Taking Time for a Safety Stop

By Ray Sclafani

June 1, 2007 – Scuba divers have long known of the importance of taking a “safety stop” during each dive. When returning from deep water, these divers take a three-minute break at 15 feet below the surface before coming up for air. Taking a break allows excess nitrogen to decompress from the body’s muscle tissue, creating a safer return to the atmosphere. Forgetting to take a safety stop can result in decompression sickness—a condition that divers often refer to as “the bends.” In extreme cases, decompression sickness can lead to paralysis and even death.

In the case of financial advisors, taking a “safety stop” can be equally important for the health of a practice. A safety stop is a break in your routine to focus on your priorities—whether you’re thinking about the next five minutes or the next five years. When you forget to take time to breathe, reflect and prioritize, your practice can become paralyzed or stuck in the same old routines that you’ve always maintained. The trouble is that your current routines may not be the right ones for getting you to where you want to go. That’s when a safety stop is needed to keep you on the right track.

Safety Stops in Action

Here’s an example. “Jim” is an advisor in Princeton, N.J., who manages a large team of administrative and investment professionals. To keep everyone working from the same playbook, he’s instituted a daily safety stop in the form of a 15-minute team meeting. Every morning at 8:45, he meets with his entire group to review accomplishments from the previous day, give kudos to boost team spirit, review goals for the week, and assign responsibilities and tasks as needed.

“Every morning, we ask ourselves, What’s on the calendar for today?’ ” says Jim. “Do we have review meetings? Prospect meetings? What work needs to get done?” Jim notes that before he instituted his daily team meeting, he would often have things on his mind that he wanted to talk to his partners about, but he had trouble connecting with them. When he would try to speak with these individuals, they would frequently be on the phone, in meetings with clients or otherwise engaged. Now, he says, “Our daily team meetings help ensure that critical tasks don’t slip between the cracks. Getting our priorities aligned on a daily basis makes a big difference in our practice.”

Embracing Success

When advisors and their teams are committed to change, coaching can yield impressive results. A successful wealth management team in Houston recently hired a coach to help them define and parcel out roles and responsibilities among their team members. While the advisors in the office were great at managing client relationships, they realized that they needed a higher level of support and performance from their staff.

Their coach was able to help create a growth and development plan for each member of the team, empowering the staff members to be more effective in their day-to-day tasks. Today, the advisors are able to spend less time managing their staff and more time growing and developing their most valued client relationships.

Here’s another success story about an advisor I know in Boston who was looking to enhance her client acquisition skills. Although she already had a well-established client base, she wanted to focus on developing new relationships with clients who had larger account balances while also broadening her referral network. After meeting with several potential coaches, she found one with whom she felt a genuine connection.

Her coach helped her develop and implement new client acquisition strategies designed around her specific interests and goals. They also developed a program for networking with professional advocates who could help the advisor find the types of new clients she was looking for. As a result, she has raised $16 million in new assets this year and is excited about the growth potential of her practice.

In order to get the most from your coaching relationship, however, you need to be open to change. You also need to be willing to spend the time you need to find the right coach.

I recently spoke with an advisor in California who had jumped into coaching too soon. This particular advisor wanted to grow and develop in his career, but he wasn’t quite ready to commit the time and energy needed to making changes in his practice.

What’s more, he didn’t take the time to get to know his coach before beginning a relationship. So he ended up with a coach who wasn’t a good fit for his personality or his goals. Whenever I talk to advisors who are considering coaching, I encourage them to spend some time getting to know a coach before beginning a relationship, in order to find one with the right personality, skills and experience to help them.

Taking a Long-Term View

While it’s important to take a short break everyday to review your goals, it’s also important to schedule longer breaks where you can really step back and look at the big picture. “Mark,” an advisor in Kansas City, Mo., holds monthly and quarterly meetings with his team to share his long-term vision for the practice. During the three-hour monthly gatherings, he allows his team members to spend quality time talking about their goals and challenges. For quarterly meetings, he schedules a full-day session at an off-site location, where team members can bond in a more relaxed environment and talk openly about the future of the practice, as well as their roles and responsibilities.

“When I held my first monthly meeting, I thought that three hours was too much time and was worried that people would lose focus,” says Mark. “However, I discovered that the time went by surprisingly fast. We had so much to talk about that it was hard to fit it all in.”

Mark notes that the quarterly meetings were essential in helping his team to get caught up on the most important objectives for the practice. By creating long-term safety stops—in the form of both the monthly and quarterly gatherings—Mark and his team have put themselves on track for meeting their revenue goals for the year. In addition, they’re beginning to attract the kind of new clients that they’re most interested in. At the same time, they’re helping a handful of clients who aren’t a good fit for their practice find new advisory relationships.

Creating Your Own Safety Stop

If you want to devise safety stops for yourself, consider taking a short break every day—even if it’s just three to five minutes—to review your goals and priorities. Create an hour-by-hour plan and stick to it. Many advisors I coach find it useful to create a professional daily “time budget” in order to ensure that they allocate time to their most critical work-related activities. A time budget may encompass areas such as administrative work, serving existing clients and professional development. Be sure to also schedule monthly and quarterly breaks to attain a deeper analysis of your strategic goals and objectives.

Taking a safety stop isn’t just a technique for scuba divers. It’s an essential tool that can help you connect with your support staff and colleagues, as well as keep you focused on your personal goals and what matters most. When and how you take a safety stop—whether it’s first thing in the morning or on the drive home at night—is less important than carving out a time and place that you associate with taking a break. It can also be valuable to take a safety stop whenever you feel yourself stuck or at an impasse. Remember: Stop, breathe, assess and prioritize. Your safety stop will help you move full steam ahead once you have a clear vision of where you’re going.

Ray Sclafani is President of ClientWise LLC, an organization founded to support the financial advisory practice of the future. Delivering unique practice management strategies focused on client acquisition and retention, ClientWise provides coaching and training for leading financial advisors. For more information, e-mail ray@clientwise.com or call 1-800-732-0876.

Originally published in On Wall Street, June 2007.

Copyright Ray Sclafani 2007.