[This article has been published by the Personal Finance Society, on www.pfspower.org where you will also find a wide range of similar supportive content. The article is written with a financial adviser business in mind, and may be adapted for other firms.]
What is this business all about?
What a great question for a business coaching conversation, and perhaps more importantly for a client conversation. Here is a simple challenge: just ask the question at your next team meeting and then stay quiet and listen to what is being said. If the answers are all the same and exactly what you wanted to hear then I will save you the time of reading any further! This article is not for you.
This article is for anyone looking at taking their business to the next level, and creating a business that will be sustainable, yet agile and innovative, well into the future. It is particularly useful if you are in what is known as ‘Strategic Drift’. This often occurs when a business has had a period of success; the goals have been achieved; and revenue is flowing, but now, all you see is turning a handle and more of the same. The work we suggest here will help to ignite a business again and create your drive for the future.
When I ask the question: What is this business all about? The best answers always seem to connect with me at another level and allow me to relate with the passion and strength of purpose that the firm has in its work. I recently listened to a business leader talk about the differences that they have made to people’s lives and how they strive to connect with their clients and work in their service. It was really great to see the passion in their faces, as well as hear the words. Over the years the answers have of course been wide and varied. The most worrying for me are when, with some pride, the owner only talks about their ‘Assets Under Advice’, AUA, and the level of recurring fees that they have managed to build up.
The bingo word is of course ‘Purpose’, and I am sure you will have seen this used in many business articles in recent times. I was brought up on the philosophy of “Vision, Mission, Objectives, Strategy, Tactics”, VMOST, all flowing into a time-based action plan. Many businesses still use this to tell clients ‘about us’ on their websites, along the lines of... ‘Our Mission is.... to give client’s greatest service’, or “Our Vision is...something we know we will never achieve”. I do not want to dismiss this approach and there are aspects that I still love to use, it is just that I now see ‘Purpose’ as something far more powerful.
A business ‘with purpose’ is very appealing to me. I see a ‘purpose driven’ business existing far into the future and being able to absorb challenges and changes far easier than a business without. Some consultants will refer to purpose as the ‘North Star’ of the business, which is a great metaphor, because you can imagine the business staying aligned to this directional light – no matter what is thrown at it – just like a sailing ship battling through the night time seas.
So, if I am setting aside the traditional thinking of ‘VMOST’ how do we find its replacement - Purpose?
There are many great articles on Purpose and increasing literature on the subjects. I am drawn to some work by Dr Peter Hawkins, and Eve Turner, in this area and have combined this with some practice thinking of my own. This thinking is slightly different to what you may typically read.
There is a more common approach, which I would also suggest can be used, which really starts with self-examination, and may be best achieved in a coaching interview. It is important, I suggest, to talk these issues through, after all ‘unless I hear myself talk, how will I know what I think?’ This is a great example of how to use a coach: Tell the coach you would like to explore your ‘purpose’ and conduct a ‘purpose based interview’, and you should have created a good opportunity to think through and talk through what is most important to you in life; what you are passionate about; the faces that appear to you most when you are working hard; what type of work gives you pride, and fulfilment; and when this most often occurs, and lots more besides.
As an alternative let me share a couple of approaches which I think are really worthwhile considering for a professional services firm:
1. Future Back Thinking: You might think this this is a version of, ‘begin with the end in mind’ from Stephen Covey, however I see this as different and an important development on from this.
I suggest it is a fact that we do not know what the future will hold. Indeed, at the time of writing, we do not know what the world will be like in 6 months let alone 6 years. We do not know how we will be dealing with clients, or have much of an idea about where technology will take us, or how regulation is going to develop and perhaps surprise us. The future can be uncertain, and our horizons blurred.
We can take action though and begin to survey our horizons, and seek information from ‘scouts’ (aka consultants) in the market, to tell us what they see ahead for us. I can talk to you, for example, about the level of investment into automated advice services, (robo advice by another name), and I can show you new video communication systems that exist today that can go beyond Zoom. There are ways to find things out, and there are also very well established methods that we can use together to build and extend your visibility to see new horizons, which we can explore in strategy thinking.
Importantly, Future-Back thinking starts in the future paradigm and not from today. Working on this together, we need to shift our mindsets away from the constraints and thinking of today, and begin to be more creative and think from a position we imagine in the future. To start your thinking though, just answer: knowing what you know about your circumstances now, what do you wish you had done 3 years ago to have got you in a better place for today?
