Recently, I heard a story about a young man from Chicago’s inner city. He was fortunate to participate in a program that matched him with a successful mentor. One day they rode the elevator to the conference floor at the top of the Chase Tower where the mentor worked. Upon arriving and looking out the window, the young man could not help but exclaim: “Wow! Chicago is so amazing! I’ve lived here my whole life, this is the first time I’ve seen my city as beautiful.”

Before that mountaintop moment, all the young man had seen of Chicago was violence, poverty, and struggle. But that new view gave him hope for a brighter future. He suddenly saw what was out there in the world, as well as what might be possible for him personally. This caused me to ask myself – how am I impacting my clients so they have mountaintop moments and make a difference in the lives of others? Here are my perspectives.

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"I enjoy hearing my client’s stories about their lives, families and dreams. It is very meaningful to me to help them align their wealth with their vision for the future."


Career Day Lessons For Young And Old

Not long ago I participated in a career exploration day program for Chicago inner city high school students. The event was a joint effort sponsored by several organizations, including the Kelly family, which founded Whitnell.

Early during the program, which is designed to help children develop financial literacy and daily disciplines, we played a game with the students called “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” The game helped highlight the six key character traits of millionaires, which include being disciplined, working hard, having patience, exhibiting persistence, demonstrating frugality and being charitable. To further help these students learn how to develop character and manage money, a number of professionals with wide-ranging career paths came to speak.

Laura Smith, a member of the Kelly family who runs the family’s farming business, spoke about being a farmer, and the students were quite surprised that she was not wearing overalls! I enjoyed seeing how she captured their attention and the impact she had on their imagination. By the end of her talk, one of the students declared that “I want to be a farmer too!”

I was once again humbled by the impact of a change in “view.” Just as one inner city boy found an entirely new perspective on his own city from a top-floor conference room with a view, another city youth learned that not all “farmers” spend all of their time in overalls milking cows or driving tractors.

Based on these experiences, I started to reflect on how I impact my clients’ view and perspectives, working with a great team of colleagues at Whitnell. I believe we help our clients:

  • Achieve clarity about what they want out of life
  • Align their wealth with their life goals
  • Pass their values on to the next generation
  • Relieve money worries so they can focus on other matters
  • Make critical decisions with their wealth

Please allow me to explain why I think these topics are important.


Helping Clients Achieve Clarity About What They Want Out Of Life

If you don’t know what you really want out of life, then you will be far less likely to achieve it. You might think that most people would be crystal clear about this. However, my experience suggests otherwise. It turns out that many people have never really thought about what they want out of life in an organized and detailed way. At Whitnell we do two things to help our clients gain clarity.

First, we care. A lot. We’re interested and curious about the lives of our clients, which means we listen. Building respect from the initial conversation builds trust – and that trust leads to open and honest conversations about very private matters. This connection is crucial to helping our clients achieve their goals. In fact, one of our most important values at Whitnell is connection, which is why you will find it right in our company tag line – “Connection. Comfort. Continuity.”

Second, we help clients clarify what matters to them. Conversations that help us learn how our clients might answer “forced choice” questions such as – “If you have to choose between longer and more exciting vacations or paying for all of your children’s education over the next five years, which would you choose?” – help us understand what really matters to our clients. This process separates needs from preferences. When making tradeoffs, getting these preferences handled right in the planning can make the difference between a plan our clients will stick to and one they won’t.

Mountaintop moments—like the view from the top of the Chase Tower—come to our clients more routinely because of this process. When clients get clarity about what is important to them and what they want their life to look like, they feel grounded. Time and again we find that the faster, better, and deeper we get to know our clients, the greater the likelihood that we can help them to regularly achieve these mountaintop moments. 


Helping Clients Align Their Wealth With Their Life Goals

As we get to know what matters to our clients, we begin to look at how their wealth is structured and how likely this is to achieve their goals. We look at the linkages between financial strategies and financial structure. Unfortunately, we often find that there are substantial disconnects between these two.

For example, in listening to our clients, it becomes clear who they love. We look at their estate plan to see how it is designed to support these people. It is surprising what we find, especially if a client hasn’t updated their estate plan in a few years.

My colleague Craig Janus recently wrote an article about a client who was at-risk of disinheriting children from his second marriage. The client had simply not updated the beneficiaries on his insurance documents after his children were born.

But estate planning is not the only area where we discover inconsistencies between goals and financial structure. We find this in investment consulting where risk-tolerances and investment choices do not match. We also find this in insurance planning and asset protection where some insurance policies are missing or clients invest in the wrong insurance products. 


Helping Clients Pass Their Values On To The Next Generation

Most of my clients want to pass their wealth and their values on to the next generations. That’s not always an easy thing to accomplish. The best ways I’ve seen to accomplish this goal are to (1) model the behaviors and disciplines you want to see in your children and grandchildren and (2) give the children increasing financial responsibility along with any allowance.

