Fifth article in a series . . .
If you work as a business advisor, you know that engagements can be unpredictable. Whether helping the owner take advantage of a changing marketplace, or optimizing the business to prepare it for sale, these initiatives typically involve significant planning, coordination, and effort from both advisors and their clients. Despite the best of intentions, these large-scale projects don’t always proceed smoothly.
There are many things that can affect the advisor-client relationship and make it harder for clients to accomplish the tasks associated with the project. This article is the fifth in a series highlighting matters that should be considered by advisors and clients before they agree to work together.
“How does a project get to be a year behind schedule? One day at a time.” – Fred Brooks
Once clients decide to reach out to a business advisor they may convey a sense of urgency about getting started. Eager to see results, they quickly fill out and return initial documents and questionnaires. As an advisor you know that projects benefit from forward momentum and progress helps sustain the advisory relationship; you welcome their enthusiasm.
However, as the project gets underway some of these very same clients slow down. Their need no longer seems so pressing, they postpone meetings and put off making decisions. The project becomes bogged down by delays and distractions. When the client does act it’s last-minute, hurried, and subject to error.
“I like work: it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.” – Jerome K. Jerome
Research indicates that approximately one-fifth of the adult population regard themselves as having great difficulty initiating or completing tasks and commitments (Harriott and Ferrari, 1996). Procrastination takes multiple forms. Many people don’t like being rushed, others don’t like to make decisions, and some simply use their time poorly.
Consider the case of Elaine, the 35-year-old owner of a light fixture business founded by her father. Elaine took the reins from him six months earlier, and she wanted to expand their product line considerably. She hired an advisor to help her decide which new products to focus on, secure funding to cover development costs, and weigh moving to an upgraded manufacturing facility. The first two meetings between Elaine and her advisor were animated; they seemed to energize one another as they discussed possibilities for the firm’s future. The advisor mentioned that grant money might be available for Elaine’s expansion. The advisor downloaded the grant application and emailed it to Elaine, along with detailed information about design trends and forecasts in the lighting industry. She checked in with Elaine five days later. Elaine apologized and said she hadn’t yet opened the email, but she promised to do so later that afternoon. They agreed to talk again in a few days but when the advisor phoned, Elaine’s voicemail greeting indicated that she would be out of the office for a week. The project limped forward but Elaine missed the deadline for the grant application.
Had the advisor been aware of Elaine’s tendency to procrastinate, she could have taken steps to mitigate its effect on the project. She could have emphasized the grant application deadline and provided Elaine with an estimate of how long it would take to complete it. More broadly, she could have listed the steps and tasks associated with the project, and with Elaine’s input drafted a timeline that laid out responsibilities and deadlines. Here are some things she might have said:
“This project has a couple of deadlines we should keep in mind; let’s review them so you don’t miss any opportunities.”
“To help you plan, I thought you might like to see how much time other clients spent completing various tasks associated with this sort of project.”
“I’ve drafted a timeline that can help us stay on track. I’d like to go over it to see if it seems reasonable or needs any adjustments.”
Could the advisor have recognized Elaine’s tendency to procrastinate up front? Possibly. In their first meeting she might have asked Elaine some questions to assess how she gets things done, such as:
“Tell me about other initiatives you’ve spearheaded. What was it like getting from the planning stage to completion?”
“As you think about working on this project, what are some other things on your plate that will compete for your time?”
Sometimes, if overused, our strengths can work against us. Consider the client who meets business deadlines far in advance, makes decisions without delay, and accomplishes tasks promptly. This type of client doesn’t waste time and will likely expect the same from the advisor. That’s generally a good thing, but you should ensure that the client doesn’t feel undue pressure to complete assignments or make crucial decisions too quickly. You could say:
“Your diligence will really help us stay on track. I’ll do my best to keep things moving on my end as well. That said, it’s possible there will be a few decision points where I may actually tap the brakes to make sure we’re covering all our bases.”
This is the fifth in a weekly article series titled “Assessing the Advisor-Client Relationship”. Each week, I will explore a new element affecting the advisor-client relationship in some detail. These articles will help you understand potential opportunities and obstacles when working on long-term strategic engagements. The next article will explore the client’s openness to new ideas.
Please feel free to reach out for more information or assistance proactively assessing the potential advisory relationship.
Harriott, J., and Ferrari, J. R. (1996). Prevalence of procrastination among samples of adults. Psychological Reports. 78, 611–616.