Most people today spend very little time thinking about their own future. The immediate demands of work, family, organizations, friends and life in general take our time and our attention. We all focus on the things in front of us and don't often challenge ourselves to delve into or to re-think our values and our life's directions.
I believe that one of the most important contributions we can make in the lives of our clients is to periodically help them think about their futures and what they really want from life.
What great value we could add to our clients if we could help them:
Identify the key issues that would make their lives happier and more fulfilling;
Set clear and achievable goals to realize those objectives;
Overcome the sticking points that are holding clients back from accomplishing their goals
Address their fears and help them to overcome their set-backs.
Properly set goals can be incredibly motivating. Clients in the habit of setting and achieving goals inevitably enjoy a growing sense of accomplishment, satisfaction and self-confidence.
Unfortunately, like our clients, we advisors are far too apt to jump to implementation instead of giving appropriate time and value to the directions and priorities of our clients' lives.
Most of us earn the majority of our business income from implementation activities--selling investments or insurance, or managing assets--so the reason for our desire to get there quickly is understandable. The topics of implementation are familiar, and we're well prepared to help clients with them. Challenging people about their lives and helping them get clarity about what they really want out of life can be messy; it takes time and requires that we care. Moreover, it can be uncomfortable. No wonder we tend to focus on implementation.
I'd like to suggest that we go back and think about the purpose of our relationships with our clients. Is our role to help them manage their assets better, or more effectively insure their lives, or save taxes or figure how to optimize their stock options? Sure it is. But I think we have a higher role, a more important contribution that we should also be trying to make.
If a client is heading down a road that doesn't really work for them, but they're there simply because it's the road they have been on, are we really doing them a favor by helping them get further down that same road--even if it's in a better fashion? I don't think so. I think a more valuable contribution we could make would be to help that client find a better road. Our higher role, therefore, involves helping our clients figure out which path will make them happy and fulfilled.
Before we start implementing the plan, we have an obligation to be sure it's the right plan. Assuming you agree, you must also agree that we therefore have an obligation to spend the time and the effort to help clients give adequate consideration to their lives, their priorities, their goals. That assumes, of course, that we know how to do that.
But where's the training to help us do this? It is certainly not available in most of our industry conferences and meetings. Shame on us.
Where, then, can we go for help in this area? The emerging profession of personal and professional coaching would be a good place to start. Certainly your local library offers great resources, in the area of personal growth. The Internet also has an enormous number of resources and guides to help people learn how to set goals. Some of the best include: www.Mindtools.com,
www.how-to-set-and-achieve-a-goal.com, www.mygoals.com .
Exercises to Use with Your Clients
Over the years, I've come across some tools that can be helpful in this goal-setting process with clients.
A successful business works hard to determine a mission and vision for the future. Individuals should do the same, for the same reasons. Early in our client relationships and periodically thereafter, we should help our clients clarify their unique mission in life and their personal vision of what life would look like if they get to the life they want.
Creating a Personal Mission Statement
A mission reflects our priorities, the purpose for our being. The direct approach is to simply ask the client:
What gets you up in the morning?
What do you live for?
What do you want out of life?
What do you consider the meaning/purpose of life?
Write down the answers (on a screen or easel so that you both can view it) without judgment; treat it like a brainstorming session. Once you've drawn out most of the ideas (be patient; the most important ideas often come late), have the client choose the ones that are most meaningful/appropriate for them. Then, together use those words and phrases to build a preliminary mission statement. To bring it closer to what works for your client, "wordsmith" it together for a while. Some clients will want to take it home and work on it further. Come back to it periodically, because if it is a good mission statement, it can serve as a guide as you and the client make other choices.
Creating a Vision Statement
A picture can be very helpful in directing and motivating the right actions. A vision statement offers that picture. Let's say your client arrives at your office wanting your help in preparing financially for retirement. While you certainly need their financial information, I also think you both need to understand what their vision of retirement will look like. Ask them to write down, in the present tense--as though it were happening today--as much as they can about the future life they want: Where and how do you live? What do you do? With whom do you do it? What's your financial situation like? Who are your friends and family members, and how do you interact with them? What organizations/activities are you involved with? What is important to you?
