Views from the Summit

Presentations by Tracy Beckes, Angie Herbers, Ed Jacobson and two experts on office design highlighted the first major conference of the year.

Some of us remember when we could make it all the way to April without attending an important financial services conference; now I’ve already attended two (the AICPA PFP Summit and T3 Advisor conference), and am getting ready for a third the first week of February (TD Ameritrade Institutional’s LINC meeting in San Diego).

The first of the three is also the newest, and has become a pleasant surprise on a conference scene where some of the traditional national meetings have gone stale.  The PFP Summit has, in its first three years of existence, offered new, relevant presentations on a variety of topics, and in a few new twists, each building on the previous ones, offers recreational and team-building activities in the afternoons, and evening “fireside chats” where everyone gathers to talk about what they learned and how they plan to apply it in their business lives.

Sound too good to be true?  Here’s a quick sampler of some of the sessions, and my key takeaways from them.

Business plan made easy

You need a business plan, right?  But who has the time to sit down and write out a long document that will probably end up in a filing cabinet somewhere anyway?

Maybe you already have a plan.  How often have you looked at it in the past six months?  Last year?

If that sounds like you, then consider how business coach Tracy Beckes recommends creating a “one-page business plan” that her coaching clients use to guide them toward a better future. 

Beckes started her presentation by identifying what this document should accomplish for you and your firm.  “A business plan is a way to look at your precious resources and decide how best to allocate them,” she said.  “No matter the size of your business, every one has limited resources.”  The goal should be to create a great firm, using technology, systems and great people.  “This requires you to think strategically—on how to focus your resources in the right way.  It’s like having light, versus a laser beam,” Beckes added.  “You’re using the same energy, but the laser can cut through steel.  That’s the power of focus.”

In addition, the plan should help your employees and key staff understand they can contribute toward the company’s goals.  Beckes told the story about one of her clients, who produced a one-page business plan, shared it with the staff, and the receptionist later came up to her and said that for the first time, after working there for eight years, she understood what the firm did, why it was important, and how she could contribute to it more effectively.

Values and Purpose

Before you decide you want to go through the one-page process, what, exactly will be included in it?  Beckes broke the document down into several components, starting with selecting your ideal client profile, identifying what those people would need from you and your firm, and then defining a service model and systems that will meet those needs consistently and efficiently. 

“Start by finding one important thing that your target market needs from you,” she said, “and make a commitment to become the best provider of that one thing in the marketplace.”

From there, you identify the next step toward making that happen.

Ready to start?  Beckes invited the group to identify their (or their firm’s) core values—values that resonate with them.  To help the audience along, she provided a core values worksheet that listed 114 possibilities.  Then she shared the core values of a couple of her coaching clients, which seemed to resonate with many of the attendees:

Listen, to be fully present whenever another person is speaking, be it a client, colleague, friend or family member.  Aspire to become one of the best listeners in the world.

Keep a beginner’s mind, and nurture the habits and attitudes that sustain a curious mind and an open heart.

Embrace change, to create a mindset that seeks and welcomes opportunities for evolving the firm’s services, the team, and yourself.

Seek mastery, to commit yourself to fully developing the skills, expertise and wisdom to excel in your profession.

Practice gratitude, openly express thankfulness for the richness of your life and the gift of others both great and small.

Commit to radical responsibility, make clear agreements with client and peers and bind yourself to honoring those agreements.

Act with integrity, because successful relationships are built on trust.

Strive for simplicity, which allows us to focus on what truly matters.

Be passionate, and cultivate an unwavering belief in what we are doing and that it brings out the best in us.

Demand excellence, because clients and colleagues always deserve our best efforts.

Enjoy the journey – A fun and flexible work environment allows our people to enjoy happy and fulfilling lives.

Beckes said that this part of the business plan can be immensely valuable because it helps you decide who to hire and fire.  She said that purifying the staff and articulating the values can be highly motivating to the remaining staff.  Later, she noted that the best and most dedicated employees on your staff are essentially volunteers.  They can, after all, choose to employ their skills anywhere in the marketplace, and in many cases they are dedicated enough that they would do their jobs without pay.

Once you have your own core values articulated with some clarity (and invited your staff to provide their own feedback so that these can be refined), you can move on to defining your core purpose.  This seems to assume that you’ve already defined your ideal client profile (if you have not, do that first), because you’re answering a simple question: What is the most significant and valuable contribution that you make to your clients?

There are followup questions:

What is the underlying inspiration for the work that you do?

Why does your firm matter?

Are you, personally and professionally, inspired by this purpose?

Will this purpose help guide your firm in determining what matters most?

Will this purpose be met with enthusiasm by your employees and stakeholders?

