Always End with the Beginning in Mind

AS the Baby Boomers continue to age, business continuity and succession planning are on everyone’s radar. Take, for example, the financial industry: the average age of financial advisors in the U.S. exceeds age 50, and less than 12 percent of advisors are under the age of 35. In my observation, among the most successful advisors, the median age is even higher.

The number of financial advisors who die or are limited by medical issues while still practicing is reaching an epidemic. An estimated 40 percent of today’s advisors will exit by the end of the 2020s, whether the advisors like it or not. Consequentially, this has piqued the industry’s interest for many years.

Shoemakers, Fix Your Own Shoes!

Advisors pride themselves on asking clients the hard questions about business continuity and succession.

Consequently, it’s routine to ask clients:

How long do you want to continue working?
What are your thoughts about retirement?
Do you have someone in place who could lead the firm if you either live too long, die too soon, or become disabled?

For most business people, their single largest asset is their business, and what becomes of their largest asset is a huge deal. They’re asking themselves:

Do I want to sell the business?
Do I want to turn the business over to one or more of my children? If so, who leads the operation?
If not, am I simply going to let the company wither away until it falls by the wayside?

Everyone knows that there’s only one thing certain in life: everybody dies. Making provision for death, disability, and retirement is simply not optional. Unless I guess you’re a financial advisor!

While advisors love to discuss business continuity with their customers, as a group, they do a horrible job of advising themselves. It’s a classic case of “shoemaker fix your own shoes” where a personal succession plan is apparently on tomorrow’s to-do list.

Recently I had a discussion with an older colleague. I asked him what would become of his firm if he died, became disabled, or decided to retire? While not completely ignoring the first two possibilities, he pounced on the idea of retirement, saying, “Retire? I’m having too much fun to retire! Besides, most people who retire are either dead or disabled a year later anyway.” Sadly, my friend represents a significant percentage of advisors today who think they’ll somehow cheat fate and work forever.

My first mentor told me, “Always do what’s in the best interest of the person sitting in front of you, and your interest will always take care of itself.” While I find most great businesspeople believe in this adage as it applies to the way they treat their customers, it doesn’t necessarily carry over to the way they treat their own businesses.

Could intentionally building a business to have it continue into perpetuity be in the best interest of the clients, the employees, the successor, and the founder? What if, in executing a succession plan, everyone wins?

The Cream Rises Until It Sours

Back in the 1960s, Laurence Peter, a Canadian sociologist, wrote The Peter Principle. What Dr. Peter’s research found was that just because an employee stands out in one position doesn’t mean he or she will excel at another. In fact, employers frequently elevate people with what Peter famously called a promotion to their “level of incompetence” and suffer the inevitable consequences associated with the decision. They often simply don’t possess the skills needed to succeed in their new position. It’s not so much a case of the person being incompetent, but rather they are not suited for the role.

One of Peter’s famous statements was, rather than cream rising to the top, “cream rises until it sours.” This can lead to organizations becoming almost entirely filled with people inadequate for the tasks they’re assigned to fulfill.

Too many good advisors aren’t particularly good businesspeople. Their advisory skills don’t necessarily translate into an ability to lead and build organizations with the proper infrastructure to continue beyond themselves. Every advisor needs to examine whether he or she is the soured cream keeping the firm from being able to thrive for the long-term.

The Goldilocks Dilemma

Most of us are familiar with the tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. When Goldilocks eats from three bowls of porridge, one is too hot, one is too cold, one is just right. The problem is that no one can know for certain when an exit is just right. Indeed, when it comes to exiting a business, you can either leave too soon or you can leave too late. “Just right” is simply not an option.

Because too soon and too late are the only real options, the question is, how do you choose between two imperfect alternatives? The answer is to leave too soon because leaving too late is disastrous. However, leaving too soon is the difficult choice because, at least on the surface, you wonder if you’d have been better off waiting. That is the Goldilocks Dilemma — you can never know if the timing is just right.

My advice is to end with the beginning in mind. Allow your firm to become even greater after you depart by putting the right people and systems in place that will allow the firm to be even greater with each successive generation of leadership. I exited my company in 2019 and have watched how, even amid a pandemic, everyone has prospered. Indeed, my successors grew the firm by nearly 25 percent in 2020. Our clients and employees love my successors and have shown how much they appreciate the transition. Meanwhile, my life has never been better as I write and teach.

