Wednesday, February 20, 2013

What Does Money Mean to You?

What Does Money Mean to You?

The meaning of money is as unique and personal to each of us as our fingerprints. It is something we have acquired through a lifetime of experiences with money. Then in turn, like it or not, our lives become significantly defined by what money means to us. It shapes our personal identity, our relationships, our careers. It affects our sense of the past, our awareness of the present, and our vision of the future.

So why would we even consider entrusting our money to someone who doesn’t really understand what money means to us?

Whether we’re considering leaving money to children, grandchildren, or a charitable organization; or we’re about to turn over investment assets to a financial advisor; or we’re asking someone to help us make estate or financial plans, we should share our wealth only with those who are privy to the meaningful experiences that have shaped our understanding of what money is all about.

Those who would inherit our money need to know what it took to earn it and safeguard it, and they need to hear in our own words the lessons life has taught us about how to use wealth wisely. When an inheritance is combined with the wisdom to use it wisely, it can become a meaningful and lasting legacy. Those who would manage or plan for our money need to appreciate the experiences that have influenced our sense of what money really stands for, and they need to understand how it fits in with the larger themes of our lives.

The best way for them to understand what money means to us is by hearing our “meaning of money” stories. Steve Sabo has pointed out that stories are the most powerful way of teaching and transforming:

Tell me a fact and I’ll learn.

Tell me a truth and I’ll believe.

Tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.

It is by sharing our experiences in our own words that we convey to them the important money lessons and insights of our lives that are critical to their wise use and management of our wealth.

Nearly half a century ago John F. Kennedy envisioned “a great future in which our country will match its wealth with our wisdom.” Using the power of our meaning of money stories, we can uncover a treasure house of wisdom about the meaning of money hidden within ourselves—wisdom that deserves to be shared and cherished for generations to come.

Story is the Key to Client Connections

Story is the Key to Client Connections

Story is the key to a truly client-centered practice. As professional advisors, we actually begin to make the transition from transactional to relational when we become willing to meet clients on this common ground of sharing and listening to stories about what the client has been through, what events shaped and influenced his or her values, and what matters most. We shift from trying to get the client to understand why he needs our product or service, to understanding who the client is. This new direction is so basic that there isn’t an area of our practice that isn’t deeply affected by it.

This is true for at least two reasons: First, the stories of our experiences form the reality in which all of us live our lives. Who we each are as a person is defined not by what has happened to us, but by how we remember and describe what has happened to us. We have the inherent ability as human beings to choose our response to what the world does to us and to assign our own meanings to the world’s actions and our responses. Consequently, we are not the events of our lives; rather, we are the sum total of the stories we hold on to and tell about the events of our lives.

Second, story is our native language. Until we were a dozen or so years old, it is how we looked at and made sense of the world. It is how our parents taught us right from wrong. It is how we played (cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, Barbie and Ken) and how we learned. It is how we connected and communicated with those around us. It wasn’t until later that we learned how to be analytical. Even then, it wasn’t until law school, business school, or professional training that much of our native expression in story was replaced. But a part of us­—and a big part of our clients—still longs for story, this most human of media.

I’ve learned first-hand this power of communicating in our common native language. I have a college degree in Portuguese, which I earned after I had spent a number of years in Brazil speaking Portuguese most of the time. Unfortunately, I subsequently lived for 20 years in places where no other person spoke Portuguese; consequently, I lost the ability to speak comfortably in this second language.

Now I live in the Orlando area and have frequent opportunities to speak Portuguese. But because of that 20-year hiatus, I have to work hard to be fully present in the conversation. I notice how tense I become as I struggle to remember how to express a certain thought, or conjugate a particular verb, or construct agreement between nouns and adjectives. I’m sure that I often miss the meanings of the other person’s statements, and certainly the nuances of tone and expression.

Occasionally the person I’m speaking with, recognizing that his or her English is better than my Portuguese, switches the conversation to English. It’s amazing for me to notice how I immediately relax, begin to enjoy the exchange of ideas, and grasp the whole conversation.

Clients may find that meeting with a financial advisor or attorney can be a stressful situation, especially as we discuss money, taxes, investment, death, or disability. As if this weren’t daunting enough, we often speak to them in our legal-ese, financial planner-ese, or analytical-ese. If we’re perceptive, we may notice how tense they become as they struggle to understand us, and to express themselves in the language of our transactional world. 

But if we switch from the traditional, professional idiom into the client’s native language of story, the whole tone of the conversation changes. They relax, they enjoy the exchange of ideas, and they grasp more of what we’re seeking to share with them. More importantly, they begin to share who they are with us.

I have found that the best way to get comfortable with stories is to begin telling your own to someone you trust. In a truly client-centered practice, the line between personal and professional is not nearly as hard as it has been traditionally among financial and legal professionals. In fact, it’s safe to say that our success as a client-centered advisor will depend on our ability to share our wealth with the client—our experiences and stories, our wisdom and discernment, our compassion and creativity.

Truly client-centered professional service is rooted, first and last, in a rich and meaningful dialogue between two human beings, two equals—not an aloof expert and a passive client. Naturally, there are many things that we and our client will not elect to share with each other for many reasons.

It is, however, essential that we become comfortable with the language of story, and be willing to show up humanly in the truth of our stories. We teach best by example, and by doing this, you demonstrate in the most powerful way possible your qualifications and trustworthiness as a client-centered advisor. It’s hard to overstate the power that story has to create an immediate and lasting connection between any two human beings. One of the things I learned from a project of capturing clients’ life stories on tape and preserving them with the photographs and documents from their personal histories, is how deeply and quickly one person will bond with another, even a total stranger, who demonstrates a genuine interest in that person’s life and experiences.

We show how much we value another person simply by asking what we at SunBridge call “story-leading questions,” then listening generously, with undivided attention. In this simplest and most natural of human exchanges, we can create amazing and lasting trust and friendship in a matter of a few minutes.

A client’s stories drawn from his or her most meaningful experiences are a gold mine of understanding for the attentive advisor. The client’s values and priorities are laid out for the discerning to see and appreciate, far more effectively than can be achieved through the most cleverly designed questionnaire.

Story provides a context within which the client’s concerns and problems can be identified, pointing the way, often immediately, to deeply human and gratifying solutions. When the client and advisor share the language of story, they become more fully human in each other’s eyes. The client who is invited to share his or her life experiences as part of the advisor’s search for answers to the client’s problems feels valued, heard, and understood. And the advisor’s counsel acquires a correspondingly greater value, in every sense.

Since the prospective client has usually come to see the advisor about some issue related to finances, I’ve found it helpful, after learning something of who the client is, where he came from, and how he ended up here, to invite him to share with me what I call “meaning of money” stories. These are experiences that have helped the client define what money means to him (a meaning that’s deeply personal and individual), which in turn dictates what types of planning the client is open to considering.

Often those stories are about something that happened early in the client’s life when he discovered­—often dramatically—what money meant in the family or community in which he grew up. Sometimes the story takes place early in the client’s married life, when he abruptly learned that money meant something entirely different to his spouse. To get this ball rolling, I often share one of my experiences, when a new pair of shoes helped me understand the meaning of money in the Farnsworth family.

I grew up on a small dairy farm in northwest New Mexico, one of thirteen children. Our place bordered the San Juan River across from the Navajo Reservation. Things were difficult for us financially with so many mouths to feed, but we raised most of our own food. We had dairy cows, chickens, pigs, a beef cow, gardens, and orchards, so we were able to provide for ourselves that way. Shoes and clothes, however, posed a real challenge for my parents. Fifteen pairs of feet were a lot to keep in shoes! 

One of the many blessings we had was our Uncle Jack, who had a trading post on the Navajo Reservation, where we could buy clothes and shoes wholesale. Every month or so our family went out to the trading post and got the things we needed. A trading post is not exactly Saks Fifth Avenue; it’s a store stocked with only the basic things of rural life, a general store with sheep and goats, and rugs, jewelry, and the like.

Before we went to the trading post we invariably had a family meeting to decide who would get what. My father was not one to brook any sort of “confusion,” as he called it, when we got to the store. I remember when I was eleven, I’d decided that I was due a new pair of shoes, but the family council had decided that I was not going to get a new pair of shoes, and this left me anything but pleased. I can still remember sitting in the back seat of the car in the driveway, the whole family ready to go, and we couldn’t leave because I was throwing a fit.

