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.”