Feature

Many psychology practitioners help families talk through their issues with money, but psychologist Kristen Armstrong, PhD, has a particularly focused tack: helping wealthy families deal with the impact their money has on the family, the community and the world.

Armstrong is a strategic wealth coach on an interdisciplinary national team of advisors at Ascent Private Capital Management in San Francisco, which is part of U.S. Bank. About half of her clients own businesses, and the other half have sold businesses and are figuring out how to manage the money that remains. The Monitor talked to Armstrong about her career and how she got that job.

What do you do as a strategic wealth coach?

I typically take families on a retreat to help them clarify their shared values and the purpose and meaning of their wealth. Before the retreat, I interview each family member to gather information about their relationships with the business and one another. Then I get them together to discuss the themes picked up in the interviews and to do temperament and values assessments. This helps them better understand each other and how they each fit in with the financial and business enterprise. The conversations that follow can be very deep. For example, older generation family members see—often for the first time—what really inspires and motivates younger ones. Once their values, vision and goals have been clarified, families often will then pursue a longer-­term program of meetings, retreats and individual coaching with me to help them put some legs on their aspirations.

At the moment, I am working with a family of 39 members. The family business is growing internationally and they want to prepare the younger generation for leadership roles. One branch of the family wants to get out of the business, but wants to maintain the financial benefits and keep their family relationships strong. I will help everyone define what is in the best interest of the extended family and the business.

How do you use your psychology training?

People sometimes seek me out after a conflict has erupted and they need help repairing relationships. I use family systems and communications models to help them unpack the history related to the conflict, devise better ways to manage their differences and navigate their way through change. These large, multigenerational enterprises evolve and become more complex over time. I educate these families about the sorts of emotions and mindsets that are very typical of people who, for example, want to let go of the reins but are not sure how to do it. They are coming to terms with the loss of an identity, so I teach them how they can also begin building a new one as mentor for the next generation.

How did you get the training and experience needed for this job?

I earned a degree in clinical psychology at the graduate school of psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary in California. I worked in clinical practice for several years, and then someone I'd known from graduate school approached me after he started a consulting practice. He was offering executive coaching and team development to Fortune 500 companies internationally, and he wanted to find a female coach to work with some of the female executives. In response, I took some CE courses in consulting psychology and I completed a two-year coaching certification program for licensed mental health professionals offered by the College of Executive Coaching in Arroyo Grande, California. I started by working with women who were being groomed for higher levels of leadership. Then I became aware of the need for leadership development in the myriad tech startups in Silicon Valley. People were launching businesses who had never managed people before, and I found my team training and executive coaching skills very useful there. At the same time, leaders in family businesses began asking for my consulting services within their families.

How did you find out about the job?

I got a call from a headhunter who told me that U.S. Bank was developing a family education and wealth management program. They wanted psychologists on staff to help them build and execute a program around the idea that "wealth is more than money." It's a holistic approach based on the idea that financial wealth is best managed within the larger view of the family's values, purposes, concerns, dreams and opportunities. I had experience in both the clinical and business worlds, and had advised family businesses for over a decade, so the job was a perfect match for my skills.

What is challenging about the work?

It can be challenging to get face time with the clients. The family attorneys, financial advisors and I need to be very aware of a family's time because they can be busy people, so any contact must be highly valuable.

What do you enjoy most?

I love seeing families come alive around the good their wealth can do.

One family I worked with has a foundation, and the younger generation was interested in seeing places they were donating money to. They are getting to know the people and the needs in these settings, and as a result, the entire family has gotten excited about what else they could do to help.