My father stood in the driveway reasoning with me through the open window of the car. Finally, after some minutes of unsuccessfully trying to persuade me to be happy about what I was going to get, he did something unexpected. He lifted up his shoe and laid it on the window seal of the car, then turned it over to show me the bottom. These were his good Sunday shoes and the bottom was totally broken out. There wasn’t enough leather there to re-sole them, even if we had had the money, and he, the inclination.

He looked me straight in the eye and he said, “Scott, we can’t afford to buy me new shoes today, and we cannot afford to buy you new shoes, either. Do you understand, son?” Did I ever! In an instant, through the image powerfully conveyed by that single, unforgettable, moment, I understood what money meant in our family. That moment was indelible. It still shapes the way I think of money; it still affects the way I respond when my children ask me for things.

Each one of us has had experiences that define what money means to us. As truly client-centered advisors, we take the time to understand what money means to our clients by listening to their stories. They also have stories about their family, community, heritage, and many other important facets of their life. Indeed, every person has many stories, however unwitting, unformulated, or even forsaken they may be. Hidden within each story is a compass heading for deeply fulfilling financial choices and directions. These are the keys to client connection and client understanding.

Give Yourself the Gift of More Time to Think

Give Yourself More Time to Think

If you didn’t get everything you wanted this Christmas—or even if you did—I want to suggest something you should give yourself as a new year’s gift: more time to think. No, I haven’t discovered how to squeeze more than 168 hours into a week, but it’s probably the next best thing.

If it is true that the quality of everything we do depends on the quality of the thinking we do first, then the key to a high-quality 2010 is for us to think better. Fortunately, Nancy Kline has already figured out how to do that and has shared those insights in her newly-released book, More Time to Think.
Among the many delicacies I savor in Nancy’s work are the dozens of paradoxes she has uncovered. One of those is that taking time to elicit everyone’s independent, fresh thinking up front actually saves time in the long run. Along the same lines as John Wooden’s piercing question, “If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?” I have found Nancy’s assertion to be absolutely true:

In the Thinking Environment we think so well in the time we have that the time we have increases.
So before you rush off to begin making this year better than the last, let me offer you the best piece of advice I could give you: Go to and order More Time to Think. (Nancy’s book is published in England and is not yet sold in the United States, notwithstanding my incessant “inveigling” her—Nancy’s word, not mine—to make her materials more accessible to the American market.) You’ll find that the British version of Amazon is no harder to use than the U.S. based Amazon, it just takes a few days longer for the book to travel across “the pond.”

When More Time to Think arrives, read it thoughtfully cover to cover. Put its wisdom into practice. Apply its principles in your business, in your meetings, in your relationships, and in your life. Then get ready to have the best year ever!

Nancy’s work has had a long and lasting impact of me, so I was happy to provide her my testimonial, which she included on the back cover of the book:

When you change the way you think, you change everything. In my work and my life, the Thinking Environment has made all the difference.
Nancy’s new book makes the big picture and the minute details of the Thinking Environment accessible to all. Whether you are brand new to Time to Think or you have spent dozens and dozens of days studying with Nancy as I have, More Time to Think will challenge you, inspire you, and invite you to seek everyone’s independent, fresh thinking. It will, without exaggeration, change your work and your life.

This Christmas, Give the Gift of Story

This Christmas, give the gift of story

During this hectic time of year, I hope you will take the time to share stories with those you love.

I think sharing stories is the perfect gift. Stories are affordable, non-fattening, and you can never have too many of them. You don't have to worry about size and color, the hassle of wrapping, losing sales receipts, or long lines at the mall.

Most people really don't need a new toy or a new tie, but we all have stories ("To be a person is to have a story to tell" Isak Dinesen) and we all need to be able to share our stories ("There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you" Maya Angelou).

Long after the batteries have gone dead and the luster has faded from other gifts, stories will live on. "Tell me a fact and I will learn; Tell me a truth and I will believe: Tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever" (Steve Sabo).

Sharing stories successfully doesn't take much - a few thoughtful story-leading questions, an authentic interest and curiosity, and a few minutes of ease. Throw in a digital recorder or a video camera and you have a gift that you can share again and again and again.

This season is custom-made for remembering and recounting stories. Just ask anyone, young or old, to recall their most memorable Christmas, the best gift they ever received, the most thoughtful gift they ever gave, their loneliest holiday, the time they felt closest to the true spirit of Christmas.

Ask the questions and then sit back and enjoy their answers. Share your own. Watch their eyes sparkle. Notice how their cheeks glow. Feel the power of real human connection. This is the best way to enjoy the holidays.

I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy, story-filled New Year.

The Power of Story-based Planning, Part 5: Do Questions Matter?

The Power of Story-based Planning Part 5: Do Questions Matter?


Nancy Kline, the author of Time to Think and More Time to Think, has taught me a number of significant truths. One is that “the human mind thinks best in the presence of a question.”

As I turned that idea over in my brain a hundred million times, I began to see that questions matter, and they matter deeply in every field of human thinking. The nature and quality of the questions we ask determine the nature and quality of the thinking we spark and of the answers we receive.

I learned in law school that certain types of questions lead to particular kinds of answers. For example, “open-ended questions” elicit a different kind of answers than “yes/no questions,” and these are different from “leading questions,” which guide a witness to testify a certain way. The type of questions we ask or the way we phrase or frame our questions influences the answers we receive.

This principle is readily seen in the field of education. As a Portuguese instructor, a college professor of business law, and now as a facilitator of professional training, I have observed that students receive, process, store, retrieve, and apply information differently according to the types of questions they are asked and, indeed, by the types of questions they anticipate they will be asked. The learning processes and the thinking processes for one type of question are different from the learning processes and the thinking processes for all other kinds of questions.

For example, a course in which students believe they will be graded with a true-false, multiple choice, matching, or short-answer exam will produce a different kind of thinking and learning than a course in which the anticipated exam is essay, open-ended, problem-solving, or issue-spotting. Similarly, an oral exam results in a very different educational experience than a written one.

The type and style of questions also determines the nature, quality, and quantity of information available to the teacher to assess the students’ comprehension of the subject matter and their ability to apply the material elsewhere. Some kinds of questions deliver rich and abundant information about the student and the learning process, while others yield scant and sketchy insights. If teachers want to understand how well their students are thinking and what they are learning, they should pay careful attention to the nature of the questions they ask.

"Successful” students — i.e. those who score well on exams — learn how to anticipate the nature of the questions they will be asked and apply the learning and testing strategies that work best for those kinds of questions. On the other hand, “successful” students — i.e., those who learn to think clearly about the material and then put it to use in the “real world” — think beyond exam questions and anticipate the issues the “real world” will present them.

What’s true in the field of education is also true in our work with clients: the type and style of questions we use matters deeply. Our questions determine which issues our clients think about, and then drive the way they think about, those issues.

If our questions are analytical and numbers-oriented, our clients will think analytically and will focus on the numbers. And if our questions are more intuitive and visionary, our clients will be more reflective and more thoughtful about the future they are creating for themselves and those affected by their planning.

The best planners are comfortable working in both sides of the brain, and are skilful in getting their clients to do the same.

 In her magnificent book, I Will Not Die an Unlived Life, Dawna Markova writes:

The brain has both analytic and intuitive ways of processing information. They are meant to work hand in hand, but usually end up in an arm wrestle. If we analyze only as we have been taught to do in most schools, snapping at the first answer that comes along, then judging it good or bad, right or wrong, the shy intuitive mind, not unlike a prairie dog, runs for cover. Analysis, when improperly done, causes paralysis. It creates a world “out there,” of which we are only spectators and in which we do not live. It is commonly called objectivity.

If, on the other hand, the analytic mind asks open questions of discernment — “I wonder how this would work. . . . What would it look like if this were really possible? . . .” the intuitive mind begins to explore many possibilities, weaving its way through the trees until it has a sense of the whole forest and its meaning in nature’s scheme of things. Pop!

This wandering and wondering are not useful when one is dealing with issues such as the computation of income taxes. But the exploration of purpose and passion requires us to uncover patterns and understand the relatedness between things, and then synthesize them into a new whole. This is the terrain of intuitive processing. Personal truth can not be found in either analytic thinking or intuitive thinking alone. It can only be uncovered in an open inquiry between them.
Because most of us work in a presumptively analytical world, it is not always easy to inspire ourselves or our clients to operate concurrently in the intuitive world. It sometimes feels awkward or invasive. And yet, if we fail to go there, we are stuck in the shallow waters of “the computation of income taxes” and similar tasks, ending often in “analysis paralysis.”

