We can all use some money advice now and then, whether you’re figuring out a personal budget that works for you trying to get your ducks in a row to start a business. That’s why we look to expert financial advisors to offer guidance and help us manage our money.
To learn a little about what it means to be a financial advisor, we spoke with Racquel Oden, head of advisor strategy and development at Merrill Lynch. Racquel actually designs the programs that train new advisors. Interestingly, many of her trainees come from backgrounds outside of the finance industry.
First of all, tell us a bit about your current work and how long you’ve been at it.
I’ve been in the financial services industry for over 20 years. I started as a Wall Street trader right out of grad school and have held a variety of jobs over my career. Before joining Merrill Lynch , I spent over 10 years at UBS in various leadership roles, including as Chief of Staff for the President.
While that role was hard to leave, I took a risk and joined Merrill Lynch. It was the best move I’ve ever made. Currently, I am the head of advisor development and training for Merrill Lynch Wealth Management. We have 14,500 financial advisors and oversee $2 trillion in client balances. I’m focused on building the firm’s “next generation” of advisors and have devised some new avenues for teaming, training and hiring.
What drove you to choose your career path?
I wanted a career where I could chart my own course and have an impact on others. The financial industry is one of rapid change—it is very dynamic and tied closely to real world events. And you can actually make a difference in peoples’ lives.
What kind of education and experience do financial advisors typically need?
I’d say most important is being willing to study hard, work hard and know how to listen. I have a bachelor’s degree in political science and an MBA, but we hire people with a wide range of educational backgrounds. Among the 3000 trainees in our training program are both first- and second-career men and women, including former accountants, lawyers, military personnel and entrepreneurs. We also hire people who have just graduated college and are particularly interested in hiring those with degrees in Certified Financial Planning.
This may sound obvious—but what do financial advisors actually do? What kind of people or businesses hire them and what sort of guidance do they offer?
Financial advisors at Merrill Lynch work with individuals, families and businesses to balance daily financial needs with long-term life goals. Financial advisors are trained in the discipline of goals-based wealth management, an approach that focuses on developing financial portfolios based on the client’s stated priorities. Merrill Lynch studies have shown that clients’ priorities usually focus on one or more of seven life priorities: home, health, family, leisure, giving, work and finances. An “Investor Personality Assessment” is done when a client joins Merrill Lynch to help the advisor and the client together analyze their priorities and develop a financial plan.
What misconceptions do people often have about their work?
People may focus on the financial markets—we train our advisors to focus on the goals of the client. Our platform is called “goals based wealth management,” and our advisors build their practices around helping clients to understand the financial picture on both sides of the balance sheet and in the context of what they are trying to achieve with their money.
[Also] people think you have to have prior experience only in finance to be a financial advisor and that is not true. We are looking for people with a track record of success and we can teach you finance side of the business.
What are your average work hours? Typical 9-5 or not?
Not! This is a 24-7 business, which is why in our advisory practices, we focus on teams. For those of us in leadership, I’ll just say we do what it takes. We have laptops and phones!
What personal tips and shortcuts made your job easier?
Most important in my career was building relationships and finding good mentors. My mentor once told me to “be comfortably uncomfortable.” She encouraged me to push myself just beyond my comfort zone in order to learn new roles, meet new challenges, and continue to grow in my career. That advice has made all the difference.
What’s the most enjoyable part of the job?
The opportunity to develop the next generation of advisors for Merrill Lynch who will be there to help clients meet their life goals. That is a really cool legacy.
Is there a way to “move up” in your field?
Yes, definitely. Advisors shape their own practices by building relationships with clients. For those interested in management positions, I’d say “embrace risk.” If we embrace risk instead of hiding from it, we’re more likely to stay more engaged, learn more and continue to achieve.
What advice would you give to those aspiring to join your profession?
This is a great time to enter the financial services field, especially for women and minorities. There is a growing need for financial advisors due the aging of the current advisor sale force and a need for more diversity in the sales force to better represent a diverse client base. My advice is to work hard, listen carefully to clients and prospects and bring valuable perspective to your relationships.