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Profile: ‘Advice firms need to change training processes to attract more women’

John Lamb managing partner on freeing the profession from a sales culture to encourage more female advisers

Some people use the term “ivory tower” to mock those in privileged positions, who they feel have no understanding of what it is like to live in the real world. However, when John Lamb managing partner Paula Steele uses the term to describe her position at the firm where she has spent the past 41 years, she understands the realities of being a financial adviser only too well. It is just that some of those realities do not reflect the business she runs.

Take the low number of female advisers relative to men, for example. “At John Lamb, we have lots of female advisers and clients. But some firms have no female advisers, although half their clients are women,” says Steele.

“I was talking to someone recently about their academy and their plans to get more women in. But when you hear about how they are going to go about it, it’s the same old, same old. They won’t keep them.”

She points out that a lot of women are paraplanners reluctant to become advisers.

“Part of what advisers do is get clients in – sales – and many women don’t want to do that or are not taught to do it. Firms will have to change their training processes if they want to attract female advisers.”

For Steele, the sales side of the job still revolves too much around how many meetings people have had and how many leads they have, as that is what those in senior roles – usually men – tend to judge people on.

“That is not good for women and it’s not where the FCA wants people to be,” she says. “We need to get women to buy into the process, without referring to it as a sales one.”

In what is sadly still seen as a man’s world in advice, Steele is no stranger to inappropriate and patronising jokes. She adds: “When I say I run an advice business, they say ‘well done’. They would never say that to another man, but I just laugh about it.

Five questions

What is the best bit of advice you’ve received in your career?

Don’t expect people to thank you for just doing your job.

What keeps you awake at night?

Concern for the future. John Lamb is in a solid place but I do sometimes think, ‘oh my God’.

What has had the most significant impact on financial advice in the last year?

The increase in the FOS compensation limit.

If I was in charge of the FCA for a day I would…

Think about what we could do to make advice more positive. When I started out, I was advising little old ladies with no money, but most of our advisers haven’t.

Any advice for new advisers?

Read around your subject, and read about other things like the arts and politics. You need to put your advice into context and have something to talk to clients about.

“I’m amazed that men in their 30s and 40s have the same approach today. I can’t say I have really seen much change.”

Switching the focus to female clients, Steele says the patronising equivalent to “well done” is “don’t worry dear, we’ll look after you”.

This approach does not help women in situations where they have never been involved in financial decisions because their husbands or partners dealt with them, only to become widowed or divorced, and not knowing what to do.

“Women need a more educational approach that provides them with information. What should be said is, ‘we will help you learn how to deal with it’. They need an understanding of what advisers are doing for them, otherwise it’s hopeless,” she says.

“And if we don’t help clients understand what we do, there is greater risk we will get sued.”

Steele started her career in financial services as an actuarial trainee but left when an office move meant she would need to commute to work.

She joined John Lamb in 1978 as what would now be called a paraplanner.

“Then he moved me into advice,” she says. “When I had my second child, I found him a paraplanner who was good at administration and when I got back from maternity leave, he said I should talk to the clients.”

Steele has stayed with the firm so long because there was no impetus to move. Becoming managing partner, which meant becoming a business owner, provided flexibility that was helpful when bringing up her three children.

“I’ve had job offers but I’ve never been sure the grass is going to be any greener,” she says.


1978-present: Various roles to managing partner, John Lamb; director of John Lamb Insurance Broking since 2015; and managing director of John Lamb Wealth from 2018

1974-1978: Trainee actuary, actuarial franchise of SunLife

She also found the move from employee to business owner changed the dynamics, so moving on, even if she had wanted to, would have been more complicated as it would have meant selling the firm.

She says the biggest change she has witnessed during her career is the amount of paperwork required.

“A report today is 10 times as long as when I started – but if someone is unhappy, we’d be dead if the audit trail wasn’t there,” she says.

“The other thing is that when I started, advisers gave advice. The report would say, ‘I recommend you do the following’.

“Now the reports are more likely to say, ‘here are the options, please let me know what you want to do’. If you understand your clients, you make the right decision, but nobody is putting their neck on the block.”

That said, she understands advisers are concerned about making mistakes and being censured by the FCA. She acknowledges clients will not know how good the quality of their advice has been for 20 or 30 years, but feels the pendulum has swung too far against the adviser.

The increase in the Financial Ombudsman Service compensation limit from £150,000 to £350,000 is one example, taking the limit beyond the level at which clients would go to court. “The increase in the FOS limit is massive and it will take a number of firms out of defined benefit transfer advice. The professional indemnity implications are such that a lot of firms will be out and the cost of advice will go up,” she says.

Steele notes that John Lamb is not doing DB transfer business until there is more clarity in the market, and is unconvinced the increase will not have much impact.

“That’s not what we’re being told. Our PI insurer has said it will not impose a mid-term price increase, but there was me thinking we were on a fixed-rate premium,” she says.


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There is one comment at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. Paula is absolutely correct about the challenges in our industry. The starting point to encourage more women into Financial Advice is to change the way businesses are run. This will also bring in more millennials.

    In nearly 30 years in the industry I still see far too much focus on sales and meeting targets and not enough on service and support. Financial advice is built upon honesty and integrity and at the heart of this is a trusting relationship between Adviser and client.

    Training for new advisers should focus as much on these softer skills and not simply on getting trainees through their exams as quickly as possible to meet targets.

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