How Merrill Private Wealth Is Using Data to Help Advisors Serve Women

“The wealth transfer is not a future phenomenon, it’s here now,” says Lindsay Hans, the new head of Merrill Private Wealth.


Courtesy photo

Lindsay Hans, who has spent more than two decades in financial services, was born into the industry. At a time when family finances weren’t always discussed openly, Hans remembers sitting around the kitchen table while her father, a financial advisor, and her mother discussed money.

For many women in America, money still is a taboo topic. Yet women play an increasingly important role in wealth, controlling more than a third of total U.S. household assets. By 2030, women are expected to control much of the $30 trillion in financial assets belonging to baby boomers.

“I’m a byproduct of that [open discussion of wealth] and I think it’s important that we as an industry, and advisors, can create that for our women clients,” Hans said.

In February, Hans was appointed head of Merrill Private Wealth Management, International and Institutional, replacing Don Plaus, who retired after 32 years at the company. She also is a member of the Bank of America’s Global Diversity and Inclusion Council and a National Executive Sponsor on the Merrill Women’s Exchange.

Hans and her team believe in a data-driven approach to wealth management. She sat down with RIA Intel to discuss women and wealth for women’s history month and the research Merrill has done around gender in wealth management.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

You’ve taken on a major leadership role in the industry. What do you think this signals about women in wealth?

My hope is that it signals our firm’s commitment to modernizing our business and the industry. Whether that’s from a client perspective or the leadership side. The pace of change is rapid. The wealth transfer is not a future phenomenon, it’s here now. I’m excited about the opportunity to lead this particular business against that backdrop.

As you said, the wealth transfer is happening now, and women do control a large percentage of total wealth. What are some the of the misconceptions and stereotypes about women and wealth and why do you think these exist?

At Merrill we think it’s important to have a data-driven discussion about this. In our study, “Seeing the Unseen: The Role Gender Plays in Wealth Management,” we polled 4,000 investors at multiple firms who work with advisors. We observed clients in meetings with their advisors and incorporated technology on eye tracking, and we were able to pick up on verbal and nonverbal cues through this study.

The first thing we found is that women can be an advisor’s best client. A lot of women clients told us that they feel overwhelmingly positive about their financial advisor relationship. They had really high levels of satisfaction and were very likely to recommend their advisor, and in some cases, even more prone to refer out their advisor.

But when we look a little deeper, we found that there were some gender biases, conscious and unconscious, from both male and female advisors. The most frequent kind were advisors assuming that the male client is the key decision maker, that a woman wants strong direction, that a couple will always have merged finances, that women are less knowledgeable than men about investing, and that women are more risk averse than men. All of these are not always the case.

Why do you think these stereotypes exists?

Looking at conscious bias, part of it is historical, women do control wealth now, but it wasn’t always that way. Some of that legacy thinking is now outdated. The industry has been a little slow to catch up to women’s role in wealth. And when we think about the unconscious biases that an advisor might have for whatever reason, I think we just need to acknowledge that these biases exist. We identify them, we educate, and we bring awareness. A lot of this research that we’ve done has multiple goals. It’s understanding our clients and our prospective clients in a way that we can better serve them. But it’s also helpful to us internally to use as an educational tool to bring awareness to some of these biases, especially when they’re unconscious.

How can advisors better serve women and their financial planning needs going forward?

One is to be very cognizant of some assumptions that we make about women and be sure not to make those, just starting from a position of listening and learning. When I think about all the advisors that I’ve worked with over my career, the best advisors ask the right questions. Some of what we’ve learned from our research is that roughly 60 percent of women say that they would rather talk about their own death than money. And we can really play a role as advisors in changing that dynamic and creating the environment to be able to talk about these topics.

It’s not just women that are underserved within wealth management and with financial advice. When considering clients that are typically underserved in wealth management what are the things that you wish advisors would take into consideration when dealing with them?

I think it’s understanding that there’s diversity within diversity. So, avoiding the tendency to paint everything with a broad brush and understanding that there are unique journeys among different types of clients. We did a diversity points research study, which was understanding affluence in the U.S. and really looking specifically at the Hispanic-Latino community, LGBTQ+, as well as African-American and comparing them to the affluent in the general population. We looked at what were the main life goals among those groups. We found that Hispanic-Latino clients are typically four times as likely to say their most important financial goal is to help their aging parents. LGBTQ+ people are 45 percent more likely to choose giving back and supporting their community as their top priority. And then in the African-American community, they were 25 percent more likely to be motivated by a desire to set future generations up for success. Those are three distinctly different goals and that’s important for advisors to know.

Everyone talks about increasing the diversity of advisors. But little progress has been made. Is enough really being done to address this?

That’s a great question. I think it’s incumbent on our industry to recognize this as both a moral imperative and a commercial imperative. It’s putting it right alongside key strategic business goals, not behind them. We need to reflect the diverse markets and communities where we work, live, and serve. The demand is coming from clients and external constituents. Seventy-five percent of women under 45 manage their own finances. Again, it’s not the future, it’s now.

Our industry has been challenged over its history with accountability on this topic and at Merrill we’ve met those challenges head on. We built diversity into our leadership scorecards. And we have publicly shared the composition of our diverse advisor population and our hope is that other firms follow.

I think the industry needs more advisors to really meet all of the wealth expansion that’s occurring. And that needs to be through dedicated training programs that can address the historical barriers to entry that at times have existed for talent coming into this business. That’s been a core part of our focus. We view training as an investment.

I’ve often thought about how this has been just such an unbelievably rewarding and fulfilling career, for me and so many people I work with, men and women. Yet, if we just look at the percentage of women advisors, we’re still not even close to mirroring the U.S. population in our industry. Oftentimes we see women being drawn to other fields at a higher pace than wealth management. So, while there’s been so much modernization of our business, there’s still a lot of room to grow. But it’s also really exciting when you think about how much opportunity we have to grow and accelerate the hiring of women and minorities.

Holly Deaton (@HollyLDeaton) is a staff writer at RIA Intel and based in New York City.
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