Defining goals

At this point, you’ve defined the things that you never want to change at your firm; that is, you will not change your core values or core purpose as you make constant strategic or tactical adjustments to changes in the marketplace.

The rest of the one-page business plan addresses the things that WILL change.  Beckes called them “goals.”

How do you move from values and purpose to goals?  Obviously, you can move immediately to the process of defining the ideal service model for your target clients, and then define steps to get there.  But Beckes suggested that we think bigger for a second.

Close your eyes.  Imagine that it is five years from now, and your firm has just won a coveted award that is presented annually.

What is that award for?  What is being said about your firm as the award is being presented?  What are your clients saying?  What did it take to win that award?

Alternatively, you can imagine that a magazine article has been written about your wildly successful firm.  What have you achieved?  What are you doing for your clients in order to win this award?

This helps you define stretch goals, and Beckes invited the audience to let our imaginations run wild. 

Then sit down and write your three-year goals, based on the mundane and on the stretch goals that came to mind while your eyes were closed.  Her recommendation is to write down three of them.  If you write more, she said, there is a danger of losing focus.

Those goals might seem unattainable, which is why you take the next steps.  Below your 3-year goals, write down three 12-month objectives that would have to happen in order to bridge you from where you are now to those stretch (and some non-stretch) 3-year goals.

Below that, write down three 90-day goals that are clearly achievable, and which would get you part-way toward your 12-month goals.

Review meetings

But this plan is going to go where all the other business plans went: straight into the filing cabinet.  Right?

Wrong.  Beckes recommended that after everybody in the audience has completed their one-page plan, they then hold weekly, monthly or quarterly review meetings with staff to evaluate progress toward the goals—and also to test whether the core values and purpose still feel right.  Later, she conceded that some of the 90-day goals will not be achieved, so it helps to designate one of them as an absolute commitment.  No matter what else happens, that goal must be achieved.

These meetings will go through a 7-step process:

1) Check in and celebrate victories.

2) Review the core values and core purpose.

3) Reflect on last month’s (or quarter’s) results.

4) Brainstorm the coming month (or quarter).

5) Select next quarter’s top three priorities.

6) Select next quarter’s one drop-dead goal that MUST happen.

7) Have each employee pick out three goals that are personal to their contribution to the achievement of the goals, and make their personal action plan.

Improving leadership

The topic of values and purpose came up again in two presentations by management consultant Angie Herbers.  In a presentation on transformational growth, she identified key inflection points in the evolution of your business—$1.2 million or so in revenues, $3.3 million and $8.5 million—where it will experience a potentially dangerous imbalance of management and leadership. 

Meaning?  When you reach these stages, there will be too many people telling and directing, and too few providing leadership.  These will be times when the firm is morphing into a new entity, and the staff will, at each inflection point, start asking: “What do we stand for?  Who are we?”

These are times for leadership, for somebody to help define what the firm stands for, what it does, and then spread that word around the office.

Like Beckes, Herbers led the audience in a round of self-discovery.  She invited us to answer some simple questions:

What do we do?

What are our philosophies?  (How do we act?)

What are we good at?

What is our core investment philosophy?

Later, in her presentation focusing purely on leadership, she said that understanding and communicating these values represents leadership, as opposed to management. 

And then she said something that many of us thought was really profound.  “Your business—any business—is inherently selfish,” Herbers told the audience.  “It wants to grow and be profitable at the expense of your clients, and even at the expense of your staff.  So you have to build a buffer around it that controls that selfishness, and that buffer is the core values; that is what the firm stands for.  You need to insert core values to tame the inherent selfishness of your business.”

Later, she said that leadership management is fundamentally about human behavior, and the guidelines for that behavior.  “You have to make sense of the decisions that people have to make on a daily basis,” she said.  “The core values become a decision framework for all the various choices that are made all across the organization.”

In practice, a leader will lead by influencing, guiding and asking, rather than directing and telling.  Herbers said that this requires leaders to make time on their daily calendar to put their feet on the desk and think—to (as you’ve heard before) work on their business, rather than working on individual tasks.

Interestingly, she said that with her consulting clients, people who are starting to exert leadership in their firms, who make the affirmative decision to move into a leadership role, will suddenly find themselves doing several things:

1) cleaning up the office;

2) tearing down the walls and creating a more collaborative workspace; and

3) having lunch with staff, coming out of the corner office and being receptive to casual interactions with the employees.

Decoding office environments

For advisors who take up that leadership mantle and feel the need to revamp their environment, the PFP Summit featured a session on that very topic: how to set up an ideal office environment for client meetings, staff productivity and efficiency.  This was a tag-team presentation with Lindsay Graham, Research Specialist at the Center for the Built Environment at the University of California at Berkeley, and Doug Quackenbush of Quackenbush Architects + Planners in Columbia, SC.

