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Dear Nick: I feel old, tired and bored with the pressures of running a practice

Mental health coach Nick Elston helps a practitioner who has lost their practice mojo but can't decide whether they should sell or systemise their practice. 

7th Oct 2019
Speaker and coach #TalkingAnxiety
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Stressed Businessman
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Dear Nick: “I’m 55 but feel old, tired and a little bored with the pressures of running a practice. Over the last few years, it’s grown and has been profitable. At conventional rates, it has made its 40% net profit. So selling at 1x fees seems a disaster, and after clawback, it's probably nearer .7. So less than two years profits.

I wanted my team to step up. I’ve taken on a consultant to help, but profits are falling, and I get constantly frustrated with its poor performance over the last few months.  I’m torn. I’d love the great work we do to continue, but we seem directionless, with team issues, and going nowhere. I hate the idea of a sale. I feel I’d be selling out both my top team and clients I really care about.

Should I look to recruit a managing director to run things like a proper business? Or should I sell? I can’t sleep and I’m really sad.”

Nick replies 

Despite me coming from a non-accounting background this really resonated with me. I absolutely get where you are right now. Truly. Yet, weirdly, being ‘successful’ makes these decisions a lot tougher to make. It’d be easier to sell or at least make a decision on whether to let go of a business you hate than one that isn’t working and you see no hope in. However, ‘successful’ is subjective in itself. I assume you know what success means to you but if you don't maybe this is something to address. 

Sometimes in life, it’s easier to stay exactly where we are even if we are in a position of pain, frustration or hopelessness. It’s more difficult to forge a positive way forward, especially when you have lost sight of what that actually looks like.

The reason why this resonates with me is that there is not a week that goes by that I don’t want to press that big red EJECT button on self-employment and what I do now – even though I love what I do most days. So, when you throw in the challenges you are facing, it’s no wonder why you feel the way you do right now. When I mentor my clients, there is one technique that I call ‘cold processes’ where you take emotion out of an emotional subject – ie take a step back and look at things in a third party, considered manner without your emotions attached to them. Sometimes, we need to step back to take a step forward.

You seem unclear as to why the consultant was brought in, or indeed, what it was that you intended them to do. But sometimes we place control of our ‘success’ in the hands of other people when actually you have all the answers – maybe you aren’t asking the right questions of yourself?

Maybe you have the right framework, but maybe not the right people to follow that through? It could be that they haven’t bought into your vision or if you even have a vision left anymore. You see, when real life gets in the way or we are put into a position of fear or anxiety, and we make decisions that aren’t really ours. They are our ‘fight or flight’ instinct kicking in. We react, instead of proactively moving forward.

My initial advice to and others in this situation is to do this:

  • Get yourself some space.
  • Think about the reality of the situation, not the emotions.
  • Think of your ‘why’ – why you do what you do. Does that still work for you, or are you doing this because you have always done this?
  • Grab a big sheet of paper and put you in the middle.
    • Ask yourself this ‘if nothing were impossible, what would my business, my life look like’.
    • Question everything!
  • Once you’ve finished you’ll know your 'why' again, what you want to achieve and then you can see what pieces fit into your plan or not?
  • Keep an open mind and be courageous enough to be brutally honest with yourself.
  • Then…. GO!  Put the plan into place, make things happen, make those tough calls, and share it with your team, your family, your friends – your world! 

This is now your blueprint for change. Get yourself a mentor. Not (necessarily) a consultant but someone neutral who challenges and inspires you. And most importantly, put yourself – personally – as a priority. To be happy and strong in business, you need to be happy and strong. You are one and the same person.

This question was originally posted on Any Answers as 'To sell or keep my practice?'

Replies (5)

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By Mr J Andrews
08th Oct 2019 10:11

Already Old , I felt Tired and Bored reading this article.

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By indomitable
08th Oct 2019 10:27

Agree with most everything in this article apart from

'get yourself a mentor'.

Maybe it's a personal thing but I always back myself, never need a mentor I want to do it my way. Most are not worth having and the people that really have something to teach are not in the business of mentoring.

The human condition means people are never happy. When you haven't got enough clients you are not happy because you've got no money and want more. When you've got enough you lose the motivation and get fed up.

You need to change your mindset. The happiest people I know put everything into perspective. Success is never as great as you think it is and perceived failure is no way as bad either.

In the end it doesn't matter what road you take, sell the practice or keep it the the most important thing is getting your motivation back and that's not dependant on your practice.