Be Fearless!

Succession planning can be challenging for numerous reasons, but the biggest challenges are usually internal, not external. James Clear, in his book, Atomic Habits, describes three levels of behavior change. The first level is outcomes. The second is changing your process. However, the deepest level is changing your identity or what you believe about yourself.

Most succession plans focus on outcomes or selling the business without considering identity — or who they see themselves as internally. This leads many to a fear the succession process and becomes the root cause of moving the subject to tomorrow’s to-do list.

The best advisors find their identity in their businesses. The thought of not being an advisor is anathema to them. As a result, their greatest fear is deciding who they are if they’re not an advisor. A friend of mine sold his business to his hand-picked successor. While the business outcome was great, internally, he was a mess. Without his agency, he lost his identity. This past year he started another agency because, in truth, he couldn’t re-identify as anything other than an agent.

While no one can say what the best business succession solution is for any organization, be open to the myriad of possibilities there are in succession planning. Take it off tomorrow’s to-do list. Create a succession plan that looks out for everyone’s best interest — in which everyone wins. Indeed, if it’s not a win-win, call the whole thing off.

Remember, you can exit too early or too late, but waiting until the time is just right is fool’s gold. Most of all, be fearless.

* * *Leading ForumDonald F. White is a highly sought-after international speaker, commentator, and author. Don enjoyed a long and distinguished career in financial services and a quarter-century stint on the radio before selling his business to help others execute effective succession strategies. His latest book is a how-to guide to succession planning entitled, Always End with the Beginning in Mind: How Firms Remain Great After the Founder Exists. Learn more at donald f

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Person in the Mirror Picking Good Leaders

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What Makes a Great Leader?

Last week I had a thoughtful client ask me a question I don’t get asked very often – What makes a great leader? Since, as an executive coach, I’m usually the one asking the questions, she caught me off guard with hers. What followed next was a quick real-time distillation of long-held thoughts and observations on the nature of true leadership.

We had a really engaging conversation on the topic and, since I view this blog as a way to include you in the conversation, I want to share a recap of what we talked about. As we look back on a year when we’ve seen the impact of both stellar and dismal leadership take center stage this feels like a good time to step back and set our bearings for 2021.

Here, then, are my observations on what makes a great leader. It’s not an exhaustive list and is certainly open to debate. These are the conclusions I’ve come to after spending most of my life so far either leading others or advising, coaching, developing and observing leaders. I would love to hear your own observations in the comments on LinkedIn or through a personal note.

They’re non-heroic – With rare exception, the great leaders are not cut from heroic cloth. We are often presented with models of leadership that turn on heroic moments like Henry V’s “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers” speech at Agincourt or George W. Bush standing on the rubble of the World Trade Center with a bullhorn in his hand. Moments like these are galvanizing for sure, but they’re moments nonetheless. I suspect that the total elapsed time of moments like that in a presidency or premiership or the tenure of a CEO are usually measured not in days or hours but in minutes. Some leaders are never even presented with the opportunity to act in such visibly heroic ways and end up being among the most effective. For those fortunate enough to be well-led, including team members in many of my client organizations, this year has happily shown the benefits of leaders who consistently do the work of non-heroic leadership.

They do the work – My own shift in moving away from the heroic model of leadership started in graduate school under the tutelage of two powerful mentors in my life, Ron Heifetz and Marty Linksy. Ron and Marty have done seminal work over the decades on what they call adaptive leadership. It’s the practice of leading a group in adapting to and addressing the impact of significant change. There has probably been no year in living memory that has called for adaptive leadership more than 2020. Sadly, the leadership failures this year have been historic but there have been others that are shining examples for the future. One of those would be the leadership of New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern. Early on in the pandemic, Arden defined the work for her “team of 5 million” as coming together to keep each other safe. As University of Auckland professor Siouxsie Wiles described it, Arden “never put us on a war footing. Everything was about collaboration, working together, positive language — rather than fear. ‘We’re a team of 5 million,’ I think it was very powerful.” One thing that Heifitz and Linsky drilled into me and the rest of their students is that the opposite of doing the work is work avoidance. In contrast to Arden and others, we’ve also seen the impact of leaders engaging in work avoidance this year that’s led to lost lives, lost jobs and lost opportunities to work together.

