's Note: This story was updated and amended December 12, 2017 to include an information box on "Other Financial Counselors.")

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