Struggling to find an identity: a profession devoid of definition

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 November, 2010, 12:00am

There are no jokes about financial planners.

This is in part a compliment, albeit a backhanded one. Jokes about virtually every other job title associated with managing people's money are legion - and not one of them is flattering.

Yet therein, according to Eleanor Wan, CEO of the Institute for Financial Planners of Hong Kong (IFPHK), lies her organisation's single greatest challenge: financial planners have an identity crisis. They have no brand identity. Worse, their specialist trade is not formally recognised as a distinct professional discipline.

'Financial planning is an art. It requires a highly refined mix of technical financial and interpersonal skills,' says Wan.

It is also, she says, very distinct from other professions in the financial sector, in that the goal is first and foremost to find a solution for individuals based on a definition of need, as opposed to having a product to sell and looking for people to convince they're right for it. A good financial planner, Wan explains, has to first connect with a customer, assess need, match it with financial capacity - both present and projected - and form a binding relationship.

'Yet despite the distinctive nature of the work, and despite the fact that the IFPHK has grown to over 14,000 members since our foundation in 2000, with more than 4,000 certified by them to the CFP [Certified Financial Planner] international standard ... there is no established definition of what is required to allow you to state that you are a financial planner.'

This, then, is the root of Wan's frustration - no one will formally confirm the professional demarcation lines. There is still no law against anyone declaring themselves a financial planner.

The IFPHK is a self-regulatory body, requiring a minimum of an undergraduate degree and three years of relevant work experience as preconditions for admission to coursework, which consists of six technical financial disciplines for which students must sit exams, with a pass rate of roughly 70 per cent.

The work is, according to Wan, a highly disciplined process requiring rigorous training, continuous education and implementation in line with a strict code of ethics.

And that is Wan's key message to the world as the IFPHK marks its 10th anniversary. 'We're looking forward to 2020,' she says firmly. 'By then, we want to be fully recognised as a specific, clearly defined professional discipline.'

So, how many financial planners does it take to change a light bulb? If Wan has her way, you'll know soon.