On September 22, 2003, I left my office for the day, with a full schedule charted out for the next few weeks, including client meetings and quarterly performance reports. Then the unexpected happened. Near the end of my standard five-mile mountain biking ride, my bike lurched into a hidden ditch. My body sailed over the handlebars and I catapulted into the ground headfirst. I was able to get up and walk around, but I quickly realized that I would not be able to make my next appointment–coaching my son’s soccer practice. Instead, I needed to get to an emergency room. Later that evening, I had a halo screwed into my head: I had a broken neck, and my doctors said I could be immobilized for up to 12 weeks.
As planners, we encourage, even demand, that prospective clients agree to put their financial houses in order before we will consider taking them on. So why are advisors such poor planners themselves? Why do so few of us take our own medicine?
I thought I was well prepared for any eventuality, but things didn’t work out exactly as planned, and I came to realize that there were additional steps I should have taken to prepare. My personal experience should be a wake-up call to you, my fellow planners, for in the twinkling of an eye, your life–professional and personal–could change, and not for the better. Maybe my experiences–my missteps and successes when faced with a life-altering and nearly life-ending event–can help you be prepared. Here’s my story.
I’ve been in the financial planning business for more than 17 years and am a successful sole practitioner in Farmington, Connecticut. During my career, I have been flexible enough, and lucky enough, not only to adapt to the times, but also to change my practice so that it better suits me and my clients. I began to achieve success when I realized that I didn’t need to imitate the “star” producers that insurance companies or investment firms held up as role models. I committed myself to educating my clients and serving them in the way I would want to be served.
Although I didn’t feel compelled to imitate anyone else’s style, I did need to gain some business sense. I learned an important lesson when I heard someone argue early in my career that if a planner could not leave his or her business for an extended period of time without it falling apart, then that planner had not done a proper job. Otherwise, not only will the planner (and his clients) have trouble now, he or she will fail to build a thing of value that can be sold or transferred when he or she is ready to leave the business. To heed this advice, I needed to have a business that could sail smoothly whether I was at the helm or not. Though I was busy servicing clients, bringing in new clients, and constantly looking to guide the business in the right direction, I was confident I had accomplished this basic business goal. That confidence was tested by that September day and its aftermath.
After the Fall
Once I had digested the thoughts of my close brush with paralysis or death, and started to consider how this injury would affect myself and my family, I thought about my responsibilities at work. My assistant would at least have to clear my calendar of appointments during the remainder of the week, but I thought I would be able to convince the doctors that I could get back to work the following week. Well, things did not turn out as I had planned. My assistant wound up clearing my schedule not only for that week, but for the next six weeks as well.
As I lay in the hospital and then at home dealing with my new companion–pain–I realized my first challenge would be myself. I have always been a hard-driving, do-it-myself kind of guy, and now I would need to rely on others. I would need to lean on my support system at home and in my community, in addition to my colleagues at work. My family would have its own burdens. My wife, Anne, would be fully responsible for our sons Matthew, Thomas, and Samuel–aged 8, 5, and 9 months–an immobilized husband, all the household duties, and entertaining well-wishers. Fortunately, she was up to the task, aided by a tremendous outpouring of support from friends and neighbors.
How I Had Prepared
With my home life under control, I focused on my business. I understood that my livelihood, might suffer a setback. I assessed the situation, and discovered that I had these five advantages:
1. A very capable and reliable assistant. Yes, it took me some time and difficulty to find her, including hiring and letting go others who were not right for the position, but that effort was to pay great dividends.
2. Very capable back-office support from both my securities OSJ and the insurance brokerage firms I work with.
3. A tremendous amount of support from colleagues, ranging from those that I had shared office space with in the past, to friends that I had made serving on the board of my local Financial Planning Association chapter. These colleagues offered to meet with clients and prospects if I wished, which helped make me and my clients feel more secure.