So what is the secret to moving comfortably and confidently into the deep waters of real thinking about the issues that should underpin and overlay great planning? From my three decades in the planning professions, my answer is to ask what I call “story-leading questions.”

Stories are our native language, and everyone, including our most analytical clients, has a story to tell. Stories are a right-brain, intuitive activity that naturally invites the “wandering and wondering” and the “exploration of purpose and passion” Markova writes about. In the hands of an artful advisor, story-leading questions and the stories they spark beckon clients (and also advisors) to “uncover patterns and understand the relatedness between things, and then synthesize them into a new whole.”

The result is a masterful, thoughtful blend of solid numbers and bottom-line analysis, together with deep, rich, and meaningful insight into the client’s purposes and passions. The hard realities of the tax code and the stock market are woven seamlessly with the heart and soul and vision of the human beings for whom we are planning. Literally, a new world, the future world our clients are seeking, is created.

The key to this beautiful and powerful approach to planning is the art of the story-leading question. It unlocks the door to what I believe is the best possible planning on the planet: story-based planning.

The Power of Story-based Planning, Part 4: The Art of the Story-Leading Question

The Power of Story-based Planning Part 4; The Art of the Story-leading Question?

In “The Power of Story-based Planning, Part 3” I wrote that “the best way to genuinely understand our clients and their values is to ask them thoughtful and insightful story-leading questions in an appropriate setting and then settle back and listen to their answers with all the love and attention and encouragement we can muster. I have learned that who they are and what they deeply value are woven into the stories they tell and can be discovered by a caring advisor.”

So what are story-leading questions? Simply put, they are questions that invite the other person to answer with a narrative. They open the door to a story.

I have found that good story-leading questions exhibit a warm and welcoming interest in the life of another. Good story-leading questions are appropriate to the level of trust and intimacy between those conversing. They don’t put the other person on the spot, nor feel judgmental.

Good story-leading questions also allow the person answering a number of ways to answer the question, rather than leaving them only one possible option.

Story-leading questions are like wizard’s matches: they ignite a warm, crackling exchange of life-experiences and life-lessons. Sometimes, they even kindle bonfires of story sharing. A good story-leading question naturally and comfortably invites the other person to recall and share a little bit of their life with the person posing the question.

Most of us already have a wide array of story-leading questions that we use but most of us are not mindful of them or how powerful they can be, especially when we remember to ask them “in an appropriate setting and then settle back and listen to the answers with all the love and attention and encouragement we can muster,” to quote myself.

Here’s an experiment you can try. When you go home this evening and when the time is right, try out this simple story-leading question with someone you love: “So what was interesting or unusual about your day today?”

Or ask a young parent: “What has your child learned to do lately?”

Or ask a child: “What’s something you’ve discovered lately that makes you happy?”

Or ask an older person: “What’s happening with your grandchildren?”

Or ask a friend: “What’ve you been up to since the last time we talked?”

Then listen, really listen. Show with your countenance and your body language that you deeply want to hear the answer. Don’t rush, don’t compete, don’t minimize or infantilize in any way what they say. Just listen.

I promise if you do, you will discover — or rediscover — magic.

This same approach works in our professional lives. Story-leading questions and attentive, caring listening can transform the planning process.

Our clients safeguard a treasure trove of information about themselves, their lives, their loved ones, and their visions for the future behind a heavy locked door. Opening the door requires two sets of keys. One set is the questions and the other is the listening. Accessing this valuable cache of information can lead to the creation of elegant and appropriate planning for these clients.

Great story-leading questions and attentive, respectful listening are the keys.

The Power of Story-based Planning, Part 3: The Siren Call of the Quuestionnaire


The Power of Story-based Planning Part 3;“The Siren Call of the Questionnaire”

In an earlier post I wrote that “values-based planning” is founded on the notion that each client has a personal set of values that should be ascertained early in the planning process and then used to fashion a financial plan or estate plan unique to that client. Most enlightened planners today would concur that financial and estate plans based on client values are far superior to the “one-size-fits-all” cookie-cutter plans that many of us grew up doing.

 The question with regard to values-based planning is not whether we should create plans based on client values. The answer to that one is duh-obvious: Yes. The issue is not WHETHER we should do values-based planning, but rather HOW to do it so that it actually works.

 In other words, how do we respectfully and accurately ascertain each client’s unique and deeply-held values upon which their planning will be based? What methodology will allow us – and our clients – to look into their hearts, to see there what truly matters, and to then discern how to create a plan with them based on what we have discovered?

 Unfortunately, the widely-heralded “values-based planning revolution” has been in my view a case of one step forward, two steps back. This is largely because in nearly every instance what started out to be “values-based planning” quickly morphed into what I call “questionnaire-based planning.” Indeed, with a few notable exceptions, virtually every so-called “values-based” approach is designed to be implemented by means of a cleverly designed, carefully worded questionnaire.

 I think that is a tragic turn of events, and here’s why:

 A. Questionnaires are blunt instruments that deliver cut-and-dried, categorical answers. As a result, they seduce planners into seeing clients as cut and dried and categorical. But that’s not the way we humans are, especially when we drill down to a values level. We are not pegs to be pushed into differently shaped holes, or colored bobbles to be sorted into different boxes. We are each unique. We are full of nuances, contradictions, uncertainties, and places where the lines are blurred. We don’t fit into four or five neat categories, as most questionnaires require.

 Some would argue that being able to offer clients a plan based on which one of several categories they fall into, as determined by their questionnaire responses, is substantially better than the old “one-size-fits-all” method of planning. While it may be an improvement, it is not true values-based planning. Offering clients a choice of cookie cutters is still cookie-cutter planning.

 B. Questionnaires have built-in biases, which are based on the assumptions and prejudices of their creators. Regardless of whether these biases are accidental or intentional, a biased questionnaire skews the results away from the client’s true values. When you start with untrue assumptions, you always end up with incorrect conclusions.

 I have seen long, beautiful, and well-worded questionnaires that were supposed to assess a client’s values and direct the planner to the type of plan the client needed. Oddly, it seemed that nearly everyone using that questionnaire was steered toward essentially the same plan, one that favored the aims and products promoted by the questionnaire designer. It seems to me that when everyone gets the same answer, maybe the questionnaire is asking the wrong questions.

 C. Questionnaires can be “gamed” by clever clients. The process of answering questions in a questionnaire invites clients to consider not just their answers, but the impact of their answers on the planner and the planning process. “Will this answer raise or lower the fee?” “Will this answer make me seem more wealthy or less wealthy?” “Will this answer cast me in a negative light?” “Will I appear miserly, judgmental, prejudiced, immature, or short-sighted if I answer that way?” “Will I be exposing my weaknesses, and will that allow her to take advantage of me in some way?”

 Human nature being what it is, the odds are high that clients’ responses will be less than candid and unguarded. Consequently, there is a high probability that questionnaire answers will be scrubbed, distorted, shaded, or flat-out wrong. This makes the results of a questionnaire unreliable as a basis for serious values-based planning.

 D. Questionnaires lead to dull, inattentive planners. Questionnaire-based planning doesn’t require planners to listen deeply and attentively to clients, to ask insightful questions, or to employ judgment and wisdom to discern how to weave the client’s life-lessons into the plan. The “correct answers” or the client’s “categories” just “magically” pop out from the responses. Yeah, right.

 True values discovery requires careful and attentive listening. Each client and the stories they tell are alive with insight and meaning. They are full of clues and pieces of answers. Real people living real lives are like that. The right answers don’t just pop out; they have to be teased out and then pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle. But when you make a commitment to discover for yourself – and for the client – a clear and complete understanding of what’s really in their heart, their deepest purposes for planning, you discover that the results are unquestionably worth the effort.

E. Questionnaires don’t lead to values-based planning. Questionnaire-based planning is neat, clean, analytical, and easy, but it is incapable of drilling all the way down to the values-bearing strata deep inside the client. No matter how cleverly worded, a questionnaire can never respectfully and accurately ascertain each client’s uniquely personal values. The results are too shallow and mechanical. The intention may be right but the methodology is wrong. Thus, whenever planning becomes questionnaire-based, it ceases to be truly values-based. I call it “faux values-based planning.”

Please understand that I believe there is an appropriate role for questionnaires in the financial planning and estate planning process, which is to help gather data. I have no problem using questionnaires as fact finders. They just don’t work to discover and discern significant client values.

