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Commitment Issues: Your Business’ Plan B Should Be Plan A

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Nearly 20 years ago, I was having a conversation with one of my first clients about recently breaking up with my boyfriend. (Yes, I know, but I was an open book back then.)

My client asked me, “What do you think was the major issue in your relationship?” And, despite my naiveté, I gave him an answer that I have found increasingly important over time, not only in my personal life, but in my work with advisory firms as well: “I should have listened more closely,” I said, “to what my boyfriend told me at the beginning of our relationship, when he said that if things didn’t work out, we should always be friends.”

Sounds like a sweet sentiment, doesn’t it? One that many of us have probably uttered a time or two over the years. However, if you stop to think about the message behind the message, you’ll realize it’s not so sweet after all.

(Related: Alan Alda: How Advisors Can Communicate Better)

Picture the situation: You’re on your second or third date with someone you’ve recently met. Things are going well, you have that warm feeling of really connecting with someone, and you’re talking about having a more serious relationship. Then, the person you’re imagining in your future comes out with, “Well, if it doesn’t work out … .”

Beginning to see the problem here? I’m thinking about building a good relationship; he’s thinking about what happens when it doesn’t work out. In addition to being a major buzzkill, his statement didn’t exactly indicate a major commitment to making our relationship work.

Now, I didn’t tell you that story to get your sympathy for my sad history of relationship issues (well, maybe a little sympathy wouldn’t hurt). The more important point here is about advisory firm owners and strategic plans. I recently had my mid-year strategic planning meetings with my advisory clients, in which we review our plans, assess where we are and lay out our goals for the rest of the year. Half of my clients — half! — asked me what our plan B was in case our strategic plan didn’t work out.

I tried to be patient with them — I really did — but, soon I wasn’t so nice. Finally, I simply told one firm owner, “If you want me to lay out your Plan B, you are saying that you are not committed to the plan I just proposed.”

Now, before you get all logical on me about the need for a Plan B, let me just ask you this: Do you want your wife or husband to have a Plan B? Of course you don’t. Why not? Because it indicates a lack of commitment. And why is commitment important? Because relationships are hard, and you have to work at them to make them successful, right?

Well, building a successful advisory firm is hard, too. It also takes a significant degree of commitment. That’s because implementing a business plan requires a lot of effort: time, energy, attention, assessment and decision making. If you’re not fully committed to the plan, you’re not likely to put as much effort as you can into implementing it, and its chances of succeeding go way down. So does firm morale because it’s hard for employees to stay motivated when they see that the boss isn’t fully motivated.

A better approach is to put all your efforts behind your Plan A. Here are my keys to making it work out successfully:

1. Don’t create a plan that extends too far into the future. Five-year plans are a waste of time and effort. Nothing ever works out 100% the way you plan, and things change. A shorter-term plan, no further than six months out, will give you the best chance for success. It’s short enough that it has a chance of playing out the way you expect, but it also forces you to regularly assess your progress and revise your plan according to new information and circumstances.

2. Listen to your feelings. While it’s true that you shouldn’t run a business based solely on your feelings, it’s important that you listen to your instinct, intuition and heart. I’ve found that when owners want a Plan B, that usually means they have bad feelings for our Plan A. But rather than simply undermining Plan A, it’s a lot more productive to address your feelings and determine whether they are telling you something important. If they are, then fix your plan A accordingly and make a full commitment to your revised — and hopefully, better — plan.

3. Renew your commitment to your firm. “Loyalty” is defined as a strong feeling of support or allegiance. Remind yourself of the mission of your firm and your loyalty to your partners and employees, who are helping you accomplish that mission. Then review your strategic plan to ensure that it’s in alignment with your mission and taking you where you want to go. If it is, then give it (and the people working on it) your full loyalty

Once you’ve decided on your plan, put all of your efforts behind making it work. Growing a successful business is hard; don’t make it harder by not giving it your full attention or best effort. On a side note to my female readers: If anyone says they have a plan B for your relationship, put on your life jacket, jump off the boat and start swimming. (But hey, I’m 39 and single … I’m told my standards are too high.)

— Read Don’t Let Your Business Control Your Life on ThinkAdvisor.