Profile: George Kinder, the father of life planning

George Kinder, founder of the Kinder Institute of Life Planning, explains why financial planners need to spend more time listening to their clients to help them achieve their life goals
by Dominic Dudley

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George Kinder CFP®, known as the ‘father of life planning’, has had a greater impact on the financial planning profession than almost any other individual over the past three decades. In the mid-1990s, he played a formative role in the creation of life planning, which is an enhanced version of financial planning that looks beyond a client’s investment portfolio and financial product requirements to take account of their life goals and aspirations.

George established the Kinder Institute of Life Planning in 2003, after 30 years of practising as a financial planner and tax adviser. It provides training for financial planners in life planning, and, according to its website, has trained 3,000 professionals in 30 countries. 

“In a way, I have always been a life planner,” he says. “Financial planning is meant to be totally dedicated to your client. What unfortunately happened in the early days of financial planning was that it became hugely product-driven. But that's not what financial planning is about.”
The start of something newHis career began in a fairly conventional way, working for a large financial services firm in Boston, Massachusetts, following completion of a graduate programme in accountancy. Prior to that he had completed an English, economics and history of art degree at Harvard in 1971. By 1973, he had set up on his own as a personal financial adviser, offering tax advice for individuals, small businesses and corporate clients.

For George, the consultancy was a way to support his greater interest in the arts and meditation, and at that time in particular, he was developing as a poet and illustrator. Here, he began to explore ideas around the meaning and purpose of money as it relates to our lives. 

Life planning v financial planning
Traditionally, financial planners would seek to help a client achieve their financial goals. Life planners, on the other hand, take a more holistic view of their client’s needs to include the aspirations they have for their whole lives and not just their bank balance, helping them to pursue their ambitions with the help of a concrete financial plan. In the words of the Kinder Institute, “life planning focuses on the human side of financial planning".
George says the idea of life planning began when his consultancy morphed into a financial planning practice in 1983. “I didn’t understand any other way of doing financial planning than putting the client first and discovering what they wanted most to achieve in life. Most of my clients had been therapists, counsellors, entrepreneurs, professors and psychologists. I attended their weekend workshops to learn more about their lives and careers and learned the listening skills that became life planning from them.”

He met lawyer-turned-financial adviser Richard Wagner at an event at the Institute for Certified Financial Planners (ICFP) in the early 1990s in the US, where they bonded over the idea that there could be more to financial planning. Following the event, their relationship and ideas of life planning began to develop further. 

In 1994, Wagner and George were asked to lead three sessions at the ICFP Retreat in Colorado Springs. The topic of the sessions was the human side of money, and this was the formal start of life planning. The power of listeningThe essence of the life planning approach is to ask clients some penetrating questions and then listen carefully to the answers. While some may think active listening – defined in a previous Review article as "a way of listening and responding to another person that improves understanding and creates trust" – doesn’t come naturally to them, George says it is something that can be taught in a few days of training. He explains that you can be quiet and engaged at the same time.

“What we aim for in life planning is a very high quality of listening skill, but listening in a way that diminishes talking about ourselves so we really change the meaning into a client-based meaning,” he says. 

There are a few key questions George puts to his clients. Money goals are of course important, but he is also interested in their non-financial ambitions. He asks clients what they would do if they knew they only had five to ten years left to live, and what they would do if they had just 24 hours left to live.

These are profound issues for anyone to grapple with. Over the years, clients’ responses have included saying they want to spend more time with their kids or write the novel that has been bubbling away inside them, to act in a film or play jazz in a nightclub, or give something back to their local community, says George. 

“What we've discovered is that clients are holding back from doing those things and that's tragic. When we say to clients: ‘You can have that, we can make that happen’, that's freedom for the client and they have so much more vitality in their life. Then our job is to figure out how to make it happen. It may be they need to work a little bit less in their current job, shift their habits a bit, to experience that freedom.”

Asking the right questions and listening carefully to the answers may appear to be a straightforward approach, but to some it has been almost revolutionary. “Clients have said they were stunned at my approach. They asked me why their broker didn't ask questions and listen like I did,” he says.

Underlying George’s approach is his strong belief in the importance of mindfulness. “Life planning is based in mindfulness,” he says. “Mindfulness is where we practice letting go of our attachments, our obsessions and we focus on just really being in the present moment. It means that we can bring that quality of attention to whoever we're there with. I highly recommend adopting it as a practice. It's fabulous if you want to be a great financial adviser.”
Taking a leadSuch an approach is not yet fully in the mainstream and, although the sector may be evolving, old attitudes take time to change, among financial planners and their clients. George thinks that consumers often still view financial advisers with distrust, although things are moving in the right direction, with advisers getting better at listening to their clients so that they have a greater understanding of their needs.

George’s thinking has been set out in a number of books over the years and has been promoted via the workshops, training and consulting offered by the Kinder Institute. Although he has been working for some 50 years and is now 71 years old, he does not appear inclined to slow down. He appears to thrive on the energy he gets from his work and says he’s aiming to live until he’s 120. “I'm not sure I know what retirement is,” he says. “I anticipate leading conversations in this movement for many years to come, it brings more energy into me.”

For those hoping to follow in his footsteps and make a career in financial planning, his advice is very much in tune with what he has told his clients over the years. “The most important thing is realising what it is you really want to do,” he says. “Most people who are choosing this career really want to connect with their clients and if it's not for the client then, frankly, I think you're in the wrong profession.”

Meanwhile, George practises what he preaches, combining life planning work with writing books and poems, and being a photographer and artist. “I live my life plan. One of the things we train advisers to do is live their life plan and then deliver life planning to other people,” he says. 

“My life plan is getting up early in the morning and going out to a small writer's cabin I have. It's surrounded by water and it's very beautiful. I love living in nature. That's very important to me as an artist, as a spiritual person. When I'm finished writing, at about 2pm, I go to work in my office.”
A golden future?George’s most recent book, A golden civilization: the map of mindfulness, was released in March 2019. It is the product of some eight years of writing and George says: “It is about life planning, but it's also about life planning civilisation.”

In the book, he sets out a vision for what a ‘golden civilisation’ might look like. The book owes much to George’s innate sense of optimism. He points out “there's a lot of distrust, anxiety, frustration, there’s a lot of polarisation in communities”. Much of that stems from disenchantment with the political system as well as concerns about environmental destruction around the world, but rather than wallow in negativity, his book focuses on what can be changed. 

“I have no choice but to counter the negativity and the only way we can do that as a society is to build a vision that is sustainable,” he says. “Sustainable democracy, sustainable freedom, a sustainable and golden civilisation. I just think it's time. Why don't we just make it happen?”

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Published: 14 Jun 2019
  • Financial Planning
  • People
  • The Review
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  • George Kinder
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