Achieving Awesomeness: The 7 Real Traits of Successful Advisors

I’ve seen a few stories in the advisory media lately talking about "The X (insert number here) Traits of Top Advisors.”

Some of these traits are okay, while others are mostly harmless, but the problem with them is that for the most part they either sound like wishful thinking or an adaptation of some business school theory. The reality is that successful owner-advisors really do have many of the same traits. Unfortunately, you can’t identify them by looking at firm “metrics” or asking them in a survey. Instead, you have to work with these folks to see what they actually do. Over the years, I’ve worked with a lot of great owner-advisors, in small firms to super giants, and here’s my list of the seven traits those successful leaders have in common:

Trait 1: Successful Advisors Lead Instead of Manage

Great business owners don’t seek to manage and/or oversee the people who work for them: they take average people and make them into great leaders themselves, so they don’t have to be managed. These advisors don’t see themselves as “the boss” cracking the whip every day to get the most out of their employees, because they intuitively know that not only will that take away from making their maximum contribution to the firm, but it will also limit firm growth to what they can do. Instead, they see themselves as coaches (maybe “player-coaches”), whose job is to train, support, and motivate each employee to make their maximum contribution to the business.

Trait 2: Successful Advisors Hire People Smarter Than Themselves

Great owner-advisors are fond of saying that they aren’t really all that smart, they just hire smart people. Of course, that’s a sign of being really smart, because it’s based on the concept that to build a business that’s more than just a job with some support, you have to hire people who can also make substantial contributions to the firm’s growth and success. (This mentality also applies to outsourcing partners and strategic partners and consultants ;). )

Trait 3: Successful Advisors Operate From a Business Plan

That plan is updated every year, and reviewed at least once a month. This allows their employees (and themselves) to know exactly where they are and where they are going as a company. It also makes sure that everyone is on the same page, with the same vision about what kind of firm you are trying to build. The ability to communicate their vision is one of the essential skills of successful owner-advisors: growth is a lot easier when everyone is pulling in the same direction.

Trait 4: Successful Advisors Don’t Care What Everybody Else Is Doing

Not only that, but successful advisors don’t compare themselves to anyone else. Great owners know their own business plan, and those benchmarks are the only metrics that matter. Building a successful business is a contest with yourself: putting together a good team, finding what works for you and then doing it. Every firm is different and what works for one firm maybe a disaster for another. Worrying about what other firms are doing or how you measure up is just wasted time and energy.

Trait 5: Successful Advisors Never,  Ever Say, “We’re Different”

They also don’t say, “Our firm is further along,” or “We are bigger, more advanced.” I have prospective clients tell me this all the time: “We are different, we might be further along in our strategic work than your ‘traditional’ client.” I find that all my great firm owners would never say this. It is the biggest red flag I have in prospective meetings that makes me want to avoid working with that client. Great owners actually believe they are simply average, and it’s that mental attitude which drives them to work hard, to be better, to learn more—and eventually makes them the best.

Trait 6: Successful Advisors Make Hard Decisions Quickly and Don’t Look Back

Advisors often have a hard time making the really big, hard decisions, such as hiring the next employee, firing the bad partner, acquiring the next firm, building the better service model, firing the horrible client, etc. Great owner-advisors make the necessary decisions and move on. Sure, they learn from their mistakes, but they don’t dwell on them. They’re all about moving forward, not looking back.

Trait 7: Successful Advisors Know Their Greatest Strength Is Their Greatest Weakness

This is my favorite trait because it’s usually the most important one. Nearly every great owner-advisor’s greatest strength is coming up with big ideas to improve the business and/or client service. But unlike the vast majority of owner-advisors, they also know that there is a right time for every idea to be implemented. Mostly, that time is not “Right Now!” Even though they want it done immediately, they know that every major change requires preparation (including employee buy-in) and then careful implementation. Great owners take the time to ensure each idea is done right—to get the right result.

While some owner-advisors intuitively have many or all of these traits, the good news is that they can be learned. The first step is to realize that building a business that’s bigger than they are can’t be all about them. Once they make the commitment to be better, the sky really is the limit to awesomeness.

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