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Making Your Business a Top-Flight Operation

Here are tips to make sure your business runs smoothly so you can concentrate on sales.

By Helen Thompson

Phil Richards, CLU, CFP, RHU, recently gave a presentation on practice management. What he said did not sound like practice management, actually. It sounded more like flying. “I had read an article in Harvard Business Review about Southwest Airlines and its business model,” says Richards, CEO and chairman of the board at North Star Financial Group and a member of Minneapolis AIFA. “Their mission was to democratize flying—to let poor people fly like rich people. So how were they able to charge less, yet make more?”


• Delegate.

• Hire good people.

• Manage your time well.

• Keep up with technology.

• Shop around.

• Ask for help.

• Have fun.

The answer to this question is one of the most important things you can learn about managing your practice. “Airplanes don’t make money on the ground,” says Richards. “They make money in the air. And as an advisor, you also want to keep your planes in the air.”

As an advisor, keeping your planes in the air means staying in front of your customers. To do this, you should let others do what needs to be done so you can do the work that matters. Sometimes “others” are your staff or outside consultants; sometimes “others” are tools to manage your practice more efficiently. Once you have the tools and the team in place, your business will take off. Here are seven tips to help you work smarter instead of harder.

1. Delegate. Delegate. Delegate.
When you start out, you’re doing all the work. And that’s OK at first, says Richards, because you must understand each part of your business before you can hire someone else to do it. But eventually, that will stop working for you and start working against you. “If you do $20-an-hour work, you’re going to earn $20 an hour, which is not acceptable for most advisors,” says Richards. “When you hire an administrative or marketing assistant, you give the $20-an-hour work to someone making $20 an hour. Your job, as the advisor, is to stay in front of people.”

It’s hard to delegate, admits R. Jan Pinney, CLU, ChFC, CPCU, principal of Pinney Insurance Co. in Roseville, Calif. But once you get the right people doing the right jobs, your business will cruise right along. “The most important thing to keep in mind about delegating is that if you give people responsibility, you should also give them authority,” he says. “Everybody will make mistakes, and some of them will cost you some money, but even the mistakes are an investment in your business.”

Mark Chandik, CLU, ChFC, of Financial Diligence Partners in Irvine, Calif., agrees. “Hold them accountable, but don’t beat them up.” On the one hand, you need to keep an eye on what they are doing, but “if you smother them, you won’t allow them to grow. Allow them to be creative and apply their own expertise and talents to the job.”

Hiring an assistant is a big plunge, and because of the financial commitment that’s involved, many new advisors put off doing so. Don’t, says Chandik, a member of NAIFA-Orange County. “People in the life insurance industry need to invest in their business, and if I had only one thing that I could invest in, even before technology, it would be people,” he says. “One of the best investments you can make is to hire a full-time assistant, who will free you up to do the most important revenue-producing tasks. If you make that investment, the money will come. It happens every time. Borrow the money if you have to.”

“If I had only one thing that I could invest in, even before technology, it would be people.”
—Mark Chandik, CLU, ChFC, Financial Diligence Partners

Think lateral as well as vertical. “You should develop your business in such a way that you have different partners who specialize in different areas,” says Rhett Sinclair, CFP, CLU, of Wachovia Wealth Management in Augusta, Ga. “That way you can meet your clients’ different needs.”

2. Fly higher with good hires.
So it pays to invest in a solid support team. But how do you know you’re going to get your money’s worth? You’ve sifted through applications, cover letters and resumes. You’ve interviewed a few good candidates. And now you’re down to the front runners, and you’re not sure how to next proceed. They look good on paper and present well in person, so how do you make sure they are the real thing?

Richards lists social drive, social confidence, need for control, detail orientation and an appropriate level of skepticism among the traits he evaluates. Good interview questions should tap into these areas. And listen well, too. For example, when Richards was interviewing a candidate, he discovered that the candidate had quit the basketball team because he hated the coach. This set off a red flag that the candidate might have trouble with authority figures. With good follow-up questions, asking about other coaches the candidate had as well as about his relationship with other authority figures in his life, however, Richards was able to discern that the candidate “didn’t have a problem with anyone other than this one basketball coach; as a result he didn’t have a problem with authority.” That candidate is now a Court of the Table producer.

Chandik also looks for someone who is a quick study. “I’d rather take someone with zero financial services industry experience who scores high in presence, computer skills and trainability,” he says. Other personality quirks might be harder to discern, but can be measured through personality tests, such as Myers-Briggs or Kiersey profiles.

One of the most popular tests right now is the Kolbe A Index ( Through it, you can get an idea of who your candidate is and how to talk to him. “There’s no bad or good,” says Pinney. “It measures a person’s natural inclination to do things and helps you understand how to interact with him.” And, he says, knowing his own Kolbe has helped him build a team of complementary individuals.

3. Manage your time based on what makes money.
“I have 100 books on time management,” Pinney says, “but I’ve never been able to implement any of those systems. For me, the most important principle is that if you can prioritize what’s important, the important things will get done.” In other words, having the right people in place and delegating appropriately are half the battle, because if you’re managing your task flow to others, chances are your own work flow isn’t getting out of hand.

But still—you’re in charge, ultimately. Like Pinney, Chandik has seen dozens of time-management “systems.” In his 21 years of being “pulled in a lot of different directions,” he has found the things that work best for him aren’t in a structured system; rather, he focuses on the tasks that generate revenue and he puts those on his A-list.

