Every small business owner has a list of long-term goals and projects that will help a company move to the next level. But it's tough to find time to work on those plans when daily demands consume so much energy.
You can't ignore your long-term goals and expect your planning business to thrive. But you can find ways to attend to those goals by using some tactics that other planners have relied on to balance long- and short-term business needs.
"A lot of my colleagues in the industry aren't doing annual planning," says Lisa Kirchenbauer, president of Omega Wealth Management in Arlington, Va. Without annual or multiyear goals, it's difficult to know whether you're making progress or if you're moving toward your desired result.
Kirchenbauer suggests looking at the very long term - 20 years or more ahead. What do your best life and business situations look like then? Then work backward. Figure out what you need to do each year to reach those goals.
In addition to indicating what steps you need to take, goals also let you know what to cut from your agenda. "It's easier to make sacrifices when you've set some goals," Kirchenbauer says.
"If you haven't done that, it's hard to know whether it's something you should do or not. Something might be really interesting, but totally off plan."
Once you've got an idea of where you're heading and what you'll need to do to get there, there are many ways to stay focused on your goals and find extra hours to work toward them.
HIRE THE RIGHT HELP
"If you're working 12 hours a day, is that because you like doing that? Or is it because you have to?" asks Lee Munson, chief investment officer at Portfolio, an asset management firm in Albuquerque, N.M. If it's the latter, it's time to hire help.
Help might mean contracting with a vendor, a tactic of Jay Hutchins, president of the Wealth Conservatory in Lebanon, N.H.
Hutchins wants more clients and more opportunities to consult on fiduciary matters. He wants to work online, to contact clients and potential clients through social media as well as improve the firm's website. To do all of that, he hired vendors with expertise in social media. One vendor is building the firm's new website, and a contract video editor is producing educational videos that will run on that site.
Hutchins found some of these vendors at conferences and others via word of mouth. Explaining his needs and supervising the new projects created more work.
"You squeeze it in when you can, and you accept that things may move along more slowly than you'd like because you don't have time to make them move faster," he says. To handle it, he puts in extra hours in the evenings and on weekends to keep the longer-term projects on track.
For onetime projects, such as creating a website, finding a vendor makes sense. For regular, recurring needs, consider hiring one or more new staff members.
James Miller, president of Woodward Financial Advisors in Chapel Hill, N.C., hired a client-service associate whom he hopes will "absorb some of our operational and administrative work. It's going well," Miller says.
"She's been here a few months and I'm seeing the light at the end of the tunnel," he adds.
It's crucial to make the right hire the first time, adds Rick Kahler, president and owner of Kahler Financial Group in Rapid City, S.D. When someone leaves, he says, "the time you invest is gone, plus clients see turnover as a negative."
Kahler learned about turnover the hard way five years ago when five staff members left his practice in just two months. "I discovered the terrible inefficiencies that were going on. I learned that I was a fantastic delegator, to the point that I didn't even know what was going on in my office," he says. "The software programs I had purchased for my staff weren't being used. The answers to the very things they were complaining about were under their fingertips."
After redesigning his office for greater efficiency, Kahler hired two new staffers. He used a variety of personality and aptitude tests to help him select the right people, aware that he needed to hire people who complemented, but didn't duplicate, his own talents. "The person you want may not have a good interview personality," Kahler says.
One person he hired is introverted and not especially warm, a combination that suits her job requirements, but didn't help her stand out as the most exciting interview candidate. "She has worked out beautifully. She's happy and I'm happy," Kahler says.
When he hired a second professional, Kahler surrendered some of his office power happily. "I am not the world's greatest manager, so my office manager handles all the human resources and interacts with all the administrative employees. They answer to her, not me. She's worked at bigger companies and has a better idea of how companies work best," he says. Letting her do what she does best, Kahler adds, frees him to do his best work.
Putting power in the hands of a specialist can save time and improve work quality, Munson says. "Yesterday, I had to sit down with my COO and my other senior partner and decide, are we all going to independently work on financial planning software input or are we going to have one person specialize in it so that they can do it faster? These small decisions all impact the long term," he says.