They’re long-haul grinders – Great leaders are not flash in the pan people; they’re long-haul grinders. They understand that, because the environment is always changing, leading a group or a team through change is a long-term process. That requires modulation and perspective on the part of the leader. Ron Heifetz compares leadership to a pressure cooker. He points out that using a pressure cooker requires attention and adjustments. If you don’t apply enough heat, the food doesn’t get cooked. If you apply too much, the pressure cooker explodes. Great leaders have learned that lesson. They take the longer view and pay attention to the amount of pressure they’re applying over time to themselves and others.

They define reality while offering hope – Great leadership requires the courage to call things as they actually are while leading the group along the path to a better future. Napoleon described it as defining reality, then offering hope. Practicing this approach to leadership is the reason Dr. Anthony Fauci polled with a 72 percent approval rating at the end of October. The head of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases has been both relentless and undeterred this year in sounding the alarm about what’s been coming with COVID-19 while offering reality-based steps that everyone can take to create a better future for themselves, their families and their neighbors. He’s consistently done that in the face of a lack of support from the top and death threats against him and his family. That’s what great leadership looks like. It’s encouraging to know that the majority of people appreciate that.

They drive for results and build relationships – I came to the conclusion a long time ago that the best leaders are equally attentive to driving results and building relationships. They understand that, over the long-run, you can’t get the first without attending to the second. It’s a similar dynamic to what Good to Great author Jim Collins describes as Level 5 Leadership – the combination of fierce resolve and deep humility. There was a wonderful example of that results and relationships Level 5 approach in last weekend’s deeply reported Wall Street Journal article on how the U.S. pharma giant Pfizer and the much smaller German firm BioNTech partnered together to deliver a COVID-19 vaccine in under eleven months.  Recognizing that he needed a bigger partner to scale his mRNA vaccine technology, BioNTech CEO and co-founder, Ugur Sahin, called Pfizer’s head of vaccine research, Kathrin Jansen, on March 1 to ask for help and propose a partnership. Her response was immediate, “This is a disaster, and it’s getting worse. Happy to work with you.” The drive for results and the humility required to ask for help and give it when asked led us to where we are today with, as I write this, health care workers in the U.S. having the vaccine injected in their arms just ten and a half months after that phone call. A stunning timeline when the typical timeline for vaccine development has been ten years.

They’re the best boss you ever had – This last characteristic of great leaders is a summation of thousands of answers I’ve heard in response to a request I’ve made of my clients for many years now; think of the best boss you’ve ever had and then tell me the reason they were your best boss. Invariably, the answers add up to the perfect description of the kind of leader you’d love to be led by. They have your back. They support you. They provide direction. They celebrate your success. They stretch you in good ways. They give you latitude to act. They share what they know. The list goes on and on but you get the idea. Or, if you need more, think of your own best boss ever and list the reasons they were. If you really want to make a difference as a leader in 2021, go forth and be that kind of person.

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Even though we’re just a few days removed from 2020, the first work week of the new year represents a blank slate. Most of 2021 still lies ahead and we have lots of opportunity right now to think about how we want to influence the outcomes that are yet to be created.

Gandhi wrote that, “In regard to every action, one must know the result that is expected to follow.” That linking of cause and effect applies to everyone, but because of the ripple effect their actions have, I think it especially applies to leaders.

Which brings me to the question, “Who do you need to be this year?”

Later in this post, I’m going to share a process with you to answer and act on that question, but first, let me clarify it. By asking it, I’m not suggesting that you try to turn yourself into something you’re not. Rather, I’m asking you to consider what your family, team, colleagues and other stakeholders need most from you this year and how you can consistently bring the best version of yourself to the table to meet those needs.  I’m also not saying that you should focus on everyone else’s needs to the exclusion of your own. I’m just saying that you need to be intentional about factoring their needs into your equation. It’s about being aware of your stakeholders’ needs and intentional about how you show up to create the positive outcomes that matter most.

