Adrienne Penta: Wealth managers must listen first to serve women better

The head of Brown Brothers Harriman's Centre for Women and Wealth explains how her team is working to ensure all their clients feel included and well served

January 31, 2017

Today, more than 51 percent of US wealth is controlled by women. But of women with financial advisors, more than half feel their advisor doesn’t listen to them, or doesn’t understand them. Adrienne Penta, Executive Director of the Brown Brothers Harriman Centre for Women and Wealth, doesn’t think that the wealth management industry is failing at feminism – but wealth managers do sometimes forget the real value they bring to the table. She explains where things have gone wrong, and how wealth managers need to learn to listen again. She also explains the conversations the Centre for Women and Wealth is facilitating: at the intersection of wealth, family, philanthropy and legacy.

World Finance: Today, more than 51 percent of US wealth is controlled by women. But of women with financial advisors, more than half feel their advisor doesn’t listen to them, or doesn’t understand them. Joining me down the line is Adrienne Penta from Brown Brothers Harriman.

Adrienne – what’s going wrong? Is the wealth management industry failing at feminism?

Adrienne Penta: Paul, you’re right with the data. Women are controlling more wealth than ever before in the US. We know that they’re controlling 39 percent of investible assets in the US. But we know that they’re still not quite satisfied with what the wealth management industry is providing to them. And in particular they don’t think that their advisors understand their needs or are listening to them in the right ways.

Oftentimes – especially with younger advisors in our industry – sometimes we think that the value we bring to the table is the really smart information we have. Whether it’s market commentary or sophisticated tax planning. It’s not.

The value that we bring to a client’s situation is the ability to solve their hardest problems. And in our case those hardest problems are usually about wealth and family and how their achieve their values and their legacy. And so in order to do that, we have to start with listening and really understanding our clients’ perspectives, and what their issues are, and what keeps them up and night. And only then can we apply what we know to actually help our clients.

So it really starts with a client focus, and understanding their perspective.

World Finance: Rather than simply mansplain to them. It feels like it shouldn’t be revolutionary to say that wealth managers should listen to their clients – what’s gone wrong?

Adrienne Penta: I think you’re right, I hope you’re right, I think that listening is the foundation of our business, for sure.

And I think that this comes out of a very honest place actually. Because in the US and in the world, in fact, it’s only really within the last several decades that women have become substantial creators and decision-makers with respect to family wealth. So sometimes as human beings, we make assumptions when we’re sitting in front of clients about actually who makes the decisions, or who controls the wealth in a family.

And instead of jumping to conclusions, we need to be really intentional, and really thoughtful, about how we engage women, about how we serve them, about how we include them in conversations, and how we create an environment where all of our clients – and specifically women in this case – feel included and well served.

World Finance: BBH has established the centre for women and wealth to address these issues – what do you offer?

Adrienne Penta: So there’s two real offerings I think that come out of the centre for women and wealth. And the first is, we really want to create a community of women, a place where our female clients can find a group, a network, a tribe of likeminded women, so that they can have a community in which they can consult and discuss and think about the issues that matter most to them.

So we carry on a number of events throughout the year in a whole bunch of different places. And they are focused on content that we think is at the intersection of wealth and family and values. Because we find that our female clients – and many of our clients! – don’t want to focus on those issues in isolation. They want to have a more robust conversation about how all those things work together for them.

And the second is that we’re creating content insights, through women and wealth magazine, through what we’re publishing online, about women who are CEOs, who are founding companies, who are philanthropists, who are leading the way. Who are thinking really in-depth about family planning and philanthropy and legacy and engaging the next generation.

And I think what underlies the centre for women and wealth is a real commitment to make sure that we’re managing relationships with our clients in an effective way, that engages all of the stakeholders within the client family, because we believe that if we don’t have all stakeholders represented, then we actually don’t create as good solutions for families as we possibly could.

World Finance: As you say, women are taking a more holistic approach to managing their wealth: how does that change your work?

Adrienne Penta: So an example that I could give you here is that, we do a lot of estate planning. We work with our clients on making sure that their trusts and their estate planning and their tax planning is all very consistent. That their plan, when it comes to their estate and wealth transfer and philanthropy is in good shape, and is consistent with what we’re doing on the investment side.

One of the things that we’re focused on now is, how do we engage the next generation in those conversations? And how do we integrate values? How do I create a successful next generation in the presence of wealth? And how do I use my wealth to actually empower and to engage my children and my grandchildren, rather than make them feel isolated and burdened by that wealth.

Families that we work with want to have those conversations with their children about what does wealth mean, and how should it be used, and what is the intention behind it. But they don’t always have the tools to do that.

As advisors we see thousands of families, we see hundreds of wealth transfers. So through our experience we often have the tools, we have the best practices. We understand what in many cases makes families successful. So we are actually in the process of sharing and giving that information in a way that’s tangible and useable to the families that we work with, so they won’t feel that they don’t have the skillset, or they don’t have the tools to engage children, even adult children, in these conversations as stewards of family wealth.

World Finance: Adrienne, thank you very much.

Adrienne Penta: Thank you Paul, it’s been a pleasure.