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How to ride the 'whitewater' rapids — with a little help from your colleagues

SAN DIEGO — For many advisors, life can be like the most intense moments of whitewater rafting: volatile and uncertain.

But it's during those turbulent moments that advisors can zero in on serious problems and find solutions for them, according to Elizabeth Jetton, a former financial advisor who now enjoys a second career as a learning and development consultant with the FPA and adjunct professor at Golden Gate University's CFP Board registered financial planning program.

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In addition to swaying financial markets, "volatility is the state of life," Jetton, who served as president of the FPA in 2004, told attendees at the organization's annual retreat. "Uncertainty is the ground [advisors] work in."

To help advisors leverage volatility for their own — and their clients’ — benefit, Jetton laid out her system of action learning, "a process of inquiry, reflection and action" that can help solve "the wicked, complex problems" that can't be easily addressed.

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"These are the problems you can't just Google, ask Michael Kitces or find answers to in a CFP Board textbook,” Jetton said.

In action learning, advisors expand on their ideas by challenging them in a group forum.

Identifying the problem is half the battle — but it shouldn't be too complicated. "Don't overwork it. Often times, the first thing you think of is THE question … don't overthink it," she said.

Once the problem is identified, the action learning process requires collaboration. The advisor presents the dilemma to a diverse group of six or more individuals. The group — or helpers — then wrestle with it by asking "curious and open questions, rather than leading ones." The helpers and the problem holder then work to challenge inherent assumptions, and then reflect on and reframe the problem.

”Challenging assumptions” is a particularly tricky part of the process, as Jetton demonstrated with an audio recording of some real-life "wicked, complex problems" advisors had submitted for her presentation, pointing out the assumptions inherent in their very descriptions. For example, one advisor worried that he would have difficulty balancing a robust planning career with his growing family.

It's through the helpers' curious and open-ended questions that the problem holder can work toward debunking these assumptions and reframing the problem to become more solvable, Jetton said.

"Because the action learning process is question-only, it can foster diversity and ingenuity," said Atlanta-based financial coach and FPA Retreat Diversity Scholarship winner Cait Howerton, who offered an audio testimonial about the process for Jetton's presentation.

Although action learning helps advisors and their peers, it ultimately benefits clients. Fostering a space for clients to work out their own assumptions is crucial, Jetton said.

"When you're in an open environment, you have the opportunity to have your assumptions challenged. Unwittingly, when advisors act on clients' assumptions without challenging them first, they can end up "colluding with [clients] sometimes, robbing them of possibilities," she said.

At the end of the process, the problem holder should pledge to take an “inspired action” toward solving the problem based on the group’s findings.

"Each problem we are holding is a precious seed underground. We need to bring it forth — there's magic and power in it," Jetton says. Challenging assumptions through this process fosters growth, "like water or fertilizer," she said.

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