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Diversity and Inclusion and Holistic Leadership

We’ll have to get out of our exclusionary comfort zone and embrace the initially uncomfortable imperatives that true inclusion requires.

In 1989, the late Stephen Covey published a book with little fanfare. Entitled The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, it would go on to become a pioneering work in the then-emerging genre of “self-help.” I remember reading it at the time on the plane to and from a golf outing with old friends, one of whom looked at me with a mix of horror and disgust on his face and asked “What the ‘F’ is that?”

Two years later, he would tell me that he had actually bought the book and begun to read it and thanked me for introducing it to him.

In the three decades since its publication, The 7 Habits has become a global phenomenon and its wisdom has been both ubiquitously spread and embraced. Personally, I’ve found it incisive, illuminating and inspiring and have used it for the vast majority of my adult life to very positive effect.

As we begin to take up the challenge of learning how to eradicate decades of exclusionary behavior and begin to practice the discipline of diversity and inclusion successfully, I believe that Covey’s framework is particularly germane and instructive for us.

The author exhorted us to “Be Proactive,” to “Begin With the End in Mind,” to “Put First Things First,” to “Think Win-Win,” to “Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood” (compelling us to listen with the intent to hear, understand and empathize rather than merely to reply), to “Synergize” and then to “Sharpen the Saw.”

In fact, one could argue persuasively that this 7 Habits approach reflects the very one that financial planners follow professionally: that our very raison d’être is to encourage clients to be proactive/take action, that in order to guide them to reach their goals we have to lead them to be clear on them, and once we are, we then have to become clear on where we’re starting from so that we can begin to craft an effective plan to reach them. Given our fiduciary duty, any such plan must be “win-win,” because we’re committed to our clients’ best interests. Further, in order for us to collaborate synergistically with clients in the development and implementation of this plan, we need to listen fully and openly and respond competently and compassionately to what our clients share, responding not just with expertise but with empathy. Finally, in order to offer the best possible guidance in the fulfillment of our fiduciary duty, it’s incumbent upon us to develop ourselves continuously (while also encouraging our clients to do the same).

OK, now let’s translate this into achieving the successful practice of diversity and inclusion in the financial planning profession:

First and foremost, we must address the racism—yes, racism (and sexism and heterosexism, etc.)—that’s led to the dreadful lack of diversity in our profession. Am I suggesting that most of this has been in the form of overt inhumanity? No. In fact, in my experience, it’s primarily the opposite: It’s been our benign neglect that’s led to an outcome that’s no less exclusionary. Sure, a few bad actors have conspired to keep women and People of Color and members of the LGBTQ+ community out of our profession, but the vast majority of those with influence within it have simply ignored the opportunity to be more inclusive (which, again, the research shows has been costly to them, whatever their level of success).

In order to address this racism (however benign in its intent), we must commit to proactivity in being far more expansive and inclusive in our outreach to those whom we invite into our professional community. Yes, this will involve making extra efforts to access diverse talent that’s available to us, so this commitment must also be reflected in our recruitment, retention and recognition practices. In other words, we’ll have to get out of our exclusionary comfort zone and embrace the initially uncomfortable imperatives that true inclusion requires.

To keep it simple, let’s start by creating internship programs for students/early career professionals and externship programs for career changers, especially diverse ones. This means, again, that we’ll have to go beyond our normal sources to a more diverse set where we can actually attract a more diverse talent pool.

Continuing to keep our end in mind—that of creating a more diverse and inclusive profession —we can evidence our win-win thinking by evolving our organizational cultures and crafting career paths and plans that reflect what’s most important to our diverse talent, which we’ll identify by engaging in a continuous dialogue with them. Further, this will encourage us to synergize with them because we’ll be enabled to create an ever more overlapped Venn Diagram of what the firm wants and needs and what our people want and need in order to serve our clients excellently and achieve success together individually and collectively.

And we must continue to look for ways to serve these internal clients in evermore idiosyncratically resonant ways, just like we do with our external clients. In other words, a critical way that we can continue to Sharpen the Saw is to create an ever more compelling employee experience (EX) to complement the externally-directed version of this effort (i.e., client experience, or CX).

Finally, as you reflect on the preceding, do you notice anything?

Truth be told, none of it has anything to do with diversity per se. It’s really just good leadership applied inclusively. The reality is that we should be treating our current people this way while endeavoring to complement them with a more diverse group of future colleagues.

Times have been very good in financial planning and wealth management in recent years, but, as the research tells us, they could’ve been even better. And if we look over the horizon at the ways in which our profession is likely to change in the next decade, the imperative to lead more effectively is reinforced all the more. In other words, we need to get much better at holistic leadership, period, which means that as we do we’ll also create organizational cultures that are more diverse, equitable and inclusive while encouraging a sense of belonging, too.

To frame this in Covey terms, we need to shift our paradigm to providing excellent, holistic leadership to a diverse clientele of associates, who, in turn, will do so with our (evolving and increasingly more diverse) client base. In this spirit, I challenge you to shift your paradigm by embracing both holistic leadership and diversity and inclusion fully. It’s truly a win-win opportunity.


Walter K. Booker is the chief operating officer of MarketCounsel, a business and regulatory compliance consultancy for investment advisors.

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