Get to Know Your Financial Advisor

Why having a personal relationship with your advisor matters.

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Today I want to highlight the importance of personal relationships, specifically the one between you and your financial advisor. It's a serious relationship, but it is grounded in the most basic foundation: we are all human. As humans we are all shaped by, and products of, the cultures we are immersed in throughout life. I was recently reminded of this by a personal experience I'd like to share. It requires a little bit of background on me.

Upon graduating from college, I became an artillery officer in the U.S. Marine Corps and served nearly seven years on active duty, seeing both the world and a little bit of combat. I was initiated into a culture grounded in more than 235 years of tradition. There was, appropriately, very little room for individuality. The culture of uniformity helped me develop an eye for detail and order. To this day I can look at a service member in uniform and determine if something is out of alignment by an eighth of an inch.

[See How To Navigate the Bond Market in 2011.]

After my time on active duty, I returned to school to get my MBA and entered the working world. My first job after graduate school was with Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette (DLJ). While there was no real written definition of the culture there, I'll define it as "subtly confident, polished professionals." Woe to the person who ever embarrassed themselves or the firm. Their culture was self-policing.

Mergers and geography forced me to make a decision between moving to a new firm and moving to a new town. Deciding not to move, I chose to join Merrill Lynch and spent six years there. I gained a lot of experience and was exposed to a unique, powerful, and professionally-shaping culture. The office I joined was huge both in terms of people and culture. There was a lot of emphasis placed on professional appearance. Suits and ties were required at all times and there was no such thing as a "casual Friday." I remember running into my manager, a former Marine, in the lobby of the building without my suit coat and presenting a generally sloppy image. He said: "How do you think you'd be perceived if you ran into your biggest client and he saw you in half of a suit, tie loosened and sleeves rolled up?"

He had a point. I felt horrible. Cycling through my experiences I quickly realized that I was out of standard, violating the culture of every organization with which I had been associated. The voices of previous Marine commanders and subordinates were echoing in my mind, "You know better. You are a Marine officer. Set the example." My DLJ mentors whispering, "You learned from the best and brightest to be a confident, polished professional. Shame on you." It's a vivid memory and I've carried its message.

Fast forward 5 years. It's 2011 and I am a founding partner of my own wealth management firm.

I still hold on to the cultural influences of my past, but something funny happened to me recently that shifted my perspective. I arrived home from work, threw the ball for our dog who lives to chase and retrieve anything, and retired for the evening in my flannel pajama pants, an old threadbare t-shirt and my new UGG slippers. (As an aside, they are wonderful.)

[See 8 Investing Resolutions for 2011.]

Suddenly I received a frantic phone call from my wife asking me if I could get to the dry cleaners within the next 10 minutes before they closed. I quickly jumped in the car with little regard for what I was wearing and made it just in time.

And bumped into a client.

The look of horror must have flashed across my face as if I had an electronic sign flashing, "I feel like a fool." I launched into an explanation to cover up my embarrassment, but my client said, "Dave, this reminds me why I like you. You have a life just like me and you are out there living it. Pass on a hello to the guys and see you soon."

My translation of the episode is this: Our professionalism and capabilities are reflected in our actions and what we do every day. Trust and likability are much more important structural components to a relationship than always being seen in a suit and tie. Be sure you love the one you're with.

David B. Armstrong, CFA, is a managing director and co-founder of Monument Wealth Management in Alexandria, Va., a full-service wealth management firm. Monument Wealth Management is backed by LPL Financial, the independent broker-dealer and Registered Investment Advisor. David has been named one of America's Top 100 Financial Advisors for two straight years by Registered Rep Magazine (2009 and 2010 based on assets under management) and has been interviewed by several national media sources for the past several years. David and Monument Wealth Management can be followed on their blog "Off The Wall," their Twitter account @MonumentWealth, and on their Facebook page.

The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for individuals.

Securities and financial planning offered through LPL Financial, Member FINRA/SIPC.