The financial planning industry is under siege on many fronts. There is an understandable desire to point the finger of blame at ignorant politicians, over-zealous regulators, biased media, latte-sipping consumer advocates, left-leaning industry superannuation funds or a combination of all five.

In reality, the responsibility for the current state of affairs lies in an abject failure of leadership within the financial planning industry.

Over many decades, most of the industry’s leaders have talked the talk, but haven’t walked it. They have used the rhetoric of “profession”, but have deliberately – or sometimes ignorantly – failed to acknowledge the price that planners must pay to achieve that status. These leaders have lobbied government and regulators, with considerable success over at least 40 years, to avoid the inevitable. It’s taken a long time, but the chickens have come home to roost.

Many financial planners express emotions over their plight ranging from anxiety to anger. Rarely, is a voice of optimism heard above the general sentiment of doom and gloom about issues such the unfairness of compulsory tertiary education, the excessive burden of compliance and the lack of acceptance that most planners are honourable people who care about their clients. The Abbott government’s promise in 2014 to slash regulatory red tape seems like a distant memory.

Then there’s the plummeting value of commission-based financial planning practices in the light of the proposed legislative ban on grandfathering. That’s not to mention what’s yet to come as a result of the remaining 70-odd recommendations of the Hayne Royal Commission. Surely, that can only be more legislation and more bad news for an industry which is already reeling from regulatory overload. It’s only a matter of time before the focus of unpleasant regulation falls on asset fees and life insurance commissions. It would be a truly brave person who suggested otherwise, given Hayne’s conclusions about conflicts of interest and the plain English words in the new FASEA Code of Ethics.

Misguided leadership

Most of the industry’s leaders continue to take the view that their role and that of so-called professional associations is to act as lobbyists to defend and protect the commercial interests of the industry’s participants. That also seems to be the view of many members of those associations. Wrong. The proper role of associations and leaders in a true profession must always be to defend and protect the best interests of consumers of financial planning services. In so doing, they are obliged to articulate the highest ethical standards to which financial planners must adhere if they are to remain in the profession. And they must discipline and remove members of the profession who fail to adopt those standards.

These leaders fail to understand that it’s not their role to continue to support financial planners to practice in a “free market” under the protection of the discredited regime of  disclosure. The fact is that there has been systemic failure in the financial planning market over many decades (no, it’s not just a few bad apples). This has led to a widespread lack of trust and unpleasant government intervention.

Much of that intervention – for example, FoFA – has been ineffective because the industry’s leaders have lobbied hard to make sure of that outcome. As a result, the bad behaviour has continued, leading inevitably to even more government regulation, most recently, the Hayne Royal Commission and the establishment of FASEA.

Yet here we are…

All of these government interventions were totally avoidable, but totally understandable, caused by the industry’s leaders failing in their duty of leadership. They should have known better.

Many of them did know better, but they have failed because they have told financial planners what they wanted to hear, rather than telling them what they should be doing to gain the true professional status to which they aspire. When criticised, they often employ the language of the journey – “we’re on a journey towards professionalism” – but that’s principally a disingenuous deflection and delaying tactic to avoid the truth.

Whether by act of commission or omission, the industry’s leaders have failed to properly explain to financial planners that they are acting in a professional environment and not in a conventional product selling market in which the fittest survive.

In a true professional market, the client’s interests must always come first even if that results in financial detriment for the planner. In order to create the trust and the certainty that planners are acting in their clients’ best interests, a professional must act in a conflict-free zone, or not at all, not one in which conflicts are disclosed and clients are conveniently assumed to understand the consequences of that disclosure in a voluminous statement of advice.

Lead by example

In any conversation about failures of leadership, my own profession of accounting must always receive a dishonourable mention. That once proud profession’s failure to endorse and support its own independent standard setter in 2012 remains the most prominent example of leadership failure by people who actually did know better. Instead, the leaders of the accounting bodies preferred to support certain powerful commercial interests in the financial services industry who had lobbied for accountants to have the right to receive conflicted remuneration in contradiction of the profession’s fundamental ethical principles.

