Building a Strong Succession Plan is a Marathon, Not a Sprint

by | Jan 19, 2021 | Blog

The oldest and most prestigious road race in America – the Boston Marathon – is a bucket list race for runners. Between its grueling Heartbreak Hill and winding roads spanning across eight scenic towns, it’s one of the hardest races to train and qualify for.

While training for any marathon is an arduous process, qualifying and preparing for the Boston Marathon is in a league all its own. I would know – I’ve now run at least 20 marathons, qualified for Boston around 8 times, and made the cutoff to run the race in Beantown only twice. Preparing for a race like this requires the same tenacity and preparation that financial advisors must make with succession planning.

Like running, the longer you delay your succession plan the harder it gets to prepare it later on. Many financial advisors wait until they reach close to retirement age to begin, but this can be a mistake. As we’ve seen with COVID-19, there are a lot of unforeseen circumstances that might require a succession plan to kick in sooner than expected.


Don’t wait for the proverbial bus to hit

A 2019 study from Financial Planning Association shows that 73 percent of advisors lack a formal succession plan as they near retirement. This is the equivalent of a runner lacking a training plan for his or her first marathon. The question isn’t “When should I start this?” but rather, “Why haven’t I started it yet?”

This is exactly how most financial advisors approach their succession plans today – ill prepared and late to the process. The lack of federal regulation requiring advisors to have a succession plan makes it that much easier to put off until later.

In 2020, we witnessed the proverbial bus take 319,000 lives as of this writing in the form of COVID-19 – with over 18 million reported cases in the U.S. Financial advisors must take succession planning seriously, and at the very minimum have a contingency plan that includes:

  • Coverage for client services
  • A buy-sell agreement
  • A communication plan for clients

Financial advisors build their practice through personal relationships, many spanning across decades. Preparation for an unexpected event or tragedy is just as important as retirement planning. Like marathon training, the work begins before you’re ready and it requires a certain degree of consistency to improve race after race. Don’t just set-it-and-forget it; revisit and tweak your succession plan annually.


Letting go of the reins starts before you’re ready

The Boston Marathon is so popular and exclusive that most runners work to achieve a qualifying time in another marathon a year prior to enter the race’s lottery system. Qualifying for the race doesn’t guarantee entry into the Boston Marathon, so you can imagine why a lot of people never bother to try in the first place – it requires a lot of effort just to get in!

The devil is in the details with marathon training, just like it is with succession planning. First, it requires clear communication with your clients. These are your personal relationships – people you have worked with through major life milestones. Sharing your plan with them each year so they feel taken care of and know what to expect creates a feeling of security and continuity.

Then, there’s the emotional toll that succession planning has on advisors. Financial Advocates founder, Gary Campbell wrote in Forbes, “Your firm and its clients benefit from your knowledge, experience and judgment. Yet your firm would also benefit from the energy and focus of a new leader to move it forward. Understanding this discrepancy between your wants and your firm’s needs will help you hand over the reins of management.”

The physiological cost of letting go of your life’s work, the clientele you’ve helped, and the business you’ve created cannot be taken lightly. A succession plan empowers you to loosen the reins a little bit at a time and allow someone else to take over, while providing top-notch service.


A strong start leads to a stronger, easier finish

Famous Olympian sprinter, Usain Bolt, once said, “There are better starters than me, but I’m a strong finisher.” It’s hard to argue with the fastest man on the planet whose wise words can apply to runners and financial advisors. Starting strong in your business is one mile marker out of thousands. It’s also what leads to a much easier finish. All the grit, preparation, and hard work that goes between mile one and the finish line is how financial advisors succeed with succession planning. It all starts with the decision to start, plan early, and log in the effort, or miles, until you reach your finish line.


Angie Vlach is the CEO of Financial Advocates, a runner, and Boston Marathon participant.