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Summer’s Slow Slide

September is neither the delight of summer nor the glory of autumn.

It’s the doused campfire and the set alarm clock. It’s the bang of Labor Day and the whimper of work. It’s the year’s bummingest buzzkill.

It’s time to get back to work. Agents and advisors re-engage with clients who are suddenly more interested in insurance and financial planning. Salespeople look to the rest of the year and its long slog toward the annual goal. Lobbyists wade into another season of bills and brickbats. Many things start but not much happens, yet.

It’s easy to fall into the rhythm of the cycle. Every time of the year has its own things to do as we move people along. Strangers morph into prospects into clients into referrals.

It’s difficult to understand our impact as we constantly look for the next opportunity and accomplish all the tasks on our lists. The years and people flow in and out, just as jaded teachers see the latest class as yet another wave lapping on the beach of their classrooms and fading to another part of the building, then another school, then another town.

I see a version of this cycle behind my house, in a small park tucked in the middle of our block. In my neighborhood with its many renters, new kids discover the park each summer. My wife and I have to teach a new group to respect the space, be kind to the equipment and pick up after themselves. We remind them that they are part of a community that cares about the park.

In the first few years, it seemed a little frustrating to have to do this year after year, especially because they don’t seem to pay much attention to the noise coming out of our mouths. Well, my wife connects with them to some degree. I’m pretty much blah, blah, blah.

But some kids pop out of the pack, like Jackson, a pudgy, grinning imp of a 6-year-old. He often came over and asked what I was doing in the garage and I answered his stream of questions. I showed him how to put the chain back on his bicycle as he poked at my hearing aid, asking what it was.

I was often around as his dad wasn’t, just as mine wasn’t. I figured I may as well be the neighbor I wished I had. Maybe Jackson will pass that along, radiating down the line like a smile glimpsed in a crowd.

I don’t know if I’ll ever see Jackson again but sometimes I notice teenagers stopping by the park they used to rule. I’m sure they see that it isn’t quite the green expanse they remembered and I wonder what they recall when they see the older version of me. I realized those moments around the park mean something, whether I mean them to or not, as each September scoops these children away.

Of course, sometimes something trips up September’s sedate march from summer to fall. Those who lived through Sept. 11, 2001, will always remember that day. Their children will remember it, too, but maybe not their children or the generation after. It’s difficult to imagine, but that infamous date will settle into the history books next to the others, such as Dec. 7, 1941.

Sept. 15, 2008, is fading even faster. Five years later, people already are sketchy on the collapse that led to the deepest recession since World War II. On that date:

  • Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy: One of the most venerated investment houses closed after 158 years of operation.
  • Merrill Lynch got absorbed by Bank of America: That $50 billion deal was more of a shotgun wedding orchestrated by Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson.
  • AIG fell: The insurance giant could not come up with the money necessary to meet billions of dollars in collateral calls triggered by its credit and rating downgrades.

The days and months that followed featured new, unimagined lows until The New Normal became regular-old normal. Now, we’re used to underemployment and anxiety about the future. Well-intentioned financial reform that was supposed to protect the public has been blunted by bickering. Instead of refining good rules by which everybody can play, we are by half-measures building a Dodd-Frankenstein that could choke the life out of an industry without realizing it.

I spent a few days at the Society of Financial Service Professionals’ annual clinic, which is part of FSP’s annual meeting. They really focus on the “professional” part of their name and buckle down on learning. One of the concerns I heard was of clients’ growing desire to race back to stocks and abandon the careful planning consistent with their values and goals.

FSP members discussed ways to steer people back to their vision. But I’m sure many other advisors are fine with moving the money, charging the fees and making the commissions.

Later, the tide will pull back again and where will those clients be? They will drift into an old age darkened by fear and uncertainty while their former advisors look to the next wave of prospects.

When your clients look back on what you did with them, will it be with gratitude for securing the future for them and their successive generations? Did you serve them or did you serve yourself?

This is worth considering as we go about our business during the cooling embers of summer.

Nothing much happens in September. But sometimes everything does.

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