One simple, and very effective exercise, might be to gather your team and create the profiles of three typical clients. Then, take these profiles and travel forward into time. Think through the needs and challenges that these clients will be facing in that future world and the journey that they will be travelling along.
What is it that you can offer your clients of the future that you, and only you, will be able to give them? At first it may be easier to think about what this will not be: for example: I suggest, it will not be a ‘portfolio valuation service’, because we already have the technology to allow me to run my full financial affairs from the phone in my pocket. If you had said that to me fifteen years ago, I would have been a sceptic.
So let’s gather our minds and think into the future, and importantly not by extrapolating the business we have today into the future, but using all the information and predictions we can gather, and going into that future world, and trying to understand what this will be like – and then work back from there.
Future Thinking in this way helps a business to gain some foresight of the way they will be working and the needs of their clients. The next step is to look at this not just from our own standpoint – but from the viewpoint of others.
2. Outside in thinking: This really works for me, and I suggest this will be great for the professional services firm to consider. It does build on established thinking about Stakeholder mapping, and develops this to ask these ‘outsiders’ what they see as the reason why the firm exists and the benefits that the firm brings. The advantage of thinking from the outside perspective is that we are far less likely to be consumed by thinking only about profit, driving AUA, and recurring fees, and instead build a strong understanding of how the business creates value, not just to owners and shareholders but to the wider stakeholder group as well. By listening to the ‘outsiders’, I believe you are far more likely to build a business with a strong value and robust foundations. Let’s ask the simple question:
“what is the benefit of us, for you?”
Outside-in thinking takes the time to consider each stakeholder’s needs and view of the firm and the services you provide. Stakeholder thinking has been around for many moons, and has inevitably developed. Importantly taking a wide view in the context of building Purpose is really very important. The impact of the activities of any business will go far beyond the shareholders, staff and customers. It is likely to stretch into the community, industry, and environment at large.
The range of stakeholders is so wide that that we can begin to take a 360° view, as if we are standing on a hilltop and seeing the world around us, which I have shown in the diagram below. Stakeholder analysis has driven businesses, large and small, and helped to identify strategies that meet the interests of those outside the business core, whether these are customers, communities, or regulators. Each stakeholder group has a need from the business and the danger will always exist that, unless this need is met, the may falter.
One of the biggest challenges for any business leader is getting enough time to think, so how can you actually deliver this thinking for your own business? There are a number of ways, and please do not shy away from just doing a desk top exercise by yourself, to kick things off at least. This may give you some insights that you have not revealed before. There are several short cuts that can be exploited by also using models that others have created before, such as PESTLE analysis, and SWRC/SWOT.
Beyond this you can develop some simple surveys for stakeholders, and perhaps the best qualitative feedback you will receive will be from simply talking to people. I would just suggest that this is conducted over a period of time, as part of your day to day work, so for example, add on ten minutes to each client meeting to just ask a few extra questions; or spend an extra 15 minutes with a consultant that calls; take time out to explore the websites of the big consultancies and think about the trends in the markets. I have placed some questions for stakeholders at the end of this article that may help you in this process.
Can we build businesses that works for everyone? I certainly think so, and I believe that businesses that are more inclusive and engaged are going to be more valuable and I suspect more profitable in the long run.
To make this really work, and to ensure that the purpose you build is true and sustainable, this work needs to become a collective endeavour in your business. The question to leave in your mind is: what can we do here together, that we cannot achieve by just working in parallel? Building purpose in a business must be a process where everyone is engaged, and it offers a great opportunity to any professional practice team to connect with each other, and build a future that makes a real difference to all those that are engaged.
To discuss this subject further, and to explore how I may support you, please just drop me an email, or give me a call 07768 578000, or firstname.lastname@example.org
Feedback is always welcome.
Acknowledgements: I would like to recognise the work of Dr Peter Hawkins and Eve Turner, and their work on systemic coaching, and recommend their work for a deeper understanding of this subject.
Sample Stakeholder Questions to get your thinking going
Who does your work serve?
Who is needed to support your production/service?
Which stakeholder(s) are you ignoring?
Who might come back to bite you in 2 year’s time because we did not think about them now?
What do you do well, that has a positive impact on their needs?
What do these people value about what you do?
Can you enhance this further?
What do they need to be different from you?
What do you do ‘not so well’, and what impact does this have on the stakeholders?
What do they need you to develop going forward?
Who do you think will be your future stakeholders?
How will existing stakeholders change?
In 2 years time, what would you regret not having explored now?
What is it that you, and your organisation, can uniquely do today, that the world of tomorrow needs?