For example, I have a client with college age children and she very much wants her children to learn proper spending discipline. Despite multiple threats to take away access to credit cards, behavior changes were short-lived until she began to cut the issue into more discreet pieces.

One problem area was fast food spending, so my client gave her children pre-paid gift cards for a grocery store and their favorite fast food joints. At first, she put what she felt was reasonable for a week’s worth of spend on each card. Then she put a month’s worth on the grocery store card while increasing the fast food amount to two weeks’ worth.

She only re-loaded those cards on the timeframe that corresponded to the amount. Eventually she increased the amounts and decreased the frequency. All the while she looked for opportunities to tell her children about the tradeoffs that she considered in her own day to day financial life. She didn’t necessarily make it overt, but she looked for ways to let her children know how she prioritized and budgeted her own spending.

The moral here is obvious: if you want your children or grandchildren to learn financial discipline, you need to model the right behavior for them and put the right incentives in place. To help my clients model the right behavior, I ask them these kinds of questions about their heirs:

  • Have you taken them to work with you so they can see what you do to pay for the family’s lifestyle?
  • Have you taught them how to clean a bathroom, cook the basics and do the laundry by themselves?
  • Have you set up a savings account in their name with an easily accessible record of their balance so they can see it growing and practice their own money choices?
  • Have you set up a Roth IRA where you match any investments the children make so they can see the account grow as they make their own contributions?
  • Do you bring your children in during the process of making tough financial decisions so they can see how you wrestle between different options?

All these situations give you the opportunity to model the disciplines that you want your heirs to develop. Also, I am willing to have direct and age-appropriate conversations with my clients’ children and grandchildren, as requested. I actually welcome those conversations. 


Relieving Worries About Money So Clients Can Focus On Making A Greater Impact

Clients often come to us with complex financial problems involving long-term relationships and tricky family and business situations. It’s our job to listen deeply so we can understand the details of the situation while providing a high degree of confidentiality. While most client interactions happen during our standard scheduled meetings, in some instances this is just not enough.

Last month, for example, I had out-of-office meetings with clients where we spent a few hours discussing a situation on a couple of different occasions over a long weekend. We painstakingly reviewed details, relevant issues and possible solutions. We rehashed financial data and family dynamics and thought through how conversations might go. My clients emerged with a reasonable game plan and felt much better when we were done.

Whether it is during our scheduled meetings or during an emergency impromptu session, we take the time to sit down with clients and listen to them describe the nuances of family dynamics, especially when family-owned businesses are involved. It’s my job to provide a forum for clients to sort through options and even to disagree. This is especially crucial when spouses have different ideas about the outcomes they’d like to see.

It’s not as if we have a magic bullet that can solve all of our clients’ problems. (We wish!) But as we talk about situations that impact our clients, their families, and their businesses, we are able to provide the setting for the kind of cathartic process where solutions become self-evident. (Often, before arriving at mountaintop moments, you struggle through a valley of emotional wrangling and complicated details.)

Many of the solutions that we arrive at take time to implement and additional conversations to work through. But our clients leave these meetings with much improved peace of mind and a sense that the future they want to realize can actually come true. This, in turn, frees them up to focus on the long-term real-world impacts they want to have in other spheres.


Assisting Clients In Making Critical Decisions As To Savings, Spending, Donating, and Investing

In addition to describing the six traits of millionaires, the career day program mentioned earlier teaches children to think about money in terms of four key decisions:

  • Save 
  • Spend 
  • Invest 
  • Donate

Each of us makes these decisions every day for what to do with our money. The way to become wealthy is to be wise with these decisions. However, once my clients achieve a certain level of wealth, these decisions are magnified because the amounts are much larger and their options far more numerous.

I regularly help my clients think through the best way to manage their wealth when it comes to these four choices. For instance, let’s assume a new grandchild has arrived and the grandparents want to set up a college fund.

But they also want to make a charitable donation to a worthwhile cause that they feel really needs support. Can they do both? Is there a way to achieve both goals, perhaps through gifting stock that has greatly appreciated in such a way that money that would have gone to pay capital gains taxes are instead diverted to the college fund? In these types of circumstances, we often find creative ways to help our clients get closer to achieving both of their goals without incurring long-term negative financial consequences. 


Next Steps Towards Maximizing Your Impact

The way we approach our lives and the financial impact we hope to make says a great deal about what we value most. What I have learned, over time, is that I cannot have the kind of impact on the world that I want to have without having the right people around me. These “right people” can be:

  • The children in the career day and financial literacy programs who inspire me with their enthusiasm and willingness to learn
  • The dedicated team members at Whitnell who every day teach me the value of listening, learning, and leveraging knowledge
  • My clients whose own wisdom and insight inevitably percolates to the top when given a caring, interested and respectful listener.

If you do not feel that you have the right people—especially the right financial team—surrounding you and enabling you to maximize your long-term impact in the world, then we should have a conversation very soon.


The information contained in this article is provided for informational purposes only. No illustration or content in it should be construed as a substitute for informed professional tax, legal, and/or financial advice.