The FPA Financial Planner AFP of the Year winner has warned that financial planners must hone their “soft skills”, like empathy, or risk being left obsolete by new technology.

Taking out the award at age 29, ipac South Australia’s John Molnar says he entered the profession more than a decade ago to help people out – a passion that is becoming more and more vital with the introduction of technology like robo-advice.

“A robo-adviser can’t help you sleep well at night; a real financial planner gives confidence and clarity to their clients, and that’s the difference between planning and advice,” Molnar says.

Molnar (on the right in the picture, with FPA chair Neil Kendall) says advisers have “two ears, two eyes and one mouth for a reason” and says it is also important to pay attention to body language. Soft skills are shown by the Monarch Institute to account for 85 per cent of professional success.

“Having a personal touch and caring about clients is very important. I got into this profession because I like to help people; at ipac we care about clients, we have empathy, we have trust,” Molnar says.

“If you aren’t empathetic, if the client does not open up, there will always be a wall or a barrier and you cannot do the best job you can. Our biggest power [as advisers] is in listening – sometimes it can take years to finally find out the details of people’s lives.”

On a practical side, Molnar says goals-based financial planning is one of his key points of difference as there is no one-size-fits-all method that works. He sits down and talks through a client’s situation from scratch so they will ultimately have peace of mind now, and security for the future.

“Then we have the discussion about goals – where they want to head – and only then put together a financial plan to show how we can help them.”

Invest in yourself

Entering the FPA awards was a way for Molnar to benchmark his own skills, both technical and soft, and gain motivation to continually improve through working on his own goals.

In a continually evolving profession, his advice for all planners is not to become complacent. Molnar believes in ongoing professional development, which he has great access to at ipac, and also says the best advice he can give planners is to get a mentor and to become an active part of the industry.

“I have a main mentor in my office. Obviously over the years you speak to many helpful individuals, but the biggest thing they help you do is see outside the box, be more creative, focus on the path and add a different perspective.

“Getting involved in the financial planning community was also one of the most important pieces of advice I got. It’s easy to put your head down and help clients, but we also need to get out in the community and learn from what everyone else is doing.

“Both of these helped me develop as a planner more. When we see others in the profession, there are different ideas and takes on strategy; there’s always something to take away and it really helps you think and evolve.”

A decade in financial planning

Starting at ipac in 2003, Molnar has shown a loyalty to the company that Generation Y is often criticised as lacking. He says much has changed in that decade; when he started people didn’t know what a financial adviser was, they’d give him a blank stare.