He also uses a business pipeline to make sure tasks are flowing where they need to. “We list all the revenue-producing opportunities for the next 30, 60 and 90 days, organized around when business will close. It keeps us focused on moving these opportunities forward,” he says.


In addition, Chandik organizes his calendar around focus, buffer and free days, an idea he got from The Strategic Coach ( “On focus days, I’m on stage all day,” he says. “Other days are buffer days when I’m preparing for good focus days, putting out fires, cleaning up messes and catching up. Free days are my days, where I’m free to recharge my batteries.”

4. Keep up with technology.
Technology is an important component of your infrastructure and it pays to keep up with it and know how to integrate it with the other systems you have already. And just because something didn’t work for you a few years ago doesn’t mean it won’t work for you now. For example, if you haven’t done so already, think of going paperless. You might have heard this suggestion several years ago and dismissed it because you thought technology was expensive and too time-consuming. But the popularity of the web has made high-tech tools more accessible to everyone. There are now many business practices you can conduct via the web or through other paperless solutions, such as banking, paying bills and processing customer statements—and you can easily use these to streamline your operations, enhance efficiency and cut costs.

Chandik looks for “anything that will help me improve my efficiency and minimize duplication of tasks.” By going paperless, he’s also been able to maximize the use of his office space. “We found a lot of our square footage was taken up by filing cabinets—so much so that when we went through digitization, we freed up enough space to put another workstation in,” he says.

For information on how you can use these tools to improve your bottom line, including how to make your data portable, see A Briefcase in Your Pocket.

5. Shop around.
For some, it’s more work to learn the shorthand on a PDA than to use their chicken scratch on a memo pad. If you’re the sort of person who always has the latest gadget but finds it gathering dust within a month because you’re back with your trusty notebook, chances are the newest Bluetooth-enabled Blackberry/phone/camera may be more trouble than it’s worth. Either way, it pays to know the market inside out before you buy a new gadget or service.

How do you sift through it all? At Advisor Today, we can point you to the latest trends, but you should compare gadgets using a good product or service-review resource such as Consumer Reports or Consumer’s Checkbook. You probably use these publications to help you understand major purchases at home. But they also can help you make purchasing decisions for your business with ratings on such items as computers, PDAs, radios, airlines, hotels, banks and air conditioning units. In addition, they offer comprehensive listings on the web for a low subscription fee. For more links to review sites on the web, see Let the Buyer Beware.

6. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
When you first start out, says Chandik, chances are you add clients as they come in. However, there may come a time when you need to overhaul everything so that you can focus on your best clients. When that happens, you may need help even if you’ve been in business for years. “Once you have your people and technology in place, and you are starting to know your recipe for success, you can take it to the next level,” he says.

“For instance, we recently made a six-figure commitment to marketing and branding. We’re changing the feel of our company, but we need to bring those marketing tools and collateral material into alignment.”

If You’re Managing your task flow to others, chances are your own work flow isn’t getting out of hand.

If you can’t or are unwilling to pay a consultant to help you plan, brand or expand your business, visit, the website of the Small Business Administration. There, you can get lots of tips and advice from successful businesspeople. One of their nifty tools is SCORE (, which offers free newsletters with tips on everything from disaster preparedness to human resources management. In addition, they have a listing of some 1,200 counselors who are available to answer your questions—again, at no cost—via email.

Another SBA resource you can track down at is your local Small Business Development Center. These resource centers are organized by state, and each state has several SBDCs. They are generally affiliated with universities, according to Karl Kraus, a senior business consultant at Temple University’s SBDC—and that can mean big cost savings for you on things like marketing collateral and legal services.

“An SBDC can leverage the resources of the university,” Kraus says. “For instance, Temple has a law school, so we have a legal clinic. We also have the Tyler School of Art with its creative resources; they can help you design your logos, brochures, business cards—all very inexpensive, sometimes free. And, we offer affordable seminars and workshops on running and growing your business.”

You don’t have to be starting out to use their services, but they can be of particular help if you are launching an independent career. “At some point when you go out on your own, you realize you don’t have the power of the firm behind you anymore,” says Kraus. “Imagine getting a marketing or business-development consultant for no cost or very low cost, compared to one for $50-$200 an hour.”

7. Have fun.
The idea of work being fun is so new that several books have been published on it. Pinney, who is very well-read, didn’t get his idea of having fun from a book, however. His formula for successful practice management is very simple:

Have fun + value people = make money!

It’s more than a practice management formula, though. It’s a business philosophy. Dennis Bakke, author of Joy at Work, notes in his book that principles of fun in the workplace aren’t there to create value or improve your bottom line.

Chandik organizes his calendar around focus, buffer and free days.

The fact that having fun tends to do so anyway is just all the more reason to make it part of your mission. “The feeling that you are part of a team, a sense of community, the knowledge that what you do has real purpose—all these things help make work fun,” he writes. “But by far the most important factor is whether people are able to use their individual talents and skills to do something useful, significant and worthwhile.”

For Pinney, this translates into tapping into people’s unique ability—that is, something they would do even if they didn’t get paid for it. Richards agrees. “We don’t call our assistants employees. In the final analysis, all of your best employees are volunteers,” he says. “Because they are the best, they can get a job anywhere. The reason they stay is because they are volunteers and team members.”

Building a team in this way means your volunteers will stay with you longer, everyone’s job will be easier—and you can keep those planes in the air.


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