The idea of staying connected has been given a whole new meaning as our worlds have narrowed in lockdown.
Communities, both local and professional, have had a huge role to play in keeping up our motivation, and perhaps keeping us sane.
One such community that has built up a great track record in bringing like-minded people together is the Paraplanners Assembly (formerly the Paraplanners Powwow).
It was started by The Paraplanners managing director Richard Allum in 2013, and is based on the ‘unconference’ style of events that came out of the California tech scene in the early 2000s.
Events and get-togethers are community driven, and as the name would suggest, topics and content are designed by and for paraplanners.
The success of the format has seen the community grow to over 2,300, and over recent months more first-timers have signed up to online events and joined in with discussions via The Big Tent, the Paraplanners Assembly’s online forum.
Illuminate recently held a virtual roundtable with Richard and three other Assembly volunteers to get a better sense of the UK’s paraplanning community, and how paraplanners are coming together to help each other during lockdown and beyond.
A community in lockdown
Henderson Loggie Financial Planning paraplanner Claire Lindsay regularly posts on The Big Tent, and finds it a great way to set up study buddy groups and generally share best practice.
When lockdown was first announced, Claire started up a conversation around supporting one another, particularly for those like her unused to working from home, and those either self-isolating or feeling anxious about the strange new environment we found ourselves in.
That discussion morphed into working from home tips and resources, stories of positivity, online events and a Covid-19 Spotify playlist.
"It’s the fact that life is continuing. Yes there’s been all this chaos around us and all this uncertainty, but we still have the certainty that this movement is here, and it’s a fantastic bunch of people." Andy Marshall
It also saw the creation of a spin-off group for freelance and outsourced paraplanners to share the latest information on government support schemes and talk through concerns about things like contracts.
Claire says: “Just feeling part of something is really good, especially during this time. There will have been a lot of people on their own, those without a family, and hopefully they have got something out of having a chat with one of us. It’s just been really good for helping us be connected with each other.”
Elsa Ordonez-Garcia is a technical trainer at Mazars. She feels being part of the Paraplanners Assembly has represented a slice of normal life shining through.
Elsa says: “For me, it’s meant a little bit of normality. We had a call the other week, planning for what would have been our next London event. We’re still doing a Mini Assembly, but it’ll be online.
"And the fact we had that planning call, it’s almost like, ‘okay, the world hasn’t come to an end’. Life carries on, and let’s embrace it.
“Because it’s online, it’ll allow people to join in who wouldn’t otherwise have been able to travel to the event. I’m super excited, because new people will bring different things to the table."
Andy Marshall, a paraplanner at Octagon Consultancy, agrees. “I’ve generally been coping with lockdown really well – I’m quite happy working from home doing the ‘details’.
“But as Elsa said, it’s the fact that life is continuing. Yes there’s been all this chaos around us and all this uncertainty, but we still have the certainty that this movement is here, and it’s a fantastic bunch of people.
“If you have a question about something, you can just bung it on The Big Tent. I pinged Richard an email the other day about something that was on my mind, and he solved it within a matter of moments.
"Being able to do that is the cornerstone of what this is all about. The fact that it still continues in lockdown, we’re still here and we’re still doing it, is reassuring.”
Richard says the nature of the Paraplanners Assembly has meant they’ve been able to pivot quite quickly, and host online events on the topics people are asking for.
“The nice thing about this is it’s a bit rough and ready. For us to put on an event, we don’t have to worry too much about high production values and those kinds of things. We can do things quite quickly, but that’s part of the beauty of it as well.
“We’ve had a survey running for eight weeks now asking what support people would like while all this has been going on, and some really interesting topics have come through from that.
“At the same time, the screen fatigue is setting in now. The Big Tent discussions have slowed down a bit in terms of what’s happening publicly, but people are finding their own little groups about one thing or another – that side of things is still really active.”
Elsa brings a unique perspective to the group, having been an adviser in the UK and in Spain before returning to the UK and entering the world of paraplanning in 2013 – coincidentally the same year the Paraplanners Assembly held its first event.
She’s attended the national get-togethers ever since, and has also been involved with the Mini Assemblies in London.
Having got a lot out of the community over the years, she likes to be as involved as she can so that she can give back where possible.
It’s a long way from when she started out in paraplanning.
She says: “At first, I didn’t know much about what paraplanning was. In fact, when I got hired to be a paraplanner, I didn’t know what it was – I had to Google it!
“When I came back to the UK from Spain, everything had changed over here. So It was really good to get to know a good bunch of people that were willing to share their knowledge and experience, who can hold your hand when needed.”
Elsa notes there’s no sense of competitiveness – people are just happy to help each other out.
“It’s selfless. Everyone within paraplanning gives, and they give not expecting necessarily anything back, they give because they’re passionate about it. Because they just want you to do better, and because it’s all about doing the best thing for the client. That’s pretty amazing.”
Andy was introduced to the group via the Institute of Financial Planning (as it was then), and found it refreshing to be at an event aimed squarely at paraplanners.