So agree with Nick step back and take a long hard look at yourself

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By Richard Grant
08th Oct 2019 10:36

As part of practice planning you should be planning for succession and have a person/firm to hand over to if you are unable to continue. Surely these are the people to be talking to, after all they have an interest in supporting you and should be unbiased.

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By flightdeck
08th Oct 2019 13:51

55 is tricky - old enough to be aware that life really is short but young enough to still have a lot of years to fill. And fund. If you can afford it when not sell it? Life is short, right? So really taste that thought! You've had to bring in a 3rd party to help your team step up so maybe your top team isn't much of a top team after all (they don't sound great)? And the clients will find another accountancy firm. It is not wrong to sometimes put yourself and your needs in the center. Some cautions though (1) if you have no life outside work then don't jump so fast or you'll suddenly end up with a lot of time on your hands and no idea how to spend it and if you have been hitherto obsessed with work, that can be a surprisingly painful hard stop (2) if your job / status / income is what defines you (be honest with yourself here) then you might miss that and could easily wind up depressed and you might need to take some time to reconcile yourself to your altered place in the world before you make such a jump. It's a weird transition when you sell up. Best to talk to some others who have and have navigated that journey.

Be very careful thinking bringing in an MD will help. Again, be honest: who is it in your business who has driven and grown it and can make profits? Sounds like its you: YOU are the secret sauce. 'You' are not going to be easy to replace. Yes you can hire competence but drive, client charisma, determination, flexibility, commercial nous and ambition etc are not attributes many people have. If they have they tend to start their own companies because that drives comes from being able to make 100% of the decisions and all the risk and reward being your own. So unless you already know someone perfect AND you are willing and confident you will take a back seat so that they can get on , then I'd be very cautious about this option.

Or instead of an MD to take over (which I think you mean?) do you just need a strong no2? An operations manager. I know a lot of successful companies where their success is due to a duo - a market/client facing leader (that would be you) buddied up with someone who enjoys being in the office building the machine that delivers those good services. It's an impossible ask to expect all of those skills and competencies to be in one person. Build on your strengths and hire in where you are weak?

If you cannot afford to just sell up then can you re-think the business a bit? You say you are directionless but what exactly does that mean in your instance? There is a lot of repeat and rinse in accountancy, do you really need 'a big plan'? What's wrong with being really good at what you do - clients love that and you say you have loyal clients and turn a decent profit and that seems to me to be a healthy direction to be travelling in, no? Or are you getting unnecessarily worried that you haven't gone cloudy or techy enough or some other current industrial zeitgeist which you think you need to be but might not actually be all that meaningful for your business?

Other ideas
- leave your firm and get a job in a big company doing a business line you have some natural interest in (say, an engineering company, or aviation etc - whatever floats your boat). This will present lots of new challenges. It could be very interesting to apply your financial knowledge into a subject domain you like because being the FD inside a company means you have to get very close to the innards of the business. You've not had that pleasure before. And you would be working in a peer-to-peer environment with a team of colleagues with whom you would share the running of the company instead of everything always being down to you all the time (which is seriously draining).
- merge with another accountancy firm. Yours isn't the first "I'm fed up" article I have read here. Imagine finding another person like you - two heads are always better than one and it's a blessed relief when there is someone you can share that lonely top-job life with. The change alone could easily reinvigorate you. (I'm glossing over the practicalities of this but you seem close to def con 2 anyway).
- have a look at your staff and at more junior people. Is there someone in there who is young and inventive (like you were back in the day)? Could you consider nurturing them for a few years making it clear they need to bring new ideas, energy and innovation to the party? It's one of the benefits of working with the younger crowd, they do not have so much life experience that they get overwhelmed by thinking about all the problems in something - they just 'go for it'. It's an odd contrariness that experience often make us less comfortable with change.

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By Ian McTernan CTA
08th Oct 2019 16:46

Step back and take a long hard look at yourself, your family, your lifestyle, etc and then ask yourself this:

What do I really want from life?

If the answer is lots of stress and worry, no free time and an early grave, then carry on the way you are.

If the answer is something else, then change your life. Decide how much you need to be comfortable , what sort of work interests you, and what you want to ditch.

I took this decision many years ago on work/life balance. I now have plenty of free time, work mostly when I want (from home), no staff to worry about, never advertise and yet I keep my practice the size I want it to generate enough to fund mortgage, holidays, lots of golf in the warmer months and I know all my clients personally and they know they get to deal directly with me, all the time.

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