Graham went first.  Her research, she told us, indicates that our workspaces are a reflection of who we are and who we want to be in the future.  She showed slides of desks, cubicles and dorm rooms, and noted the ways that the occupants had customized their spaces.  The most interesting were what she called “identity claims”—little decorations around the office, like the stuffed longhorn that came from the University of Texas (where the worker had graduated); the music posters of a favorite band; the inspirational quotes stuck on the desk.  One, taped to the bottom of his computer by a disagreeable employee who had been repeatedly warned about his behavior, simply said “be nice.”

There are also what Graham called “social snacks,” pictures of your family or your cats, or a stone from a beach you visited.  (After this, you will never look at an office cubicle or messy desk the same way again.)

Interestingly, the more of these “clutters” (as a fastidious office manager might term them), the more committed the worker tends to be to the workspace—and the more satisfaction this person tends to have with his/her job.  “The ability to personalize workspace allows people to invest in their job,” Graham told the audience. 

Graham closed by suggesting to the audience that “you want your space to fit you and your employees, and to support and attract your clients.”

Quackenbush took up this theme regarding the actual design of your office.  “The goal, ideally, would be to foster and enhance collaboration and well-being for employees,” he told the group.  Slides showed offices that had deliberately created places where people could get together for informal collaboration—loungy furniture set apart from the workspaces where people can sit and talk; easy teleconferencing, casual spaces and desk environments that allow personalization, choice and control.  “The break room is an important space for accidental collaboration,” he told the group.

Beyond that, having adjustable furniture promotes movement.  Standing desks can facilitate greater office activity.  A pool table in the office can help people get away from the normal office distractions, bond and sometimes background process the challenges they’re trying to solve.

Meanwhile, the design of the lobby reinforces an advisory firm’s brand.  Is it casual and comfortable, or does the decor have the solid, institutional feel of a bank or large corporation?  Does it look modern and cutting-edge?

Quackenbush showed several client meeting rooms.  One was traditional, with a large, beautiful table and chairs around it.  Another looked like a living room, with couches and plush, cushioned chairs, perfect for a family meeting.  A third was wired for technology—appropriate for Gen X and Y clients. 

And all three were in the offices of the same firm—Abacus Planning Group in Columbia, SC—to be used with different types of clients.

Your best self

Another PFP Summit presentation featured psychologist, coach and appreciative inquiry expert Ed Jacobson, author of Appreciative Moments: Stories and Practices for Living.  Jacobson’s mission was to help advisors be their best self with their clients, which meant cultivating certain skills. 

One of them was the ability to push aside mental distractions and give a client your full attention.  Most of us are preoccupied most of the time, and those preoccupations can hinder the ability to hear what clients are saying.  Also: clearing away stress, and putting aside mobile devices.  (People at that point in the talk quickly put away their cell phones.)

Jacobson also recommended that we embrace what he called “imperfectionism,” which is hard for professionals, since our whole professional ethos is involved in accuracy and achieving zero mistakes.  But if we hold ourselves up to a standard of perfection in the imperfect world of client communications, we’ll blame ourselves whenever we perceive that we responded imperfectly.  At best, this is distracting.

“Be willing to say: I don’t know, but I’ll get back to you,” Jacobson advised the audience.  “Your younger staff gets the (very helpful) message: I don’t have to know everything to be successful in front of a client.   It also helps you bond with clients.  They trust you more when you can admit that there are things you don’t know off the top of your head.”

Jacobson said that a certain amount of uncertainty comes with the territory, whether we like it or not.  “Unlike accounting and tax specialists,” he said, “financial planners have to embrace the fact that we deal in uncertainties when we work with diverse and unpredictable client situations.”

During the conversation, adopt a curiosity rather than professional (authoritarian) mindset.  Don’t make assumptions and release judgment.  As a tool, he recommended that we say things like “help me understand that better,” and: “I wonder how I can help.”

Perhaps his most memorable words, which can apply to staff interactions as well as with clients, was: “Praise publicly, and criticize privately.”  Later, Jacobson offered another memorable phrase: “Always be kind to yourself.  Do unto yourself as you would do unto others.”

And finally, he told the audience that your mother was right.  You are more effective when you eat right, sleep well and exercise.  “Watch the stories you tell yourself,” Jacobson concluded.

Of course, there were other sessions, including a presentation by Matthew Jackson of Simon Kucher & Partners, whose advice on fee structures for clients will (for reasons that will become obvious several weeks hence) be more appropriate for a future issue of Inside Information.  The new cluster of conferences early in the year means that we now have three conference seasons: mid-winter, spring and early fall.  And we started off with a really good one.