Have you ever experienced that rarified time when you were "in the zone?"  That place, where athletes exclaim they are at peak performance and everything just flows without conscious thought. 

If you have, think about when you had that experience and how you felt during that time.  If you haven't, I recommend it whole-heartedly.  Many books have been written about it, such as "Finding Your Zone" by Michael Lardon, MD, describing that state of being where it all just works flawlessly.  It's a good place to be!

Most people rarely, if ever experience this state. If they ever have, they can recall and speak of those moments with almost religious fervor.  I remember, in my former life as a budding musician, experiencing the zone when I performed effortlessly and flawlessly, feeling that someone else was inhabiting my trumpet.  I can still recall exactly how that felt. Wow! My goal has been to experience that feeling over and over and over again in as many venues as possible.  Finding it at work was a challenge. In our jobs as advisors, finding that 'zone' can be elusive, at best. The primary reason is our lack of a clearly defined path to get there.  The first step on that path is to answer the question of "why" it is necessary to achieve. 

Think about a typical workday. You might wake up in the morning with pressure from your family and it just seems to build throughout the day; from supervisors, customers, new rules, procedures, processes and other forces that shove you into directions antithetical to your goals.  I vividly remember trying to build a successful financial services practice. Time sheets, quotas, calls, finding new clients, satisfying existing clients, FINRA rules, Home Office directives—it didn't stop; it felt like an avalanche of demands that kept me on the brink of panic and the only zone I experienced was one of confusion and exhaustion.

But I had a breakthrough when I attended a presentation by Michael Gerber, the author of The E-Myth, on working on my business, rather than just working in it. It was something that made all the sense in the world to me, however, I guess I was just too busy to even consider it. Another “A-Ha” moment occurred when I heard Dick Zalack, founder of Focus Four, talk about creating a business and a life with goals and steps to achieving success. I enrolled in his three-year coaching program and learned to control my life and business and make decisions based on specified desirable outcomes.

These two experiences were adding great value as I created a more rational model of life and work; recognizing that balance in all things is key. But as a financial planner, I was still struggling with delivering a consistent plan to my clients. Most of the time, I hit upon the issues that were most important to my clients, but occasionally I missed the boat and lost the client as a result. I needed to find consistency and devoted a great deal of time to considering why I was experiencing these problems. It was a matter of trust!

You can ask your customers/clients all day what they want and what they need, and they probably won’t tell you the truth or at least not all of it. It’s not because they are dishonest or shady, but because you haven't earned sufficient trust to allow them to open the doors to their REAL story.  That’s what my life was like before I was introduced to the concept and tools of Financial Life Planning.  As a financial planner and a recovering CPA, I was used to taking numbers and analyzing them in an effort to understand the puzzle in front of me.  Sometimes, it was easy; the client would explain their issues, goals or obstacles and then the numbers would explain the story sufficiently to help put the client on the right path. Sometimes, it was impossible. The client told me one thing, but meant another­–simply because they didn't feel that it was safe to share such personal information. Frankly, I struggled to determine who was telling me the truth and who was not.  Even the crystal ball on my desk didn't aid me in discerning the reality. 

The answer came to me during a workshop where Carol Anderson, President of Money Quotient spoke about Financial Life Planning. Financial Life Planning marries a qualitative approach with quantitative processes to create plans that reflect the values, dreams and goals of your clients -- and Money Quotient had the tools and processes necessary to uncover the reality consistently.  While the concepts of holistic planning, client-centered planning, integrated planning, etc, has been with us for over fifteen years, and there are a variety of approaches, I have adopted the MQ approach as a sensible and easily integrated method of building deep and trusting relationships with clients. 

Roughly here’s how it works. Our initial meeting, which we call a "Fit Meeting" not only introduces our services and lays out mutual expectations, but also takes the prospective client through several MQ Tools designed to provide a medium to gain deeper understanding beyond the balance of their brokerage statement, right down to their core values.  For example, we ask the client to complete a "Financial Satisfaction Survey" which ask the client to rate their satisfaction in a variety of areas of their financial life -- from their level of financial education, to their comfort in discussing financial issues to the level of benefits they receive from their job, just to name a few.  This assists us in taking their financial temperature in relationship to their current satisfaction.

Another tool we introduce is called "The Wheel of Life" in which we ask the client to rate their satisfaction in areas such as Health, Leisure, Inner Growth, Family, as well as Finances and Work.  This provides the client an opportunity to produce a picture of a wheel of  wedges representing different aspects of their lives.  Lastly, we ask them to complete a "Life Transition Survey" where they get to think about the various types of transitions that they are either currently experiencing or expect to experience in the future.  These tools demonstrate our desire to know and understand our clients beyond the numbers. During our relationship with our clients, we continue to introduce more tools and exercises to help them better define and articulate their core values, so that their financial plans reflect their lives, dreams and goals.

Our work with clients allows us to be "in the zone" because we are focused on our clients' needs and not on our desire to sell them something they don't want or value. They trust us to bring them ideas that reflect their desires and not to waste their time with things they clearly don't care about. I have learned that if the bridge of trust is properly established, then the relationships developed are deep, real and long-lasting.  The gift of trust is not one to be taken lightly because it is hard-earned and any invasion of that trust will result in a total and irrevocable end to the relationship. Whack! The door shuts quickly and permanently.

I continue to hone my skills in active listening, acting in a non-judgmental manner and being direct with my clients.  The more I practice, the more I experience my ideal zone.  Meetings are enjoyable, the work performed is important and impactful -- we make a difference.  Those feelings of success derived from bringing my best to our clients consistently carries over to the rest of my life with my family and friends, and adds balance and joy.  I am grateful to those ground breaking advisors and academics who pioneered life planning (George Kinder, the Nazrudin Project, National Endowment for Financial Education, to name a few).  The field is young and growing and visionaries like Carol Anderson have created a useful process to help advisors build trust with their clients.  It has been my pathway to living in the zone more often-and that's a very good thing!

Michael Kay, is president of Financial Focus, LLC , a registered investment advisory firm in Livingston, N.J. A financial advisor for almost 25 years, Kay is a life planner and has been trained in Financial Life Planning by Money Quotient, Inc. His book, “The Business of Life: an ‘Inside-Out’ Approach to Building a More Successful Financial Planning Practice,” (Advisor Press) was published in November.