He says: “When I started paraplanning, I was the only paraplanner in my company. I think that’s the same for a lot of paraplanners – it can be quite a solitary existence, and all the continuing professional development events at the time were aimed at advisers.
"The IFP conference was eye-opening, but then the Assembly was even better because it wasn’t a formal conference in a hotel. It was a bunch of people in casual clothes in a tent.”
Sold on the friendly, relaxed atmosphere, Andy went to all the events he could. Later, alongside fellow Bristol-based paraplanners, he helped put on Mini Assemblies for the South-west.
He says: “I’ve never shied away from being involved, and I’m touched that Richard thinks I have something to contribute. But equally, I want other people to be able to feel they’ve got that same opportunity.
"That’s just how it works – it doesn’t work if people don’t get involved.”
Claire is a more recent addition to the paraplanning community, having joined her firm around two and a half years ago.
Her boss encouraged her to sign up and register with the Assembly straightaway, and Claire, her colleague and two other members of the paraplanning team travelled down for the first ever Mini Assembly from Dundee to over 100 miles away in Leeds.
She says: “It’s been great for helping people, for example, if someone’s sitting the same exam as me, we can share notes or ask questions.
"But it’s been quite valuable in many ways I think, including forming relationships with people I’d never get the chance to meet otherwise, especially being in Scotland. It’s a good feeling because you feel like you can be heard, like your voice can be heard as a paraplanner. That’s really important.”
Claire also gets a lot from being able to bounce ideas off other people.
“Sometimes you don’t really get that much of a chance to speak to people at work, because we’re always so busy and it’s a case of ‘heads down’. It’s good to have something like this for that reason, and just learn from each other.”
The practical benefits
Elsa says the beauty of the paraplanning community is you always get a lot from the conversations and the collective expertise, regardless of your own level of experience.
She admits there can actually be too many ideas and action points (which is never a bad thing), so sometimes it’s a case of whittling it down to the ideas you can implement.
She says: “I guess it’s the idea that nobody knows it all. People bring their different experiences, their different ways of doing things, and you get the best out of it.
"If you’re put in a room or at an event where there’s at least another 20 or 30 paraplanners, that’s the experience of 20 of 30 different companies you’ve got in the same place – that is quite powerful.
“You can take away the things they’ve tried, the things that have worked and what hasn’t worked and learn from their experiences.”
Of the many ideas that she’s gleaned, Elsa cites the example of being introduced to project management tool Trello. She says she went from looking for something to shake up her to-do list, to going full “Trello queen”.
Another example is when a firm told her at a London meet-up that they write six-page suitability reports.
Elsa initially dismissed this as “impossible”, but was inspired nonetheless, and is now proud that her firm has got down suitability reports from 50 pages to a more manageable 10.
For Andy, he has seen the benefits of being part of the community at a firm level as well as creating business efficiencies more broadly.
He says: “My company is a chartered firm, and we chose to include on our application for chartered status all my Assembly activities to show where the business is out there encouraging best practice, and helping people learn.
"So individually things like this are good for your CV, but also can be helpful for your company too.”
One of the key differentiators for Andy for being part of the Paraplanners Assembly is that the topics and discussions are chosen by the people attending.
And it’s not just the big, weighty topics that prove useful, Andy says.
“There are things that someone might consider to be small or simple, like shortcuts in Word or Excel.
"While they might not be life changing, they can make a massive impact on someone else’s working life because they’ve learned something they didn’t know. And if it saves them a few seconds 20 times a day, over the course of a month it’s saved them loads of time.
“It’s all these little things, the little bits of best practice that other people do, that help you get that little bit more efficient every time.”
Clare adds that being part of the paraplanning community has created a lot of opportunities for herself and for others.
This includes things like public speaking that have taken her out of her comfort zone, but she has been encouraged and supported along the way. She says: “It’s brilliant for getting people together, and a great way of staying connected.”
Behind the scenes
Richard reflects that there have been some memorable moments in building the community to what it is today which typify the ‘unconference’ spirit, including Rory Percival talking to 100 paraplanners, in his Ray Ban sunglasses, standing on a hay bale.
He says he has met amazing people through the Paraplanners Assembly, those he wouldn’t have known well enough to ask their advice or to pick up their phone to had the Assembly not existed.
Seeing people get involved and give up their time, in big ways and small, has also been gratifying.
He says when they’ve asked people to host at the national event they are often met with a look of horror, but later those hosts find they’re really enjoying themselves and want to do more.
Richard says: “A lot of what we’re about is being that visible community where people can come and interact. But for me, I think the most rewarding thing has been the stuff that goes on behind the scenes that not many people see.
“It’s also allowed these small, quiet networks of people to come together where they can confidently ask questions, share ideas and seek guidance.
"In the regional Mini Assemblies, there’s WhatsApp groups springing up and people carrying on among themselves after our events. And Claire’s post that she put on The Big Tent about supporting each other through Covid-19 was a brilliant idea, which then led to other discussions and groups.
“It’s all these kinds of things, the quiet stuff where people are helping each other, as well as all the fun, bright and brash stuff, that’s probably been the best thing for me.”