Writing Your Own Obituary
Another way to get at much the same thing is to have your clients think about how they want to be remembered. A great exercise for any of us is to write our own epitaph, our own obituary. Ask your clients to write theirs. Doing so will often help them see their lives in ways they had not considered and gives clarity to important life elements to which they should give more focus.
Go Beyond the Normal List of Goals
Ask your clients to list their goals, but don't let them stop at 10 or 20. Ask them to go to 30, or even 40 or 50. The more they struggle with adding items, the more likely it is that their hidden goals will emerge. For couples, each partner should do a separate list without sharing. In joint discussion, you can have them share, while holding back anything they don't want shared. Once they share their lists, help them prioritize the items that are of the greatest value and that are actionable.
Kinder's Three Questions
George Kinder has provided the industry with some critical insights and tools in his valuable book The Seven Stages of Money Maturity. Among my favorite tools are his three questions, often better asked on paper with answers written by each spouse separately:
1. How would you change your life, now and for the future, if all of a sudden you knew you had "enough" money, whatever that means to you? Don't be limited by realism. Let yourself dream and expand what you can do or be or experience.
2. You have just learned that you have only about five years to live. Your life will be cut short, without pain and without notice. Knowing that death is waiting for you sooner than you expected, how will you change your life? In the uncertain but substantial period left to you, what will you do differently with your life?
3. You just found out that you have only one day to live; you will die tomorrow. What are your feelings? What longings? What regrets? What deep and unfulfilled dreams do you have? What do you wish you had completed? Been? Had? Done in this life that is just about to end?
Breaking Lifetime Goals into Manageable Steps:
Most people think in terms of big, long-term goals. Start with them. They establish the direction and priorities. But to make them happen, these lifetime goals need to be broken down into smaller, manageable steps. To accomplish one of the big goals, what are the major steps needed to get there? What needs to happen over the next 10 or 20 years? Then, break down each of those into five-year plans. Each of those should then be broken further into a one- or three-year plan, a six-month plan, and a one-month plan of progressively smaller goals that are needed to reach your client's lifetime goals. Each of these should be based on the previous plan, each building toward the next greater goal. Finally, since we measure our life in days, a To-Do list is needed for each day--so that the right things will be done on a daily basis and fuel progress towards reaching each lifetime goal.
For example, if you play golf and generally shoot between 100 and 110 and your goal is to shoot 80, that might be a lifetime goal. To get there, you'll need to get to 90, then 85 and then 80, each progressively more difficult. To get to 90, you'll need to improve your game. That will come from lessons, practice and regular playing, at progressively higher levels. You may not be able to identify today all the things you'll need to do to get from 90 to 85 and then from 85 to 80, but you can come up with a step-by-step plan for the first phase.
Once you have a plan, you need only worry about the tasks for that day. In our example, you need to call the local pro and sign up. Then you need to show up for the first lesson.
The Kinder Institute offers a map--essentially a grid--to help you do this. The rows are labeled "Career, Family, Friends, Physical, Community," for example, and time frames--from 1 week to the rest of your life--are across the top.
Once the first set of plans has been created, the process needs to be regularly updated. Work with your clients periodically to review the longer-term plans and modify them to reflect changing priorities and experience. Goals will change as clients mature. Regular modifications in the plan should reflect this maturation. If goals do not hold any attraction any longer, then let them go. If goals aren't met, don't dwell on the failure, but on what can be learned and what could have happened differently to create a success.
Goal-setting should bring your clients real pleasure, satisfaction and a sense of achievement. If you can help bring those qualities to their lives, how important do you think you'd be to them?
Goal setting techniques are used by top-level athletes, successful business people and achievers in all fields. They create a long-term vision of what they are after and the short-term motivation to take action. One of the most valuable things we can do for our clients is help them benefit from setting effective goals and creating plans that will help them realize those goals. Our clients deserve nothing less from us.
Norman M. Boone, MBA, CFP, is the founder and president of Mosaic Financial Partners, Inc. a San Francisco-based fee-only financial planning and investment firm, and the co-creator of IPS AdvisorPro, an online IPS-generator for advisors.