One of the hallmarks of being a professional is the adherence to a common set of standards or code of conduct.  Physicians, lawyers and accountants all have a comprehensive, detailed set of rules or best practices that govern their actions in providing services to their clients.    

Unfortunately, not all financial advisors have a consistent, universal code. 

There are two basic standards governing the behavior of financial advisors — a “suitability” standard and a higher “fiduciary” standard. 

Most investors are unaware of which standard their financial professional is working under, though most assume their advisor puts their interests ahead of the advisor’s own. 

If a code of conduct governs specific individuals, what happens when multiple professionals — a wealth manager, CPA, estate planning attorney and insurance professional — are working together on behalf of a common client?  While each individual in this group has to meet the standards of their particular discipline, should there be a code of conduct that applies to all the members of this team, regardless of license or designation? 

Here are the key principles that we believe should guide the members of a wealth advisory team in order to best serve their mutual clients:

1. Do No Harm

While never using this exact phrase, Hippocrates set this principle as the foundation for a set of medical ethics still in use today.  This concept applies equally well to clients of financial professionals.  Clients should always end up in a more favorable position after the engagement than they were before, net of the fees paid.

2. We will always put our clients’ interests before our own

This is the basic definition of a fiduciary, and some of the members of the team may already be legally operating under this standard.  However, regardless of what underlying standard each individual may be required to meet, the team as a whole should agree to adopt this standard, if not legally, then morally.  Some professionals cannot be legally bound by this standard (such as life insurance brokers); however, they should be able to outline their due diligence process and rationale for making their recommendations, including any conflicts of interest.  Bottom line: the group should adopt the most stringent standard applied to any of the individual members.

3. We will tailor our advice to our clients’ objectives and in line with their values

Each client’s overall goals and objectives should be at the forefront of all advice, and that advice should be congruent with the client’s individual values.  An effective client discovery process is essential in determining these objectives, and each professional should share the results of these conversations with other team members (pursuant to client approval, of course).  While this may seem rather obvious, it is seldom practiced.  For example, estate planning attorneys usually believe that the most important objective for the client is to avoid estate taxes, but is that always really the client’s main objective?  While many clients may want to minimize the tax impact of their financial decisions, they may be more concerned with legacy goals or not wanting to leave so much money to heirs that they become unproductive and unmotivated members of society.  Team members should ensure that their own personal values do not overshadow those of their clients.

4. We will collaborate, not compete

True collaboration can take place only in an environment where trust, openness, respect and communication can take place without the clashing of individual egos.  Putting aside our own egos for the good of the client is essential to making this type of relationship effective.

5. We will communicate openly and honestly

No single person has a monopoly on good ideas.  In fact, one of the benefits of collaboration is that the team is often able to come up with better solutions than the individuals working solo.  All team members should feel comfortable questioning one another, or asking for clarification and not be limited just to their area of expertise.

6. We will respect each other’s opinion, even though we may disagree

Collaborating allows for discussion and debate of each other’s opinions, but reaching a consensus opinion should be the goal.  The client should be made aware of the types of issues that were discussed in reaching this conclusion, as it will be the client who will ultimately need to make the final decision.

7. We will always value strategy over tactics

Some professionals seem to fall in love with one or two tactics and proceed to recommend them to most of their clients.  For example, a grantor-retained annuity trust (GRAT) might make sense for a client who wants a tax effective way to move low-basis stock or privately held stock out of his estate to his children.  However, this is only one “tactic” that could be utilized for a client whose desired “strategy” is to transfer assets to his heirs in the most efficient manner. Letting tactics dictate strategy is a perfect example of putting the cart before the horse.

8. We will set aside our own biases in making recommendations to our client

While professionals generally have an overarching philosophy that drives the advice they give their clients, they need to ensure that they are not inadvertently projecting their own particular biases on their clients.  Projecting your own value system onto your clients — or discounting their values — usually ends in the loss of a client.

9. We will keep each other appraised of changes and developments in our respective fields

It continues to be a challenge for professionals to keep up with the legal and regulatory changes applicable to their own field, let alone try to keep on top of what is happening in related areas. Given the speed at which the evolution of financial products and services takes place, it is a good idea for collaborative professionals to meet together occasionally and discuss the current states of their respective industries.  This discussion may lead to ideas on how to incorporate these changes into specific client situations, and allow the team to brainstorm on other areas of opportunities to work more closely together.

Adopting these standards can serve to ensure that all members of a collaborative team have a uniform agreement about how they will work together to serve the client.  After all, the primary objective of the team should to be able to provide the client with the most comprehensive, coordinated and transparent advice possible.  Committing to meet this goal may make this type of client experience the rule, rather than the exception.

Special thanks to Eric Golberg for his research and assistance.

Steve Atkinson is EVP and Head of Advisor Relations at Loring Ward, www.loringward.com, a third-party asset management program (TAMP), with over $8.4 billion AUM. His team is dedicated to helping the independent advisors who partner with Loring Ward to grow their businesses through ongoing support and coaching. Practice management resources and tools area available at www.loringward.com/advisors.