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One Thing: Why a Singular Focus Is Critical to Building an Advisory Business

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I was in an airport bookstore the other day, traveling to one of our workshops, and I came across a book that captured much of my approach to my own business and to helping independent advisors build their businesses. It’s called “The One Thing,” by Gary Keller.

Now before I get a flood of emails calling me out about who this guy is: yes, I know he’s a real estate mogul. And not a real estate mogul like Donald Trump or the late Harry Helmsley, who actually buy and manage real estate. Keller built and owns Keller Williams Real Estate, which he claims is the largest real estate brokerage firm in the country. That is, he motivates people to sell real estate—think Alex Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross. But, despite his pedigree, Keller’s message is perhaps the most important idea that owner-advisors. 

So what is the “One Thing?” Based on his own experience, and his observations of other successful people, Keller tells us that contrary to conventional wisdom and the ways that modern society pulls us in dozens of directions, successful people tend to focus—and devote the majority of their time to—becoming really good at just one thing. 

Whether it’s selling real estate, becoming an astronaut, playing in the NFL or building a successful advisory business, the key to success is building one’s life around that one objective. Like I said, with children, and spouses, and friends, and hobbies, and Facebook, and YouTube, and email, and Twitter, etc. this is a lot harder than it sounds. 

However, to make it somewhat easier, Keller also says that to be successful, we should apply the “one thing” concept to each step of the way toward our goal: to be a successful advisor what’s the “one thing” we should do first? Then, after we’ve mastered that, what’s the next “one thing” we should focus on?” And so on.

My point is that multi-tasking only decreases (a lot) our chances of being really good at any one of the things we do. To be successful, we need to focus on the “one thing” that we need to do now—that will move us in a straight line to where we want to go. 

It is more than bit ironic that this is the concept which owner-advisors have the hardest time implementing, considering it’s essentially what financial planning is all about: determining where the client wants to go financially, and then implementing one step after another to get there. 

Most advisors don’t have a problem with the first step: they’ve already decided that they want to have successful independent advisory businesses. And when they take the time to think about it, they rarely have trouble visualizing just what that success would look like. 

The disconnect comes in building a business one step at a time: focusing on the “one thing” that needs to be done first, then the next thing, etc. Instead, advisors tend to take all of their ideas and implement them all at once, and then are baffled about why they never seem to get anywhere. (Perhaps the best example of this is when advisors come back from conferences with all the new ideas they “need” to do now.)

To help owner-advisors better focus on the “one thing” we need to do now, we build a conceptual moat around their business that only allows one new idea, or project, or employee, or change at a time. Not only does this keep them from getting distracted, but it forces them to decide what’s the most important thing to do first.

Unfocused firms these days want to hire a marketing consultant, redo their website, and jump into social media, etc., when they should be asking: “What are we really selling?” Often, we find that we don’t need to do any marketing at all. Instead, simply changing their fee structure so prospective clients can better understand what they will be paying for, or document a proven prospecting process, can dramatically increase their closing ratio. Then, once we have the client service model nailed down, usually we need to add more people. Finally, we need to make the employees more productive. 

But we can’t do all things at once. Each step is “the one thing” that a firm needs to be focusing on now. When we’ve become successful at that, then and only then can we move on to the next thing: the “one thing” that will take the firm to the next level of success. 

To better get this message across, we’ve started giving Keller’s book to our clients. It’s kind of like a Bible we can refer back to when they start losing focus. Typically, once an owner advisor has made the leap of faith to focus on the first two or three “one things,” he/she starts to realize the power of this simplicity and how it makes their lives so much easier. Finally, we try not to let them go to a conference unless a specific session applies to the “one thing” they are doing at the time.