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New to planning? How to add value at your firm

One of my favorite mantras for support advisors is this, “Details are your responsibility.” In the financial planning field, great plans live and die in the finer points. But, most practices just don't have the time and resources to check complex calculations. That’s where you come in.

First, create a sanity-check methodology to help uncover fundamental oversights. Ask: “Does this answer really make sense?" Forget for a minute the numbers, the software and the spreadsheets. Does the result make intuitive sense? Can that client really spend $200,000 per year and not outlive his or her assets?

It's easy to get into a plug-and-chug mentality and simply take what the spreadsheets give us. But maybe we’re missing an underlying assumption. Maybe the stock split, maybe the client recently received an inheritance or made a large charitable gift. Sanity checks are your best defense against broader oversights. They’re also great to help you develop big-picture thinking — something that both you and your firm are going to benefit from.

If you're using a spreadsheet tool, make your life easier by letting the software do most of the work. Use the applications’ built-in features. Sometimes your Hp12C financial planning calculator, or regular calculator, works too. Whatever system you use you want to quickly and accurately double-check your math so that your superiors won’t have to.

Remember, your primary mission is to prepare your firm’s senior advisors as best as possible for upcoming meetings and projects. You’ll do that with spreadsheets, charts and write-ups. While you prepare, look for ways to take away some of their stresses or decrease the tasks in their job jar — you can start brainstorming ideas. Sometimes, just getting some organization around a project can be helpful.

tax planning-1040-IRS
U.S. Department of the Treasury Internal Revenue Service (IRS) 1040 Individual Income Tax forms for the 2016 tax year are arranged for a photograph in Tiskilwa, Illinois, U.S., on Monday, Dec. 18, 2017. This week marks the last leg of Republicans' push to revamp the U.S. tax code, with both the House and Senate planning to vote by Wednesday on final legislation before sending it to President Donald Trump. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Another area that bears paying attention to is priorities. When you come in each day, you have 10 to 20 things that you need to do. But those aren't the same things that your boss needs to do. There will be some overlap, but it's rare that your top priority will be their top priority. Recognize this. Try to gain a general awareness of their availability and what’s on their plate. And work your common projects into that mix.
When handling criticism, it’s important to not get discouraged. Shift the focus away from yourself and simply ask: Does the feedback make the product or service better or more understandable? That's it. Forget about where the suggestion came from, or how it was delivered. Focus on making your service the best it can be.

I always mention to new planners that unlike academia, college coursework, or even some of their previous jobs, they're very often not going to have all the information they need to fully solve a financial planning problem. However, you can't wait to get all the information you need to move ahead. You'll have to make progress — maybe you'll have to make some reasonable assumptions, maybe you'll have to work with ranges of data, but you have to find a way to push ahead. See what your firm's approach is and understand that you'll likely need to be flexible and accepting of the fact that some amount of uncertainty is often part of financial planning problems.

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You're going to have struggles and some struggles are okay. Positive struggles help you figure things out on your own and build your confidence for solving problems. Negative struggles are just logjams and time-wasters. You don't want to struggle for three hours trying to figure something out when you could have asked someone a question and gotten your answer in two minutes. But it might be okay to struggle for 30 to 60 minutes to figure something out on your own. So ask questions and don't be afraid to try and work things out on your own when the situation allows.

As you become more effective at starting and working your way through your various projects, you'll be developing another great skill: initiative. It’s a valuable skill highly appreciated by most bosses. Don't be afraid to put it into action. You don't need to overreach. Take on smaller, lower risk projects to get started. If you have the time, take a run at it — build a spreadsheet, draft an email, sketch out a schedule, write up an outline.

One of the best ways to get your boss’s attention is to generate energy and momentum for the projects you are working on. Be positive and take the initiative.

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