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Misplaced Assumptions

I recently heard from an advisor who is both a thought leader and an example of success in his community. Yet his message to me started out with the words: “When I read as much as I can on all the things I should be doing in order to be successful, I find myself feeling unsuccessful.”

His point is that many of us in the writing community make too many assumptions about something that is extremely personal and individualistic: your own definition of “success.” The message went on to cite some examples: your firm should be growing at double-digit rates. It should be a huge revenue generator, and have profit margins in the 30% range. It should also be a low-cost provider able to compete against the pricing models of robo-platforms.

The advisor noted the Frankensteinian nature of the firm I just described: it makes a lot of money on volume with automation and minimizes human interaction with clients.

You should also have multiple teams and offices, write a book, buy up other practices to gain market share and not do any of the work yourself, but simply tend the business and leave the enormously satisfying client relationship work to hired professionals who specialize in that activity. Oh; I almost forgot: you should only work with the affluent.

“What if,” the advisor asked me, “I have a personal and professional business plan that measures my success based on the financial well-being of my team and the positive feedback and words of appreciation I receive from clients for the personalized care, skill and judgment provided over 5, 10, 15 and 30 years of continuous service? Does this satisfy a definition of success, or am I still lacking and underperforming those who possess the 'success factor?' What if the client's portfolio performance meets or exceed their required rates of return needed to fund their financial goals but fails to beat the index. Are we unsuccessful?”

The interesting thing about all of the assumptions that this advisor is pointing out is that they all have to do with competition. They assume that success and winning are somehow tied together: you win when your revenues are higher and your firm is bigger than that advisor down the street, and when your returns 'beat' the market.

I draw several lessons from this message. One is that competition should never be the defining criteria for how we evaluate the advisors we're talking with. Yes, there's a certain amount of market competition out there, as you compete for attention and ultimately for clients. But even that could be reframed to: helping clients find the best professional fit for their needs.

More broadly, it's time for the industry magazines to stop defining a pecking order based on whether one advisor's firm has more assets under management than another one. A much better competition, which we will never see, would involve which advisory firm did the best job of servicing its clients and meeting their unique needs.

Another lesson is that we in the press are too-often framing our most helpful practice management articles in terms that are off-putting to our audience. We offer advice on creating a more profitable practice or generating more top-line revenues. But the article should recognize that this is not the first priority of many of our readers-and the practice management articles I read make no such acknowledgement. Nor do they discuss the potential trade-offs of, for example, delegating the client service functions to hired professionals, or introducing robo-technology to accommodation clients. The articles simply assume you want to grow rapidly, be extremely profitable, service only the wealthy-and the steady drip, drip, drip of these assumptions causes many advisors to question whether they have the right to set their own goals in the face of these seemingly ubiquitous industry objectives.

And that, of course, is the ultimate lesson. Every practitioner, just like every client, has the right to set their own individualized goals in their business and personal life. Your unique, personal definition of 'success' should be treated with the respect it deserves, and we in the press should understand that no external definition is likely to fit your unique, personal perspective.  

That flies in the face of everything we read. If you feel a sense of frustration generated by all these outside definitions that are bombarding you all the time, then take a moment to acknowledge to yourself that your right to your own definition of success is being encroached on, and any negative emotional response that it brings up is appropriate and understandable.

Defining what you want is hard in a world where those definitions of success are provided externally.  Getting what you want is harder, because so many others are trying to achieve some definition of success (theirs or the default one) in a competitive marketplace-which is the well-meaning intent behind the articles that make those toxic assumptions.

I plan to be more sensitive about making these assumptions in the future, but this sensitivity probably won't find its way into the business articles you're likely to read in the future. So my best advice is to accept any and all information that applies to your personal idea of success, and give yourself permission to ignore the blanket assumptions that are their invisible, harmful, sometimes hurtful packaging.