Nearly all firm owners I speak with say their main focus is on growing the business. For many, hitting that $1 billion mark in client assets is the goal.
It also seems that to get to this goal, most firm owners are convinced (either by the trade press or business consultants) that they need a “strategy” or a “strategic plan.” And they do.
The problem is that advisor owners often don’t have any idea what a strategic plan is or what one entails. As result, they can do more harm than good to their businesses.
Many firm owners seem to believe that “implementation” of their strategic plan is the key to success, and it is. However, you can have the best strategic plan in the industry, but if you don’t turn it into reality, it’s not going to help your business grow.
Still, in their haste to start “implementing,” many firm owners spend far too little time and effort on creating their strategy. And implementing a bad and/or poorly conceived strategy is going to do your business more harm than good.
As with financial advice, the strategic plan for your business and the implementation of it are important. In fact, the first step on the path to growth is to understand that there are three stages in the growth curve of an independent advisory firm: strategy, implementation, and maintenance. These stages are equally important to the growth and success of your firm.
Yet, because your strategy is the foundation on which the other two stages depend, it’s helpful to think of it as the first among equals. Here are the steps for creating a sound strategic plan:
1. Simplicity. Strategic plans are almost always based on an idea. Of course, they usually are based on the general theme of “growing your business.” But that’s an overarching goal. You also need a more specific idea about how to grow your business: target a new group of clients, add new services, increase your marketing presence, start hosting investor seminars, etc.
Whatever your ideas are, it’s important to keep them simple. A good litmus test for simplicity is whether you can explain them to other people (your employees, partners, spouse, friends, etc.) clearly and concisely. Some people call this an “elevator pitch,” which is an explanation you can deliver in one minute or less.
“Our client base is aging rapidly, so we’re adding advisors and services to attract the younger generation of clients.” Or, “Many of our clients are doctors at a larger regional medical center, so we’re going to do quarterly financial seminars at that hospital.”
If your new strategy can’t be easily explained, that usually means you’re too focused on one of the other two phases: how you’re going to implement your strategy and/or how you’re going to maintain it once it’s in place. When it comes to strategy, staying in the present is a major key to success. Don’t get ahead of yourself, and don’t worry about the past.
2. Put your strategic plan in writing. Pretty basic, right? Yet, many firm owners are inclined to keep their plan mostly in their heads. Perhaps this secrecy psychologically reduces their fear of failure. Of course, it also reduces their level of commitment to the plan, and prevents everyone else in the firm from fully understanding the plan.
For any strategic plan to work, the people involved in implementing it must know what the plan is and be committed to making it work, especially the firm owner. That doesn’t mean that a plan can’t change or be modified in light of new ideas or information. It should — and usually must be to succeed.
At the same time, plans that are constantly changing and being modified will lose both momentum and commitment by the folks who are trying to implement them. And one of the best ways to ensure this doesn’t happen is to put the plan in writing so everybody can see what you have in mind.
With a written plan, the team’s efforts can be coordinated, with everyone knowing what they are supposed to do and how their parts fit into the bigger picture. What’s more, it’s easier to get feedback and for all staff to respond to the same information.
3. Don’t put a timeline on your strategy … if you want to implement your strategy successfully. For one thing, “timelines” are usually arbitrary and often are the product of an owner’s over eagerness rather than being based on any concrete reality. (Sure, if you’re launching a mission to Mars, there’s probably an optimum time to blast off. For an advisor business, not so much.)
Instead of being helpful, implementation timelines tend to be unrealistic, and they put unnecessary pressure on the strategic plan. Conversely, a timeline that’s too generous can create a lackadaisical attitude among the people who are implementing it.
4. Treat your plan as a work in progress. Keep in mind that no one is smart enough to know exactly how any strategic plan is going to work out.
Rather than being “etched in stone,” think about your plan as “one or more things we’re going to try and see how they work out.” Hopefully, one your ideas will work. Others won’t work out or won’t work out as well as you planned. This isn’t a disaster; it’s expected.
Rather than blaming yourself for not being “perfect” or “omnipotent” (as if), use setbacks as a learning opportunity. Think about why your plan didn’t work and whether you could do things differently to get a better result.
To successfully grow your business, it’s important to learn as much as you can from successes and failures. Despite the impression some folks might give you, nobody really knows what will work for your business, your team, your target clients, your city, etc. To succeed, you need to become your own expert by learning from everything you do.
5. Align your strategic plan with your core values. This may sound obvious, but when folks start talking about “growing their business,” common sense and logic can start to take a backseat.
A good example of this is the current trend of venture capital firms investing in independent advisory businesses. While a big pile of new capital can put your growth plans on steroids, the goals of outside investors may not be the same as yours.
In the excitement of creating internally funded growth plans, some owners can lose sight of their values. Thus, before you start down the road of creating a strategic plan for becoming a larger business, take a step back and think about why you want to grow — and why you’re in the advisory business in the first place.
If they were asked what their biggest fear is about growing their businesses, most advisor owners probably would say “failure.”
But the biggest risk in growing your firm is that you’ll create a business that you don’t like nearly as much as the firm you first launched. That’s why it’s important to consider your core values and to determine if the business you’re trying to grow into will be aligned with those same values.
Common values of independent advisors are producing high-quality client service and care, creating an enjoyable working environment, working directly with clients, having flexible working hours and significant time off, mentoring younger advisors, supporting continuing education and having time to participate in professional organizations. What they don’t realize is that a substantially larger business can require more of their time, cutting into some or many of those benefits and activities.
Angie Herbers is an independent consultant to the advisory industry. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.