Many advisors begin their professional lives in other fields — some seemingly far removed from financial planning. But having learned another trade may yield skills that turn out to be useful in advising clients about their finances.

An eclectic set of eight advisors who migrated from other professions — from a geologist to a TV saleswoman to a policy analyst for a Canadian prime minister — cite key skills honed in their prior careers that have helped distinguish them as planners.

DATA SCIENCE

Before Gary Sidder became a planner 18 years ago, he spent five years as an exploration geologist for private mineral exploration companies and 10 years as a research geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey. Now principal at Life Transition Planners in Littleton, Colo., Sidder says that he puts the “highly quantitative” approach he used in his past career — determining which rocks contained “anomalous values” of gold, copper and other metals — to work in managing money for his clients.

“I joke that instead of remembering the gold grade over drill hole intercepts when evaluating a project, I now remember mutual fund managers’ track records for five and 10 years,” Sidder says. “I use the data to sort out the managers we should use, versus the poorer managers, by looking at risk-reward ratios. It’s all about mining the data — not to find the next gold mine, but to find the better mutual fund managers to hire.”

His former profession also helps him take a true long-term view when he invests for clients. “Having worked in geology and thinking about time in terms of geologic time, short-term noise and the volatility in the stock market don’t upset me,” he says.

COOL ANALYSIS

Ashley O’Kurley, a Signator advisor in Miami, worked as a communications and policy advisor to Joe Clark, prime minister of Canada in 1979 and 1980. Now, he says, “I draw upon the skills of my former profession, because I can find ways to give insight into emotional issues,” O’Kurley says.

“In politics, there’s a lot of sound and fury, and a tremendous amount of posturing and yelling at each other, as well as media hype around issues,” he explains. “But working on public policy and communications issues helped the prime minister separate the wheat from the chaff and put issues into proper context. Now I can do the same for my financial planning clients.”

CLEAR COMMUNICATION

Michael Lecours says his days as an advertising executive have helped him “keep it simple” when discussing issues with his clients.

In his previous career, Lecours — now an advisor at Ohanesian/Lecours in West Hartford, Conn. — worked with one global firm that was trying to rebrand itself; the client grew frustrated over a competing ad agency’s inability to distill its research results “into meaningful nuggets” that the company could use, Lecours recalls.

“The company turned to us for help, and we found a simple analogy based on a quote from Archimedes to describe them,” he says. “That company ... liked the simple analogy.”

The same principle goes for planning, he argues. “Clients don’t want pages and pages of reports [and] spreadsheets — just a summary of recommendations that you’ve boiled down for them,” Lecours says.

FIRSTHAND EXPERIENCE

Before becoming a financial planner, Trevor Harris owned a small equipment rental store. He believes that experience gives him credibility with clients who are small business owners.

“They know I’ve stood in their shoes, handled the challenges of trying to make payroll, being the first one to come and the last to leave, making sure everything else gets paid before you,” says Harris, now a portfolio manager at Bank of Kansas City in Overland Park, Kan. “That sort of mind-set changes the way you work.”

DYNAMIC CHALLENGES

Back when she was working in the entertainment industry, Mary Voll Miller’s job was to sell syndicated WB Network shows to TV stations around the country. The process involved using sophisticated demographic research and problem-solving skills, she says.

“I would consult with my clients on troublesome time slots. ... We were very big on using demographic research to determine which shows were best for the particular audience they were targeting,” Miller says. “In some markets, one show might be good, but for another market, another show might be better.”

Now an advisor at Per Stirling Capital Management in Austin, Texas, she says such skills help her “stay abreast of the ever-changing areas that impact the various aspects of financial planning.”

EMPATHY

Before Kevin Meehan became an advisor, he was a special ed teacher for four years. “With special education, teachers need a higher degree of empathy — dealing not only with the dynamics of the student, but also with the challenges that their parents often deal with,” says the regional president at Wealth Enhancement Group in Itasca, Ill.

Meehan says he needs some of those same emotional skills when talking with his clients. “I also need to be able to communicate at whatever level they may be able to understand,” he says. “I need to be able to communicate as effectively with a blue-collar worker who has little financial exposure as I do with a highly successful CEO.” That, he says, “takes good teaching skills.”

COAXING BUY-IN

Ronsey Chawla, another Per Stirling financial advisor, says his skills as a former management consultant helps him work collaboratively with current clients to get their buy-in and resolve issues.

“For example, a new physician client had cash management issues, and it was evident from the financial statements and credit card bills she had given me that she was spending far more money than was coming in,” Chawla says. “Instead of developing a budget right off the bat for her, I had her start tracking all of her expenditures on a weekly basis for several months.

“I had the client go through the journey first,” he adds. “As a result, she was better able to internalize her spending habits and develop longer-term goals.”

TRANSLATION SKILLS

Harriet Brackey, a financial analyst/advisor at KR Financial Services in Hollywood, Fla., was a journalist for 30 years and worked to help launch USA Today. Brackey honed her skills explaining complex ideas about market conditions or Fed decisions in terms that the general public could understand.

Now she helps clients put other complex ideas into concrete terms. “My first client was a physical therapist who ... had managed to save enough to retire,” she says. “During the last year of her working life, I tried to get her to visualize what retirement would mean to her. I got her to think specifically about what she wanted to do, and then lined up the money to match those goals. I took the vague concept of retirement and made it concrete and real to her, so she could make a commitment,” she adds.

Career changers make particularly good planners, Brackey believes. “They usually ... have faced some of the challenges in handling their own personal finances,” she says. “Life’s hard knocks can result in a lot of empathy for clients.”

Katie Kuehner-Hebert is a freelance writer in Running Springs, Calif. She has contributed to American Banker, Risk & Insurance and Human Resource Executive.

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