Being Real and Dances With Elephants

There was a wealthy businessman I used to call on in my career as a private banker. He entertained lots of bankers. The nature of his business involved borrowing huge sums of money to be profitable. He wisely banked most of his profits and then went back to the banks for more loans. All the banks were courting his business, and his business deal was, “You give me the loan; maybe I’ll let you manage my investments.” As bankers we were prohibited from tying those two together, or making one a condition of the other, but he wasn’t prohibited from proposing it.

Every meeting with him was a dance. He would state what he wanted, and give a pitch on why the business deal for which he was borrowing was the next money-maker. He would dangle the investment accounts like a toy mouse in front of some cats. Then we would ask questions and make proposals, hoping he would see us as the best choice. He would always say he would think about it. Sometimes we would get the deal, other times we wouldn’t. But it always seemed like there was an elephant in the room that no one, including me, was acknowledging.

After one particularly frustrating meeting, I came away thinking, “That guy trusts nobody.” But did I ask him about it? No. What would it be like to have people feigning curiosity about you all day, knowing it was all for show to win your business? After a while, I’d imagine you would crave an elephant-free conversation.

No matter the profession, it’s frustrating not to be trusted by someone who requires advice on sensitive matters. It prevents us from giving the best advice we can, from doing the job we are paid to do.

But you get what you give. I look back and consider maybe I wasn’t being my most authentic, either. I showed up and agreed to the dance, to play by his rules rather than challenge them when appropriate. I failed to be curious, to admit when I was confused. Both of those were a lot harder for me then.

I know some professionals think that getting a client talking about hobbies and interests, either side’s, is being real. Don’t get me wrong – small talk and niceties are necessary for rapport in a professional relationship. But talking about hobbies only to appear interested is not straight, authentic, or real.

According to a recent blog post by Deborah Black, her research on being authentic showed it takes consistent effort. It is work involving self-love, nurturing, being vulnerable, admitting feelings, suspending judgment, active listening. being generous, positive, and having a spiritual connection of some kind. It’s a practice, not a destination. We have to unlearn living from our heads and learn to live from our hearts.

I used to think that stuff was frou-frou. (Maybe you do.) For me, it was a way to avoid the effort, and suffer instead from chronic authenticity-craving due to excessive elephant-avoidance maneuvers.

Financial planning is unique among professions in that some advisors’ profits come from their prescriptions. That can be the elephant that leaves clients feeling uneasy. If an advisor isn’t transparent about how they are making money, what else might they be avoiding? Do they avoid and divert questions about performance, fees, important details? Do they tell fantastic stories and name-drop? Do they consider an outwardly extravagant lifestyle indicative of their level of competence?

Fee-only planners, by the way, aren’t immune from being too superficial. Is the advisor vulnerable about their past mistakes? Do they avoid discussing worst-case scenarios? Do they seem open and available to questions? It’s not too much to ask yourself seriously, “Am I comfortable being me around this person?” In other words, is talking with them an elephant-free zone? You have enough work to do without having to dance, too.

Holly Donaldson

Holly Donaldson, CFP® runs an hourly and fee-for-service financial planning practice virtually from her Tampa Bay, Florida office. She also works with clients throughout the U.S. (except Texas) interested in retirement and tax planning advice without product sales or investment management. Holly is the author of The Mindful Money Mentality: How to Find Balance in Your Financial Future (Porchview Publishing, 2013) and publisher of the award-winning monthly e-letter, "The View From the Porch."

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