So What?
 “So what’s the harm,” you may ask, “in doing questionnaire-based planning? It’s definitely a lot better than the old way we used to do it.”

 The most significant harm is that when financial planners and estate planners – even smart, sincere, and well-intentioned planners – think they are doing values-based planning but are only doing faux values-based planning, they stop seeking the real thing. They become enamored with zirconium and fail to find the acres of diamonds just over the next hill. They take the shortcut and never realize they just missed the best part of the journey. As a result, they rob themselves and their clients of the magnificent experience of true values-based planning.

 Good is the enemy of great.

 The moment earnest planners apply the label “values-based planning” to something that is not and once they start to believe they are doing “values-based planning,” even though it is really only the “faux” variety, they lose the sense of urgency to discover the real thing and are unable to see the need to do more. Once they get locked in, it is nearly impossible to unlock them. As a wise person once said in another context, “the problem is not what they don’t know. It’s what they do know that just ain’t so.”

Values on the cheap vs. paying the price 
While questionnaire-based planning may appear neat, clean, analytical, and easy, it is really only values-based planning on the cheap. The real process of values discovery – like virtually every other authentically meaningful human endeavor such as nurturing a fulfilling marriage, raising independent children, growing a beautiful garden, or building a success business – can be disorderly, messy, intuitive, and sometimes challenging. It requires real work. It requires that we pay the price to come to know, really know, our clients. It cannot be achieved with clever techniques.

The Solution

To move into the beautiful new world of true values-based planning, the solution is not to try to come up with a more artful questionnaire. The solution is to recognize that client stories -- the oldest and most natural form of human communication – are rich and ripe with the unvarnished truth about our clients’ values. We just need to ask the right questions and then listen, really listen.

I have found that the best way to genuinely understand our clients and their values is to ask them thoughtful and insightful story-leading questions in an appropriate setting and then settle back and listen to their answers with all the love and attention and encouragement we can muster. I have learned that who they are and what they deeply value are woven into the stories they tell and can be discovered by a caring advisor. That is the essence of what I call “Story-based Planning in a Thinking Environment.”
How to do that gracefully, effectively, and affordably is the subject of my next post.

The Power of Story-based Planning, Part 2

The Power of Story-based Planning Part 2

For at least the last decade, the hottest buzzword in the planning professions has been “values-based.” You couldn’t turn around without running into “values-based” selling, financial planning, estate planning, you name it. But what in the world is “values-based planning” anyway?

 Looking under the label and behind the question is helpful, I believe. In truth, all planning is based on someone’s values, so the question behind the question is whose values? To acknowledge our professions’ dirty little secret, the truth of the matter is that in the “pre-values-based planning era” nearly all planning was based on the professional’s values or, at best, on the values we assumed the clients held.

 If the professional was selling life insurance, lo and behold, one of the key values was “tax-free liquidity at death.” If the professional was selling living trusts, it was generally assumed the clients valued “avoiding probate,” “reducing estate taxes,” and “distributing the assets” in some orderly fashion, usually in a way consistent with the drafter’s trust templates. If the professional was selling investments, every financial plan was based on the premise that the client wanted to pay for his kids’ college and then retire comfortably a few years before he turned 65.

 Not surprisingly, every plan a planner created looked strikingly similar to every other plan he created: they were all based on the planner’s values and assumptions, not the client’s.

What the term “values-based planning” was trying to communicate was the notion that each client has a personal set of values that ought to be ascertained early on in the planning process and then used to fashion a financial plan or estate plan that was unique – truly unique – to that client. The real question then became, for those planners actually trying to create plans based on client values, “how do you ascertain the client’s values?” At least now the issue was correctly framed.

 This breakthrough led to the advent of what I call “questionnaire-based planning.” Client values, the planning professions assume, can be ascertained through a cleverly designed multi-page questionnaire. But while “questionnaire-based planning” is far better than its predecessors, it still fails in its primary objective: to develop for the planner and the client a clear understanding of what’s in the client’s heart – the client’s deepest purposes for planning. For that you need story-based planning.

 In the next installment I’ll outline why “questionnaire-based planning” is merely masquerading as genuine values-based planning. It looks good on the outside, but inside it has no real power to get to the heart of the matter.

 To be continued.

The Power of Story-based Planning, Part 1

October 2009

The Power of Story-based Planning Part 1

Virtually all my "official" training as an estate planning attorney and a Certified Financial Planner has been about numbers. Tax rates, code sections, rates of return on investments, asset allocation models-the unwavering focus has been on something quantifiable. The underlying message always came through loud and clear: unless something can be tallied on a ledger sheet, it isn't worthy of our professional attention and probably isn't all that important. Only "numbers-based planning" is real planning.

But my gut-and my real-life experience-told me something different. They told me that when numbers-based planning collided with human beings, i.e., our clients and their children and grandchildren, either the planning was never actually implemented by the clients, or the wheels came off when the planning landed with a thud on the succeeding generations. They told me that the most clever and tightly-wound estate or financial plans could and would be unraveled by the people they were designed to "help" or "protect." They told that we planners ignore the human issues at our peril, and at the peril of the beautiful numbers-based plans we crank out.

My sense was often that with numbers-based planning, the tax tail was wagging the dog-driving the planning instead of riding in the back seat along with all the other significant but not critical factors. One significant study found that the likelihood of a family-based business surviving into the second generation was inversely correlated to the amount of tax planning the first generation had done. (Correlates of Success in Family Business Transitions, Morris, Williams, Allen, and Avila, Journal of Business Venturing 12, 365-401, 1997) In other words, the tax doctors were actually killing the patients they were hired to "save."

Numbers-based planning might work if we were planning for robots, but we're not. We're planning for real flesh-and-blood people. I recall a series of conversations with a couple from New York City who had spent tens of thousands of dollars for one of the premier law firms in the country to draft a plan to care for their estate and their two teenage children. The plan touched all the legal and tax-planning bases, but in the words of the wife it was "cold and impersonal, not what I want to leave for my children." The expensive, well-drafted plan was never executed but remained nothing more than a pile of paper, glistening with lawyerly brilliance on the surface but empty and meaningless underneath.

Unfortunately, that couple's experience is repeated all too often. In my view, such outcomes will not change until we take a fundamentally different approach to this whole business of estate and financial planning. They will not change until we spend more time listening to client stories than tallying up their balance sheets; until we tailor their plans to the human hopes, dreams, and fears imbedded in their stories; and until the plans we create help them tell the story of their legacy-of who they really are and what impact they have had and hope to have on the people and causes they love. I call this approach story-based planning.

Good Fences, Good Neighbors

March 2009

Good Fences, Good Neighbors        

What’s the appropriate way to thank a neighbor you just met who spends two long days helping you build a fence and who won’t accept any payment? That was my quandary.

Bob and Mary Lane have a beautiful picket fence around their modest and well-manicured yard here in Harmony. My wife saw it and decided it was the perfect fence to keep the grandchildren in our yard, and the deer, wild turkeys, and sand hill cranes out.

I stopped by Bob’s house one evening to introduce myself and ask about his fence. He said he built it himself and said if I decided to build one, he would be happy to help, as long as I didn’t ask him to dig the post holes. He seemed truly genuine and I knew I didn’t have the handyman skills to build a fence myself, so I told him I’d take him up on his offer.

I ordered the materials and called Bob when they arrived. On the Saturday before Martin Luther King Day, he and my son Paul and I built the fence for several hours. At his insistence, he returned the following Monday and worked nearly the whole day with us. His experience and keen eye for detail were invaluable. I absolutely could not have done it without him.

And if I say so myself, the fence looks great—mostly thanks to Bob. And what counted for more than building a fence was building a new friendship. As you might imagine, we told a lot of stories out on the fence line. There’s something about sharing hard work and stories that turns strangers into friends. But Bob’s generosity was troubling.

How could I thank and repay someone I only recently met who cheerfully gave not just one but two whole days to help a neighbor in need? Having them over for dinner was a given, but that wasn’t enough. Offering money would be insulting, but I had to do something. Fortunately the answer came to me Monday as we worked.

In the course of our conversations, Bob told me that they have seven children, including three married daughters who live within a block of their house. One of those daughters, their middle child Amanda, 33 years old and the mother of a five-year-old daughter, was dying of breast cancer. She had fought it a couple of years earlier, successfully they thought, but it had returned with a vengeance. This time it was taking over her whole body. Fence building, Bob said, was good therapy to get his mind off her plight.

