How to Manage a Leaderless Practice
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Beverly Flaxington is a practice management consultant. She answers questions from advisors facing human resource issues. To submit yours, email us here.
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This is an extremely difficult email for me to write. I might not capture all I want to share. I work for an advisor. We’ve been together 27 years working side-by-side. He is a great guy – always good to me, superb with clients and generally a nice person in life. Recently he had a major unexpected medical undiagnosed issue. It was brewing (we have now learned) for a while and has been untreated. He essentially walked out of the office one day and I haven’t seen him for four weeks.
He told me “I have to take care of myself.”
I applaud his decision to focus on his health, without which he can’t do anything. But the decision has left me in a very difficult position trying to figure out what to do. It’s funny in a not-funny way because he is a good educator, and many times I have sat in meetings with clients where he tells them to make plans. His mantra is “expect the best, prepare for the worst.” Yet I don’t see that we’ve prepared for the worst. It’s not like he is out of communication entirely, but he doesn’t want to be involved in any of the day-to-day. Clients know me. I’m not worried about interactions with clients but there are bills to pay on the building (we own a building with six other tenants), decisions to make with vendors, clients with their own life situations (we had two die in the month he has been gone) and I am completely overwhelmed and unsure what to do next.
I have a mentor from another office (we are part of a larger organization) who has been guiding me in many ways. But she cannot come into the office and work alongside me. I am a single mother, and while my kids are 17 and 15, they still need time and attention from me too.
I have two questions. One might be rhetorical but why do advisors who are paid to help clients plan and ensure their lives are in order not do the same things for themselves? What do I do to help myself get the energy and support I need in order to get through this?
I believe my advisor will be back at some point. But his condition requires rounds of treatments and I know he is committed to being away from the business until he finishes what he needs to do.
Please accept my condolences and support on what you are going through. You don’t mention this in your note, but in addition to trying to navigate the business and make these decisions while running your own life, there is a loss – an emotional mourning of sorts – that accompanies what you are experiencing.
We don’t talk enough about the emotional pressure people are under. This week I’ve had two client firms where they have let people go, doing a RIF. Everyone left behind is expected to “chin up” and focus on the future, but human beings don’t operate this way. We experience loss, we care for others and we have emotional reactions to things that make us sad or worried. So, please honor your feelings and emotions around all of us. For 27 years you have worked side-by-side with someone who is now not there, for whatever reason. This is a huge and difficult change.
To your first question, sadly I have no answer, but I see this all of the time. I could write a book on the number of advisor tragedies I have either heard about or been directly involved in. Something happens unexpectedly and the advisor has not made plans for the clients, the employees or in some cases, for their families. In one case, the advisor’s wife and three children did not have access to passwords to pay bills when the advisor had a heart attack and was in a coma for a number of weeks.
I think it has to do with two things:
1. Advisors are generally busy. They put a lot of effort into serving clients, watching the markets, making decisions, managing employees and so on. Some days there just aren’t enough hours to do what they need to, so caring for their own situation falls by the wayside. I think about this every time I realize I have 40,000 emails in my outbox, and I need to take a couple of hours to clean it out. Those hours are hard to find when I would rather walk my dogs or go to the gym if I have “free” hours! We put off doing things that aren’t gratifying in many cases.
2. The infallibility condition. Advisors are strong, smart people and – like most insurance salespeople will tell you – it’s hard to get someone who is in their prime, in good health and doing well to consider a worst-case scenario. Thinking “The worst is going to happen to me,” is hard for most of us.
Those are the things we can’t control – human beings will make poor decisions for eternity. We can understand them, but we can’t do anything about what’s been done before – in this situation. What you can control, and influence is your own response. Please consider some of the following:
1. You have probably pushed the emotional piece to the side. Like most good single mothers, you rise up and do what’s needed for your children. This means you can’t “fall apart.” However, you are human; you need an outlet too. You mention you have a coach/mentor from within the firm, which is great. But it might not be a bad idea to identify a friend or therapist who could be your emotional support outlet outside of the firm, too. If you don’t have a system for exercise, meditation, self-care or the like, consider what would be re-energizing for you. I totally understand the life of a working single mother, especially one who is now doing the work of two people. I also know how debilitating it can be if you don’t care for yourself and get sick. Try to squeeze out 90 minutes a week, even in 30-minute blocks, for your emotional needs.
2. Have. A. Plan. Each and every day establish your top three priorities just for that day. Focus is important when so many things are swirling around and you don’t know what to do next. You can’t control the incoming; clients will have questions and need your support. Bills will need to be paid, tenants will have leaks that need to be fixed and on and on. I get this. However, during all of the incoming, you have to have a clear focus for each day so you can see yourself addressing things and making progress. I suggest you focus on one larger thing – perhaps a longer-term goal such as cleaning up the email list or getting end of the month communication out. Then identify two shorter term goals such as tasks that are important and can be completed within the day. Depending on your behavioral style, you might be too process-oriented, or not enough. Process is good, but very importantly step back and think about focus.
3. Ask your advisor if you can hire some help. When I teach entrepreneurship and small business management, one of the main things I strive to help the students understand is that no one can do everything and do it well. You are likely extremely competent, and you and your advisor partnered together to make the teamwork. Now you are trying to cover the bases for two people – it cannot be done. You could hire someone part-time, you could outsource some activities, you could leverage resources within your larger firm. Most times people don’t do this because it is more work; they don’t want to invest in training someone or finding the right person. Yes, it takes more time on the frontend, but it pays off if you get the right person.
4. Lastly, if you haven’t already, you might want to let your advisor know that while you honor his decision and you value his health and his journey too, you are drowning. See whether there are some small tasks he could do while he is caring for himself. Could he make some phone calls? Pay some bills? Talk with vendors? I wonder if you carved off a few smaller things and explained why you need his help whether he might re-engage just a bit.
There are no good answers here. This is a very difficult situation. See if you can find 15-20 minutes to consider some of what I’ve suggested and whether any idea might be supportive and helpful for you.
Beverly Flaxington co-founded The Collaborative, a consulting firm devoted to business building for the financial services industry, in 1995. The firm also founded and manages the Advisors Sales Academy. She is currently an adjunct professor at Suffolk University teaching undergraduate and graduate students Entrepreneurship and Leading Teams. Beverly is a Certified Professional Behavioral Analyst (CPBA) and Certified Professional Values Analyst (CPVA).
She has spent over 25 years in the investment industry and has been featured in Selling Power Magazine and quoted in hundreds of media outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, MSNBC.com, Investment News and Solutions Magazine for the FPA. She speaks frequently at investment industry conferences and is a speaker for the CFA Institute.
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