How psychologists and historians are helping U.S. Bank clients amid the pandemic

September 23, 2020

The pandemic has brought an urgency to tackling what have been taboo conversations for many families.

Emily Bouchard, Tom Thiegs and Karen McNeill are not traditional bankers. 

Rather, they are a group of psychologists and historians employed by U.S. Bank who help families work through sensitive financial topics, such as intergenerational relationships and legacy planning. And given those topics, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought on more than just a shift from in-person to video meetings.

“Our work has become more poignant,” said Emily Bouchard. “We all have invisible fences in our families around certain conversations, many of which are avoided until a time of crisis or until it is too late. There’s a sense that now is the time to have those conversations – and for many, that can mean confronting mortality.”

Bouchard is a leadership and legacy consultant at Ascent Private Capital Management of U.S. Bank. The team works with bankers to help clients preserve family resources, values and memories for future generations.

She speaks to the topic from her heart, having lost her mom suddenly when she was 14 years old. Later on, Bouchard recalls receiving an impersonal packet in the mail from a retirement company. The experience inspired a career in family dynamics, including a bachelor’s degree in child development from Penn and a master’s in social work from UT Arlington. And every day, it drives purpose in her work.  

“[As a result of my experience], one piece of advice I give to families is to write a letter to their loved ones in case something happens, so that they can have a little message sharing their hopes and dreams that I so wish I’d gotten from my mom,” she said. 

Amid the pandemic, writing such a letter has taken on a new urgency – meaning that this team of nontraditional bankers is playing a significant role, now more than ever, in how clients manage their money.

Tom Thiegs, a fellow leadership and legacy consultant, said that even though both parents and children have been more willing to take on difficult conversations lately, it still requires a thoughtful approach. 

He said that one of the keys to a productive dialogue is grounding it in a shared family mission statement or set of values, noting that it is not a bad thing nor uncommon if those values differ among members.   

“We try to encourage the discussion of those differences,” said Thiegs, who specializes in family governance and is working on a doctorate in organizational leadership. He has seen those differences bring new energy to family businesses or philanthropic initiatives that had grown stagnant over time.

For the Ascent team, a big part of helping families shape their future is understanding their past – which is where Karen McNeill comes in. McNeill, who is one of the foremost scholars on architectural history and previously taught at UC Berkeley, taps her expertise as a researcher to help connect clients to ancestors through storytelling. 

“Families often ask, ‘What are the stories that shape us?’” said McNeill. “And it’s a pretty even split of the older and younger generations driving the projects.”

Earlier this year, The Wall Street Journal wrote about the rise of “amateur genealogists” as many families have been forced to spend more time together during the pandemic. Of this trend, McNeill stresses paying it forward to future generations by documenting the present, such as by creating time capsules. 

“Hang on to those masks,” she said, holding up her own with a flowery pattern. “Consider daily journaling, too, or at least writing a page or two about what your experience has been like. And if your family has been cooking together more, as many have, put together a pandemic recipe book.”

When it comes to looking back, she said, “It does not take a pandemic to have experienced trauma. So, how has your family gotten through it in the past? What is the resiliency story of your family?”

As the pandemic has halted business travel, McNeill, Thiegs, Bouchard and team leader Amy Zehnder have been asking these questions and leading these conversations over video meetings – which has been a departure from hosting events at bank offices or attending family retreats at locales ranging from Guam to Cincinnati.

But having long incorporated technology into their work, the team says the transition has been smooth over the past six months. In fact, they have even hosted those retreats for families virtually, bringing in entertainers such as Broadway singers, world-class magicians and, of course, occasional appearances from four-legged friends. 

“At one point during a client meeting, my puppy wandered into the screen,” said Bouchard. “Then their daughter ran and got her hamster… and their son scooped up the cat… and now, every meeting starts with ‘Let’s see the puppy.’ That wouldn’t have happened at the bank.”

So, of the virtual format to this point, she concluded with a laugh, “Two paws up.”

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