Second-career advisors have an edge

By Brynna Leslie | September 18, 2011 | Last updated on September 18, 2011
5 min read

It was 1999 and Shirley Mak was burned out. Funding cuts had left her short-staffed at the long-term-care facility in Toronto where she worked as a gerontologist and head nurse. Friends said it was time to retire. But Mak had other plans.

“I still had a lot to offer people,” says Mak, who had been in nursing for 20 years. “But I just needed to get off the treadmill.”

Mak spotted an ad from Investors Group offering career information sessions. She liked the idea of helping people with estate and retirement planning. And she wasn’t intimidated by the thought of training for a new career in her late forties. Mak was used to regularly upgrading her credentials and had already made several shifts within the health care field, from hospitals to public health to long-term-care, and even teaching.

More than 12 years later, Mak is among a growing cohort of successful women financial planners who have come to the industry from traditionally female-dominated professions. There are now 5,619 women CFPs in Canada, a number that has more than doubled in ten years and continues to grow.

Transferable skills

From the outside looking in, it may seem social services and financial planning are on opposite sides of the career spectrum. But financial planning can be intensely personal – and for many people, emotional.

“When people are talking about money, health and family, these are all highly-charged subjects,” says Barbara Treadwell, a CFP with offices in Savannah and New York. Treadwell counselled terminally ill patients on their death beds for 15 years before making the transition into insurance and then full-service wealth management 28 years ago. “I have always been unafraid to ask the tough questions, and silence as a response doesn’t bother me in the least. I have always been comfortable waiting and listening for the answers I need.”

Years of working with mental health patients helped Kathleen Peace, now a junior partner at Bennett March in Toronto, relate to clients. “Financial planning requires a lot of disclosure on the client’s part, but people aren’t always able to express themselves around money,” explains Peace. “I find my active listening skills to be one of my best assets.”

Making the transition

For most of the women, serendipity played a role making the transition from a career in social services to finance, followed by an extended period of soul-searching before making the leap. Treadwell was burned out and went to visit a girlfriend in New York, where she spent months with a business coach identifying her strongest skills, and career goals. Peace was given a job offer she couldn’t refuse when her now-business partner Valerie March showed up to establish her group RRSP at the non-profit agency where she worked. But for six months after that meeting, Peace went to career counselling and travelled Europe to have a “well-considered think” about her next move. It was a method recommended by March herself, who had come to the field from the non-profit sector in the nineties.

Career changes are never easy. “I was totally unprepared for the rejection I would face in the first few years,” Treadwell says. “People had always been happy to hear from me, and now they were hanging up on me. Sometimes I’d throw up from cold-calling. I felt I’d been bruised, battered and abused.”

Mak admits she avoided cold-calling and eschewed advice to go to friends and family first. Instead, she spent many days at trade shows, setting up booths in malls, and welcome wagons in new housing developments. “It was important for me to meet my clients face-to-face from the get go.”

Both women admit to working around the clock and living on savings in the first years of business. The courses and licensing exams required extensive hours of study and a thirst for knowledge.

“Everything is always changing in this business,” says Treadwell. “You don’t have to have credentials – one of the most successful people I know in this industry has none – but I’m a student of my own business and that suits me.”

And while Mak and Treadwell admit to having done their own administrative work initially – Mak still does – others say having a bookkeeper and someone to help run the office, even part-time, can give you more time to focus on building the business.

“I was used to having a large staff to look after things and in the early days of my business the computer systems were quite primitive,” says March, founding partner of Bennett March. “The workload, especially in the beginning, can be crushing. Within a month, I hired someone to help me with administration so I could focus on reading everything I could get my hands on and building my client base.”

Overcoming the critics

Many women have said they were considered – by themselves and others – to be “too soft,” “too conservative” or “too involved” to be taken seriously in the financial industry. Over time, however, they have discovered these same women soft qualities are a boon for business.

“What I had in spades – people skills and relationship building skills – took me years to recognize as an asset,” says Bev Moir, a former nurse who has been a senior wealth management specialist at ScotiaMcLeod since the mid-nineties. “These skills are essential to pulling out the softer issues and fears that people have around money.”

Treadwell admits she was nearly destroyed by the fallacy that finance had to be a cutthroat business. In one of her first job interviews, she was told she didn’t have “the killer instinct” required to succeed. Rather than develop it, she decided to prove her critic wrong.

“If you don’t have the killer instinct,” says Treadwell, “then find clients who aren’t killers.”


1) Find a mentor. “A quarterback would never play football without a coach,” says Treadwell, who credits her business coach for guiding her through the first years as an entrepreneur.

2) Know and value your transferable skills. “I’ve brought a real hugging-the-clients, bouncing-babies-on-my-knee thing to the office that some of my male partners have never seen,” says Kathleen Peace of Bennett March. “My clients see that I care.”

3) Find clients like you. Don’t be afraid to turn down clients who don’t match your style.

4) Educate yourself. All the advisors interviewed have a passion for learning. While financial planning has a lot to do with people, it also deals extensively with ever-changing and complex regulations, laws, and trends. Commit to lifelong learning if you want to succeed.

5) Expand your network. Treadwell knew six people in Manhattan when she first started her business 28 years ago, which meant cold-calling was the only way to go. Years later when she launched her second office in Savannah, she took a different approach: “I joined every organization that would have me.” Despite now having a multi-million-dollar business, Treadwell continues to hold positions on a number of boards and works with several charity organizations.

6) Have some money in the bank. The first few years can be tough, and being desperate for a paycheque could be your demise. “Prepare yourself financially to focus on the client,” says Mak. “If you’re passionate and your goal is to help people, the money will flow.”

Brynna Leslie