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Getting Guidance: How to Choose the Right Consultant, Coach or Mentor

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Too often, only the crisis of a heart attack motivates someone to actually quit smoking, eat better and exercise regularly. Similarly, the kind of market we’re currently in is excellent at exposing flaws in our assumptions, business models and client rosters. But using the stress from today’s market as a diagnostic tool to pinpoint problems in our business is not enough. Instead, we must act now, when times are tough, to reap the many benefits of a better business during both down and up markets.

Unfortunately, as 30 years in this business have shown me, financial advisors are rarely adept at change in either their personal or business lives. In our CEG Worldwide coaching programs, we regularly find that in addition to outsourcing and delegating other activities at which they are not expert, advisors also need to outsource and delegate the process of changing their businesses. This requires turning to mentors, coaches or consultants to effectively facilitate and leverage the change process.

Six Steps to Change

Once you recognize that you need outside help, we recommend undertaking a six-step process:
(1) Perform a candid self-assessment.
(2) Define areas of focus.
(3) Choose between a mentor, coach or consultant.
(4) Decide on a particular individual to work with.
(5) Make an agreement and action plan.
(6) Work the plan.

The first step — performing a candid self-assessment — necessitates sitting down and having a Big Picture conversation with yourself. Start by asking yourself if the business you now have is the business you really want. Imagine a future you — a wildly successful future you who has met all his or her goals — and describe what you see. What do you want your business life and personal life to look like in one year? Five years? Ten or more years? Make sure you envision the entire picture, including your family life, leisure time and overall health.

Then compare where you are now with where you want to be. What do you need to do to get there? What obstacles and major concerns might prevent you from achieving your desired future? A serious self-assessment requires you to be as objective as possible, so it might be helpful to seek input from your spouse and close friends. Completing this kind of frank, in-depth self-assessment clearly indicates that you have the necessary preexisting commitment to change that a mentor, coach or consultant can leverage.

The second step is to define your specific areas of focus for the next six to 12 months. For example, if you desire increased revenue, then you’ll need to expand or change your client base. If you already have more clients than you can properly service, the logical conclusion might be to embrace a wealth management approach and have fewer but wealthier clients.

Three Distinct Choices

With a clear idea of your overall goals and your particular focus, you’re in a position to ask yourself who might help you most: a mentor, a coach or a consultant. By understanding the significant differences between them, you can wisely choose who will be best suited to help you achieve your goals.

A mentor — if you can find one — is probably the best choice. An ideal mentor will already have achieved the kind of success you’re aiming at in our industry, and will help you do the same by sharing specific experiences, strategies and techniques.

Unfortunately, mentors are few and far between. Many financial services institutions and trade associations try to foster mentoring, but this is seldom successful. If, however, you already have a relationship with someone in the industry whose success you admire, then consider asking that person to enter into a formal mentoring relationship. This typically would include personal meetings, phone conversations and the sharing of specific strategies and tactics the mentor used to achieve success. Generally, there’s no compensation in a mentoring relationship.

Since mentor relationships are so difficult to establish, you’ll probably end up engaging either a coach or a consultant. First, let’s consider coaches, who may or may not have specific expertise in the financial services industry. Instead, coaches are experts in helping their clients identify goals, draw out plans and sustain a focused energy.

Critically, a coach will work with you on a long-term basis to make sure that you don’t backslide or move away from what you need to do. Coaches can work in person or by phone, so you don’t have to geographically restrict yourself. It’s always best to look for a coach with industry experience and a track record of success in coaching financial advisors, but even more important is the coach’s overall record of client success.

Finally, there are consultants, who are typically brought in for short-term issues and to solve specific challenges in strategy, marketing or other matters. Consultants can be very beneficial in enabling you to meet limited objectives in their areas of expertise. The nature of a relationship with a consultant is fundamentally different from that with a mentor or a coach because of its focused, short-term, results-driven nature.

Shaping the Plan

After deciding between mentor, coach or consultant, the fourth step is to choose the right individual within that classification. First, identify candidates by asking around, seeking referrals and doing online searches. If you’re pursuing a consultant or a coach, the next step is to interview all of your final candidates. Importantly, you should use the same interview guide with each candidate so you can compare apples to apples. A standard set of questions enables you to gather the same information in each interview and then perform a valid comparison rather than being swayed by the warmth of a handshake or the dazzle of a smile that throws you off into irrelevant tangents. It’s not that chemistry isn’t important, but it shouldn’t be the only factor.

Once you’ve made your choice, the fifth step is to ask for the engagement, making sure you can work out all the details including the cost, the mechanics of your work relationship and the establishment of chemistry and trust. Your agreement should include a defined action plan that states where you are today and what you want to accomplish. Many coaches and consultants start with a “gap analysis,” beginning with where you are now, stating where you want to get to and then outlining a specific action plan for closing the gap. The action plan should include likely barriers that will be encountered and how you will overcome them.

The final step is to work the plan. Since part of the coach’s or consultant’s job is to keep you on track and help you identify unanticipated barriers and ways of going around or through them, you’ll want to make regular progress reports and have regular check-ins. Commonly, in addition to unanticipated obstacles you’ll find that some of your assumptions were wrong. A good coach or consultant will help you adjust your plan, implement additional strategies or tactics and ultimately obtain your desired results.

Patricia J. Abram is a senior managing principal with CEG Worldwide, an industry research, training and consulting firm; see