When I opened my doors as a business consultant to independent advisors some 16 years ago, I thought my job was to help owner-advisors build the firms they wanted — all I had to do was ask them what they wanted their businesses to be and work with them to create those businesses. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that’s not really my job at all.

The problem is that most owner-advisors don’t really know what they want (even if they think they do). So helping them create the firm they envision usually doesn’t make them any happier than they were — and often makes them less happy. To succeed as a consultant, and help advisors build firms they’re happy with, I’ve learned that I have to start by helping them figure out what they really want. As it turns out, that’s not as easy as you might think.

Ask any owner-advisor and she or he will tell you what they want their firm to be. For a while, I listened, but I realized that the visions they were describing weren’t, for the most part, based on any business knowledge or meaningful business experience or even what they really wanted.

Instead, those advisors’ ideas came from a variety of places, almost none of which had any connection to their current business or one that would make them happy.

Here are few of the most common sources for what owner-advisors think they want:

What they think they can do. Starting and running your own business is a scary proposition — believe me, I know. A few years after launching a business and having it not turn out the way they’d hoped, many firm owners adopt a more realistic view of what they want their business to be. They focus on doing things that have worked in the past, rarely trying new things or even doing anything differently from the way they currently do them. The result is a business that’s quite a bit different from what they’d hoped it would be, but they resign themselves to this “half a loaf” mentality.

What they think they need to do. Other firm owners adopt a crisis mentality, taking actions to put out existing “fires.” Staff overloaded? Hire more people. Revenues falling? Get more clients. Low profitability? Move to cheaper offices. Got a problem employee? Fire them. Some of these actions may be appropriate under some circumstances, but when they become a consistent pattern, it’s far more likely that these problems are resulting from deeper issues — quite often, that the business isn’t making the owner happy.

What they think other advisors do. We frequently see this thinking with advisors who attend a lot of conferences or read a lot of books and magazine articles about how to run successful advisory businesses. While some of these sources are experienced consultants or veteran advisors, the problem is that their mass media “advice” is not tailored to the needs and goals of any particular firm. In reality, what works magnificently for one firm can fall flat for another. The people are different, the market is different, the clients are different, etc. Most importantly, the owner’s vision for his or her firm is different.

Consequently, when firm owners come to me for help, they are usually looking for solutions that fit into one of the above “visions.” In the old days, that’s what I would give them, only to find out that whatever we did wasn’t making the owner-advisor any happier because it wasn’t creating the firm that he or she really wanted.

How to Get Started

Today, I take a completely different approach. When new clients start to tell me what they “need,” I stop them in their tracks. “We’ll get to all that,” I tell them. “But first, let’s talk about the business you really want to have. Not the business you have now, or think you can build or need to build or should build. But the business you want to build.”

Now, here’s the tricky part. It’s almost impossible to sit down with a firm owner for an hour or two and help them decide where they are going. In part, that’s because they’re usually all tied up with the can do’s, should do’s and need to do’s mentioned above. Even when I get them talking about what they want to do, it’s almost always about having a firm like some other advisor’s firm, or a marketing strategy they read about, or an org chart or vision statement because they heard they needed one.

To get them past all that and on to what kind of business they really want to build, I ask them a few questions. First: Why do you want to do whatever it is that you want to do? This is when things start to get interesting — and helpful. The answers usually come back as: “Because I want a firm like so and so”; or “I want more clients”; or “I want to work fewer hours”; or “I don’t want to manage portfolios anymore,” etc. Then I push them a bit more, asking why they want or don’t want those things. Why do you want to make those changes? What attracts you to that business? Why do you want to be like that business and not some other business?

This, of course, is just the first step. In our next conversation, I repeat everything they told me about what they want and why they want it. When they hear this, they usually want to change it to be more specific or even to something completely different.

Once we have a pretty good idea of what they think they want from their business, we start to quantify that vision: How big a firm do you want? How many clients will you serve? How much revenue do you want? How many employees do you need? How many hours do you want to work a week? When asked to put numbers on it, many owners change their vision again, but once we have numbers to work toward, we can devise a strategy to reach them.

Vision vs. Strategy

Another mistake that many advisors — and experts — make is confusing their vision, mission, goals and core values with “strategy.” Those aren’t strategies: They are the destination. Your strategy is the plan to get there. The problem with most firms’ strategies (if you can call them that) is that they try to do too much at once. We recommend that owners implement their strategy to change their firm one step at a time: Pick one project, say a new operational plan, and focus on doing it the best you can. Then, when that’s up and running, move on to the next new thing.

Implementing a new strategy slowly avoids draining firm resources and overloading the firm owner and employees. It also allows time for the owner’s vision to change. Yes, you read that right. Firm visions change over time.

Here’s the secret: It really doesn’t matter what your vision is — only that you have one and that it’s pretty specific — because, as it turns out, where you are going isn’t nearly as important as working in a specific direction. That’s because what most experts don’t tell you is that business visions change: They evolve as you try new things and experience the outcomes.

Even when changes are successful, that doesn’t mean they will achieve the desired result: making the owner and employees happier than they were before. That’s not a bad thing. It means that the business owner is learning, and not just from her or his mistakes. They can learn just as much from their successes: that they really didn’t want a firm that big, that they don’t really like managing people, that they don’t really like working this much or this little, that they don’t really enjoy creating financial plans, etc.

We’ve found that the only way to build the advisory business that really makes you happy is to start building it today, and make sure that every new step you take is moving your business in a direction — the direction being forward. Evaluate every new success and determine whether it truly is a part of your ideal business or whether it doesn’t make you as happy as you thought it would. Building the right advisory business for you is a work in progress: You won’t always know what you really want until you start building what you think you want.