Curiosity: The Most Important Trait For Financial Advisors

I had it all wrong.

Early in my career as a financial advisor, my goal, even more than gaining clients, was to gain knowledge. I was operating under the assumption that bringing knowledge where it is lacking is an advisor’s primary value. But while a certain degree of knowledge is a prerequisite, of course, I eventually learned that knowledge is ubiquitous—readily available with a few keyboard taps—and that it can even be counterproductive when sub-optimally applied.

Fortunately, I graduated from that oversimplistic belief to a more nuanced one in which I found greater confidence. I determined that sound judgement was actually the most important trait for an advisor. It was the ability to apply knowledge, to help clients make a this-or-that decision, that was really where an advisor could demonstrate his or her worth. 

Ted Lasso
Actor Jason Sudeikis, in character as coach Ted Lasso, .  WIREIMAGE

Or so I thought, until I learned something through the study of behavioral economics that likely appears self-evident when you observe enough of life: People are more apt to follow their own judgement than someone else’s—even when it is sought. People are more inclined to stick with a course of action of their own design rather than another’s.

You are more inspired to pursue your own dreams than you are to pursue mine.

Yes, clients want to be the hero of their own stories—but they do like having a guide. And that is where a financial advisor can be most helpful. The most important trait for a financial advisor, then, is neither knowledge nor judgement nor even wisdom, but curiosity.

In fact, I believe we are well served, as advisors, to heed Walt Whitman’s advice (via Ted Lasso) to “be curious, not judgmental.” 

It sounds simple, if not easy, but the deliberate practice of curiosity can be exceedingly difficult for those of us who got into the field because of our love for knowledge or our bent toward teaching. It actually requires us to subvert our impulse to share knowledge. It takes practice, yes, but even more so it takes intention.

You’ll note that I’m not saying what has been helpfully said before about the value of effective listening and questioning and silence within the context of a client meeting. Listening, asking a question, even remaining silent, while helpful, are all actions. They are something we do (or purposefully don’t do).

Curiosity is more of a state of being. It’s a posture, an anticipation, a genuine affinity for and interest in the person or people before us. And that’s why there’s very little that I can offer as prescription, aside from the suggestion to eliminate distraction and practice reflection.

For example, if we’ve just come out of a meeting or ended a Zoom call and we’re rushing into the next one, it’s almost impossible to cultivate curiosity. It’s going to take some time to get in the right headspace to be truly curious. That’s why some advisors practice meditation briefly before heading into a client meeting. If that weirds you out, take a brief walk outside to clear your mind.

Similarly, without the benefit of reflection following a meeting, we’ll often miss out on insight that could end up being a meaningful driver of a client’s plan. A debrief meeting is a valuable practice, especially when you consider the qualitative elements of your interaction before determining the quantitative to-dos.

There’s a universality to this call to curiosity. Certainly, we may see its benefits when we are in the discovery phase of interaction with a client—getting to know someone and their situation anew. But curiosity is just as useful in the 10th meeting with a client as it is in the first, because as the best advisors know, even when a client asks a question, there is usually another question (or two) behind it that requires our curiosity to reveal.

And even beyond the bounds of financial planning, I believe you’ll find curiosity to be an invaluable mindset when interacting with your partner, engaging with your children, or developing a direct report. Furthermore, if you’ve ever struggled to make conversation in any setting, curiosity is your solution.

Isn’t that comforting to know? That whether you’re meeting a new prospect, hoping to reestablish traction with a long-term client, receiving a complaint from a colleague, or working to build relationships outside of the office, you only need to remember one thing—just be curious.