Even though I don't have any gray hairs yet, I'm no stranger to burnout. In my first job out of college, I thought I was capable of being superwoman. I was director of operations and member services for The Garrett Planning Network. We grew from 30 to 150 advisors in two short years. My job required me to attend all the initial member meetings and trainings, and serve as network coordinator, coach, consultant, and operations manager to all those practices. I led group conference calls, updated technology systems, produced the annual conference, customized operations manuals, helped set up the bookkeeping and procedures, and answered dozens of complex questions via e-mail a day. I was running 24/7. An 80-hour workweek would have been a vacation.
I didn't think I was burned out at the time, but I very much was. I started coming in later, took procedural shortcuts, pushed all the rules, and tried to squeeze out a little time wherever I could find it. I moved back home, and worked out of my house, but that only made things worse, because then there were no limits to the demands on my time. Eventually, something had to give, and the quality of my service dramatically fell, as did my motivation. By the time I left GPN, I wanted to go work in a different industry altogether.
Although it was miserable at the time, my experience has enabled me to spot burnout in others from a mile away. General George S. Patton once observed that his Third Army suffered from far more fatigued divisional commanders than fatigued divisions. In my work with independent advisors, I've found that to be true of most practice owners, too. Many advisors work long hours, day after day, week after week, including weekends, eating bad food (when they can find the time to grab a meal), and failing to exercise, take vacations, or spend time with their families.
Believe me, I understand all too well that when you're the owner of a business, as well as the principal rainmaker and revenue generator, the demands on you often seem insurmountable. The only thing you can do is to keep on keeping on. At that pace, however, something's got to give. In a crunch, you can work 100 hours a week, but not every week. Here are ten suggestions to help you keep it all in perspective, so you can continue to grow your practice, and get as much out of it as you put into it:
Number One: Remember why you got into the business in the first place--Most independent advisors are independent for two reasons: They felt they could serve their clients better if they had sole control over their advice and the products they recommend, and they wanted the flexible lifestyle that owning their own business would provide. If you're chained to your desk 80 or 100 hours a week, slowly eroding your productivity, your motivation, and your health, you're probably not accomplishing either goal. The whole point of being an advisor is to enjoy what you do, your clients, and your employees. Your ongoing mission should be to make sure that you do all three each, and every, day.
Number Two: Take at least two, two-week vacations a year--Unless your life is already a vacation, taking time off isn't a luxury; it's a necessity. Moreover, the harder you work, the more necessary it is. Trying to steal a day here and a long weekend there isn't going to do the job. To keep up their fast pace, people who work hard also need significant downtime. That means regular periods that are long enough to at least drop the office from your short-term memory, and regain some perspective on what's important in your life. It also means no cell phones, Blackberries, or e-mail. Leave a phone number where you'll be and they'll call you, but only if it's a true emergency.
Number Three: Take control of your schedule, rather than react to crises--All too often, we find ourselves putting out one fire after another, rather than making any progress. Being a financial advisor is going to entail a certain amount of emergency triage, but when that becomes all you do, either the client, or the practice, is out of control. Or both. The first step in forcing the cuckoo back into the clock is for you and your staff to have a clear understanding of which things constitute true emergencies, which do not. Next, you need to create a proactive system, so that you're not continually creating emergencies by leaving things to the last minute. Finally, hire the clerical and professional staff you need to take everything that can be done by someone else off your plate. You'll be surprised at how much more productive--and happier--you are when you can focus solely on tasks that require your training and expertise. You might feel that you can't afford to hire that kind of help, but in my experience, most advisors can't afford not to.
Number Four: Find a hobby that means as much to you as your work--Nothing will help you maximize your efforts, and minimize your time in the office than having something you'd rather be doing. For many professionals, for reasons I can't fathom, that thing seems to be golf. But it could be bowling, knitting, skiing, sailing, tennis, collecting jewelry, or playing chess. The list is endless. It does have to be something you truly look forward to doing, not just feel obligated to do, such as run on a treadmill. Even if you don't get to do whatever your "thing" is as often as you'd like, and you undoubtedly won't, just the fact that it's out there, waiting for you, will make your days go faster and your step a little springier. And you'll get to put one of those bumper stickers on your car that says: "I'd rather be..."
Number Five: Take half a day off in the middle of the week--There's a reason why doctors traditionally take Wednesday afternoons off. When you constantly have to make decisions that profoundly affect peoples' lives, you have to be just as sharp at the end of the week as you were at the beginning. And there's nothing like getting out of the office in the middle of the week, to give your brain a mini-break. To maximize these benefits, it helps to do something with these few hours to get your office out of your mind, as well as the other way around. Again, golf, inexplicably, seems to fit this bill, but it can be anything. And it's not going to hurt that advisor physique to get some extended exercise at least once a week.
Number Six: Make mentoring junior advisors a high priority--Trust me on this: teaching others something that's important to both of you really helps keep things in perspective. Maybe it's taking the time to slow down and be patient with someone else. Or maybe it reminds you of why you became an advisor, or how much knowledge and wisdom you've acquired over the years. But there's no denying that taking the time to be a mentor will help you as much as it will help them. Your mentoring efforts will work best if you communicate how serious you are to your employee, and to yourself, by setting aside a regular block of time for them; over breakfast, at lunch, a couple of hours every Tuesday afternoon, whenever. The point is if you just leave it to whenever you find the time, you won't, and that lack of priority won't be lost on your junior advisor. Do both of you a favor, block out a couple of hours every week, and stick to it as if both of you depend on it, which you will.
Number Seven: Commit to a regular exercise class or team sport--For your long-term success as well as caring for your clients, and your family, your health is important. And that means some form of regular exercise. Once again, you have a much greater chance of actually doing something you enjoy and look forward to. And an even greater chance if you've made a commitment to others as well as yourself. So, whether it's your weekly foursome, your Pilates trainer, or your softball team, getting out there at least a couple of times a week will work wonders not only on cholesterol, but also on your psyche.
Number Eight: Attend as least two major industry conferences a year--For many people, nothing recharges their batteries faster than hanging out with their peers for a few days. Talking about your challenges, hearing what others face, and how they have or haven't solved them, reminds us that we aren't alone and that it really is worth all the hard work. And it doesn't hurt that most large industry gatherings are held at great hotels in beautiful locales. Sometimes, it's just great to get out of Dodge for a day or two, see old friends, and remind each other why being a financial advisor is the best job in the world.
Number Nine: Never work on Sunday--There's a reason those ancient Hebrews refrained from working on the Sabbath (I know, for Jews it's Saturday, and the Muslim Sabbath is Friday). People who work hard need at least one day of complete rest out of every seven. You'll find that you're mentally sharper and more productive on the other six days. And armed with the knowledge that you're not going to work on your own sabbath, you'll waste less time and get more done on the days you do toil.
Number Ten: Trust the people you work with--Whether they're partners, junior partners, or professional employees, chances are your coworkers are perfectly capable of holding down the fort for a few days, or a few weeks. After all, you hired them; if you don't trust them, you should probably take a hard look into why not. In fact, trusting them with this kind of responsibility should be an integral part of every advisor's training. If you're a solo practitioner, find another solo with the same problem, and cover for each other, just like doctors do. Try to remember that you're not dealing with life or death issues here; and even if you are, you're not going to be much good to anyone if you're burned out.
Angela Herbers is a virtual business manager and consultant for independent financial planning firms. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.