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Practice Management

To create growth in your practice, institutionalize your operational systems.

This Practice Management article is intended for financial advisors only (registered representatives of broker dealers or associated persons of Registered Investment Advisors).
 

The first few months of a new year is an ideal time for a company founder to make sure the business is ready to climb to the next level of success. That is not an easy task and, for planning firm owners, it may require taking some time away from daily business operations. But the potential payoff is worth the effort.

The Growth Process
In the world of financial services, advisory firms grow through the talent, drive and energy of their founders. Each firm's character is determined by the entrepreneur's inclinations, style and experience, creating a driven, dynamic environment, based equally on ambition, energy and potential. As firms grow, their founders face the challenges of imbuing them with their energy and vision, creating business structures that deliver high-quality services, adding staff to support growth and systematizing services to allow for scale and growth.

But just when firms have grown to a point that they need staff, systems and scale, their founders are overwhelmed in managing it all and struggling to keep up, much less to do the extra work of working on the business. In this atmosphere, there is never time to build the business. Running the business distracts you from growing the business, and working in the business distracts you from working on the business.

Also, owners continue to work in almost every aspect of the firm, as they did when it began. To this end, an owner has filled every business capacity—executive, manager, professional and staff. When the firm expands, the owner hires and hands off specific tasks to others, but remains the controlling force over all aspects of the business.

This overwhelming control that the owner exerts over the business may become disruptive to the office as firm members begin to independently develop systems and procedures in order to complete tasks without the owner's involvement.

As the owner tries to keep up with a growing business and firm members attempt to establish their own informal systems for doing work, the owner often experiences a sense of loss of control. The firm seems to be growing beyond the ability of a single person to control it; the owner can find herself or himself chasing the business instead of managing it—an incredibly frustrating and exhausting experience.

Solving Personnel Issues
As a firm expands, personnel may be hired in an informal manner based on the demand of the workload and outside of the context of a well-thought-out organizational structure. Difficult and costly staffing issues can arise in these circumstances. Some common personnel-related problems include:

* A revolving door. If there are no systems in place to govern work, turnover can cause problems with workflow and quality. Without systems in place, employees create their own informal practices through trial and error. These practices allow the employees to do work, but if an employee leaves, the informal practices leave with him or her. The next hire needs to create new practices in order to do the work, leading to inconsistency and inefficiency during the transition.

* Hiring and firing issues. Hiring issues stem from a lack of clarity about the positions needed for the business to run optimally and a lack of systems during the hiring process to assure that the best possible candidates are hired. Hiring issues can lead to a revolving door situation if the wrong people are hired.

Firing issues stem from a lack of review processes and procedures. Employee review should include regular formal reviews, monitoring of work through accountability procedures and documentation of issues. Without proper documentation, if problems worsen with an employee, the firm may find itself in a difficult legal position.

* Culture issues. Your firm's culture is the atmosphere created by the way firm members interact. The best firms have a team-based progressive culture. When a firm has problems with personnel, morale problems can result, leading to a decrease in efficiency that can be self-aggravating. Culture issues can be difficult to overcome, since negative feelings feed on themselves.
 
Production and Quality Issues
Without systems that govern work, production and quality issues become magnified as a firm grows. Employees are too busy doing work to create better systems, or they are micromanaged by owners who want to let go, but can't. When problems with quality or service occur, it can be frustrating both for the owner, who wants to provide high-quality service, and for staff members, who can feel overwhelmed or resentful of the owner's micromanaging style.

To turn service and quality issues into positive experiences, it is necessary to step back from the daily workload and work on the business, creating systems and improving processes. The conflict between working in the business and working on the business is not easily resolved; it's a challenge to carve out the necessary time to build your business.
 
Seizing Opportunities
Opportunities are always around you. There are untapped referrals and additional business from existing clients, opportunities to do seminars and the possibility of forming fruitful alliances with other professionals. When overwhelmed with the work that you have and continuously struggling to keep up, you can't capitalize on opportunities that exist. The work that needs to be done is too dependent on you; you lack the time and energy to take advantage of the opportunity that is all around you.

Entrepreneurs face the challenge of putting business systems into place that create an efficient and effective office. This takes time and energy that they will typically feel, at a gut level, should be used to do work or to market. This is the core frustration of the entrepreneurial barrier. You want to move beyond your current limitations, but what's holding you back is not a lack of opportunity or ability, it's your own business.

