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Practice Management

Following these steps will help advisors prepare their firms for the future without them.

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

I recently worked with an advisor whose firm has been expanding its ownership for the past 10 years. He summed up his succession-planning process this way: “Succession planning should be about doing what's best for the clients, the business, and protecting all of your constituencies.” In other words, succession planning is about taking care of your firm’s future.

Succession is an integral part of a broader strategic-planning process that seeks to address two important goals: how the business will grow and create value for clients, owners, and employees, and how the business will be transitioned to a new generation while preserving its reputation and legacy.

So, how do firms approach this succession challenge? Here are four key points to consider when planning a strategy:

  • Strategic vision—aligning business development with ideal clients and a compelling value proposition
  • Human capital program—hiring, retaining, and developing talent
  • Operational efficiency—deploying people and technology to build an efficient and productive organization
  • Risk management—enhancing the value of the business by reducing risks, client retention, client demographic/concentration, key employee retention

I suggest using the following framework and checklist to guide to your succession-planning process:

Assessing Your Firm’s Human Capital

Your human capital practices are essential, as most successions are managed as a phased-out exit: Phase 1, the owner backs away from the daily operations; Phase 2, the owner delegates management responsibilities for the firm and clients; and Phase 3, the owner sells the ownership stake. Firms must have the right people in place with suitable skills at the correct time to make the succession-planning process efficient and effective.

I recommend assessing the state of your human capital and what you’re doing now to take care of your future talent. What is the average age of your employees? What percentage of your employee base is retiring within the next five years? What is your current process for identifying employees with a high potential to take on leadership roles? How do you identify internal talent that may be ready to step into key roles today? How do you ensure that you are training the right individuals for the leadership roles and measuring them accordingly?

The answers to these questions will help to succinctly assess the state of your human capital for possible in-house succession candidates.

Finding a Suitable Partner

To make succession planning effective when seeking an outside partner, firms need to improve their owner-candidate development processes, with a particular focus on the core competencies of successful partners.

Because there is no substitute for observing and working with people over time to gauge their cultural and leadership qualifications, you should try to determine if the potential succession partner has the characteristics to be a future leader, and provide him or her with opportunities to see how he or she will respond to different events and situations. Owners not only have to be able to grow revenue, bring in new clients, and be outstanding advisors but also they need to have the ability to lead and to manage.

The character and culture fit of a potential succession partner—like shared vision and leadership—are important criteria. Current owners likely will have to work side by side with the new owners for years, perhaps even decades. People can make their numbers in terms of revenue, and be very technically competent, but if they don’t mesh with your culture, it could cause serious problems in your firm’s future.

Here is a set of skills that I suggest using as criteria for partner candidates:

  • Leadership and management ability
  • Cultural fit
  • Shared firm core values and vision
  • Tenure with firm
  • Develop and mentor staff
  • Risk management

Furthermore, I suggest developing a solid understanding of the most significant challenges your firm and the advisory industry is likely to face over the next five to 10 years (fee pressures, competition from robo-advisors, age of the client base, etc.), and the skills and experiences the future partners will need to lead the company past these hurdles. I recommend fighting the tendency to think the answer is to find a younger version of you.

Leadership succession requires looking through the windshield rather than in the rearview mirror. Investing in a credible forecast about the future makes it possible to understand the skills and capabilities needed to continue the success of your firm.

Pushing Through Paralysis

Many owners see the value of a succession-planning strategy, but simply don’t know where to start. It’s similar to a state of paralysis. Those who have a plan still tend to delay moving forward.

Why are so many owners basically doing nothing? First, there is a “if it’s not broke, why fix it?” mentality—the business model is successful and most firm owners are happy with their results. There’s nothing pushing them to change. Second, many firm owners nearing retirement don’t know what they’ll do with their time when they stop working. Giving up the corner office seems too final, and the fear of what comes next in life holds them back from moving forward with a plan. Third is the issue of giving up control and finding a suitable successor. In most cases, the answer involves hiring more than one person to replace what originally took one person to build.

Be prepared as you move forward to revisit and revise your plan along the way. Confidence in the sustainability of a succession plan drops after it is implemented, so don’t be surprised if you have to reexamine your plan on a regular basis.

One firm I spoke with said that they have implemented several transitions over several years, and only now are they beginning to feel like their succession plan is flexible and mature enough to suit any situation they may face in the future.

—by Kelli Cruz
Kelli Cruz is a Financial Planning columnist and the founder of Cruz Consulting Group in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter at @KelliCruzSF.

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