This is why the first of the three questions in the Eblin Group’s Life GPS® personal planning tool is “How are you at your best?” The second is “What are the routines – the repeatable actions – that will make it more likely that you show up at your best?” The third and final question is about results – “What outcomes would you expect to see in the three big arenas of life – home, work and community – if you were consistently at your best?” The Life GPS® is designed to help you do what Gandhi suggested – be intentional about linking your actions to results.

So, we’re back to the earlier question, “Who do you need to be this year?” Before we get too much deeper into 2021, I encourage you to take some time to consider the question as it relates to you, your stakeholders and all the things you want to accomplish together this year.

Here’s a four-step process for doing that:

Make a list organized by your key stakeholder groups – family, team, colleagues, customers and so on. For each group, jot down how you think they need you to be to help them create positive outcomes this year. Words that might come to mind could include qualities like supportive, encouraging, clear, calm, inspiring, directive, engaged, open, generous or any number of others that fit their needs.Make a second list of the words that describe you when you’re at your best. These are the qualities that represent you when you’re operating in the sweet spot that leads to positive outcomes.Compare the words on list one and list two and circle the ones that appear on both. The words that you circled are the ones that tell you who you need to be this year. You can think of those words as being in the center of the Venn Diagram of what your stakeholders need from you and how you are at your best. This is where you need to focus your efforts this year in linking your actions to intended results.To do that, make one last list of simple things you could do on a regular basis to reinforce those qualities in the way you show up for your stakeholders. This step is based on a principle that Aristotle wrote about called praxis. Praxis is an ancient Greek word that means doing. The practical application of the principle is that if you want to be a certain way, then do things that lead to you being that way. For instance, if you’ve determined that being supportive is at the nexus of what your stakeholders need from you this year and how you are when you’re at your best then you might adopt the routine of regularly asking your family or team members what they most need from you or how you could best help them accomplish their goals. The more you do that, the more supportive you’ll be.

So, who do you need to be this year? Before too much more of 2021 is in the books, I encourage you to take some time to ask, answer and act on that question.

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Succeeding in life and entrepreneurship takes more than just desire and passion. According to many successful entrepreneurs, life rewards people who take time to cultivate their minds for success.

If you have read Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich, you might recall his idea of a mastermind alliance. In case you’re not familiar with the book — a mastermind alliance is “a friendly alliance with one or more people who will encourage one to follow through with both plan and purpose.”

Imagine what wonders you would make if you could have the most successful people as your allies. In this blog post, I have listed 7 successful entrepreneurs and their advice to develop traits for success.

1. Gary Vaynerchuk – Enthusiasm

“If you 100% enjoy the chaos and the unknown, you’re an entrepreneur.”

Running a business involves dealing with many people and shouldering several responsibilities; at times, working this hard can exhaust you to unexpected levels. That’s why entrepreneurs need to be pleasantly energetic. 

If you have watched any of Gary’s videos, you can visibly tell that his energy is on another level. Being energetic helps Gary work long hours, like 12 – 14 hours a day. Gary suggests practising natural optimism for high energy.

2. Grant Cardone – Confidence

“Comfort makes more prisoners than all the jails combined.”

Having confidence in your abilities will take you places. While on your entrepreneurial journey, people will point fingers at you for your decisions, choices and desires, but how you respond to them will depend on you.

The degree to which you have faith in your skills and vision will drive your efforts. If you have confidence in yourself, you’ll not budge from your goals. Confidence will also allow you to do more for other people. Keep doing the difficult things to build confidence, says Grant.

3. Narayana Murthy – Courage

“Progress is often equal to the difference between mind and mindset.”

Courage is the differentiating factor between successful and the rest. Entrepreneurship requires you to go out and make decisions that no one else is making. To do that, you need courage. 

Many entrepreneurs fail not because they lack skills or resources, but because they shrink when they should expand. All the stories we hear are stories of courageous decisions and not cowardice. Without courage, there is no progress in life and business. According to Murthy, openness to new ideas is what makes people and organizations courageous.

4. Mark Zuckerberg – Change

“People think innovation is just having a good idea but a lot of it is just moving quickly and trying a lot of things.”

Change is the only constant in life and entrepreneurship, and people who realise this are usually the ones who change the world. Often we make the mistake of sticking to one way of looking at things, which hinders our progress. Learning how to move quickly and at the right time is the winning formula of the game of entrepreneurship. Mark states to move quickly, “iterate, learn from the feedback and go from there.”  

