Most financial advisers see their job as helping clients manage money. Steve Sivak wants to help them manage life.
Sivak, 39, focuses on the human side of financial planning. “People are much more likely to stick with a financial plan that’s aligned with their values,” Sivak said. “While I don’t force it, I try to get them to talk about what is deep down.”
In initial meetings with clients, Sivak discusses their personal values as well as financial matters. To smooth the way, Sivak applies a technique that he picked up from George Kinder, a certified financial planner and founder of the Kinder Institute of Life Planning, which provides training and consulting to advisers.
From reading Kinder’s books, Sivak learned to ask new clients three questions to get to know them better. Through their responses, he’s able to tailor his advice to maximize his impact.
“I’ve found that so many people go through life on autopilot and fail to remember what they’re seeking,” Sivak said. “Kinder’s questions are designed to evaluate your values, spinning them around your mortality and finances.”
Here’s how Sivak poses these questions:
1. Imagine that you have more money than you’ll ever need. How would you live your life? What would you do tomorrow?
2. If a doctor told you that you have five to 10 years to live (while feeling healthy), what would you do with your time?
3. If a doctor told you that you have one or two days to live, what did you miss? What do you regret?
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Rather than ask clients to respond face-to-face, Sivak includes the inquiries in a questionnaire he gives to newcomers. He encourages couples to record their answers separately.
“Based on their responses, I see if they’re living true to their values,” he said. “In about one-fourth of the cases, they aren’t focusing on what matters most to them.”
For example, a young couple recently wrote of their love of world travel. But their hard-charging careers limited their mobility. Sivak suggested they designate an account to save enough money in two years to venture abroad. Labeling it a “Dream Trip” fund can further spur excitement.
“Focusing on Kinder’s questions changes the conversation from quantitative to qualitative,” Sivak said. “It goes from ‘What’s the best mutual fund for you?’ to ‘How can you live a better life?’ It’s not what clients expect from an adviser — an unemotional guy in a suit who crunches numbers. But I’ve gotten many referrals because I’m not that guy.”
Some people are reluctant to open up and reveal their innermost dreams, fears, and regrets. So Sivak sets the tone.
Diagnosed with cancer in early 2015, Sivak shares his experience spending three days in a hospital bed facing an uncertain future. He used that time to rethink his career — and plan for the eventual launch of his firm in 2016.
“If I sense that clients are holding back, I’ll say that I’ve been there,” he said. “I’ll tell them if you’re in a hospital bed not knowing how bad your cancer is, you’ll ask these questions and reset your priorities.”
Now healthy, Sivak’s cancer was caught early. But after losing family members to the disease, he finds that pondering your legacy — and confronting your mortality head-on — breeds clarity.
“Tragedy forces perspective,” he said. “When I see people running out of money but still buying the new BMW, I try to remind them that, in the face of tragedy, they are likely to forget the BMW.”