I responded by telling Bob about my 32-year-old mother and her fight against throat cancer. I told Bob about my mother’s letter, and how it inspired me to develop tools like “Priceless Conversations” to help people like Amanda share love messages with their children, their spouse, and others. I told Bob about my book, Like a Library Burning. I told Bob I wanted to repay him in part by helping his daughter share and save her legacy. From the tears in his eyes, I could tell Bob was touched and grateful for my offer.

Bob left that afternoon with a copy of my book for himself and a copy for Amanda. The next day I took them three Priceless Conversation tool kits—“My Child” for her daughter Addison, age 5; “Love” for her husband Shawn; and “Legacy” for the rest of her family. Amanda thanked me and said she would read the questions and call me when she felt well enough to talk. She also asked some legal and financial questions that I was able to answer for her.

Sadly, she never called. Bob phoned last week when I was in Scottsdale and said Amanda and Shawn wanted to see me Tuesday to address some of their legal and financial issues. He said Amanda had been in constant pain and on medication, and didn’t feel she could complete a Priceless Conversation.

I met with them Tuesday afternoon and discovered a couple of really critical insurance issues that needed immediate attention. Amanda told me she really wanted to do the Priceless Conversations, especially the one for her daughter, and as soon as she felt a little better, she would do it. She was afraid her little girl might not remember her very well if she didn’t. On

Wednesday, Bob and I took care of those pressing insurance issues, but Amanda still didn’t feel that she could talk.

At three o’clock Thursday morning, Amanda passed away at home in her sleep.

Amanda’s death hit me hard. It hurts that we failed to capture her words and her voice and her stories. I feel like a frustrated fireman—I rescued the money, but the library burned down while I looked on. This wasn’t supposed to happen on my watch.

The family is planning a memorial service on the 28th of February, which would have been Amanda’s 34th birthday. Before then I’ll give Bob and Mary the “Tribute” Priceless Conversation and offer to facilitate it for them when their family is together again. That will afford them an occasion to remember Amanda and tell their favorite stories about her and save those stories for her daughter. It’s the least we can do for little Addison; I hope it will be enough.

What Does It All Mean?

February 2009

What Does It All Mean?

This morning a friend halfway around the world sent me this link to a five-minute You Tube video. It is well worth your time to watch it.

The video vividly describes our headlong rush into a future that is faster, more congested, and more technical than anything we have yet imagined. It ends with the daunting question, “What does it all mean?”

Like the story of the blind men and the elephant, each who watches the video will discover a different meaning and a different answer. After all, as Anais Nin wrote, “We see the world not as it is, but as we are.”

One of the messages I found is that in an increasingly frantic, crowded, and technology-driven world, there will be an exponentially greater need—and hence unimagined opportunities—for those who understand and practice the healing, connective, and transformative art of storytelling and story listening.

Technology may race ahead, but the human heart and the human spirit still deeply yearn for a sense of human connection and human meaning. Those who gracefully and compassionately provide their services within the warmth and security of a story-based environment will always be richly valued and appreciated. They will touch hearts and change lives. If they are wise and thoughtful and intentional, they will also be abundantly rewarded for this rare gift and unique set of skills.

Finding Joy, Energy, and Purpose in Our Work

January 2009

Finding Joy, Energy, and Purpose in Our Work

These words of George Bernard Shaw inspire me deeply every time I read them.

"This the true joy in life—being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; being thoroughly used out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy."

I can vouch for the veracity of those words, for the times I have felt the greatest joy have been when I have been clear as to my life purpose and have been full of drive and energy—a “force of nature” in Shaw’s words—in achieving that purpose. I’ve heard it said that “a man all wrapped up in himself makes a pretty small bundle.” When we find a larger purpose than our own comfort and when we exert ourselves toward achieving it, we stretch ourselves, unwrap that “small bundle,” and stand a little taller.

There is another joy beyond the direct, personal happiness that comes from finding and living our own purpose. This other joy is the kind that comes from working alongside another who has found their purpose and is stretching themselves to change the world for the better. When we have played some small part in helping them clarify and live out their purpose, we are able to share in their joy and energy. We are able to bask in their reflected sunlight.

My sincere conviction is that our greatest potential as professional advisors is not merely to help our clients make more money, pay less taxes, or pass on more of this world’s goods—and I in no way want to imply that these are not valuable skill, for they are—but rather it is help our clients live more joyfully by finding their own “mighty purpose” in which they can become “a force of nature” in their own right.

Over the past few decades, I have learned that Legacy Building and story-based planning are our quickest routes to this vicarious joy. That’s because in the story sharing that is the heart and soul of this approach to client services, our clients will discover the deeper meaning of their lives and find what makes them truly come alive.

Howard Thurman has written: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that, because what the world really needs is people who have come alive.”

To which I would add: The world also needs those who can help others discover what makes them come alive. My vision is that I can be one of those.

A Simple and Valuable Secret

November 2008

A Simple and Valuable Secret

My book, Double Your Sales: An Honest and Authentic Approach to Professional Selling, is about relational selling, and it's based on what I consider one of life's simplest yet most valuable secrets: Meaningful relationships depend on creating a credible story of your future together.

If you want to develop a relationship today, you must weave a common story of the future, a shared vision of tomorrow. Strong and lasting relationships belong to those who can create and nourish future mutual stories with others.

With a shared future story, relationships will emerge even in the harshest environment. Without a credible story of a future together, they won't, regardless what other conditions are present. A shared vision of your tomorrow is the sine qua non of every meaningful and ongoing human relationship.

Want proof? Just examine any "relationship" from any aspect of your life, by answering frankly these questions: "Do we share a story of our future together? Is it a story we created jointly? Is our story still lively and vibrant, or is it stale and sickly? Do we work at maintaining and updating it? Does it continue to inspire us both?"

If you answer these questions honestly, it will become glaringly obvious that the quality of any relationship is never better than the quality of the story of your future together. Real relationships are based on a shared future story. It's as simple as that.

So how can you use this secret? You can use this secret in lots of ways, both personally and professionally. You can strengthen your marriage or your bond with children, parents, or siblings by rejuvenating the story of your future together. You can mend a rift with a neighbor, with a co-worker, or in your church. You can "excuse yourself" from a phony and toxic relationship because you can begin to recognize that it has no future.

Knowing this secret will make you more perceptive about relationships in many settings. If you understand this principle, you can easily explain the existence--or non-existence--of long-term relationships everywhere and in every realm: in sales, in employment, in politics, in parenting, in the PTA.

With this secret in mind, you will recognize that without a credible story of a future together, all interactions, whether they are "one and done," or they are a string or series, are transactional, not relational. Two people or groups of people may occupy the same space, be it a home, an office, a business, a community, a political party, or a country, but without the presence of a shared future story, they are just cohabiting; they are not in a meaningful relationship.

And here's the best news of all. Once you know the secret, you'll see that it's not complicated to create a new relationship or to revive an old one. All you have to do is create and nourish the story of your mutual future.

This one simple secret can turn your business completely around. Abraham Lincoln once said, "If you can't make a living from your friends, you surely can't make one from your enemies." Or said another way, friends make better customers than enemies. And what is a friend? It's someone with whom you share a credible story of a mutual future.

If you can develop relationships with prospective customers by creating a story of your future together, they will buy from you and they will buy more from you.

My aim is to teach professionals like you how to do that comfortably, consistently, and compellingly in conversations with prospective customers. By mastering the art of building a credible story of a future together, you can double your sales easily, honestly, and authentically.

