Understanding your relationship to money is an ongoing process of self-awareness and self-discovery. Without that commitment and empathy, you’ll never understand what money means to your clients and what kind of service they’ll really value from you.
“Authenticity is everything.” Your marketing, your branding, your public events, and your interactions with clients should all be rooted in your true passions and your true vision for your firm’s success. If clients don’t think you’re authentic, they’ll work with someone else who is.
Whether it’s a global idea like impact investing or life-centered planning tailored to a specific client, financial planning isn’t just about the numbers. It’s about using money to make people’s lives better.
Today’s guest is Brent Kessel. Brent is founder of Abacus Wealth Partners, which has more than 50 employees and more than $2 billion in assets under management.
About ten years ago I was reading a Buddhist magazine and did a double-take when I saw an ad for a financial advisory firm on its back cover. Abacus Wealth has been on my radar ever since.
“I have been a student of different kinds of Eastern traditions, mostly yoga and mindfulness meditation, for over 25 years,” Brent Kessel says. “As your listeners probably know, the abacus is a Chinese mathematical computational instrument. What I liked about that name is that it felt like it brought in Eastern tradition and history along with computational dexterity, just the ability to really think, figure things out precisely.”
Brent’s unique path through life and personal passions have had a big influence on how he runs his firm. We discussed how that confluence has helped to make Abacus stand out from the crowd while also offering its clients a mind-opening perspective on what the wealth they’re building is really for.
Brent Kessel on the Rich Tapestry of Money
Money is neutral.
It wasn’t all that long ago that financial advisors could sell themselves and their services purely as a way to help their clients “make more money.” That service was valuable, because obviously, having more money was good.
Life-centered planning pioneers like my partner Mitch Anthony recognized a shift in how the public viewed financial advisory and their money, particularly as folks began living longer and looking for more fulfillment in retirement. At the other end of the lifeline, some millennials who grew up in the shadow of the 2008-2009 financial crisis view wealth not as a goal to be stockpiled, but as a means to experience a good life at a low cost.
“I’d read a book called ‘Money and the Meaning of Life’ by Jacob Needleman back in the early mid-’90s,” Brent remembers. “It affirmed a feeling that I’d always had that money is not just money. Money is not just a means of storing value or transacting and exchanging whatever you can produce with your life for what I can produce with mine. In and of itself, money is neutral. It can be used for good things, and it can be used for bad things. The human beings that possess it, their values get kind of inculcated into the money, and so a lot of people think money is evil or it does a lot of bad in the world. Some of that is confirmation bias and people just looking for the evidence they want to find. When they do find it, I would argue that it’s got a lot less to do with the money itself and a lot more to do with whoever is possessing it.”
Helping clients “get right” with how they view their money could be the best ROI you deliver to your clients.
Show your clients what money really is for.
1. Be authentic in everything you do.
In his early 30s, Brent began to take his interest in yoga and Eastern philosophy to a deeper level. Instead of just focusing on the physical benefits, Brent started to explore how yoga could help him learn about himself and ask deeper questions about life. That advertisement I saw was the start of Brent incorporating this broader view of wellness into how his firm approached financial advisory. This brought him to the attention of investors who shared the same interests, as well as a niche of people who might not have have been all that interested in working with more traditional firms.
“To that community especially, authenticity is everything,” Brent says. “If several of the firm’s principals didn’t have their own dedicated meditation practices, that kind of ad wouldn’t get any traction. But because we can really speak their language and because there are certain swaths in society, like artists and environmentalists, that I think tend to have more mistrust of money than, let’s just say, business owners. By targeting a niche that really doesn’t feel like anyone gets them, that anyone understands their goals and their impressions or biases about our industry, I think we got an outsized positive response.”
What’s really brilliant about Brent’s approach is how it both embodied and transcended the features that make his firm unique. It wasn’t just Buddhists, philosophers, and yoga devotees who wanted to work with Abacus. It was folks who appreciated how the firm’s core values branched out into everything they did. Brent’s clients like that he organized the company as a B-corp with high levels of transparency and social and environmental goals. They appreciated that Abacus had no minimum assets and wanted to work with people who’ve felt ignored by the finance industry in the past. And they saw that Brent’s approach was attracting other like-minded advisors and prospects to work with the firm.
“I think that we’ve attracted the best talent we’ve attracted because of the authenticity of the leadership,” Brent says. “I meet those people who are willing to be really transparent about their own foibles and missteps and ask for feedback and share what they’ve struggled with and where they’ve succeeded. I think that you can’t really be honest with other people to that kind of a depth unless you’re honest with yourself to that kind of a depth. ”
2. Identify the archetypes behind your clients’ behaviors.
In his book “It’s Not About the Money,” Brent refined this ideas about how our relationship to money affects its real value. “It is really about different money archetypes,” Brent says, “different psychological makeups of people in relationship to money. There aren’t better ones or worse ones. Every one of them could have a high-functioning set of habits and a low-functioning set of habits, but the key thing for me and the way it related to yoga was to identify which ones were dormant within each of us and which ones are dominant within each of us. If we want to make a change in our relationship to money, we need to really cultivate the ones that are dormant. It creates more balance, much like you create balance in a yoga pose.”
