“What ideas have you seen working that I could use to drive my business forward dramatically?”

That’s a question that I was asked during a recent lunch with a successful financial advisor I will call “Tom.” There are two ways to answer Tom’s question.

The first is to get into specific initiatives that could accelerate the growth of his business. Some examples: target a defined client group with the goal of becoming the go-to advisor within that niche; attract new clients by expanding his online presence with content marketing to attract prospects; shift to a wealth-management approach; or focus on building a high- performance team.

The second approach is to focus on an ongoing process to make sustainable changes to position his business for the future.

We ended up spending the bulk of our lunch talking about three steps that will position any advisor’s business to capitalize on opportunities:

1. Reflect. Take the time regularly to step back and think about your business.

2. Question. As you go through that process of reflection, ask the right questions about what you’ve done in the recent past and what you’ll be doing in the period ahead.

3. Act. Once you’ve decided on the answers to those questions, put a strategy in place to maximize the chances that new ideas will be translated into action.

Take the time to reflect

When Bill Gates ran Microsoft Corp., he took a week off once a year to go to a remote location, step back, read, think and reflect. When he emerged from his solitude, he would write an email containing his thoughts and send it to Microsoft’s senior team.

Today, more and more of the people I talk to are grappling with the escalating volume of online communication. One advisor described this situation as “drowning in email.”

As a result, many advisors have become so busy responding to queries and demands that they’ve gotten out of the habit of stepping back and thinking hard about their business.

Of course, this problem isn’t limited to financial advisors. A recent column in the New York Times by David Leonhardt advocates that we all take a weekly “Shultz hour” (named after George Shultz, former U.S. president Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state in the 1980s, who carved out an hour each week for quiet reflection).

“[Shultz] sat down in his office with a pad of paper and a pen,” Leonhardt wrote in that column, “closed the door and told his secretary to interrupt him only if one of two people called: ‘My wife or the president.’

“Shultz, who’s now 96,” Leonhardt continued, “told me that his hour of solitude was the only way he could find time to think about the strategic aspects of his job. Otherwise, he would be constantly pulled into moment-to-moment tactical issues, never able to focus on larger questions of the national interest. And the only way to do great work, in any field, is to find time to consider the larger questions.”

So, that’s your first step: carve out an hour each week to reflect on your business. And once a month and again each quarter, consider taking a more in-depth break from your day-to-day routine to give serious thought to your business.

Ask the right questions

For the break you’re taking to produce results, you have to ask the right questions. For the past 25 years, I have been teaching in the MBA program at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. Recently, I spoke to a group of students about the steps to take to create a successful career. As part of that discussion, I suggested that each quarter these students need to ask themselves five questions about the past 90 days, using the acronym CLEAR: focusing on what they contributed to their employer; what they learned; what ideas they explored; the steps needed to advance their career prospects; and the new members of their network they reached out to.

When stepping back to reflect on your business, you can ask yourself similar questions about the past month or quarter:

– What did my team and I achieve?

– What new skills did we learn?

– What ideas did we explore?

– What did we do to expand our network?

– What did we do to position the business for the future?

Then, having looked backward, you can ask the same questions looking forward. Ask yourself, for the next month or the next quarter:

– What will my team and I achieve?

– What new skills will we learn?

– What ideas will we explore?

– What will we do to expand our network?

– What will I do to position our business for the future?

For the conclusions you emerge with to be truly effective, you need to engage your team in this process. Everyone on your team – not just you – needs to step back and reflect on your business.

Build a support system to take action

So, you’ve taken the time to step back and think about your business and asked yourself the right questions. The final step is to put in place the support system to translate your answers to those questions into action.

Anyone who has tried to effect fundamental change recognizes how incredibly hard doing this is, whether it be related to a new diet, an exercise routine or a way of working. Some of this difficulty stems from the power of inertia and entrenched habits, as we may start with enthusiasm, but, all too often, we quickly return to our previous routine. When trying to implement change in our business, this tendency toward inertia is compounded by time demands that make reverting to our traditional way of operating all too easy.

As a result, if you want to effect fundamental change in your business, you need to put in place specific strategies to ensure that you stay focused on those new initiatives. To do that, you first have to ask yourself: “How important are those new initiatives – are they ‘nice to do’ or ‘need to do’?” We live in a need-to-do world and, if you can’t honestly say that you view a new idea as essential to your long-term success, chances are you won’t be able to sustain it.

So, the first step is to ensure that you and your team have an all-in commitment to new initiatives. Once you’ve achieved that, you need to set up the systems to make those initiatives a priority.

One way to do this is to block out time in your weekly calendar to focus on new initiatives, and give that appointment the same priority as a meeting with a top client.

Another approach is to establish accountability within your team, setting aside part of your Monday morning team meeting to have each team member answer the following:

– What did I commit to doing last week on this initiative?

– What did I actually do?

– What results did I see and what did I learn?

– What will I do in the coming week on this initiative?

An alternative is to recruit three or four fellow advisors whom you like, respect and trust to create a performance team, meeting once or twice a month to share ideas and to hold each other accountable. This is the proven approach used by the Young President’s Organization, an international non-profit organization made up of young CEOs, that has helped its members accelerate their business growth.

Coming back to Tom’s questions about ideas that could drive his business forward, anyone who has been around the investment business for any length of time will recognize that generating ideas is the easy part. There are lots of ideas – in fact, one of the problems is that there are too many ideas competing for our attention.

The key to success is not in coming up with ideas; it’s having the discipline and focus to devote the time, energy and resources to implement the one or two initiatives that will make a meaningful impact on your business.

By using this three-step model – take the time to reflect, ask the right questions and establish a support system for implementation – you will maximize your odds of positioning your business for future success.

Dan Richards is CEO of Clientinsights (www.clientinsights.ca) in Toronto. For more of Dan’s columns and informative videos, visit www.investmentexecutive.com.

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