"Unless commitment is made, there are only promises and hope, but no plans."
—Peter Drucker

There have been numerous articles in financial journals over recent years addressing the importance of succession planning for advisors. They point out that because the average age of an advisor is in the mid to late fifties, there is a sense of urgency about the unprepared advisor's precarious situation. These writers emphasize that the only way to safeguard the financial future for advisors, their clients, employees and family members is to develop a succession plan that will ensure a smooth transition of their practice.

However, just like other campaigns to influence behavior, (such as quitting smoking, eating healthy or increasing exercise) while most people intellectually agree to the premise of taking the initiative, they resist taking the necessary and consistent steps to achieve these healthy goals.

How many times have you acknowledged that you "should" create a succession plan, but ultimately convinced yourself that you have plenty of time to complete it? Or have you generated a business continuity plan or catastrophe agreement that focuses primarily only on the legal and monetary issues of your practice and ignores the human aspect of this transaction? Not taking action in these crucial non-financial areas may result in you unwittingly sabotaging your business, your clients and your family's future.

If you are merely thinking about succession planning, but not taking the initiative in making decisions that will set a plan in motion, you are not alone. According to the 2011 RIA Benchmarking Study from Charles Schwab, 41% of financial advisors do not have a written plan for a succession. Yet when asked about it, 100% erroneously believe they have a plan.

The reality is that achieving your goals requires you to document your commitment to the process. Therefore, if it is not written, there is no real commitment. Furthermore, as the financial advisor you are the pivotal person to affect the outcome of your plan. There is no way to deny it: a successful practice transition starts and ends with you.

Asking the Tough Questions
Do you appreciate the critical difference that proactive planning can make between generating income and developing the business value of your practice? Do you understand that the strict regulatory and compliance limitations—which FINRA places on the industry—prohibit your family from receiving direct payment from fees and commissions from your practice?

In order to understand the full impact of your inertia, you need to consider the following possibilities: What if you were only able to pass on a fraction of the worth of your practice to your family or loved ones? What if you sold your practice to someone who viewed your clients primarily as intangible assets of your business and didn't care about them personally? How would that impact your clients' financial security or the sustainability of your practice? What would happen to loyal members of your team and the security of their financial future?

By not planning, you are possibly starting a negative chain of events resulting in you, your clients, your team and your family missing a critical opportunity to have a secure financial future. Again, the only one with the power to change this is you.

The ABCs of a Successful Transition

Acknowledge Your Pivotal Role in the Succession Process
Are you willing to honestly evaluate what I call the "Transition Terrors" in order to avoid the loss of your biggest asset—your practice? The primary way that advisors sabotage their succession is by being ambivalent.

They are often vague about the precise manner in which they will shift responsibilities to their successor and exit their practice. This inability to let go usually results from a fear of the future. Modifying your current career role forces you to consider the next stage of your life. Often advisors do not have a clear sense of what they are going to do next. When the majority of your identify is closely aligned with your role as a financial advisor, moving on can be daunting. Recognizing these feelings and beginning to identify other interests and avocations is critical to overcoming these "Transition Terrors."

Be Willing to Embrace Change
It's not easy. But in order for there to be a smooth transition, you must first be able to accept the necessity of moving in a new direction. Next, you need to shift your thinking about yourself in relation to your team/practice. Lastly, the most important step in conquering your succession sabotaging behaviors is to have a clear vision of the end of the process. Take some time to imagine what an ideal succession would look and feel like. Are you focused on your avocations, hobbies, charity work? Are you actively engaged in some other aspect of the financial field, or have your arranged to continue to work part time in your practice or as a consultant? If you can envision a positive future, it will help reduce the anxiety about engaging in the required changes and prepare you for a new future.

 

Commit to a Plan
Once you have emotionally committed to the succession process, the next step is to identify the aspects of your business that make you unique. You need to have repeatable practices in place that eventually will not require your presence in the practice. Finally, you need to create a strategy that reflects your understanding of the critical role that the non-financial aspects play in the successful outcome of your plan.

Four Fundamental Human Elements of a Strong Succession

There are four fundamental human elements that need to be addressed in your plan to ensure a successful transition of your business. They are: being an Agile Advisor and having Committed Team Members, a Stellar Successor and Client Advocates.

Agile Advisor
You must demonstrate a willingness to modify your thinking in a fresh, more powerful direction and embrace new behaviors. It requires letting go of the past; as well as exploring possible alternative approaches and embracing a new model.

Committed Team Members
In order to create and preserve the value of your practice, you need motivate and retain key employees. The more indispensable you are to the business, the less valuable the business will be when you leave it. Therefore, your top employees can be even more important than you are in this process. It is important to create both emotional and financial incentives for them to remain in your practice to ensure the clients' needs are met and the successor achieves a successful transition.

Stellar Successor
Identifying, assessing and retaining a key successor candidate is by far the most critical aspect of the succession process. There has to be a good fit between the potential advisor and the culture of your business. Whether your successor is a current member of your team or an outside candidate, it is important to assess their values, personal characteristics, strengths and investment style for compatibility to your practice.

Both formal assessments (i.e. MBTI, Emotional Intelligence Assessments, Caliper Assessment) and Structured Behavioral Interviews are useful in this process. Once you choose an individual, you will want to create a plan to date them, allowing for an opportunity to truly decide if this is good decision for everyone. You must formalize deadlines, parameters and expectations in the discussions to ensure success.

Client Advocates
The value of your business is directly related to the sustainability of your practice. And the sustainability of your practice is directly linked to the confidence your clients feel in your successor choice and its impact on their financial future. It is important to introduce your successor to your clients early on in the process and continually reinforce your choice by encouraging them to connect and communicate directly.

Change is a fluid process. When faced with your own resistance to change, go back to the basics. Accept the power of your role and impact of your behavior on the process. Be open to shifting your thinking about accepting new challenges. Adjust your plan as necessary so that you can fulfill your commitment to securing not only your future, but the future of the people that you care about: your clients, your team and your family.

Dr. Denise Federer is a clinical psychologist, executive
coach and founder of Federer Performance Management Group.
She has been a consultant to the financial industry for 25 years.