Unlocking Family Values - Part One

Crucial conversations for planning success

Randy Fox interviews Todd Fithian

Key Takeaways:

  • Understanding why families want certain results, and why those results make the “how” easier.
  • There are many useful tools that advisors can use to help families uncover core values.
  • Understanding core values deepen client relationships.

Fox: Good morning, this is Randy Fox. I am back again with Todd Fithian of the Legacy Group in Boston. Todd recently spoke with me about “Above the Line” planning. Today we’re going talk about human values: what they mean to each person and how advisors and planned-giving officers can discover the values of their clients’ families and use those values to help them in their planning. Todd, welcome.

Fithian: Thanks, Randy. You know, our background and the work that we do is all about helping advisors to families of wealth and success. A lot of it boils down to how we are connecting with them, how we are engaging with them, how we are discovering the things that are most important to them. For us, values have always been one of those types of conversations that we really want to embark on with clients. We often find that a lot of the things that make people who they are, the things that are in their core, that ultimately drive their decisions, boil down to those core values.

Fox: So, how do you get that conversation started?

Fithian: We talk about it from a standpoint of getting clear about one’s vision, one’s values, one’s mission and one’s goals. Values are really a critical part of the conversation of understanding what drives our clients, what things we need to honor in our engagements and in our time together. We look at values very much as things that we need to honor as we guide them through the decisions that they’re trying to come to terms with.

Fox: Todd, just to make this simple, can you point to some values that people might hold? That way, we can get the language cleared up and everybody can understand exactly what we’re talking about.

Fithian: Great point. Then we’ll talk about how you really get at the values conversation. When we look at values, we’re simply looking at things like integrity. What drives people’s integrity and why is that important to people? Education, for families? Maybe from a philanthropic perspective, it’s being an alum of a great educational facility and how important that is in one’s planning. And generationally, talking about education--the role that plays in the success of one’s family. I think about spirituality or faith, and the role that plays. There’s a list of core words that oftentimes can define underlying feelings and emotions that people are connected with. Often, we find that clients can’t connect those words with the experiences in their lives.

Fox: How do you help them connect those words?

Fithian: We’re talking about things like integrity, reliability, relationships, family, spirituality, faith and education. There’s a long list of what these values are. We’ve done some interesting things helping advisors who are having these discussions incorporate this philosophy. For years in the psychology field, there have been values exercises. One of the things we did was piggyback on those exercises to create a deck of “values cards.” They’re just like playing cards, but instead of the usual 52 cards, our deck has 48 cards with values listed on each and a simple definition beneath each value. We go through the deck and do a simple exercise with each. This is the simplest version that we talk about getting into values with, with a couple or an individual, or even with a family. We give them a deck of values cards and we have them lay out the deck on a table, and then go through a process of refining their values card by card. Our goal is ultimately to get clients down to their top five or six values. These are the values that really drive and define them.

Fox: Tell us more about the process.

Fithian: We have them start by going through the deck, and by process of elimination, whittling it down to a group of 15 cards, and then from 15 cards, we help them narrow it down to ten cards, and then finally down to their five most important values cards. These are the ones that represent who they are and that best define them. The important thing I talk about is what we need to honor. One of the things I’ve found is that sometimes when you put a name on a card, people can get through these exercises somewhat fast. It’s actually not an easy exercise; it takes some time. If I find that somebody gets through it too fast, these may not really be the underlying things; we need to probe a little bit further.

Fox: Can you give us an example?

Fithian: Sure. I’m sitting with someone who has a young family of four kids and a great wife at home who is supportive, so it’s likely that “family” will show up in there. I’ve got all these kids, so family’s got to show up for me, right? We can get overwhelmed by that. We go through a process of verification then. We might ask the client to talk about why family is so important to him. I’ll say, tell me how that shows up in your life. How do you live that out? I really want to boil that down to a statement that defines why family is one of his top five values. Talk about faith. Why is it faith, or why is it education? Why is integrity so important? We go through that process of verification for each of these values. We find that amazing. We’ve seen people change their top five values when they’ve been questioned deeply about them.

Fox: Todd, let me just back you up a second.

Fithian: Sure.

Fox: How do new clients feel about someone saying to them, here’s a deck of cards of values and I want you to go through these and tell me what’s most important to you. That’s a very uncommon conversation.

For most, you know, it’s usually, “What’s your balance sheet?”

Fithian: There’s a level of intimacy to this, let’s face it. I can’t whip out this deck of values cards and say, “Guys it’s time to open up and we’re going to get into this thing, we’re going to really understand what makes you tick.” There’s an element of setup that absolutely needs to happen and, as you can imagine from my last discussion with you, our setup for this is around our planning horizon. We talk about the separation, strategies, tactics and tools, and how we really want to understand all the things that you’ve got working on your behalf. But we also want to get above the line and really understand the things driving you from a vision, values and mission standpoint. We spend a fair amount of time setting the stage for this type of conversation. It’s not an out-of-the box thing. In fact, I don’t teach this as something that really should happen in a first meeting. It’s something that happens once you’ve kind of gotten to connect with a client at a certain level and he or she really understands your approach and process. That’s a great time to bring it in.

Fox: How much flexibility is there in your approach to bringing up the values conversation?

Fithian: Every time I describe it, I have an advisor who does it differently. I have one advisor right now who makes this [values conversation] a part of his first discussion with every new client, and he’s having an amazing response. It’s a personalized thing, where you can fit it in and when. Regardless, it needs to have context behind it, you need to be able to set it up, because people will not be able to understand who you are and what you’re doing and why you’re doing this--if it’s not set up properly.

Fox: That helps a lot. You just said somebody’s having success doing it right away, and if you look at the U.S. Trust Study of the Philanthropic Conversation, when they survey wealthy donors, the donors want to have those conversations. They’re saying they want to talk about their values. They don’t want tactics right away. They want their advisors to know them better. It seems to me there’s a big change taking place.

Fithian: Absolutely. That study’s a great reference. Those wealth holders, donors, those folks are saying, “I want somebody who wants to take the time to get to know me, my family, our situation.”

About the interviewer and interviewee

Randy Fox is Editor in Chief of Planned Giving Design Center and is the regional representative of Charitable Giving Resource Center.

Todd Fithian is a 20 year veteran, and third generation producer in the financial services industry. Todd formed his own wealth advisory firm in Boston soon after graduating from The University of Massachusetts, then later joined forces with his late brother, Scott, in 1996 to form The Legacy Companies which helps financial advisors and institutions worldwide enhance critical conversations with wealth holders.