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Wealth management firms are doubling down on efforts to make their advisor ranks more diverse. Here are the strategies they're using

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Thomas Barwick

When it comes to gender or racial diversity, the wealth management industry falls woefully short.

Just about 23% of certified financial planners were female as of 2020, while less than 4% were Black or Latino, according to the CFP Board, which certifies planners.

Executives from Morgan Stanley and Northwestern Mutual spoke at CNBC’s Financial Advisor Summit on Tuesday about what they are doing to boost representation within their wealth management ranks.

Those existing efforts have grown more urgent in the past 15 months, as race and economic equality in America became a national conversation.

“We took a hard look on where we were and we knew that we needed to do more,” said Timothy Gerend, chief distribution officer at Northwestern Mutual.

The firm has since built a task force to encourage racial diversity across the company and has also ramped up its efforts to attract more people of color as financial advisors and leaders.

“We’re not where we used to be, but we’re also not where we need to be,” Gerend said. “We continue to focus on those areas to continue to improve.”

Likewise, Morgan Stanley has also done things to “double down and triple down” on its existing diversity initiatives, said Carla Harris, vice chairman of wealth management and senior client advisor at the firm.

Based on those efforts, both executives said some key areas of focus can help the industry attract and retain more diverse talent.

Start early

One big obstacle in attracting young people out of college is that they often have not heard about careers in wealth management, Harris said.

That may lead them to start out in other careers and discover wealth management by accident.

“If you want to get more advisors of color in the industry, period, you need to start earlier exposing them to wealth management as a career choice,” she said.

Offering internships to students while they are in college is one way to do that.

Another is to actively provide information about the profession on college campuses, both at schools with high levels of diversity and through clubs and groups devoted to minority students at predominantly white institutions.

Build a leadership pipeline

Putting diverse leaders in place, whether it be women or minorities, can help in turn to attract more minority talent.

Northwestern Mutual’s businesses led by female leaders often are more diverse because those leaders do a better job of attracting and developing financial advisors from a range of backgrounds, Gerend said.

In addition, the firm has also recently expanded its early leadership development program to include professionals in all roles of its businesses, not exclusively financial advisors.

Northwestern Mutual’s efforts to look for leaders everywhere in the firm are aimed at “making it clear that leadership can be for someone like you,” Gerend said.

“We’ve had overwhelming response to that, particularly for women and people of color, who see a new opportunity for impact,” he said.

Make it a team effort

One of the most appealing parts of the financial advice industry is the ability to build your own business, with no cap on the compensation you can earn based on your performance, Harris noted.

But for professionals who did not grow up wealthy, it can be difficult to attract those first wealthy clients and reach those initial asset hurdles.

Consequently, firms may want to consider more flexible compensation policies for those who are just starting out.

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That could include “creating a construct, an infrastructure, where you might bear talented folks of color and women a little bit longer to build that book,” Harris said.

By creating programs where young advisors are paired with more successful, experienced advisors, for example, they may be able to learn the business while gradually transitioning to the point where they’re on their own, she said.

Northwestern Mutual has a formal program that pairs young professionals with advisor teams for that purpose, according to Gerend. Aspiring advisors can work on a salary-based structure, where there is less pressure to build their business in the beginning as they learn from the team. Ultimately, they gradually transition to a more traditional compensation model.