The Power of the "New Me" or "Transformation" Story

September 2008

The Power of the "New Me" or "Transformation" Story

Let me say right up front that this is not a political commentary. This is a commentary about how to communicate more effectively, more persuasively, through a certain style of story, what I call the “New Me Story” or the “Transformation Story.”
Like 40 million other people, I watched John McCain’s speech at the Republican convention, and although I support him politically, I was not impressed with his presentation. Not impressed, that is, except for one part near the end, when he told the story of how the direction and focus of his life was changed.
If you missed it, Senator McCain described how his experience as a POW, and in particular the brutality he endured after he refused his captors’ offer of an early release, changed him from a hot-headed, self-centered, Top-Gun punk into a person whose mission in life is to put service to his country about all else. This, he said, was the defining event of his life and this is what drives him to want to serve his country as its president.
Of course the facts of his capture and torture are well-known, so he wasn’t saying anything new, in one sense. But in another sense, this was an entirely new narrative which he had never shared before in public. For me, this brief segment of his speech made all the difference in the impact of his message. For me, it gave a compelling explanation for why he wants the job, and how he’ll treat the job differently than previous presidents or current candidates. Shots of people in the convention audience wiping away or fighting back tears confirmed that I was not the only one affected by his account.
So how was it that this story worked and worked so powerfully?
The answer: it was not the events of the story but the way it was told. It was a classic “New Me Story” or “Transformation Story,” one of the skills and tools I have long taught in SunBridge, in Mastering the High-End Close, and in Professional Story Selling. And whether you agree or disagree with John McCain’s politics, you really should re-listen to that little piece of his speech after you read this. See if you can identify the structure he used in telling the story, which caused an old, well-known story to have such impact.
The “New Me Story” is very simple and has four parts:
  1. The Old Me: This is who I used to be.
  2. The Transforming Event: This is what happened to me that sparked a change. 
  3. My Reaction and Response: This is how I first reacted; then this is how it caused a deeper change. 
  4. The New Me: This is who I have now become, and this is how I am now more able to help you.
John McCain followed this format to a “T” and the result was a transforming experience for his audience. It’s a skill set great communicators have learned to master.
 If you want to put punch and sparkle into your workshops and speeches, or if you want to transform the way prospects and clients see you when you sit down in an engagement meeting with them and they make the decision to hire you or not, you need to create, practice, and tell your own “New Me Story.” You may or may not have a transforming event as dramatic as John McCain’s, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that you’ve experienced real life, and real life has changed you, and as a result you’re better equipped to help them deal with their real-life issues. The result is the same: you’re more authentic, you’re more trustworthy, you’re more valuable to them. You’re much more likely to get hired, at a higher fee.
More about the power of story is available in my book “Like a Library Burning: Sharing and Saving a Lifetime of Stories,” which I wrote with Peggy Hoyt. (Visit

Five Phases of Client Relationships

August 2008

The Five Phases of Client Relationships


A smart business recognizes that every client relationship can—and should—go through five distinct phases. One of the keys to success in business is being mindful of these phases and creating an appropriate process for each phase of those relationships. This is particularly true for each of us as we work to weave Legacy Building into our business. We must recognize each one of these phases and consciously determine whether and how we will utilize Legacy Building in each phase of our relationship with each client.

With each client relationship, there exists the potential of five distinct phases. Here are The Five Phases of Client RelationshipsTM:
  • Client Attraction
  • Client Engagement
  • Client Service
  • Client Retention
  • Multigenerational Client Engagement

To maximize value, a business must develop and refine a unique process for each separate phase. Sadly, not every business fully develops each phase of each relationship, and as a result, significant revenue and other value are lost for the business. In addition, when the business is not sufficiently mindful of each distinct phase, the workers in the business are likely to be unclear about how to develop each client relationship to its greatest potential.

The purpose of this brief article is not to fully explore all the possibilities of applying this concept to our respective businesses. That would probably require a rather large book. Instead, it is to call to your attention that these five phases do exist, and that Legacy Building can play a role in each one. At this stage of your development, given the limits of your time and resources, it may not be feasible to create unique Legacy Builder components in your processes in each phase. You need to identify where the low-hanging fruit can be found in your client work, and, for the present, devote your time and resources to that phase. Over time, Legacy Building will become a consistent and significant element in each phase of your business for those clients who find it valuable. But unless you pick your spots in the early going, you will spread your resources too thin, and you will become frustrated at your lack of progress.

Let me be more specific by using an example of an estate planning attorney who is a passionate, dedicated member of the Legacy Builder Network. Based on the training she received at the Legacy Builder Retreat and the further development of her skills and tools, there are many, many ways she might weave Legacy Building into her practice.

First, she might use Legacy Building in her marketing, that is, in the Client Attraction Phase of her business. This could be through presentations to groups, clubs, and even in her own workshops. This could be through creating great referral relationships by helping her referral sources with their personal legacy building (such as doing Priceless Conversation interviews with the CPAs and financial advisors who send her business.) This could also be through writing articles for local papers and other publications about Legacy Building. This could be through using the Meaning of Success interview to come in contact with successful people in her community. The possibilities are virtually endless.

Second, she could use Legacy Building to transform prospects into clients, that is, in the Client Engagement Phase of her business. For example, she might conduct the Meaning of Money conversation with prospects to help deepen the relationship between them and motivate them to hire her as their estate planner. She might ask select prospects to watch the Lighthouse DVD in her conference room before they meet with her, to help them understand that she has a different perspective of what quality planning looks like. She might use the Legacy Circle in her initial engagement meeting to discover what each client is most interested in. She might use stories in that meeting to demonstrate what an impact Legacy Building planning can have on children and grandchildren. Again, there is any number of possibilities.

Third, she could use Legacy Building as part of her core business, that is, in the Client Service Phase of her business. She could ask clients to bring a brown paper bag, or pictures and heirlooms, to her design session. She could use a “Priceless Objects, Important Stories” worksheet in place of a standard “Personal Property Memorandum.” She could include an “Our Kids” interview as part of her standard package for each couple with children under 18, or an “Our Values” interview as part of her process for all grandparents. Her “Big Red Book” binder of estate planning documents could include special tabs and sections about Legacy Building issues. Once more, there are tons of options.

Fourth, she could use Legacy Building to add spice and zest to her ongoing client membership or maintenance program, that is, the Client Retention Phase of her business. Her clients would probably enjoy watching the Lighthouse DVD at the annual client meeting, or sharing the “My House” activity there. Her clients would greatly appreciate being able to complete a new Priceless Conversation each year, to be added to their ever-growing “Legacy Library.” Her clients would cherish “The Treasure Chest Game” (a.k.a. Tapping into Your Wisdom) as a special gift for an important birthday or anniversary. Certain of her clients would find huge value in using the “Book of Life” to review their life and prepare an oral or written story of their life. She would likely find dozens of other ways to enliven her services to her existing clients.

Fifth, she could use Legacy Building to draw business from family members of her clients, that is, in the Multigenerational Client Engagement Phase of her business. Her clients probably couldn’t stop talking to their parents, brothers and sisters, children and grandchildren about her amazing ability to incorporate the most important human elements into her planning, not just the money. Her clients’ relatives would hear her voice and see her address on all the Priceless Conversations interviews she had conducted with them. Her clients would include her in family meetings to explain the planning she had done for them. Some of her clients would even insist that she do planning for their children and grandchildren, so that the younger generations’ planning would be integrated with the older generation’s plans. In a myriad of ways, her business would grow (both for herself and her successor) from her Legacy Building work with her clients.

Yet, while she can see that Legacy Building can dramatically transform virtually every aspect of her work with clients, she is smart enough to know that, given her available time and resources, she cannot tweak that many moving parts all at once. She has to decide where she will achieve the greatest results right away and start there. Once she has that part up and running, she can shift her focus to other phases and other applications. She knows that, like the launch of the Space Shuttle, getting off the launch pad is the hardest and most energy-consuming part of any journey and that future progress will be much easier because of her momentum. Ultimately, she wants to change all her client relationships to include Legacy Building in every phase. But for now, she knows to focus on first things first.

Beyond Story-based Planning

July 2008

Beyond Story-Based Planning

If you’ve read Chapter 7 of Like a Library Burning by Scott Farnsworth and Peggy Hoyt, you understand that presently the best financial planning, estate planning, funeral planning, and philanthropic planning out there is “story-based planning.” At its core, The SunBridge Legacy Builder Network is all about story-based planning, because the essence of Legacy Building is sharing and saving stories. If you thoughtfully evaluate each component of the SunBridge Legacy Builder mind-set, skill-set, tool-set, and support-set, you will find they’re each about how to effectively, efficiently, and elegantly share and save stories. For all the dozens of reasons set forth in Like a Library Burning, sharing and saving stories is one of the most important things we can do for our clients, our clients’ loved ones, and ourselves.

As I wrote in the May 2008 blog (A New Breed of Planner), I believe the best advisors are those who are able to engage their clients on the story level and then use the insights and understandings gleaned in that exchange to build technically brilliant plans that reflect the values, personalities, fears, dreams, wisdom, and life-learning of their clients and their families. To do anything less is to grossly short-change and over-charge them, and to rob ourselves of the core reason we got into this business in the first place: to make a difference in the lives of those we serve.

