I asked the psychologist Brad Klontz to tell me more about what it’s like to work with billionaires.
HOW ARE ULTRA-HIGH-NET-WORTH INDIVIDUALS DIFFERENT FROM RUN-OF-THE-MILL AFFLUENT INDIVIDUALS?
They have this feeling that rules don’t apply to them, although that mind-set is often the key to much of their success. If they’re told something can’t be done a certain way, they think that doesn’t apply to them and find a way around it. It can be viewed as elitist or having a sense of entitlement, but it’s also a highly effective strategy for innovative thinking.
WHAT MOTIVATES A BILLIONAIRE TO KEEP WORKING?
Status is a very big part of it. They want to win. That’s part of the motivation. We’re all competitive in our own way. It’s part of our tribal DNA. If you think about tribal societies, the person who has the most power also has the most access to resources, and they can protect and provide for their family. The closer others are to that leader, the safer they feel. It’s the pursuit that brings them happiness — the pursuit of business goals or their passion, that is giving them joy. The money is a side effect, but it’s not what is giving them joy.
THERE ARE MANY EXTREMELY WEALTHY PEOPLE, LIKE BERNIE MADOFF, MARTHA STEWART AND JORDAN BELFORT (THE WOLF IN THE FILM “THE WOLF OF WALL STREET”), WHO COMMIT SERIOUS CRIMES LIKE FRAUD. WHY WOULD A SOMEONE WHO IS ALREADY WEALTHY BEYOND IMAGINING COMMIT A CRIME FOR FINANCIAL GAIN?
One reason is a lack of boundaries. They think the rules don’t apply to them. And you know what? They are right, the rules don’t. They get all this exclusive access to everything, because people are courting them for their money. The rules don’t apply even if the billionaire wants them to apply, and that makes it challenging to have boundaries. Professionals with very strict codes of conduct will loosen their own boundaries to work with these individuals and not get fired by them. It becomes hard for a billionaire to get objective feedback from others because of their status. We’ve been fired by more than one ultrawealthy person because they didn’t hear from us what they wanted to hear, and they have five or six other experts around them that will say what they want to hear.
WHAT IS THE BIGGEST MISCONCEPTION PEOPLE HAVE ABOUT BILLIONAIRES?
We think the very wealthy are nefarious and greedy, and that money corrupts them. We don’t have to look too far to find well-known wealthy people doing some terrible things with their money. But I find that generally, they want to do something constructive with their money, and are looking for ways to help and contribute. In general, billionaires, like everyone else, want to be loved, find purpose and feel safe. And those core values and needs drive all of us, not just the 1 percent of the 1 percent.
WHEN BILLIONAIRES COME TO YOU, WHAT ARE THEY CONCERNED ABOUT?
The ultra-high-net-worth clients of ours, including billionaires, tend to want to be more responsible with their money. Many are worried about the next generation and are wanting to take steps to set them up for success. They don’t want their children to be psychologically messed up around money, and that usually means being financially dependent or financially irresponsible. Financial dependence, whether it is with multigenerational welfare families or multigenerational trust-fund families, is quite debilitating. In our research, we have found that financial dependence is associated with a lack of passion, creativity and drive, and is also associated with feelings of resentment towards whomever controls the purse strings. Money is a powerful reinforcer of behavior, and when it is given freely and is not attached to desired behaviors, it can reinforce a lack of initiative or drive. For the ultrawealthy, it is a lot easier to pass down money to children than it is to pass down values. The latter requires careful consideration.
If the wealthy individual is a first-generation earner, much of their success has come from long work hours and sacrificing time with their family. Many are trying to make up for their lack of availability as their children were growing up and can see the damage that has done. Some financially enabled their children quite accidentally, as they were only trying to give their children a better childhood than they themselves had. Some are prone to use money as instruments of control or give money to others out of a sense of guilt.
In situations where ultra-high-net-worth individuals have inherited their money, and their parents and grandparents were not successful in passing down a desired sense of drive and purpose, we work with them as they struggle to find meaning and purpose, since the drive to make money is not primary.
Billionaires and other ultrawealthy individuals often question their own self-worth outside of their financial resources and success. They struggle with wondering if people actually care about them for who they are or for their money, fame and/or social status.
HOW DO YOU HELP THEM?
What works in the business world, in terms of communication and motivation, does not work with intimate relationships, so we often work with them on improving their listening and communication skills and improving their relationship with a spouse, children and extended family members. Sometimes we work with them individually, sometimes with them and their spouse, sometimes with the entire family and sometimes with key business associates. We will often help them strategize on how to best help, nurture and support their loved ones without financially enabling.
We often use experiential techniques to help create motivation and insight with clients, where instead of just explaining what is happening, we show them. We focus on what we call exquisite listening — the ability to shut out all distractions and maintain a laserlike focus on what the speaker is saying, with a deep curiosity about the feelings, values, goals and internal conflicts the speaker is trying to convey. We also use our assessment tools — for example, money script assessments — which help clients identify their unconscious beliefs about money.
IS YOUR COUNSELING FOR A BILLIONAIRE DIFFERENT FROM WHAT IT WOULD BE FOR A LESS AFFLUENT PERSON?
Not really. In many aspects, the only difference between billionaires and their less affluent counterparts is the number of zeros in their bank accounts.
WHAT CAN THE REST OF US LEARN FROM HOW BILLIONAIRES WORK THROUGH THEIR PROBLEMS?
The ultrawealthy are not afraid to ask for help. They are more likely to have an internal locus of control, where they are quick to take credit for their successes and admit their failures, at least to themselves. In managing their often very complex lives, they have had to rely on a variety of experts to help them along the way. When they run into problems, they are less hesitant than most of us to seek help from someone who is an expert.