The power in paying attention

Financial advisor Sara Zollo shares how paying attention, whether to colleagues’ lessons or to clients’ worries, can pay dividends

Sara Zollo graduated from Wilfrid Laurier University with a bachelors degree in Sociology, and she’s certainly gotten far since. She has passed significant milestones, including earning her CHS, CLU, and CFP FPE1 designations. That’s not even mentioning the final CFP exam she wrote on Nov. 25, the results of which will be announced in January.

“I can honestly say I stumbled upon my career,” she said. “I was working at Sun Life as an internal administrator, 22, fresh out of university and I remember watching the advisors come in and out each day and chatting with them and then thinking to myself one day, ‘I can do that.’”

Given the level of regulation governing financial services in Canada, one could argue that choosing to be a financial advisor would be for those who crave consistency. But that’s not how Sara saw it.
“[T]he only consistency I could see was inconsistency in the ‘type’ of person a good advisor could be. You have the silent analytical types all the way to the chatting bubbly personalities, so I realized personality was not lost in this role, and that was very attractive to me,” she said. “Here I am eight years later, and it just gets better.”

Today, she is president of Sara Zollo Financial Solutions, Inc. - a position she arrived at through steady growth in the face of personal challenges.

“I sensed a bit of skepticism within myself when I was first starting out as I was young and female. I made it a point to increase my product knowledge very quickly and any hesitations I felt disappeared from there,” she said. “Your colleagues are going to respect you based on your actions and their consistency and it's no different with your clients. Those two things you can control, so you should not doubt yourself. More women need to understand that being a good financial advisor is less about the numbers than they think.”

Sara has had the chance to work with advisors from every point on the spectrum, from the experienced to the greenhorns, and she does not discriminate when it comes to looking for inspiration.

“[T]here are different people I look up to for different reasons. I even look up to people who are newer to the business than me, or those struggling in the business,” she said. “You can learn from others’ mistakes, which can help you avoid your own, as well as their success and strategies… I have seen struggling advisors be so happy and wear a smile all day long. Success is not the only teacher.”

“That being said, it's so important in this business to surround yourself with positive role models and fellow advisors who love the business as much as you do,” she added. “Negativity just drags you down and holds you back ultimately.”

Some advisors relish the opportunity to be an authority for those who are helpless or hopeless when it comes to their finances. For Sara, however, the important thing is not talking above her clients, but listening beside them.

“I love being able to help someone with a transition in their life and relieve their anxiety around it. Whether retirement, job loss, new additions to the family, divorce, all these monumental highs and lows, the advisor is part of them all. I take that very seriously,” Sara said. “I also really enjoy sharing a coffee or a phone call with a client as each client brings a certain perspective to the world.”

The meetings and chats she has with clients must surely pay dividends. Not only do they enable her to keep emotional tabs on the people she advises, but they also serve as a financial gyroscope. Unlike many Canadians who are playing catch-up as the calendar year ends, Sara’s clients have no need to contact her for last-minute advice.

“[M]y clients have been actively engaged in their financial programs all throughout the year. They may have some RESP top ups to get in or some tax planning that we do, etc, but there isn't one piece of advice specific to the calendar year end,” she said. “That's the key difference between most people working with an advisor versus those not. Your financial plan is going on throughout the entire year, and getting added to and refreshed as needed.”

For Sara, the importance of having a financial plan and advisor lies in the sense of security it provides. That feeling has surely become more important as markets become increasingly unpredictable. The year 2016 has been a textbook example, with many world-shaking events affecting investors in unpredictable ways.

“As more is becoming uncontrollable and the world is moving so fast now, I think the shift we are going to see is around the type of financial consultant style role financial advisors are going to take moving forward,” she said. “The level of planning involved to truly help clients is so much more sophisticated than investment selection.”

What’s the extra factor that can help financial advisors become more effective? Sara would be the first to say that there’s no one formula, but in her own experience, openness has been the critical catalyst.

“Be good to people and you will usually get the same back,” she said. “Don't assume all your clients’ needs are the same… If you remain open, you will learn more about your clients and ultimately be a better advisor to them. Remember that your clients are happy to hear from you and look forward to your knowledge and advice, so take your skill set seriously.”

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