Strategizing with clients has long been one of my favorite activities. One of the best parts of being a financial advisor was the one-on-one meetings with clients to come up with ways they could best pursue their desired futures. Today, I love helping advisors expand their practices, accelerate their success and build the lives they want for themselves. Strategic planning is essential to making those things happen.
Unfortunately, some advisors are great at strategizing for others, but never plot an ideal future for themselves. And others do pretty well at the planning part, but never seem to put a plan into action and get results.
With that in mind, I want to share a couple of strategic action guidelines that I developed with my CEG Worldwide colleague, senior managing partner Paul Brunswick. These can help your efforts to achieve huge success in a deliberate, focused and effective manner.
1. THINK BIG PICTURE
This may sound obvious, but it's all too common to start strategic planning efforts by focusing on the minutiae and specific details of a plan. That's diving too deep too fast, though. Strategic planning should start with the big picture in mind.
Big-picture thinking helps you be a better leader and get out in front of opportunities. It also helps ensure that your business investments support the things you plan to accomplish. And it promotes teamwork - people are motivated by big-picture goals. Finally, it confirms that the day-to-day work you're doing in the trenches is actually aligned with your objectives. It informs the steps and tactics you take each day.
Start by creating a vision of the ideal future for your practice. It may sound corny, but that vision is a powerful business tool that can motivate, unify and inspire employees, business partners, other constituents and even clients. Many studies have shown that when business leaders effectively develop and communicate a compelling vision of their firms' futures, their constituents report significantly higher levels of job satisfaction, commitment and loyalty, productivity and other key drivers of success.
As you develop a vision for your business, understand why you do what you do - what I call clarity of purpose. I often recommend that advisors ask themselves, "Why am I in this business?" at least five times in a row.
By digging into this question, you get past the quick, easy answers and get to a clear and compelling purpose - one that will call out to you and your team, become top of mind and compel you to take the right actions.
Once you know what you want to offer clients, what kind of impact you want to have both professionally and personally, and what you feel most passionately about (both in work and in life), you develop a clear purpose that will keep you excited as a leader even on those days when work feels like a grind.
Another valuable, big-picture tool: Know your unique value proposition. To win new business, you need to be able to convey how you help clients make smart decisions about their money, what your expertise is within your chosen market and why investors should want to work with you.
Use this value proposition to focus your team. Everyone needs to understand clearly the niche they serve and the unique value they can bring to that group of investors. This helps ensure there is no misunderstanding about what you do and who you do it for. A strong value proposition also reinforces to your team that they can't - and shouldn't - try to be all things to all people. Instead, they should focus on the right clients for the firm and for their skills.
Once you have a clear value proposition in place, you can develop short-, medium- and long-range goals, along with the tactics for achieving them and the metrics you need to track and monitor your progress.
2. TARGET RESULTS
Before you get deeper into planning, work backward from the desired results you want. Consider carefully where you want to go and what hurdles you might face along the way.
Think about goals you want to achieve over the next 18 months, for example. Many top advisors pursue goals such as serving larger clients, focusing on target niche markets and generating more referrals.
Then think about the specific obstacles that could prevent you from reaching those specific goals. For example, let's say you want to add 10 new clients or increase income by 25%. Specific obstacles that might get in the way of those types of goals include the time you have to spend training new staff, or systems in place that prevent you from spending time on client interaction.
Only once you've spent time focusing on results - and the obstacles in the way of those results - is it time to move toward strategy.
This works better than strategizing first and ending with goals because when you use that approach, you rarely get past the obstacles phase.
3. USE HURDLES TO FIND SOLUTIONS
I believe that all the things that seem to oppose our goals are actually the raw materials for achieving them. It's extremely liberating to think about obstacles in this way. If your obstacles are closely tied to the results you said you wanted to achieve, you immediately have the keys to overcome them.
Take the example above: The goal was income growth of 25%, and the obstacles were the time spent training new staff and the systems that take focus off client activities.
In this case, your strategic plan might include solutions such as delegating or outsourcing behind-the-scenes activities, or implementing consistent business processes throughout your practice that would simplify staff training.
The upshot: Don't let the thought of the obstacles in your way shut down your strategic thinking before it has begun. Instead, use your obstacles to develop new solutions that will make your firm more successful.
4. EXECUTE AS A TEAM
The biggest challenge of strategic planning is execution. Let's face it: You'll make no progress if you never act on your plan.
Set specific goals and intermediate milestones to begin the work. Choose the broad strategies you will use to reach each goal, then identify the tactics for executing each. Once these tactics are clear, decide on the actions needed to employ each tactic. Ensure that each action is specific and achievable, assign a person to be responsible for completion and set a target date.
If the solution requires a broader team effort - and it probably will - demonstrate your own commitment by including at least two actions that you will do personally (and immediately) to get started.
Above all, communicate with your people on an ongoing basis. Lack of effective communication is probably the biggest culprit in the failure to execute. Get buy-in before your strategic plan from all the key constituents in your practice - from the overall mission all the way through the plan. You also need to create a direct tie-in to the overall plan for staff. Employees need to know how their daily assignments connect to the overall plan.
Strategic planning is hugely valuable because it helps take you and your firm from mulling goals and plans to celebrating achievements.
To get the most out of your strategic planning efforts, remember a few key tenets of success: Think big, start with the end in mind, use the specific obstacles in your way to develop specific strategies and execute by getting commitments upfront. With these ideas guiding you, you'll find a great vision for your future and a road map to get you there.
John J. Bowen Jr., a Financial Planning columnist, is founder and CEO of CEG Worldwide of San Martin, Calif., a global training, research and consulting firm for advisors.