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Don’t Leave Anyone Out

December 23, 2016

This time we hear from Adrienne Penta, senior vice president and executive director of the Brown Brothers Harriman Center for Women & Wealth in Boston, Mass. She recounts how she refocuses client meetings to ensure that both partners feel included and stay engaged in their work together.

Last year, while working with a couple who have been my clients for many years, I had a critical revelation that changed our firm’s best practices for working with couples. For most of my time advising this particular couple, both the husband and wife were very engaged and involved during our meetings and the periods in between.

Over the course of 2015, however, I noticed the wife started to disengage and take on a less-involved role. At first she participated less during our meetings, letting her husband do all the talking. Then she started asking us to schedule our meetings without her, telling us that her various philanthropic board commitments kept her too busy to join us.

I didn’t like seeing her disengage, and I decided to ask her outright how we could work to make our meetings worth her time. After several email communications that didn’t change her perspective, I decided to pick up the phone and call her.

I opened our call by telling her it was very important for her to attend the next meeting because I knew she had a specific point of view on the estate planning topics we wanted to discuss. I also asked if there were any topics of importance to her that she’d like to prioritize during our time together.

My questions led to an illuminating conversation about her interests and passions, which I then used to create a meeting agenda that covered both her priorities as well as those of her husband.

Adrienne Penta

In addition to estate planning issues, which were prompted by the birth of a new child in the family, she also wanted to add philanthropy to the agenda. I’m so glad I picked up the phone to have a conversation — email just didn’t provide the time or space for me to discover these crucial issues that mattered to her. And I was able to get her re-engaged in the process.

This experience led us to develop several best practices that we now include in our relationship manager training at BBH. Like most advisors, we only meet with our clients a few times a year. In these meetings, we want to hear every stakeholders’ voice, or our wealth planning and management won’t be as good as it could be.

In my experience, when we have input from both members of a couple, we’re all able to make better long-term decisions for the family and have better outcomes.

Our best practices include several approaches to achieving great relationships with both members of a couple. For instance, instead of defaulting to a portfolio review, we now focus our ongoing, post-planning meetings on what matters to both members of a couple. And we train our advisors to ask open-ended questions and to ensure both spouses provide input, giving the advisor a window into the family situation and providing the ability to align goals with life priorities.

During meetings, we suggest our advisors maintain eye contact with both spouses, even when one is talking more than the other. We recommend directing questions to both partners as well, in order to invite an answer from the less-vocal spouse.

When one of the couple routinely doesn’t attend meetings — in my experience this is typically the wife — we have our advisors focus on re-engagement. The first step is to ask the spouse who does attend the meetings how best to re-engage the absent spouse. Then we have our advisors meet with the less-engaged spouse to understand what issues are most relevant to them.

The most important lesson? When it comes to family wealth management, be sure you have both members of a couple in the room. And if one starts fading out, as the advisor, you need to step in and be proactive about keeping them both engaged in the process.