A lifelong masterclass in being an advisor

Early lessons in listening and empathy taught Kristine Douglas what truly matters when it comes to financial advice

A lifelong masterclass in being an advisor

Like many others in the industry, Kristine Douglas succeeded her father in becoming a financial planner. But her early education in the trade was unique in one important respect.

“My father was born profoundly deaf,” said Douglas, a certified financial planner and owner of Douglas Wealth Management Group with Investment Planning Counsel. “He didn’t learn sign language. Instead, he learned to read lips and watch other non-verbal cues that people unconsciously gave. Because of that, I grew up learning how to be a good listener.”

She also had an important role model in her mother, an educator with a personality geared toward teaching who also helped with various aspects of the business. Seeing both of her parents demonstrate genuine care for people instilled in Douglas a similar inclination toward empathy. “I became very curious about people’s stories, what they had to say,” she said.

There were other hints of her future potential: an early interest in solving math problems, insights in strategy and risk planning from a Russian chessmaster, and exposure to coaching as an athlete in school. Her first real taste of the industry came during university, when she spent one summer working at Trimark Investments.

But she didn’t follow in her father’s footsteps right away. “After getting my business degree, I took on a classic marketing job with a packaged goods company,” she said. “But I always had a sense that I’d join him someday; it was just a matter of when that right time would be.”

The right time came in the year 2000, when she officially joined her father’s practice. She steadily earned credentials and confidence, and acquired parts of the practice over the next five to 10 years. By the time he retired, she was able to take full control while smoothly maintaining their existing client relationships.

“The clients were happy that he had not just a succession plan, but one that involved family,” she said.

Today, Douglas practices a brand of financial planning that considers people’s life stories as a whole. Not only does she become familiar with a client’s current financial situation; she also digs into their historical relationship with money, determines how that led to their present circumstances and attitudes, and forecasts the different potential paths a client can take given the resources they have.

As important as it is to be thorough, Douglas also strives to balance it with simplicity. Her formal training as a financial planner, she realized, was made for a slower pace of life, a time when life changes were easier to anticipate. “The challenge with today is that life transitions tend to be happening more frequently, more dramatically, or potentially earlier than in the past,” she said. “Therefore, you need the ability to be nimble, creative, and efficient with the response … that’s only possible if you have a simplified practice.”

In her firm’s case, keeping things simple starts with client fit; rather than trying to be all things to all people, she focuses on those who value the advice her firm has to offer. She also groups clients generally into those who are creating wealth, those in the asset-protection and transfer phase, and those drawing income in retirement.

“There’s a lot more nuance and complexity when you get to the individual level: applying a portfolio structure, getting the right asset-allocation mix, and so on,” Douglas explained. “But a lot of clients don’t need to see the machinery. They just need to know that everything’s running smoothly and that they can look forward to a clearly mapped-out journey.”

To that end, she keeps things simple for them, favouring very friendly language over the acronyms and jargon that the industry has come to rely on. That enables more conversation around life goals, which she believes is crucial as wealth advisors increasingly need to become more like coaches rather than calculators.

With Boomers coming to represent the largest segment of wealth clients, Douglas feels it’s most important to focus on the trends affecting them. In her practice, such clients generally focus on life experiences; they’ll pay for professional advice as long as it frees up time for them to squeeze more life out of their remaining years. There’s also a trend of clients helping their adult children — who face tougher paths toward home ownership, successful careers, and so on — with early inheritances, gifts, and other financial support.

As for the regulatory push toward transparency in showing their value, she believes any measure that puts the client first is ultimately a win for the industry. However, she worries that some compliant advisors might not be coming from a place of genuine care.

“You have to wonder whether they’re just putting information out there that isn’t truly what their clients need,” she said. “Clients have to push for more transparency and service that’s in their interests, but often they don’t have enough knowledge of the industry to know what they should be looking for.”

Still, she’s certain of one thing: the truly client-focused financial advisors have nothing to worry about. Not just because they’re protected against regulatory reprisal or technological challenges, but also because they’ll always be fulfilled.

“Frankly, that’s the fun part of this business. That’s when you see clients being helped, you see problems being solved, and you see them live life more fully with their resources,” Douglas said. “A robo-advisor has no idea what a meaningful life is.”


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