Real 401(k) heroesunderstand they must first identify the problem before they canswoop in to save the plan sponsor's day. (Photo:Shutterstock)

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Would you like to be the 401(k) hero? It's not that hard. Justdiscover what your audience wants but can't figure out how to get,then give it to them.

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OK, this is really a two-step process. Too often wannabe heroesfocus in on a specific solution, then seek a suitable problem tomatch it up to. Sorry, but that's putting the cart before thehorse. Real heroes understand they must first identify the problembefore they can swoop in to save the day.

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How does one discover problems that perplex 401(k) plansponsors? The fastest route to finding out would be to determinewhat questions they're asking. Now, truth be told, many executivesdon't like to ask questions. It tends to reveal theirvulnerabilities. Instead, they look for answers. How do they lookfor answers? By reading. What do they read? Trade journalarticles.

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If you want to understand the questions 401(k) plan sponsorssought answers to 2018, look at the articles they were reading (see“Top 5 FiduciaryNews.com Stories in 2018 for the401k Plan Sponsor and Fiduciary,” FiduciaryNews.com, December18, 2018). It turns out, this reveals something fascinating aboutboth the retirement plan environment during 2018 and the state ofmind of those with fiduciary responsibilities.

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In looking at the most popular articles, we see several themes.More so than in past years, there has been an interest in fiduciaryliability, specifically, ways to diminish or avoid it. What mighthave precipitated this elevated attention?

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Clearly it was the death of the DOL's now-vacated fiduciary rulethat created an uncertainty that the retirement plan industry hadnot seen in years. It opened up a series of “I don't know”questions that ranged from the potential downside of accepting“no-fee” mutual funds to liabilities associated with self-dealingtransactions.

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It was as though people believed that, without the fiduciaryrule, the rules of fiduciary had change. In fact, they hadn't. Thefiduciary rule didn't really change the fundamental duties of afiduciary. It only added some additional procedures to the alreadydefinitive checklist. For whatever reason, a fear rose that theentire checklist was now null and void.

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So plan fiduciaries spent the latter half of 2018 searching forthe new checklist. They were looking for a simple and easyguidebook for the new post-fiduciary rule world. You can see thisin their interest in such articles that list the top “concerns,”“rules,” and “blunders to avoid.” These stories provided some senseof answers to questions on the forefront of 401(k) plan sponsors'minds.

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Ironically, one of the top articles addressed questions plansponsors should be asking “but sometimes don't.” This revealed thevery depths of doubt in the industry.

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Looking forward to 2019, it's likely the quest to find answerswill continue. The SEC's Regulation Best Interest only adds toindustry uncertainty. It will only be when we begin to see actualcases that surety will return to the retirement plan arena.

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Until then, 401(k) plan sponsors will continue to reward theheroes that give the answers to the questions they're not asking,but should.

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Christopher Carosa

Chris Carosa has been writing a weekly article and monthly column for BenefitsPRO online and BenefitsPRO Magazine since 2011 and is a nationally recognized award-winning writer, researcher and speaker. He’s written seven books, including From Cradle to Retire: The Child IRA; Hey! What’s My Number? – How to Increase the Odds You Will Retire in Comfort; A Pizza The Action: Everything I Ever Learned About Business I Learned By Working in a Pizza Stand at the Erie County Fair; and the widely acclaimed 401(k) Fiduciary Solutions. Carosa is also Chief Contributing Editor of the authoritative trade journal FiduciaryNews.com and publisher of the Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel, a weekly community newspaper he founded in 1989. Currently serving as President of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists and with more than 1,000 articles published in various publications, he appears regularly in the national media. A “parallel” entrepreneur, he actively runs a handful of businesses, including a small boutique investment adviser, providing hands-on experience for his writing. A trained astrophysicist, he also holds an MBA and has been designated a Certified Trust and Financial Advisor. Share your thoughts and story ideas with him through Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/christophercarosa/)and Twitter (https://twitter.com/ChrisCarosa).