Of course, before you can start working on balancing your client’s behaviors, you have to figure out what they are. Brent developed an online questionnaire that his new clients take to help advisors gain some insight about their habits and attitudes towards money. The client’s responses will reveal dominant and dormant archetypes that the advisor can discuss during the discovery process.
“We will ask things like what the biggest rule about money was that they learned when they were growing up, which will give us one clue into what their dominant money archetypes might be,” Brent says. “We might ask where their relationship with money or with another person around money is most in conflict, and that will be another clue. We have a whole list of consultative questions that are meant to take the prospect or the client deeper into their relationship to money.”
Many advisors who are still resistant to this approach to discovery worry that they’re wandering into “touchy-feely” territory. Or worse, that they’ll ask a question that sends the client heading for the exits. But I’ve found that the great majority of people actually enjoy answering these kinds of questions and feel more bonded to you as an advisor at the end of the conversation.
Brent has had a similar experience. “Most of the time people get this really fun look on their face like, ‘Ooh, this is going to be fun to answer,'” he says. “‘What was the best financial experience of your life?’ Everybody likes to answer that question. It’s usually something about a windfall when they were eight years old or saving up for something and getting to buy it when they were much younger. I really like turning planning on its head and coming up with new kinds of questions that’ll lead to actionable and valuable planning strategies for clients.”
3. Embrace sufficiency and help your clients do the same.
One such question advisors need to ask clients is, “How much money is enough money?”
Now, of course, I probably wouldn’t ask the question THAT directly. But it should be a key theme hovering over the questions you do ask directly during discovery. We all have clients who act like the hamster in the wheel, chasing after the next dollar without ever really getting anywhere. Getting that client to step out of the wheel and see money as a means and not an end can be a real challenge. But it’s key to helping clients live the best life possible with the money they have.
And clients are going to be more more receptive to that message if they feel like you, their advisor, are approaching them from a place of sufficiency. Your clients want to feel like you see them as whole people whose lives are worth your attention. They want to feel like you’re as invested in this planning conversation as they are, not rushing your way to the next client.
“I think people are attracted to sufficiency,” Brent Kessel says. “When you have a client or a prospect walk through your door, if you’re feeling like you yourself have enough, people want that feeling. It’s a very rare feeling out in culture. Everyone is fighting with everyone else in traffic to get home just a little bit faster. It’s just the way the competitive human brain has evolved over the years. ‘I’ve got to be a little better. I’ve got to be a little faster. I got to have a little more.’ Those kinds of imperatives are not going to make their lives better. When you have sufficiency and then carry it out into your life, and especially into a prospect meeting or a client meeting, that’s a really smart business strategy because people are attracted to it, and they want to work with folks who feel like they have enough.”
What’s your “yoga?”
Brent Kessel has incorporated a self-reflection philosophy and fitness into his brand of financial advisory. My love of mountain climbing, running, reading, and art influence the life-centered planning we do at ROL Advisor. My good buddy and podcast co-host Bill Keen is an avid aviator who applies lessons from his experiences as a pilot to his fiduciary firm.
So what’s your yoga? Your mountain climbing? Your dream chartered flight into retirement?
Write down the five things that you are most passionate about besides financial advisory. How can you incorporate those interests into your business to enhance your branding, set yourself apart from the competition, and provide a unique service that no one else does?
- Abacus Wealth Partners Visit Brett Kessel and his team online.
- “It’s Not About the Money” In this book, Brent Kessel explains how money archetypes that can define our relationship with money.
- “The Soul of Money” by Lynn Twist Brent Kessel recommends this book about the role sufficiency can play in working with clients.
- “Money and the Meaning of Life” by Jacob Needleman A life-centered planning classic that had a big influence on Brent Kessel.
- “The Purpose of Capital” by Jed Emerson Brent Kessel calls this “a fascinating read about how we might use capital differently as a culture.”
- “The Impact Investor” by Cathy Clark, Jed Emerson, and Ben Thornley Bent Kessel recommends this book to anyone looking for a primer on impact investing.
- “Winners Take All” by Anand Giridharadas Brent Kessel says, “This one is is all the buzz in impact investing, and it’s basically about how philanthropy and social impact have been co-opted by the elite.”
- The ROL Index A tool Mitch Anthony and I developed to help advisors measure their clients’ well-being in 10 aspects of life.
- Values Clarification Toolkit Click here to download this FREE tool and start living your values.
- For more information on impact investing, Brent Kessel recommends visiting:
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