Once you get that concept, you immediately recognize that Legacy Building or “story-based planning” should not be merely an add-on to your planning process. It’s not a quaint set of activities you stick into a workshop or a cute set of steps you append to the “real work” of estate planning or financial services. To the contrary, it is the heart and soul of good human-centered planning. It is not only what we do, but also who we are as we work with our clients.

To do that, we must move beyond story-based planning. The next step on this journey is what I call “story-based planning in a Thinking Environment®.” To become the most effective Legacy Builder advisor—and hence the best financial advisor or estate planner on the planet—you must not only master the art and science of story, you must also master Time to Think.

Thinking Environment principles, properly implemented, add incredible energy and impact to your story skills. With Time to Think under your belt, you can know which stories to tell and when, you can help your clients share their stories more effectively, and you can better understand their stories as they share them with you.

What I have learned from listening to Nancy Kline (creator of the Time-To-Think process) and then applying her message to my work with clients is that the most powerful planning occurs in a four-way confluence of expertise: 1) the planner’s technical training and experience; 2) the planner’s mastery of the art and science of story; 3) the clients’ unparalleled expertise about their world and their life; and 4) the planner’s skill at creating a Thinking Environment within which the other skills are at their best. When these four streams of expertise come together, magic happens and brilliance explodes in the room. The outcomes are unimaginable. There’s simply nothing like it in the world.

When a technically competent professional advisor who has mastered the art and science of story is also able to be a Thinking Environment in the presence of clients, the very best thinking, the very best stories, and the very best discernment about the meaning within those stories are available to push the planning to its human and technical zenith. Both the analytical and intuitive sides are fully honored, completely addressed, and elegantly woven into the finest possible result. When you’re working at that level, if feels as if each person involved is a genius and every product is a masterpiece. Which indeed they are!

Some day in the not-too-distant future, clients will insist on working only with planners who have the capability to bring these four skill-sets to the table. I plan on being there, and I invite you to join me.

A New Breed of Planner

May 2008

A New Breed of Planner

From my vantage point, I believe we are witnessing the budding of a fresh, new model of planning and the appearance of a brand-new breed of advisor who is capable of working with clients in a revolutionary new way. And yet, while I call it “fresh” and “brand-new” and “revolutionary,” it is really as old as human communication. It is financial planning and estate planning based on our native language of story. I have not only envisioned the possibilities but have also experienced them, and I’m happy to report they are very tantalizing, both for clients and advisors.

I believe there are exceptional advantages for families and individual clients who work with financial advisors and estate planners who personally understand the power and importance of sharing and saving stories, and who have the skills and tools to elegantly and seamlessly weave a story-based approach to client services into their handling of the more traditional elements of planning such as investments, insurance, taxes, legal documents, public benefits, charitable giving, and the like.

Traditional financial services and estate planning, with their emphasis on numbers, formulas, tax codes, legal minutiae, and other “hard” issues, are not usually thought of as being naturally compatible with the “soft” issues of stories. Some in these fields tend to pooh-pooh the notion that story has much, if any, relevance to what they do. Story to them is just “warm and fuzzy,” “touchy-feely” kind of stuff.

But I don’t think there is a conflict between good technical skill and good story skills. I think both are essential to good results.

We believe those planners who look down their noses at story skills run the risk of creating glorious, gleaming plans that are technically correct but inside are empty shells because they fail to connect with the human dimension of planning. As a result of not checking carefully with the people involved, their ladders of “successful” plans end up leaning against the wrong walls, to borrow Covey’s metaphor. Like the Alaskan congressman’s ultimate earmark boondoggle, they design and build the financial or estate planning equivalents of “the bridge to nowhere.”

Good technical expertise and good story skills are both required to do the job right and to do the right job. I had an experience several years ago that illustrates this point. The names and some of the non-material details have been changed to protect the client’s identity.

Mr. Jacobs came to see our firm when he was 88 years old. With an estate worth approximately $9 million, he was looking down the barrel of an estate tax of about $5 million, largely because of some botched planning that had previously been done for him.

After reviewing the situation, I asked Mr. Jacobs if he were open to the idea of charitable giving. He was. “I’ve been a lifelong member of Rotary, and I’d be happy to donate $2,000. My deceased wife was an active member of a sewing club. I could give them $3,000 in her memory.”

I decided to save the discussion of charitable giving for another time. Instead, I started getting to know Mr. Jacobs. He was a good man with a remarkable story. It seems he had grown up and spent his long life on two pieces of ground. Born in upstate New York, he had lived on a farm there until his family moved when he was 10. They bought a small farm near the town of Ocoee, where he had lived ever since.

He’d certainly had his share of misfortune. As a boy in New York, he had lost an eye in a farming accident. He also had had polio, so one of his legs was withered, and he walked with a pronounced limp. He had been married for many years, but his wife had passed away about five years before I met him. He had one child, a daughter in her mid-50s who had not fulfilled any particular ambitions, and still waited tables at a local all-you-can-eat restaurant. She had two children, a son and a daughter, both in their early 20s at the time. Both were heavily involved with illicit drug use. The son had been arrested for dealing drugs for his father, Mr. Jacobs’ ex-son-in-law, who was serving time in a federal prison. Mr. Jacobs’ granddaughter also was pregnant; Mr. Jacobs did not know who the father might be.

In view of all this, and understandably, while Mr. Jacobs wanted to make sure that his child’s and his grandchildren’s needs were met, he certainly had no intention of leaving them $9 million. Mr. Jacobs had worked hard all his life. When he was a teenager, he and his father had built a service station on their property, which Mr. Jacobs had operated since he was 18. He told me interesting stories about sleeping in the station all night, so in case a car drove by he would be there to sell them a quarter’s worth of gas. At one point, he owned his own tanker truck, and worked in the station all day, and drove a tanker to Tampa, which in those days, took four or five hours, filled up, drove back, and worked all day taking care of customers.

Ocoee, where Mr. Jacobs lived, might fairly be described as a stepchild of Orange County—a town with a hard luck story much like Mr. Jacobs’. In the early 1920s, there had been a race riot there on Election Day. Several people were killed—an incident that had stigmatized the town and still cast a shadow over it even these many years later. Early in the Great Depression, the town lost its bank, leaving it no source of lending for businesses looking to put down roots and grow there. Mr. Jacobs told me that he knew a number of merchants who went to the bank of a nearby town seeking a loan, and were refused because the bank did not want to support businesses that would compete with those in its own town.

Mr. Jacobs chose to use this setback as an opportunity. In the 60s, he and a few Rotary Club buddies opened a bank in Ocoee. He donated the property on which the bank was built. One merger followed another until eventually Mr. Jacobs’ investments of land for the bank had returned the current value of his estate—$9 million.

Mr. Jacobs and I spent a good bit of time together. I helped him capture and articulate some of these stories. I wanted to make sure that, in addition to protecting the financial resources he had, we also preserved the rest of his wealth—who he was, what he had learned, and the values that have guided him to his hard-won wisdom, and ensure that these somehow would be passed along intact to those who would follow him, even though, at the time, they did not seem particularly interested in what he had to say.

As we talked one afternoon, I was struck by an insight into what might be important for Mr. Jacobs. He was describing his friendships and associations with citizens of Ocoee, his adopted hometown, and it suddenly seemed clear to me that this was the key. “Mr. Jacobs,” I asked, “what would you think if we could take the money in your estate that otherwise would go to the IRS, and instead direct it into an account that you and those you trust could dispense for projects in Ocoee?”

He looked at me and asked, “What do you mean?”

“We could take the money that otherwise would have to be paid in taxes, and see to it that it was spent to improve the town and the lives of the people there.”

He was intrigued. “Give me an example,” he said, leaning forward.

“Well,” I said, “suppose that the elementary school needed new playground equipment. We could take some of the money that we had set aside in a special fund—one that you and those you trust could control—and buy the equipment. If the girls needed a new softball field to play on, you could finance its construction. If you just wanted to make the Christmas parade extra special one-year, you could direct funds to do just that.”

Mr. Jacobs’s eyes grew wide; I could see he was imagining the possibilities. “We could do that?” he asked.

“Indeed, we could. And it wouldn’t take away anything from your family, because the money we’d be using to set up the fund would otherwise just have gone to the government.”

Mr. Jacobs sat back in his chair with a deeply satisfied grin. “This is exciting,” he said, and a new mood of enthusiasm came over him. He was already planning what he would do with the money.

