The Future Is For Real: Succession Planning Reframed

Journal of Financial Planning: August 2014


The 2014 movie Heaven Is For Real gives one pause to ponder the future. After life, what’s next? Colton is the real-life son of Todd and Sonja Burpo. The film chronicles a near-death experience when Colton was a young child. The family was incredulous over his miraculous recovery from an emergency appendectomy. More amazing was the story that emerged afterwards—an account of Colton’s trip to heaven and back, details involving long-deceased relatives and other facts that had never been revealed to the 4-year-old boy in his short lifetime.

There are believers, nonbelievers, and skeptics when it comes to concepts of God, heaven, and hell. Your view of such things will color your perception of the future and how you earn money and deploy resources.

C.S. Lewis in his masterwork, The Screwtape Letters, observes that human beings “live in time,” whereas God, angels, and spirits, do not. Our earthly sojourn is measured in years and most financial life planning decisions are based on assumed time frames. How much time is deposited in our personal time bank, we do not know. We all will have a last day. What impact will your last day have on your practice, your associates, family, clients?

Your future is for real. Do you have a plan for living well, with passion and purpose? Living well is not just about money or financial security, although as psychologist Abraham Maslow observed, you must feel secure before you can move to higher levels of self-actualization.

Early in your career, your main focus is on establishing a practice, paying expenses, and taking home enough to sustain self and family. Philosophical musings and thoughts of a higher order come with time, experience, and financial success.
Our profession also evolved. We moved from commission-based survival to fee structures and client-centric planning. In the beginning, “financial planning” itself was a specialty; now there are niches and specializations within the financial planning umbrella. Thinkers like George Kinder and Dick Wagner, co-founders of the Nazrudin Project in 1994, introduced a life planning focus, bringing money issues into a bigger picture. We recognize that money plays a role in our future, but there is far more involved than that. Do we ask ourselves the same questions that we ask of clients? Often, we do not.

Aging Advisers and Succession Planning

True well-being involves meaning and purpose. What challenges will you face in the next 10 years, and 10 years beyond that? What will have transpired in your life, that of your family, and that of your practice and associates? What constitutes financial, emotional, physical, and spiritual success? Have you recognized the linkages between all four?

You plan for major events in life—coming of age ceremonies, college, weddings, vacations, business and professional growth, major purchases, and retirement. You may have marketing and business plans. Do you have a comprehensive plan to age well, to grow purposefully into your future? You will leave your practice someday—voluntarily or involuntarily. How will you extract the value that you have built, either for retirement or heirs? Have you provided for succession with a well-crafted plan

We know financial advisers who died young, and due to a lack of planning, left a mess. If death came like a thief in the night, what would be the impact on your family, associates, employees, clients, and your legacy? This is not something to be thought about only when you receive an AARP membership in the mail. Those who are potential successors to aging advisers and are just starting to build something of value need to consider issues of business growth and continuity now.

“Succession planning” or “exit planning” may be akin to saying, “Let’s plan your funeral”—a bit of a downer. Let’s encase the topic within a more dynamic resolve to build business value and assure continuity.

In considering your future, what resources are needed to meet dangers, challenges, and opportunities? What strengths do you possess? How do you instinctively go about doing what you do? What do you resist, what do you accommodate, and what do you embrace in initiating action? Diagnostics such as a Kolbe A™ assessment will answer important questions.

Knowledge of self will tell you, your mentors, or those you coach how you will tackle your future. Owners: do you have a clear vision of where you and your team want to go and how you wish to get there?

We ask clients similar life planning questions. These are questions you should ask yourself about your practice.

Building the Future Practice

Before taking action toward a future plan, owners must discern their role in it. Begin with what appears to be a team performance conversation with a personal question: “Where are you going?” This usually provokes a sigh of hesitation, and then pressure to move forward without framing this piece of the puzzle. We can’t solve team-related challenges and achieve long-term results without first addressing this critical question as a foundation for organizational progress. 

Key discernment questions will help to organize your future role. If you are planning to change your role as part of a growth or succession plan, a merger, or an acquisition, what elements of your role will you continue and what will you delegate? To whom will you transition these responsibilities? Will you have a different area of focus? The ability of your organization to transition to the next phase of professional advancement, organizational growth, or new ownership, depends on your role as a crucial starting point. 

Then there is vision—double sigh—and more pressure to skip this step. But you must not. Ask your team to explain the business vision. They should be able to explain the shared vision exactly as you would and prioritize their work accordingly to achieve it.

Speaking as a team development consultant, your version of a business vision shouldn’t be one from five or 10 years ago. A current team-oriented version is designed to connect teams to your growth goal with two simple sentences that impact daily organizational flow. State the challenges your company solves and the people you serve. Get right to the core of what the team needs to remember every day to consistently move toward your future, both individually and collectively. Advisers who commit to the integration of a shared vision into regular team meetings keep goals on course and team priorities in sync with the organizational goals. 

Once your role description and shared business vision are available to the team, you may determine who will help you get to the future, the roles they will play, and how they will execute their contributions. Whether your team will transition to a new role, or to the same role within a new business structure and leadership style, the more you understand about their abilities, the better you can plan for a smooth progression toward the future. 

Assessing readiness for transition involves three primary aspects of human strengths. We examine skills and experience required for performing in a role, motivations, and personality influences on a role, and instinctive problem-solving strengths required for success in executing a role. There is good reason to have a laser focus on individual execution, or the third dynamic, instinctive strength. 

Beyond intelligence and personality, the conative dimension of the mind is the instinctive need to take problem-solving action in a certain way. Individual problem-solving strengths are validated by the Kolbe A™ Index. This personal method of operation or problem-solving MO is used as a guide to defining expectations for successfully carrying out a role. Though sometimes confused with personality, the instinctive MO is not an indicator of personality. 

What we know (our cognitive abilities) and how we relate (our personality) are typically understood early in a working relationship, usually at the time of hiring. Instinctive MO, our natural approach to challenge, fills the performance assessment gap to provide a holistic view of how a person will execute a role independently and in collaboration with others, a critical aspect of hiring and development. When role expectations are mutually understood and properly arranged, we can prevent disruption to personal performance during transition.

By matching your people strengths with your future plan, you will feel confident that your team is ready to transition when you are.

Life and business are a series of transitions, so make role expectations visible and a part of your future plan to ensure continual progress. Transitioning yourself, your team, and your clients is a process that serves the immediate and long-term future. By defining your expectations for your own role, and that of your team, you can design a meaningful and inspired path that motivates the entire organization to succeed.

Lewis J. Walker, CFP®, is president of Walker Capital Management LLC and Life Transitions Advisors LLC in Peachtree Corners, Georgia.

Maria C. Forbes ( is a Kolbe™ certified specialist and team performance consultant in Norcross, Georgia.

Succession Planning