Make Financial Services Conferences Great—For the First Time

I started writing this article several months ago, after a friend of mine shared some of the bad experiences she’s had with men at financial services conferences.

Being called a “sweetheart,” having hands placed on her in unwanted places, being shunned from serious topics of conversation—her experiences are, unfortunately, not uncommon for women in this industry.

Instead, they’re the norm.

But I set writing the post aside as summer got busy, client work took precedence, and I moved onto other things planned on my content calendar. 

I shouldn’t have waited to prioritize calling out bad behavior until a new crisis came up in the industry, but that’s what I did, and that’s my bad.

This week, Ken Fisher of Fisher Investments (the guy with the gag-inducing commercials that everyone inexplicably seems to like) spoke at the Tiburon CEO Summit, one of the more exclusive events around for industry leaders.

Ken said some things that, well, let’s be honest—aren’t all that uncommon to hear from guys in financial services. He made a number of sexist and demeaning remarks. 

In fact, surprise, he’s even said them before at previous conferences. And yet the industry still welcomes him to speak.

The difference this time is that Alex Chalekian of Lake Avenue Financial had the courage to call him out on his bullshit. 

You can watch Alex’s video on Twitter right here, or check out the embedded version below.

The whole situation brought me back to this article that I’d left alone—back to the need to not be silent and remain in the uncomfortable shadows along with everyone else—back to how I’ve tended to support my friends in private, but not be outspoken in public. 

My original draft was a little more gentle. A little more in the zone of “Hey, I know financial services has been a boy’s club for a long time, but let’s do our part to move past that now, ok?”

But I’m not about that life right now. 

Even for me, there have been various points over the last ten years when I’ve wanted to leave financial services behind because of the arrogant, sexist, and often racist environment created by people “just joking around.”

I’d look at people like that and think, “Do I really want to work for people like this? If this is what the most successful people here are like, is this a place worth supporting?”

It’s not an attitude and a lifestyle I want to emulate. But every time I’ve been ready to tap out—and I’ve definitely tried—it’s the friendships I’ve created in this industry that have convinced me not to leave it behind. 

And it’s because of many of those relationships that these things need to be said—because many of the great life-long friends I’ve made are women who are personally affected by these instances, much more than I am.

The most I can do right now is to use the platform I have, as small as it may be, to call attention to how we (and when I say “we” I primarily mean the white male majority) can create an industry that is inclusive, welcoming, and comfortable for all people, no matter who they are. 

So with all that out of the way, let’s get into it. 

Here’s how to not be a scumbag at your next conference.

Keep Your Hands to Yourself

Let’s start with the most obvious way to make conferences better for everyone: Keep your hands to yourself.

You know who’s awesome at this? Keanu Reeves. Check out this photo of him. Every time he takes a picture with a female fan, he puts his arm around them—but then just hovers the hand instead of touching skin.

Now, I know what you’re saying in your head right now. I took debate in high school so I know all about addressing objections. You’re trying to argue my point. You’re saying, “But Johnny, what about all the people who are huggers? I’m a hugger. It’s how I bond. Am I not supposed to hug my friends anymore?”

I’m not telling you to stop hugging your friends. Stop trying to get around the issue. 

Here’s how you can make sure you don’t have a physical interaction that makes a woman at a conference uncomfortable: Let her decide how the interaction is going to go. 

Don’t go right in for the front hug. Just don’t.

You’re meeting for the first time. Great. If she offers a handshake, go for a firm handshake. If she offers an embrace, give her a quick one-arm hug. Don’t linger. Don’t make it weird. 

And if you take a photo with a woman and put your arm around her, the shoulder or top of the back is a good landing spot. 

Small of the back, right on the cusp of her butt? Not so much. 

Pretend you’re in seventh grade at church camp and only side hugs are allowed or you’ll be kicked out of Camp La Croix.

While we’re on the topic of unwanted touching, let’s also talk about name badges. I know that some events don’t print the names big enough and they can be hard to read, but don’t use that as an excuse to grab someone else’s badge so you can bring it to eye level.

It’s awkward, you’re getting your hands too far up in someone else’s business, and based on where badges tend to hang on a person's body, you’re likely to get a feel of more than the name badge.

Stop with the “Just Joking”

Once upon a time, maybe in like fourth grade, you could get away with saying you were “just joking” after making an insulting comment or offhand remark. 

Guess what. You aren’t in fourth grade anymore. Did you see any tetherball courts at the last conference you attended?

At this point, everyone knows that you weren’t joking when you say “just joking” after a bad take.