5. Bill Gates – Gratitude

“Through it all, what makes you happy?”

On your entrepreneurial journey, there will be instances where you’ll feel dissatisfied with your progress. To keep dissatisfaction at bay, practise gratitude — it’ll keep you focused on your destiny. 

Helping others to achieve their goals is one of the many ways to practice gratitude. You can also do philanthropic work to express gratitude. Practising gratitude generates a cycle of good relationships by promoting others to do generous work. Giving $41.3 billion away is how Gates expresses his gratitude.

6. Jeff Bezos – Patience

“Put the customer first. Invent. And be patient.”

Sticking to a long term vision and having patience while you build your dream is important for success. Having patience can help you stay in the present moment, and consider the big picture. If you look at Bezos’ journey, you’ll notice Amazon has been around for 26 years, but it feels like it’s been in business for 7 or 10 years, which shows how patient the multibillionaire has been in building his company.

Patience allowed Bezos to build Amazon from a suburban Seattle garage company to a multinational conglomerate. Bezos says, stay focused on long-term to be patient. 

7. Steve Jobs – Leadership

“My job is not to be easy on people. My job is to make them better.”

Leadership is the most important trait of a successful entrepreneur. When you’re at the helm of an organization, people look up to you for inspiration and effective influential decision making. The ability to influence others will help you get the best out of the people. 

Jobs has been arguably the most influential corporate leader in the last century which allowed him to build Apple from scratch. Developing leadership skills will also help you impact people and touch their lives. ‘No excuses’ is the way forward to be an effective leader.

Which piece of advice from the 7 entrepreneurs above resonated most with you & why? Share your thoughts with us below!

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What verb tense is your mind spending most of its time in – present, past or future? How about the members of your team – what time frame are their minds working in? You might consider those questions to be a bit weird or out there, but if you stop and examine the nature of your language and the quality of your thinking, you may find they’re more relevant than you’d initially think.

If you want to examine it, start by paying attention to the language you and your team members are using. Is it reflective of minds being in the past, the present or the future? Here are some clues to listen for.

If you hear a lot of discussion about the way things were before COVID-19 disrupted everything then you or your team are having trouble letting go of the past. Tip off phrases include, “I wish that…,” “I miss…,” and “I’m sorry that…” Thinking back to the past can be a source of energy and motivation when we’re reflecting on peak experiences or how to apply lessons learned. There’s a big difference though between reflecting and ruminating. When we ruminate, we stew. The ancient root of the word actually means to “chew over.” The sense of loss or regret that comes from spending too much time and attention chewing over the past can mire you in the mental and emotional muck that keeps you from taking constructive action in the present.

The flip side of being stuck in the muck on the way things were is freaking out about the way things might be. This is what happens when folks start catastrophizing about things that haven’t happened yet and may not ever happen. The mind can spin out of control into what Richard Carlson and Joseph Bailey in their classic book, Slowing Down to the Speed of Life, called thought attacks. When you start hearing language (either in your own head or from the mouths of others) like, “I’m worried that…,” “I’m nervous about…,” and “I’m overwhelmed by…,” those are clues that you or your team members are over indexing on the future tense. Anxiety, fear and dread are the kinds of emotions that flow from that time frame of mind.

And, as I wrote about last week, your feelings flow from your thinking and the actions that lead to results (positive or negative) flow from the emotional state of feelings. That’s why it’s so important to pay attention to the connection between leadership and the time frames of mind. Clearly, the only verb tense in which anything can get done is the present tense, so, as a leader, that’s where you want your team to direct most of their thinking, time and attention. That’s not to say that you’re not working on preparing for and creating the future. It is to say that you’re making strong connections between what’s done today and what happens tomorrow. As Gandhi wrote, “In regard to any action, one must know the result that is expected to follow.”

Focusing your leadership on the present tense and how it creates the future gives you and your team a sense of agency and control. One way to do that is to regularly ask, coach and lead around the question, “What can we or should we be working on or doing today to put us in a better position one month from now, three months from now or six months from now?” Before you ask the question, you might push the mental reset button by asking everyone to clear their mental chatter by taking three deep breaths. But before you do either of those, check in with yourself. What time of frame of mind are you in? If you need to make your own adjustment, now is a great time to do it.

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