Breaking the entrepreneurial barrier is daunting, but it can be done. Ultimately, the way to make progress is to slow down for a short time and become not an owner but an executive in charge of strategically overseeing your business. Find ways to plan and carry out change, whether that involves hiring additional staff, evaluating the firm's services and fees, hiring professional management, restructuring how you spend your time or reorganizing your staff to create leverage. Regardless of which changes are right for you, you will find that on the other side of the entrepreneurial barrier lies a business, not just a practice.

Firms tend to grow in spurts, as the business hits critical points in its development. These critical points occur as a firm makes internal changes to break through bottlenecks in capacity, finds new income streams or makes other essential shifts. The work toward these changes is evolutionary, involving thoughtful decision-making. Once the changes are in place, the results for a firm can be revolutionary.
 
Recognizing Barriers
To break through the barriers to achieve revolutionary growth, it is essential to recognize those barriers to growth. One of the most common is the equation of time = money. With a finite staff and time, you can only do a finite amount of work. How can a firm with limited capacity break through this equation to increase profits without adding more staff?

One answer is to do more work in a given amount of time. Improving the work/time ratio is accomplished through increased efficiency. There are two important contributing factors to your work/time ratio: efficiency and effectiveness. Efficiency is how fast the work is completed. Effectiveness is how well the work is completed. Doing better work often takes more time.

But to create an efficient work environment without sacrificing effectiveness requires the development of work systems. When Henry Ford devised the assembly line to build the Model T, it allowed him to increase production to the point where he could reduce prices, raise wages and still earn more profit through increased sales. What Ford recognized was the potential of well-defined systems, and his systems created a revolution in the automobile industry and established precedents for all industry.

Service firms can learn a lesson from this as well. Whether the result of a system is a car or something less tangible, like personalized client service, systems get the work done faster without a loss of effectiveness. This applies in both client service and internal processes.

Your firm already has practices for doing the work that comes in, but these practices have probably evolved over time as new employees have joined the staff. They are probably not the result of a thoughtful plan. They may not be well documented, and they may never have been reviewed to see if they could be more efficient and more effective.
 
A Systems Approach
Evaluating, creating and documenting systems is a time-consuming task, but it is essential to creating a well-run firm. To do this most effectively, your firm may need an operations manager or COO who can manage this task.

The first step is to create a list of the systems that need to be evaluated. You have procedures for using technology, procedures for workflow through your firm, procedures for marketing your firm and procedures for servicing your clients. Sitting down and making a comprehensive list of every structure that you need to create or evaluate and then document is a daunting task, but it is important to take this simple step first.

Even if you have documented procedures, they probably are not comprehensive. The power of a list is that it organizes your thoughts and gives you a concrete number of tasks that need to be accomplished. Once you have a list, you can work through each system, one by one, to evaluate it and document it, creating procedures where they are lacking and improving them where they exist.
 
Questions to Ask
When evaluating and documenting systems, ask yourself:

  • What tasks are necessary to get the work done? Include tasks that are done outside the office, such as getting materials from clients or business contacts.
  • Who will be responsible for doing each task? How can the labor be divided most efficiently among staff members?
  • Is each staff member doing the tasks for which he or she is best suited?
  • How will each person know he or she needs to do a specific task?
  • Who is responsible for following up on tasks being done by clients or firms?
  • How much time should it take to do each task? Can multiple tasks be done more quickly if they're done together?
  • Who needs to know the status of the work? How will they know?
  • What supporting materials (forms, software) are needed to make sure the tasks are done? Do these materials exist or do they need to be developed?

Documenting a system is necessary to developing the system. If the system is not written down and supporting materials are not created or implemented, the system will break down quickly.

Once systems are developed and documented, the next step is putting the system into effect. Familiarize workers with the systems, train them to follow the steps and encourage them to give input on the procedures so that the systems can be improved when possible.

Implement your systems in a formal way so that your employees know that systems are a priority. It may be hard to adjust to new systems. Be open to feedback, which can help you improve the systems you are implementing, but also be aware that change often comes with resistance. Requiring staff members to sign a statement that they have read and understand procedures and will follow them underlines the importance of those procedures.

The key to breaking the entrepreneurial barrier is in formalizing and institutionalizing how your firm does business, across the business. This also gives the firm greater value as a business because the formalized procedures are teachable and repeatable, instead of being dependent on the current personnel. They are also scalable, given that they are driven by the firm's process rather than by its people and their preferences.

Once the business has reached this stage, the ability to grow and to merge, acquire or exit improves significantly—as does value. As you face the road ahead and the challenge of doing business during challenging economic times, making the most of the business you have is a sure-fire way to make the most of the year ahead.


Stephanie Bogan is the founder and CEO of Quantuvis Consulting, a subsidiary of Genworth Wealth Management.

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