I submit that the accounting profession’s failure to address these ethical issues in 2012 has contributed to the financial planning industry’s woes – if the accounting profession had shown genuine leadership and confronted issues like conflicts of interest head on, then the rest of the financial planning industry would have been forced to follow. The industry’s behaviour as a result would have improved, FASEA would never have been established and the industry would not now be facing the existential threat which many of its participants bemoan.

As always, what the future holds for the financial planning industry depends to a great extent on its leaders.

Should these so called leaders continue to defend the indefensible and attempt to compromise and dilute laws and regulations in the commercial interests of certain of their influential members, then the industry’s future looks bleak. However, if they were to lead the discussion by articulating a vision which is free of conflicts and based on a truly independent profession, then the future that they have always spoken of in much of their hollow rhetoric could become a genuine reality. This would align the interests of consumers, government and financial planners alike. The new profession’s future would be assured.

7 comments on “The advice industry’s leadership deficit”
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    Thanks for pointing out the Accounting Professions role in the current state Robert. Advisers are told to look to the other ‘great’ professions such as law, medicine and accounting as a guide to how it should be but…
    The FASEA Code of Ethics and the Code Monitoring Body are the points of difference in the pursuit of professionlism of financial advice. There is the specter that, adviser’s tickets to ride will be cancelled for breaches, that seems to be convincing.

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    Jarad Stirling

    Spot on Robert. Lack of leadership in all walks or life is an ongoing concern. Hopefully the financial planning industry can rise above these challenges and earn the trust required to perform our role professionally.

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    (Microphone hits the floor) Well said Robert!

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    Thank you Robert for your thoughtful article. I am interested in where people think the leadership needs to come from. Traditionally industry leadership has come from the institutions or the associations. The trouble with the associations is they have been historically funded by the institutions. Feels like the industry needs leadership that is free from bias or perceived conflicts of interest. We also need leadership that is not crowded by the self-promoters. This is a challenge that even the accounting profession have struggled with of recent times.

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    Werner Watzdorf

    A truer word has not been written, well done and a great article. We have been played for fools and now reality bites. Interesting is that in about another 3 years or so unless someone from the financial services sector is sitting in front of me with a Grad Dip or higher, I’ll be struggling to advance any credibility towards them and how they see the sector progressing or listen to how I should run my business. I predict a leaner profession closer to our clients and the mega players out-playing each other with roboadvice. BTW my Wife and I are 58 and own and run our small practice AFSL, I’ve been in advice self employed since 1989 and see a bright future.

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    Dr. Angelique McInnes

    Culture is determined and implemented by the top management of AFSLs. Ethics is determined and implemented by the top management of AFSLs. Performance measures are determined and implemented by the top management of AFSLs.
    Advice policies, practices and processes are determined and implemented by top management of AFSLs.
    Advice compliance, incentives and support are implemented by top management of AFSLs.
    Combine the above within the context of shareholder wealth maximisation, then public interest comes second.
    Past and present industry leadership is indeed deficient.

  7. Avatar

    The article emphatically uses the word “wrong” and that is exactly what this article is.

    Another virtue signalling rock chucker who sees what he wants to see. Says planners should act in a “conflict free environment” this is as possible of me leading the mission for the next lunar landing. Conflicts exist and they need to be managed….yes even you fee for service zealots are conflicted.

    Financial advisers have been let down by the associations. They are there to protect members interests and be their voice in the political process. This failure was demonstrated no better than in the LIF debacle where they were out played by the corporate interests and their endorsement gave the politicians the green light because it had “industry backing”. Consumers are represented in the political process in any number of ways, the corporates strangely manage a seat at the table but the poor adviser (who is a small business) is left whistling Dixie.

    All the issues caused that are systemic are not necessarily a result of the financial adviser on the ground but indeed the corporate behaviour of the product providers. Any half arsed observation of the Royal Commission can see that. These changes will have unintended consequences that will hurt many small businesses and ultimately tens of thousands of consumers and the know it all’s that will cause the mess will accept no responsibility nor suffer any ramifications. This sounds like a winning formula.

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