Financial and estate planners traditionally have focused on money and property as the defining elements of a client’s wealth. But consider this: If your house were on fire, and you had time to save only one possession, which do you think it would be: the cash in the top drawer of the dresser or your family albums with the only photos of your children as babies?
Money has value, but only quantitative value. We inherently understand that many things hold far greater value than money, and we readily would part company with all our money rather than lose something that holds tremendous emotional value for us. As the MasterCard commercials rightly recognize, we can buy many things of value with money, but some things are “priceless.”
Now, here’s a fascinating question for you as a professional: If you asked your clients the “burning house” question, what would you expect their answers to be? Wouldn’t you be surprised if even one of your clients said that they would forfeit the irreplaceable photo albums in order to save the cash?
If so, this means that you already recognize that real wealth is not limited to money and property. It’s just that, until now, in the traditional world of financial and estate planning, the wealth of a client’s life—the admittedly greater wealth that belongs not to money but to meaning, history, relationships, purpose—this wealth has been “none of your business.” It’s personal, and traditional financial and estate planning are largely impersonal. And this is exactly what changes when we enter the world of Level-Two client service. It becomes personal indeed, to the point that the client’s most meaningful wealth informs the decisions that determine how the client’s money and property are managed.
It is crucial to understand that these areas of wealth, which Level-One client service largely ignores or, at best, regards as incidental, move to center stage in Level-Two client service. The ancillary questions that you may or may not have asked a client earlier will now become the crucial, defining ones— questions about the things they value most. such as their heritage, personal history, and values.
Before we discuss how you can do this, let’s look at a map of what a client’s comprehensive wealth typically includes. We call this map the Life Circle. It’s actually a tremendously useful tool to have on the desk when talking to a client, as it illuminates, in a highly visual way, the Level-Two axiom that a client’s wealth is far more than his or her material assets.
You can readily see that Level-One client service deals only with the upper left quadrant, the “Financial” area, essentially ignoring the other three areas as well as the areas in the center. This way of thinking has led us to ignore more than 75% of our potential usefulness as financial professionals whose purpose is to advise clients in the management of their wealth.
Of course, we didn’t realize this. We may have thought of the categories contained in the center and upper right and lower quadrants as the province of genealogists, therapists, clergy—but certainly not the hard and impersonal lines of financial advising. We simply haven’t had the vision, concepts, methods, and tools needed to acknowledge and work with them. The simple truth is, whatever a client values is part of his or her wealth. As such, it may directly or indirectly affect decisions involving any area of wealth, including finances.
As professional advisors, we’re trained to focus on the financial, legal, investment, and tax issues that affect our clients’ wealth. This is all good, solid, Level-One thinking. But we shortchange our clients if the services we provide fail to take into account and appreciate their wealth as extending far beyond money and property alone, because the most significant wealth we possess as human beings is not material. Material wealth, considered in isolation, is devoid of any real or enduring meaning. If our services deal only with the client’s money and property, and ignore the client as a human being, then those services are similarly devoid of any real or enduring value.
The Life Circle reminds us that clients come to us with a heritage that connects them to a past, to people and places, cultures and traditions out of which they emerged into their present life. Each client is part of a family that has shaped his or her identity, beliefs, and values. All belong to a larger human community through friends, work, the organizations to which they belong, and the causes they hold dear.
Through the stories of their past and their vision of the future, they naturally seek to learn and grow humanly, to live whatever spiritual life speaks to them, to be responsible and skillful stewards of their life’s riches, to shape their destiny, and to move into ever deeper fulfillment of their life’s meaning and purpose. Properly addressed, understood, and applied, these non-material assets inform the client’s material wealth with meaning and purpose, and establish real and lasting value in the professional relationship.
The Life Circle is a visual reminder that we humans are so much more than our bank accounts. It helps us to remember what’s most important, and to make sure that we acknowledge, appreciate, and honor this in the way we provide service.
We sometimes use The Life Circle as a roadmap to help us visit the stories that shed light on the key components of a good plan. Those stories will lead us to answers to questions like “What do you see as your life’s purpose, and how did you come to understand what it was?” and “Who do you consider ‘family’ and what do each of them mean to you?” and “Besides your family, who else is important in your life and why?” and “What causes and organizations do you stand behind and what led you to feel that way?”
As those stories are shared, they lead the clients and us to consider, for each dimension of their lives, another important set of questions: “How do you personally define success in each of these areas of your life?” Once again, the answers reside in the client’s stories. Once again, by listening attentively and lovingly to their stories, we can glean the true answers. We can then ask the next questions, the questions at the heart of the matter: “What is still missing for you to feel successful in each dimension of your life and how can we help you achieve it? What are the stories you want to be able to tell about your life’s purpose, your family, your community, and your financial well-being, and how can we help you be able to tell them?”
The Life Circle reminds us that all the pieces of life are interrelated; similarly, all the stories are interrelated. A meaning of money story can tell us just as much about the meaning of family or the meaning of community as about the meaning of money. And the same principle applies to financial plans and estate plans: it’s never just about the money, because everything we do with the money affects the other pieces. It affects family relationships, it affects our footprint in the communities we care about, it affects our ability to live our life with purpose.
The Life Circle, in the hands of a caring SunBridge advisor, helps us understand and then piece together the most important parts of our life in a plan that reflects our deepest values. The Life Circle is the roadmap that leads to deeper, richer, more meaningful planning