Chartered financial planner status – for many, it is the highlight of their careers, and if it is not a peak, then it is a launching pad for greater professional accomplishments. When Jelena Savonina achieved the plaudit at the age of 25, the next thing she did was quit.For keen mountaineer Savonina, this decision could be likened to climbing all but five feet from the summit and turning back. What happened?Savonina achieved chartered status in 2015 while working as a paraplanner at Bradford-based Ebor Financial Planning. Having achieved so much so early, she suddenly felt unsure of her footing.‘I reached chartered status early in my career, and I did not want to step up to the role of adviser at the time – probably because my confidence wasn’t there,’ she says.
‘The majority of our clients are in the 55-plus age bracket, and there is a generational gap [between my clients and me]. Looking back, I had this mindset that somebody so young cannot just be an adviser straight away.’
Something was missing. But, surprisingly, her next move was not to acquire the oft-vaunted soft skills but to dive into the deepest technical territory: going to work for the taxman.
In September 2015, Savonina joined HM Revenue & Customs’ (HMRC) graduate scheme, where she was posted to work on corporation tax. Savonina was intent on enhancing her financial tool kit with the programme, but it was a significant challenge that made even chartered status look straightforward.
The graduate scheme was expansive and demanding. She conducted cross-tax investigations to resolve tax disputes, negotiated settlements with taxpayers and made site visits to companies to ensure their houses were all in order. And then there were the exams.
Savonina’s training required her to do 14 exams across different tax areas. She had to take an exam every three months. In the first two years of the scheme, participants who failed their exam cases, which involved learning 140 tax cases and their implications.
‘It dwarfs the Chartered Insurance Institute exams in complexity,’ she says.
‘If you double fail, you’re out. It’s a very strict course, but it does teach you a lot about how HMRC views things and why tax legislation is designed the way it is.
‘I was placed in a large business as part of my job, so from the beginning, we were working with accountancy teams for companies whose accounts would not fit on a single page. You would need a magnifying glass to go through it all.’
The role eventually led her to work on retail investment trust (Reit) taxation, an area with huge relevance for financial planning. She worked specifically on redesigning the revenue’s guidance on Reit taxation legislation, a job that involved visits to parliament.
After becoming proficient in the UK’s ever-more-complicated tax code, Savonina knew that there was more to professional life than just technical ability. She had achieved a remarkable amount already, but the need to have an impact at a human level was still bugging her.
‘I believe that financial planning has two different sides,’ she says.
‘In the first place, you have to be technical and you need to know what you’re talking about. For a younger adviser, that’s probably the starting point – you build your skills through your technical knowledge, through the exams.
‘There is a much broader element to financial planning, which is being able to relate to what happens in a person’s life. Everyone is going through all sorts of things all the time. As a financial adviser, you become a trusted person. The people skills are as important as the technical ones because if you can’t connect to something, it’s hard to build relationships.’