What you were is being an ass. 

Own up to your remarks. Apologize. Move on. Be better next time. 

Don’t use the companion phrase to “just joking” — “where’s your sense of humor?” — in an attempt to distance yourself from what was said. Trying to brush it off and trivialize the uncomfortable situation you created only makes things worse for the people hurt by it.

You’re an adult who owns a business. Act with the responsibility and maturity that requires.

Flush Your Nicknames

There is only one person who is allowed to call another adult a “sweetheart” or a “doll.” 

That person is a grandma. And 83% of the time it’s when she’s thanking a teenage grocery store worker for helping her put her groceries in her car.

Are you an eighty-year-old woman? No?

Then please, for the love of all that is holy, stop referring to your colleagues as “dear” or “sweetheart” or “doll” or any other nickname that could belittle their success and have them be seen as less than the peer to you that they are.

This kind of language is outdated and has no place in the modern financial services scene. You can be well-intentioned and still be making a mistake. 

The key is to put in the time to understand why those terms may make someone else feel less than, and then be intentional about stripping them from your vocabulary.


Assume Everyone is an Owner

At the heart of my previous point about nicknames is that there is still very much a perception among a large swath of advisors that the women at conferences are not partners or owners themselves.

Many of the guys will automatically assume that a woman is a client services associate or administrative assistant or—worst of all—just the wife of an advisor attending the conference,  as if a wife couldn’t also be an owner or partner in a firm.

As bad as it is to call someone you just met “beautiful” as a nickname, I think it’s even worse to demean them by assuming right out of the gate that they aren’t at your level.

A couple weeks ago I attended a conference where these exact types of encounters were told to me by a friend. She’s a partner at her firm. She’s recognizable and successful.

And yet, these are the interactions she still has to constantly suffer through with men at conferences.

The thing that annoys me so much about what I’m writing is that this is so, so easy to avoid.

When I meet anyone at a conference, I assume the best about them. When we introduce ourselves, their name and their firm usually come up first. My next question then is something along the lines of either “What role do you play at your firm?” or if I already know that they’re a financial advisor, “Are you a firm owner/partner?”

Probably 90% of the time, the answer is yes. And then if it’s not, there’s no harm done. If anything, that person probably feels good about themselves that you assumed they’re the top person at their company. 

If you ask for clarity about their role, you give them an opportunity to give insight about themselves without any preconceived judgments.

But when you start at the bottom, you create inequality and imbalance in whatever connection and conversation you’re trying to have. 

You not only demean the person you’re speaking with, you also portray yourself as ignorant. 

Stay in Control

You could think that you’re doing fine with all of these, but there’s one variable that can throw all the other things covered so far out the window: Alcohol.

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but people make bad decisions when they get drunk.

Conveniently, conferences are packed to the brim with free alcohol. What could ever go wrong?

When you’re at a conference, you’re at work. And when you’re at a social event at a conference, you’re still at work

When the cocktail reception is over, your responsibilities don’t end. Being in Vegas at T3 Enterprise doesn’t give you the freedom to lift up a colleague’s skirt because you had too many Jack and Cokes.

Staying in control and not drinking excessively is absolutely something that more men need to be aware of when attending conferences.

Here’s a technique to help you out, courtesy of my friend Christopher Norton, Director of Marketing at Potomac Fund Management.

Start off your night with a Jack and Coke or vodka on the rocks. 

After you’ve had two, switch to just Coke or just water. No one will hassle you about not drinking, because no one will know.

And then you can be the guy who gets everyone into the Uber and back to the hotel at the end of the night instead of the guy who can’t remember what he did the night before.


Final Takeaway: Men Need to Be Advocates

These are five really simple things you can do when participating at your next conference to make sure that you’re not creating (even unintentionally) an unwelcoming and uncomfortable experience for others present, especially your female colleagues.

There’s one more thing that I think needs to be said. If you are a man, it is essential that if you see another attendee at a conference violating any of these, that you step in and correct them. 

Your rebuke will probably be most effective if you can do it personally, and if you can do it in a helpful way instead of a shaming way. 

But however you do it, do it

We need the women and minorities in our industry to continue to speak up and share their experiences. Then, it’s our job to listen, learn and evolve. And the guys at the top have the greatest responsibility to be the drivers of change, because they still hold the power.

Financial services is only going to become a better (and more inclusive) industry for all if the people in power take the initiative to make it better. That starts with being intentional about the atmosphere and behavior allowed at events.

Thanks for reading.

Featured Image: Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash