When I joined Balentine & Co. in 1994, every partner of the firm was male, and the women were either sales associates or assistants. It might seem to have been the status quo, but I soon realized I'd joined a firm that was different. I had direct access to the president and the CEO, and they were genuinely interested in teaching me and hearing my opinions. I wasn't seen as anything but a hungry kid eager to learn, grow and contribute.
After 25 years of continual learning and growth, I am now president of Balentine, an Atlanta-based wealth management firm with $3.2 billion in assets under advisement. My story is unique, but it should not be. We have a responsibility to make sure there are more opportunities like I had for young women in wealth management, where the only thing you need to shatter a glass ceiling is talent, drive and a passion for what you do.
Having helped hundreds of clients develop and execute their wealth management plans, I've come to believe women have a unique gift that makes us better equipped to nurture people through the wealth development and management process. This can be a daunting proposition as clients look to understand how wealth changes everything, from how they spend and save to the legacy they want to leave future generations.
The core of wealth management is helping people solve problems. Many believe analytical skills and investment expertise are required to get it right. Professional designations may get you in the room, but I've found that listening and understanding the question behind the question are more important.
Ultimately, the skill so often required, and lacking, is empathy. Take, for instance, the business owner with tears streaming down her face as she learns what her assets may look like upon the sale of the family business. Following decades of hard work and living within her means, her biggest concern is how this newfound wealth will affect her children. In this moment, she isn't worried about how to diversify her portfolio or plan for taxes; she needs assurance that her family will be OK.
(More: Financial advisers' empathy gap)
Similarly, consider the newly engaged grandson of a wealthy client, furious at learning that his family wants his fiancé to sign a prenuptial agreement. He could not care less about performance or risk management, instead demanding, "Why are you trying to ruin my marriage before it even starts?" Helping this person think beyond the present moment and take a long-term view can be a challenge. By applying empathy, a trusted wealth adviser can help people understand the impact of their decisions.
At Balentine, we take clients through an educational process that includes learning how to become good stewards of their wealth. One element involves engaging the entire family in philanthropy and legacy planning. This is critical for families to ensure the wealth they have worked so hard to create doesn't end up transforming them into someone they don't recognize or want to be.
Counseling of this nature requires a level of empathy that's innate for most women, and that is one of the best-kept secrets of the wealth management industry. We have a responsibility to dramatically increase the number of women in our field, which will ultimately make us all better.
Brittain Prigge is president and head of relationship management at Balentine.