In Focus: Modern financial planner  

'I was really surprised at how emotional clients can get'

'I was really surprised at how emotional clients can get'
Joanna Little, chief executive of advice firm Emery Little. (Carmen Reichman)

Joanna Little became a fellow of the Personal Finance Society at the tender age of 27, but when it came to dealing with the emotional demands of advice, she faced a steep learning curve.

Little, an industrial economics graduate, became chief executive of advice firm Emery Little, a third generation family business, in 2019, taking over from her father Andy Little, who retired but still serves as chairman of the business.

Her ascent into financial planning was quick, she always excelled at the technical and academic side of things, but it was not until later in her career that she found her confidence to deal with the people side of financial planning and the emotional demands that came with them.

"It was really challenging. I mean, it still is to be honest, you know, just making sure that you're able to genuinely show empathy, be comfortable in those really long awkward silences," she says.

"[But] the big thing that I've learned is just because I might not have gone through the exact same life events as a client, doesn't mean that I can't show empathy for what they're feeling because if someone's feeling sad about a divorce, just because I haven't gone through a divorce doesn't mean that I don't know what it's like to be sad.

"You can connect with people. So I think listening and genuine empathy, you can't really go too wrong with those things."

Little's journey to financial advice started young. She was stamping investment literature in her dad's makeshift home office from the age of 8 and progressed to helping out with admin tasks in the office by age 14. From then on she would regularly help out in the school holidays and during university breaks.

But it was not until graduating in 2010, on the back of the financial crisis, that she toyed with the idea of joining the family business in earnest. 

"I had a conversation with my dad because obviously the labour market was quite difficult at that time, particularly for finance, and he said, 'oh, well, you know, if you get a 2:1 at least, would you consider joining Emery Little?'.

"He was like, 'that has to be a minimum requirement'," she jokes.

Little started as a junior paraplanner and enrolled with the Chartered Insurance Institute for her exams. She was drawn to the technical side of things and the exams came naturally to her, having just come out of uni.

Her career progressed quickly, partly aided by "healthy competition" from her colleague Alfie Mullan, now director of financial planning at Emery Little, and so her dad, his own retirement at the back of his mind, suggested she went on to become a fully qualified adviser at the firm – at Emery Little this meant to become chartered at the least.