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Embrace Selfishness for Success, Women Advisory Firm Owners

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I admit, when my editor asked me to write my column this month about women, I was slightly annoyed. First, I had already planned on writing about a different topic. Second, I am an avoider. I don’t like to write about things that hit close to home so I was simply ignoring the whole “women’s issues” idea. However, after thinking about it, I concluded I should have written this column a long time ago.

I know I’m not alone in this thought, but women may be better financial advisors than men. Broad generalizations are dangerous, yet my observation is that women (as much as we hate to admit it) often play the “caretaker” role in our professional lives as well as our personal lives. This caretaker role can make us great advisors, but it also creates some conflicts as business owners.

I suspect this is one of the main reasons it’s pretty easy these days to come up with a list of female business executives (Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg come to mind), but how many female business owners can you name? Let’s face it: Owning a business is hard, and it may be especially hard for women, even in today’s “enlightened” culture.

As Gabrielle Glaser wrote in her book “Her Best Kept Secret” about a new era of professional women and alcohol abuse, many women today are under more pressure. We are often overloaded at work in a duel-career household and come home to more stress: getting kids into great schools, helping with homework, scheduling “activities,” caring for aging parents, financial concerns, relationship issues, etc.

In my work with female advisors, I’ve found that many of my female clients do indeed feel pulled in a lot of different directions—more so than the men—by the needs of their children, spouses, friends, parents, grandchildren, clients or employees. They are very good advisors, but when it comes to their business, their solution is to structure their entire day around the needs of everyone else.

The problem is that many women try so hard to get so much done that they go through life too quickly. We don’t enjoy it and wake up one day to find we don’t like the life we have. Ironically, when women get to this point, they almost always feel that they need more control over their businesses and their lives.

I discovered this trend with my clients, but I admit it’s also a problem I struggle with. Over the past 10 years I’ve personally sought out advice, help from business coaches, research and therapy to help my clients (and myself) create rewarding businesses. Throughout this process there are four steps I have learned women need to take to help ourselves have more meaningful and less stressful lives.

First, women need to feel in control. However, we need to learn that we can be more in control by being less controlling. In most cases, much of our unhappiness is created by ourselves, our expectations of ourselves and our structured schedule. In fact, I’ve seen this with every single female business owner I’ve worked with. When they have too much control over their schedule, their business starts controlling them.

Through long experience, I’ve come to realize that most women leave very little time for themselves. Maybe it’s genetic, or perhaps it’s how we’re raised, but it’s a very hard habit to break. So, your first goal is to carve out some time—at least an hour, and two hours is better—for yourselves every day. Even this is usually a struggle.

In most cases, I can convince my clients to book their own time; that is, build it into their schedules. However, they tend to give it up as soon as someone else’s issue comes up. Certainly, emergencies take priority, but when these “emergencies” arise most days, or every day, the problem becomes pretty clear.

In fact, we have a firm rule about this. I won’t do anything more with a client until they can control their time. People do this in different ways. One of my clients works from home every Wednesday. She gets to be with her children and does whatever work she feels like doing with no set plan. I know—crazy, right?

Some clients take two hours every morning, while others take long lunches, or Fridays or Mondays off. When my business coach told me I needed to spend one hour a day doing something only for me, I told him I didn’t have one hour a day. He said, “Then I want you to take three hours.” It was very hard at first, but now it’s part of my normal day. The key for women is getting quality “me” time that works for each of us. If we can bring ourselves to do that—and stick to it—then we’re halfway to breaking the stranglehold of overloaded schedules.

Once we’ve learned to take some time every day for us, it’s time for step two: Take a vacation. I’m not talking about just any vacation. I’m talking about taking at least a week—and two would be better—during which a substantial portion of your time is spent doing something for you, and not just hanging out with friends, caring for your parents or taking the kids to Disney World. It shouldn’t be a highly structured vacation either, where you spend the whole time meeting a rigid, jam-packed schedule. It’s not supposed to be an extension of your structured life. It’s a time to relax and have fun.

Once you’re back from vacation it’s time for step three: Take control of your need to plan. I’ve come to realize that our need to plan stems from a fear of uncertainty—of chaos. We want to control every minute of every day, but trying to control chaos is just setting ourselves up for failure.

In fact, the more we try to control chaos, the less in control we are. That’s because virtually every aspect of our lives—being a wife, a parent, a friend or a business owner—involves other people. Try as we might (and believe me, I have), we just can’t control other people. That’s why “stuff” happens. The more we try to control others, the less control we actually have because it separates us from them. If we feel bad about the chaos, we’ll constantly feel bad about ourselves.

Instead, we need to plan less, which means embracing chaos more. In a business, there needs to be a degree of uncertainty: It leads to innovation and lets employees find their own ways of doing things, which will maximize their contribution to the firm. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard (and said), “I have so much to do, I’m going to go home and plan it all out.” Yet in most cases if we just did what we needed to do, we’d have more time, and we wouldn’t have an expectation that we’ll fail to live up to.

Both my clients and I find we’re more productive—with far less stress—if we don’t plan every aspect of the day or set arbitrary deadlines. We just do the things that need to be done now, and when that’s finished, we move on to the next thing. We’re far less irritable when we get interrupted. What’s more, I’m more willing to say “no” to things I don’t want to do. When I had a schedule, it became an excuse. As long as I had time, I’d say “yes.” Now, I decide if I want to do things.

That brings us to step four: Stop enabling your clients. This is just another attempt to control chaos. If we tell clients what they want to hear, they’ll stay with us. When a female advisor tells me she hasn’t lost even one client over the past 10 years or so, that means she is overservicing them and holding on to problem clients long after they should have been let go.

Women are great advisors because they take care of their clients, but not every client is a fit for every firm. Keeping clients who don’t listen to your advice or who need services outside of your service model is no way to run a business. It undermines economies of scale. I know we tend to take these things personally, but the reality is that clients who don’t fit your firm would be better off with another advisor—and your firm would be better off without them. Believe me, my life got much easier when I learned to tell clients who didn’t want to listen to find a new consultant.

I believe that women are great business owners, particularly in a service business like financial advice and, of course, consulting, but we also come with our own baggage. To be successful—and equally as important, happy—we need to learn to lighten up on the control thing, carve out time for ourselves, embrace chaos as a challenge rather than a failure, and tell certain people (even clients and friends) to take a hike.