Despite her successful financial planning practice, Judi Hernandez began longing for something more a few years ago.
“I was feeling divided,” Hernandez said, “as if I left a part of myself outside the door when I walked into my office. There was my personal self and my professional self.”
After graduating from Michigan State University with a bachelor of arts in finance, Hernandez worked in banking investment management in Michigan, New York City and London, England. For the past eight years, she has been a partner and Certified Financial Planner at Cedar Brook Financial Partners, LLC, in West Bloomfield, Mich.
“When I entered the financial industry 21 years ago, there were fewer women than there are today,” Hernandez said. “So I modeled my style after my male colleagues. I learned a lot of great things from them, but I put some of my feminine gifts aside in the process.”
Five or six years ago, Hernandez looked at her book of business and realized a high percentage of clients were women.
“I think that just happened naturally,” she said. “Perhaps it was my style of communicating, educating and working with people that caused women to gravitate toward me. At the same time, I really enjoy working with women because they appreciate someone who has the patience to educate them. So I began looking for ways to market to them. Initially, I did a few seminars focused on different women’s market demographics with some basic information on financial planning, investments or mutual funds.”
Finding that traditional approach unappealing, Hernandez looked for something that would draw women in. She found what she was seeking through Directions for Women, an organization that advocates using Women’s Money Circles to initiate meaningful conversations about finances in a collaborative group setting.
After attending one of the organization’s training retreats, Hernandez wasted no time getting started.
“I called a number of clients and told them, ‘I’m doing something new and different I think you’d enjoy,’” she said. “To my surprise, a dozen women came.”
Leading her first few circles was rather intimidating, Hernandez recalled.
“Some of my most significant clients came, and I wondered what their impression would be,” she said. “I was stepping out of my conventional approach with a new format. For example, we began the sessions with a breathing exercise or by closing our eyes and getting centered.”
Much to her relief, the women who participated were willing to open up with people they didn’t know, ask questions and share how money impacts their lives. At the end of the evenings, their responses were overwhelmingly positive. They told Hernandez how much they enjoyed the depth of the conversations and said they felt like they were talking with friends they had known for years.
“The mission of Directions for Women makes so much sense to me,” Hernandez said, “using conversation circles to empower, educate and engage women in the management of their personal finance. Most clients and prospects – if not all – have a bigger story; they are dealing with emotions and challenges that their individual numbers don’t reveal. Those personal issues may keep them from asking questions or from even talking to a financial advisor in the first place. How can we really help them if we don’t delve further to find out what those stories are?”
Hernandez followed suggestions for structuring the conversations in “The Circle Way,” a book written by Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea. It includes rules about confidentiality and tools that help facilitate discussions, such as passing a talking stick from person to person to ensure everyone has a chance to express themselves, and no one is interrupted.
Employing conversation circles has come to feel natural to Hernandez.
“It’s really not new,” she said. “Sharing is what women do. We call our girlfriends, mothers or sisters and ask their opinions about things or let them know what we are thinking about. Unfortunately, we haven’t done that as much when it comes to money. But why not talk about what it feels like to invest and how we align money decisions with our values? Once women do, they realize, ‘I’m not so different from everyone else. I do actually have resources around me.’ And they are freed to ask questions, because they realize someone else probably has the same question.”
Although no marketing is done during the conversations, Hernandez believes they help her form deeper bonds with prospects and clients, and change the kind of conversations she has with them at other times as well.
“We get to the heart of people’s personal goals, why they are doing financial planning,” she said.
Describing how her new approach benefits her personally, Hernandez said, “It’s allowed another part of me to come out as I engage in more honest and authentic conversations. I’m bringing my whole self to work now.”