MAKE A DATE AND KEEP IT
Veteran planners say it's crucial to carve out dedicated time to focus on long-term goals. Miller has monthly conference calls with his staff to discuss the next month's highest priorities.
Every 90 days, Miller's team has an out-of-office strategic planning meeting. Each participant develops goals for the next quarter and reports on the progress made since the last meeting.
"We put big sticky notes from the last meeting on the wall at the next meeting, so we know what we agreed to do," Miller says. Staff bonuses are partially tied to making progress.
At Munson's practice, professionals from separate offices in three states gather each quarter to talk about long-term goals. "I like the physical separation in general, because absence makes the heart grow fonder. We always leave these meetings wanting more," Munson says.
Kirchenbauer sets aside full days every quarter to spend on long-term goals, but she also takes time every week to make sure she's heading in the right direction. "Sometimes I do it when I'm at my kids' cello and violin lessons. Or I'll purposely go to Starbucks for a half-hour before I even come in on Monday morning. It's important to make it a regular habit," she says.
MAKE TECHNOLOGY YOUR FRIEND
Kahler travels about a quarter of the time, heading to work conferences and also enjoying family vacations in Asia and Australia. He continues to manage his practice while away, he says, by leaning heavily on technology. Once, a client died while Kahler was in Adelaide, Australia. He talked with the widow by telephone and Skype. He also contacted his staff daily, guided a new staff planner and talked with other clients.
Like Hutchins, Kahler is working to put videos on his website. He will also offer financial exercises and data-gathering tools. In Kahler's case, the material will explain much of what a new client needs to know about his practice and gather client information.
"That saves me three hours per client," he says. "Fifty percent of my clients aren't in South Dakota. I started this as a way to bring them on board, and now I use it for everybody because it's efficient for me and efficient for them."
Munson says he edits his to-do list every day. "I have to be in charge of some master plan of what will get done that way," he says.
Don't spend time on something just because it interests your peers, Kahler advises. Work on the issues your clients care about and that add value to your practice.
That list should include updating your portfolio management style and investment models. "What we do now is not what we did five years ago, nor is it likely what we'll do 10 years from now," Munson says.
Ask yourself if the goals you are contemplating are on the right subject and are coming at the right time. Should you buy new technology now or after other users have fully tested it? Will clients use your new website features?
An annual budget is a great prioritization tool. You only have a certain amount to spend. Which items are most important?
Your time is finite, too. That means it often is wise to decline meeting requests. "I have to be really strategic about which wholesalers come in. All sorts of people want to come in and have meetings. I have to be thoughtful and consider, what do I have to trade to do that?" Kirchenbauer says.
If someone does get a piece of Munson's time, it's a small one. He sometimes holds meetings while standing in his company's foyer - a clear signal that no one should plan to stay very long.
HIRE A COACH
Like many professionals, do you need help maintaining your focus? Miller does, so she hired a business coach to help him work toward long-term goals. "The main thing she does for me is focus my energies," he says.
Kirchenbauer has been a member of the Strategic Coach program for about six years and she credits it with helping her set goals and plan how she'll reach them.
As part of that program, she attends quarterly, daylong meetings with a coach, spending the day doing a variety of different exercises and talking with other entrepreneurs. The program helps her prepare for her quarterly meetings and offers tools to track her progress on a weekly and quarterly basis.
An individual coach, group coaching program, small business support group or accountability partner could all help other planners accomplish the same objective, Kirchenbauer says.
Whatever your choice, Kirchenbauer says, it's vital to make it and follow through.
"I've always believed in taking the time on the personal and the professional side to figure out what I'm trying to accomplish," she says.
"Even if I don't look at the plan again," Kirchenbauer adds, setting the intentions makes a big difference in reaching my goals."
Ingrid Case, a Minneapolis financial writer, is a former editor at Bloomberg News. She is the author of Your Own Two Feet (and How to Stand on Them): Surviving and Thriving After Graduation.