When AMP took its financial planners to an offshore conference in Amsterdam in 2006, it took the opportunity to quiz them on the biggest challenges facing their businesses. Top of the list, with more than double the score of the second-placed item, was the recruitment and retention of good financial planning staff.

That set in motion a series of events that culminated in October last year with the launch of the AMP Horizons Financial Planning Academy – a facility operated and funded by AMP. So far, 124 would-be planners have gone into the academy, in four separate intakes. It costs AMP roughly $100,000 to produce a successful graduate, so it represents a significant investment of money and time for the financial services giant.

However, a stream of new planners helps relieve some of the growth and succession planning pressures for AMP practices, and the group considers it money well spent.

Tim Steele, director of the academy, says succession planning, in particular, is “an issue that has been there for a long time”.

“Like any institution in the country, we needed a strategy to develop our next generation of financial planners,” Steele says.

“It’s important for an institution like AMP to grow its planners organically.

“We also knew that there are a lot of people out there in the marketplace who have considered a career in financial planning, but there was not a clear path for them.

“A number of people had considered careers [in financial planning], but because of that lack of clarity, they chose another path. We thought there was an opportunity to dip into that pool of talent.”

This approach means that an intake into the academy generally will not include individuals straight out of school or university, nor anyone who has already embarked on a career in financial planning – it’s not a “finishing school” for planners, as such, but a mechanism to source new talent.

A successful candidate will typically have already enjoyed success in their chosen field, and will have several years’ experience. There’s also a set of personal characteristics that AMP looks for. Candidates go through a rigorous vetting process before they are accepted into the academy.

They must have the emotional maturity to relate to clients and an ability to sell.

“We look for core drive,” Steele says. “There’s three key things we look for: a certain IQ – you have to have a certain nous to be a financial plan­ner; you have got to have EQ [emotional intelligence], including communication skills – you have got to be a good listener; and you’ve got to empathise with the client.

You’ve got to have all these things but if you do not have that core drive, you may still struggle in the profession.

“I think it [requires] a lot of emotional intelligence, and the ability to build a rapport quickly with someone.”

Steele says a “flight to professionalism” in financial planning means the old-fashioned salesperson no longer has a place. But sales skills are still important – it’s no use to anyone if a planner cannot get a client over the line and to commit to taking action.

“Our obligation as planners is to help clients make decisions, not just inform them,” Steele says. “They have to make a decision. Their decision may be, ‘I am not going to do anything’, but they have made that decision.

“We’re unapologetically looking for people with sales skills. It’s not that we want our planners to be ‘salesy’, far from it.

“But we’re in a profession where we offer discrete advice. Unlike going to see a doctor, unlike having to file your tax return, it’s unlikely someone is going to wake up and say ‘I have come to the conclusion that I need to rebalance my portfolio’, or ‘I have come to the conclusion that I am underinsured’.

“That’s a very important distinction, so you have to have some sales skills, without being ‘salesy’. We’ve moved beyond [just sales] as a profession, but certainly, some sales skills are important.”

A key element of the academy program is a two-week internship. After six weeks of intensive on-site training at the academy’s St Leonards campus, north of Sydney, candidates do a two-week internship, “ideally in the [AMP] practice that’s going to recruit them”, Steele says.

Practice heads who are prepared to take on interns are part of the panel that interview potential candidates at the outset – but in any case, the internship provides a practical insight into how financial planning works and how to apply what they’ve learned in the first part of the course.

When the internship is completed, candidates return to the academy for a second six-week stint. It is not for the faint-hearted, Steele says.

“It’s a pretty intensive introduction [to financial planning],” he says.

“It’s 50 to 60 hours a week. This is very challenging – they are going to have to put any other education they are doing on hold, and…they are going to have to put their family commitments [on hold].

“But really, 12 weeks is such a short period of time to teach all the things we know they are going to need.”

Graduates are restrained from working for a non-AMP practice for a period of six months after leaving the academy. Steele says that about a fifth of the graduates from the academy go on to start their own financial planning practices, under the AMP banner.

“Some of them are attracted to the program for that opportunity,” Steele says.

“But I will say that almost all of our planners are strongly equity-aspirational, so they are doing this ultimately to be a partner in their own financial planning practice.”

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