February 5, 2021

Filling Your Bucket

When we start out in our careers, or truly even in the middle or later stages of our careers, we seldom think in terms of what sort of capacity we might have as an advisor or when we might hit it.  We think about growth, earning more referrals, onboarding more clients and generally trying to do better than we did the year before.  As entrepreneurial advisors, we are wired to grow.

But how do we know when our bucket is full?  Better yet, how can we tell that it is about to be full, so we can plan and adjust and perhaps even restructure to avoid overflowing, overcommitting and overworking ourselves and our team?

Imagine “filling” two different types of buckets:

1. One is a clear container with measuring markers on the side so that you can see as the level crosses each line.  Think measuring cup or pitcher in the kitchen.

2. The other is your gas tank in your car, or maybe a pitch black container you can’t see through other than peeking into the small opening at the top like your lawnmower’s gas container.

In the first example, if you need to add exactly 2 quarts of water to a pan, you can open the faucet to full blast and watch closely to throttle it back as it nears the line for exactly 2 quarts.

In the second, if you’re old enough, you can probably remember a time before gas station pumps would automatically sense the fumes of “almost full” and automatically shut off.  As they say, necessity is the mother of all invention and the need to prevent constant overflows brought forth that one.  Likewise, has anyone among us not poured too much gas in their lawnmower or other small gas engine?

While I have heard of other professionals in different industries say things like, “we are currently not accepting any new clients at this time” or we see certain investment funds close off to new investors, I don’t think I have ever met an advisor who is not willing to accept one more ideal client.  Why is that?

One reason might be that, as the old saying goes, “this business is like a leaky bucket”.  People take RMD’s, use their money to buy new homes or things, move to another advisor, or ultimately pass away and the assets scatter away to the heirs.  Or perhaps if we’re talking an “ideal” client, then maybe taking them on while dropping a non-ideal client makes sense to ramp up the overall quality and revenue of your client roster.

Yes indeed, there are plenty of good reasons not even in your control to always be on the lookout for new business.  It is a leaky bucket indeed.

But still, leaks and all, you can approach a point where you reach a physical, mental and time capacity to take on the responsibility for keeping up with even one more person’s “stuff”.  Some of the tell-tale signs are that a mistake is made here or there, something falls through the cracks, it takes a while to return that phone call, the email box is overflowing, or you start having trouble maintaining control of and fitting things into your calendar.  None of those are good for clients in a service business like this and you feel like the ragdoll in the puppy’s teeth.

At this point, you have two choices: create leverage through teamwork, or stop prospecting or taking on new clients.  Given that the leaky bucket is indeed true, and the other old adage that if your business is not growing, it’s dying – some sort of teamwork is the only sane solution.

Clearly your first hire is to free yourself up from administrative and operational tasks so that you can focus on meeting with clients and prospects and doing what you love, which is typically the relationship building and maintaining sides of this business.  This one act increases the size of the “bucket” you can fill because more time can be allocated to building the business.  It still baffles me when advisors “partner” to grow but they do so without a full-time operations assistant to handle the frustrating aspects of the business they hate and are not even qualified or wired to do.  Thus, mistakes, thus more frustration and so on.

I once heard Bob Bunting, former CEO of Moss Adams, talk about the “A” firm and the “B” firm and that they both co-exist in every advisor’s practice.  The “A” firm are those clients who require a team to service, while the “B” part of your firm is made up of clients who one advisor can service alone.  In order to move up market and attract more “A” firm clients, you’ll need more than admin and ops help (although you’ll need these to function at higher levels as well).  You’ll need more advisor bench depth, diversification of skills and capabilities, and generational diversification as well by aligning with younger, analytical and spongier brains who clients can continue to be supported by as you start to eyeball your own retirement age.

The measuring cup and the pitcher make it easy to tell when your bucket is full, but this business doesn’t work like that because the markers aren’t clearly defined.  In fact the way it could work if you are forward thinking enough, is more like a cascading fountain that overflows the first level and continually spills over to fill other levels, and so on.  Might we use the abundance of our ability to attract and develop new business to help fill the desks of others with important work to do while filling their own bucket?  And if business development is not your strength, might you partner your analytical, planning and technical skills with someone so they can fully maximize the ability to generate business opportunities for all of you to work on and be rewarded by.

This industry has morphed many times over the years, and I can truly say that it is not a bucket to fill in the sense that I may have thought about it early on.  The energy drain that I see happening to advisors after a certain age has more to do with the brain drain of compliance, administration and operational duties.  But just about everyone loves talking to, interacting with and helping client and prospects.  If only you were free to do mostly that, would you really want to “retire”?

By partnering with others who can free you up to do what you love to do, your bucket expands immediately.  As it expands, use some of those resources to bring in more bench depth and diversified skillsets into your business and show them vividly where you see this train heading.  Then lather, rinse, repeat by developing more talent and I assure you that you will discover that this is not a bucket at all.  It’s a journey, and a very fulfilling one at that.