An MBA provides broader understanding of how business works, but a Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards (CFP Board) research report says the addition of a CFP packs an even more powerful punch for women who want to go into the field of financial and investment planning. Meet Susan Chesson – Executive Vice President and Senior Wealth Advisor at Focus Wealth Management in Fairfax, Virginia – and learn how she made the leap from Fortune 500 corporate treasury and finance positions to her current and more fulfilling role in financial planning.
Please describe what your job entails and give some specific examples of daily activities in your role at Focus Wealth Management.
I am Executive Vice President and a Senior Wealth Advisor at Focus Wealth Management, a woman-owned investment management and financial planning firm based in Fairfax, Virginia. Focus was founded 16 years ago, and we now have 165 clients with $300 million in assets under management. I work directly with about 45 clients, reviewing their accounts, responding to questions, and managing their portfolios. Investments are really a tool for my most important job, which is to make sure my clients have financial security.
One-third of our clients are single women – divorced or widowed or never married. We are a small, closely-held firm of eight employees so I also have a “weekend” job where I do firm administrative and management tasks. That is an important distinction between a small firm and large company – your management responsibilities extend to human resources, for example, and other things that would fall outside your scope at a large company.
What do you like most about your job?
I love working with clients, and I enjoy making connections, looking for new clients and helping people. My absolute favorite thing about what I do is looking at someone’s financial life – which can look like spaghetti on a messy plate at first – and help them untangle the knots and put the pieces together to create something logical.
Path to Finance
What inspired you to pursue your MBA, and how has it helped in your career?
I moved to the US from the UK with a liberal arts degree. I had always wanted to get into finance or banking and knew I wouldn’t be able to land in that field without an MBA. I got my MBA right after undergrad and started my business career.
With a degree in French and Russian from Oxford, how did you make the leap to business?
At Oxford, you could study whatever you wanted. The value of education is in the process of learning 1:1 with a professor, learning to think on your feet, write well and make rational arguments. When I left Oxford, I had offers from three investment banks. There is no straight path to this career, and there is a lot of validity to having a liberal arts background. You get to follow your passion as an undergrad and get your MBA or CFP later, which is a great way to do things.
What inspired you to pursue the CFP designation, and how has it affected your career?
Right after I got an MBA, I went into a corporate treasury role at Hewlett Packard. After a few years, I took a position at Fannie Mae where I worked in finance and got an opportunity to manage the company’s pension finds. In running the defined benefit plan and 401k, people asked me questions about their own portfolios and I realized just how little I knew about personal finances. Financial planning was a whole field I wasn’t aware of. I realized that I wanted to help people understand their financial position and decided to take the CFP. Financial planning is exciting because it is about problem solving, working directly with clients and answering their questions about retirement.
A recent CFP Board research report says that “women who hold both an MBA and a CFP® certification is a rare and special species” and that it benefits women in salary increases and advancement. What do you see as the value of having both MBA and CFP?
To work at Focus, a CFP designation is mandatory. The CFP really is the gold standard. I wouldn’t hire someone without one and, therefore, I wouldn’t want to be without a CFP. The addition of the MBA has given me a better understanding of:
- Risk management and financial statements, for example, which comprise a broad background in business;
- How to run a small business, which is what I spend much of my time doing; and
- The moving parts and business concerns of our clients’ businesses because many of them are entrepreneurs.
Please give a high-level overview of your path from undergrad to where you are now in your career, including the major milestones along the way.
I started off working for Fortune 500 companies in treasury management and corporate finance. One of my goals was to become a director by the time I was 40, which I missed by just three weeks! I also dabbled in consulting when I worked at BearingPoint for one year, and a few years later I became a self-employed consultant.
I have had some fascinating opportunities in investment management and corporate finance. For example, I worked at Fannie Mae and at the Federal Reserve Board, but those roles lacked an opportunity to work with individuals to problem solve at the personal level. What I do today is very similar to my past work in corporate finance and treasury, but now I have a personal impact and am working with fewer zeroes.
Closing the Gender Gap
Forté seeks to launch women into successful business careers. According to the recent CFP Board research report, 23% of CFP® professionals were women at the end of 2016. Do you have any thoughts about why there are fewer female than male CFPs?
I don’t know why, and all the women I know who work in finance are mystified. It’s a great, flexible career and you can do so much with it. It’s like social work on steroids. We are all working hard to bring more women into the industry. For example, I speak as often as possible to young women in their 20s about financial planning, and about opportunities in our industry.
I see that Focus Wealth Management is a woman-owned business. Is that unusual in the investment advisory world? Are there advantages to being a woman-owned business, for employees and/or clients?
All eight are currently women, but it is not by design. We have had men work for us. We are not “shiny shoe mahogany” – we are very approachable and not intimidating. While we don’t seek out single women clients, recently widowed or single women often come to us because of our approachability.
Any advice for young women who are considering going into finance/investment advisory or who are considering a CFP or MBA? How can they be successful?
My advice to young women is to go to a Financial Planning Association (FPA) meeting. They have a NexGen networking group for people under the age of 36 who want to get into the industry. They also offer annual career fairs with panel discussions. There are lots of paths you can take once you get into finance. Also look for mentors – I have had phenomenal women mentors. The CFP Board and the FPA can both offer guidance there.
What are your biggest lessons in business to date, and do you have advice for young women who may be interested in a business career?
You don’t need to know from Day 1 what you want to do and how you want to do it. There are so many paths to a successful career in business. Gain a lot of experiences – take a winding path to determine what you want, and don’t ever feel like you failed because what you tried didn’t work. With an MBA, you have so much flexibility. Take a position if it is appealing, and keep moving forward.
Coming All Together
If you had to pick only one career “wow moment,” what would it be?
When I joined Focus 5½ years ago, I felt like I found home. I love getting up every day and going to work. I took a year off in 2011 to prepare for the CFP, and I also had an unpaid internship. I saw an ad for a job at Focus and, after the interview, they offered me the position right away. The stars and moon were aligned, but I helped prepare for it by having an internship and networking at local FPA meetings.
About the CFP® Board Center for Financial Planning:
The CFP Board Center for Financial Planning seeks to create a more diverse and sustainable financial planning profession so that every American has access to competent and ethical financial planning advice. The Center brings together CFP® professionals, firms, educators, researchers and experts to address profession-wide challenges in the areas of diversity and workforce development, and to build an academic home that offers opportunities for conducting and publishing new research that adds to the financial planning body of knowledge. More about the Center and its initiatives can be found at www.CenterforFinancialPlanning.org.