What does it feel like to win the CISI paraplanner of the year award?

We caught up recently with our mentor Sarah Lees to share with us her paraplanning journey so far and what it feels like to win CISI The Paraplanner of the year award.


Tell us a little bit about your career journey so far and how you got to where you are today.


I fell into finance many years ago (I won’t say how many) by taking a job in the pensions back office department at Clerical Medical, mainly because the office was only a few miles from my house and had parking. I spoke to Paraplanners and Administrators often in my role and starting asking questions about their work which resulted in me knowing that I wanted to work on the advice side rather than the product side, and that my goal was to become a paraplanner.


I luckily managed to get a job as admin for a national advice firm who taught me so much. Myself and my husband then decided to move from the Bristol area to Dorset (where he grew up). I then got a role again as Admin at another very large national wealth management firm, with a view of progressing to a paraplanner. After many, many exams and pushing forward my progression I became a paraplanner almost 10 years ago.


Since then I moved on to Mazars where I have progressed to a Senior Paraplanner and have the opportunities to work on more technical and complex work, which keeps me learning every day in my role.


Talk us through the process when you applied for the CISI the paraplanner of the year award.


The process starts with a 20 question multiple choice knowledge test, the questions of which spanned the entire financial planning spectrum including pension knowledge, investments, taxation as well as a very tough question on the Fisher Economic Equation (that was a seriously tough one). You have several weeks from them opening the award to the entry deadline for you to submit your test.


The top 5 candidates from the knowledge test are then invited to complete a case study. You are presented with a client’s circumstances, which included areas such as their circumstances, assets, pensions, income and employment status and spending. It also contained details of their concerns, priorities, and upcoming spending needs. From this I had to prepare possible solutions, within a 2500-word limit, to help meet the client’s objectives and raise any other concerns around their financial security. In the submission I included cashflow, as well as information and snips on sources of material which I used in my recommendations.


You have around a month to draft and submit your application. This is then reviewed by the 4 judges on the panel, which is a mixture of peers and industry experts, which again takes about a month.


The top 2 candidates are then invited to an interview, mine was online with the judges, which takes about 45 minutes and includes questions on the case study and your reasoning behind the answers. They also ask about topical events in the industry and thoughts on the paraplanning career and its progression. This interview was not anywhere near as daunting as I thought it was going to be and really felt more like a chat and as well as your answers, they want to feel your enthusiasm and your passion for the role.


Once this has been completed it is then a long month or so wait for the CISI Dinner and Awards Ceremony at the annual conference, when they announce the winner.



How did it feel when you won? You mentioned it was your first time you had applied and wasn’t expecting to get past the first stage.


I was in complete and utter shock. I entered to test myself and try to build my confidence, but honestly thought that I had no chance. There are so many extremely knowledgeable and talented paraplanners that I thought there was no way I would get into the top 5 let alone get into the top 2 after the case study and be invited to the interview. I was very proud of the case study I produced and felt that I had provided a holistic plan, but again thought that there would be much better ones completed than mine.

The awards ceremony was amazing, it was at Red Bull Racing in Milton Keynes (which as a massive F1 fan, was amazing) surrounded by the F1 cars. After what felt like a very long dinner the awards started. At this point I had completely lost my voice (as I was recovering from this horrible cold that has been doing the rounds) so my husband who attended with me (more for the F1 cars than for me I am sure), was certain that I was going to win as I could not speak. I am very glad my award was first as I was extremely nervous, and before my voice got worse. Jackie from Just presented me with the award and it dawned on me about halfway through her speech that it was me that she was speaking about.


Since winning it has been a bit of a whirlwind. However, I feel that it has really helped my confidence and my imposter syndrome, and I doubt myself and my knowledge a lot less now.



What do you think makes a good paraplanner and what advice would you give to anyone thinking about becoming a paraplanner.


I think a good paraplanner is someone who always wants to learn more and is inquisitive. Technical knowledge can be taught and learnt but having that drive to always better yourself and learn more needs to be driven from the person themselves.


Often, we do also seem to be the person in the middle of the adviser and compliance and therefore a level head and diplomacy skills are very useful to have 😊


My advice to anyone wanting to enter the profession is to not be shy to push your own development, no one will be as invested in your future as you are. Also never stop asking questions, to colleagues, peers, providers, advisers. It is how we get the best outcomes by always questioning knowledge, information and missing information from advisers.


What advice would you give to anyone thinking about entering the CISI the paraplanner of the year.


Go for it, don’t be scared. Be prepared to put in a lot of work and research, even into the multiple-choice knowledge questionnaire, and think outside of the box for the case study. But if I can do it, you definitely can!!!!!







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