Rather than giving $2,000 to the Rotary Club or $3.000 to his wife’s sewing circle, Mr. Jacobs ended up contributing $5 million. The money was used, as we had discussed, to create a fund to benefit the city of Ocoee—a fund that would be controlled by him and those he trusted, and be used expressly to support worthwhile community projects for that town, in keeping with the things that Mr. Jacobs felt were most important. With his wife gone, and appropriate arrangements made to care for his child and grandchildren, his remaining great love was the town of Ocoee. The difference that this advising made for him and for the citizens of Ocoee may well extend beyond the foreseeable future, benefiting countless generations to come.

I believe the best advisors are those who are able to engage their clients on the story level and then use the insights and understandings gleaned in that exchange to build technically brilliant plans that reflect the values, personalities, fears, dreams, wisdom, and life-learning of their clients and their families.

How to Create Your Transformation Story

March 2008

How to Create Your Transformation Story

Whether you call it “Our Firm’s Story” or “The Story of My Practice” or “My Personal Introduction,” every successful advisor must be able to crisply and credibly relate a personal Transformation Story. It’s one of the key pieces in meeting prospects and engaging clients. It can make all the differences between a thriving, vibrant business and one that barely squeaks by.

Your Transformation Story is powerful for several reasons. First, it makes you more human. People can relate to you because they know that the real world is about dealing with change in a constantly changing world. When they see that you have experienced life in real terms, that you’re not just simply a figurehead, a plastic person, somebody with a title and a bunch of letters behind your name, they can relate to you as a real person.

It’s also an effective way for them to connect with you. We feel connected to the people whose stories we have listened to and who have listened to our stories. By hearing your story, they feel more comfortable telling you theirs. By opening up to them, they are invited to open up to you. Your authentic sharing makes it easier for them to share genuinely with you.

Another very important benefit of the transformation story is that it gives permission and encouragement for them to change. When we approach prospects about working with us, we are asking them to change, to change from being a prospect to a client; to change from not having a plan to having a plan. The story of our transformation is a subtle and powerful way to say, “I’ve changed, and it’s okay for you to change too.” While the message will never be spoken by you in those terms, nonetheless they will understand it in those terms.

Finally, telling a Transformation Story is an amazing way of shifting the dynamic of an advisor/client meeting. Most clients come to an advisor’s office feeling intimidated, guarded, skeptical, and worried about fees. They’re very much on the left side of their brain because they’re going to have to process some complicated information. People who are in the left side of the brain, in analytical or critical mode, are much less likely to move forward. That’s because virtually every major decision we’ve made in our lives—whether to buy this house or to move or to marry or to go to that college—was decided on an intuitive level, on the right side of the brain. Then it was justified on the left side of the brain. So, if you want your clients to make the transformation from prospect to client or from ordinary client to exceptional client, you need to address the right side of the brain. And you do that best by shifting the conversation into story-sharing mode. You can do that most easily by telling a story about yourself—your Transformation Story.

The structure of your Transformation Story is deceptively simple. It has four key steps: Step number one is that you describe what I call “the old you.” You briefly describe the way you used to be, setting up the transformation that will soon follow in the story. Thus your listener is able to see you and the setting in which you were operating. It’s important to set that anchor first, because people need to know and identify with the person who was “the old you.”

Step two is the transforming event. Something happened that rattled your world and shook up the status quo. It may have been an earth-shattering, life-changing event like a major disaster, a serious illness, or even the death of a loved one. Or it could have been something subtle, something cumulative that built up over time, like the feeling that enough is finally enough. Some times, it’s only the last straw. But whether it was large and dramatic, or small but irritating, it put the protagonist of the story in a bind and created a tension that had to be dealt with.

Step three is the response. You reacted—perhaps badly at first—to the transforming event. It makes a more interesting story if the protagonist (which in this case is you) initially pushes back, reacts badly, doesn’t handle well the change that has been thrown his way. It’s important that you share that less-than-perfect side of yourself, because that shows you to be more human because as humans, we naturally resist change. But ultimately your better self took over and you became a much better, more qualified, competent person.

And that lead to step number four, which I call “the new you.” As a result of the way you responded to the transforming event, you became a different person, someone much better qualified to help the prospect or client address the concerns and problems that they have.

This very basic pattern can be used to narrate a very powerful story. But, while the story is told in this sequence, it is created by approaching the four steps in a different order. You tell the story in order: step one, step two, step three, then step four. By contrast, when you sit down to design your story, you use a different sequence. To create a great Transformation Story, you’re going to first identify who you are today. You’re going to recognize which attributes you want to emphasize to the client. That’s the new you. Next, you’re going to decide which event in your life played a key role in helping you become that kind of person. After that, you’re going to focus on how you responded to the transforming event, both negatively and positively. Finally, you’re gong to clarify who you used to be before the event happened, before the transformation occurred.

Your Transformation Story has to be told quickly. Typically the prospect’s only going to allow you about three minutes, even if it’s an interesting story. Hence, you need to write out the pieces of the story and polish it. I would suggest you take a piece of paper and identify in writing the characteristics you want to project to the client: Who are you and what makes you uniquely qualified to help them? Who is “the new you?” Next, write down what changed you. Go back in your memory and think about which events are causes for your becoming that kind of a person. You’ll be surprised at how many triggers there could have been. Find one’s that interesting and has a human believability to it. If it’s big and dramatic, that’s good. If it’s only small but believable, that’s still okay because we know that even small things can drive us to make major changes. Then think about and write how you reacted and ultimately changed in response to the event you identified. Finally, write down a description of who you used to be before all this change occurred.

Once you’ve written it out, it’s important to start telling the story. You might start by just telling it to yourself, maybe into a recorder for the first time or two. Then find somebody who is willing to give you a listening ear and good feedback. Say to them, “I’m working on telling a story about how I’ve changed and I wonder if you would listen to this story and then give me some response.” Tell them the story and then listen to what they say. As you practice, remember a few important points: The story has to be believable, it must be interesting, and it must be short. It doesn’t have to be perfect before you tell it to a client. In fact, the very best practice you get is simply telling it to clients and seeing how they respond. Over time, the story’s going to get better and better as you learn which words to use to help your listeners connect with you and visualize the events you are describing.

Before you know it, you’ll start seeing what I call “the connecting look” in the eyes of prospects and clients, as they “get it.” They understand you, they like you, and they want to work with you. It’s a magical moment for both of you.

What Stories Will They Be Telling About You?

February 2008

What Stories Will They Be Telling About You?

I was recently coaching the Chairman of the Board of Directors of a large hospital network in the Midwest. He was struggling with how to get his board to see the vision and come alive to a series of bold initiatives for improving patient care. Nothing he could think of seemed to generate in them the kind of energy and excitement he felt. I suggested he tap into the power of story to help his colleagues appreciate the potential impact of their efforts. I asked him this question: “When you finish this project, what stories do you want patients to be telling about your hospitals?” In answering my question, his mind and his spirit literally leaped with excitement. And furthermore, he knew clearly how to energize his board.

Last summer, I was speaking to an estate-planning conference in Washington, D.C. The group has a reputation for being technically astute and very analytical. I wanted them to understand how much value they were leaving on the table, both for themselves and their clients, if they failed to combine Legacy Building with their technical expertise. I asked them a variation of the same question that had worked so well with my Chairman of the Board client. I asked them to think silently for a minute or two about this question:

“When your days as an estate planner are over, what stories do you want your clients to be telling about you?”

At first, they were fidgety and resisted considering the question in silence. But I insisted and they finally settled into reflection. After a couple of minutes, I asked them to share their thoughts with a colleague. Their tones were thoughtful and subdued. I asked a few to share their thoughts with the whole group. What they had discovered in their thoughtfulness was that what they really wanted to be remembered for was their kindness, their wisdom, and their ability to make a difference in the lives of their clients. Let me invite you to reflect on the same question: When your days as a financial advisor or insurance expert or estate planner—or whatever it is you do—are over, what stories do you want your clients to be telling about you?

My good friend, Richard Stone wrote in The Healing Power of Storytelling that “[a]t the end of our lives, all that is left of us is our story.” He also quotes a Native American tradition: “As long as someone is still telling your story, you’re really still alive.”

Ultimately, our work as advisors is about helping clients tell and pass along their stories. If we’re lucky, our clients will also ask us to help them change the way those stories turn out. Not much else compares to the importance and fulfillment of that work.