Leaving a Legacy in Uncertain Times


Charity isn’t Just for the Wealthy, and It’s not just for the Good Times

Lately, whenever I bring up estate and legacy planning, I get one of two responses. 

  • Isn’t that what the wealthy people do?  I don’t think I have the kind of assets that would warrant anything like that.
  • During a pandemic?  Shouldn’t I focus on myself and make sure I’m not one of the people who needs help?

Honestly, I understand the questions and the concerns. And the fact is, we live in a wonderful country with an excellent social safety net.  But there are still some very important needs that the government cannot completely meet, either for ourselves or for the people and causes we care about.  By all means, take care of yourself and your loved ones but a some point it pays to look beyond your own back yard and do your part to help the most vulnerable.     

The government does provide a lot of support, but sometimes people need more.  Food banks, medical research facilities, environmental organizations, these places can’t do their vital work on government handouts alone.  That’s where you come in, while some of us are able to provide periodic gifts to worthy charities, others need to hold back our accumulated wealth just to survive through lean times and have enough to manage in later life.  It is important to remember that each of us regardless of our current situation can leave an important and lasting legacy in our Will. 

You don’t have to be wealthy to make a difference.  Every little bit helps, as they say, and a legacy can be so much more than money.  Volunteering time and expertise can be worth more and as we age and move into retirement we often gain back our time in ways we couldn’t imagine, perhaps gifting yourself to a charity is the best way for you to give something to a worthy cause instead. 

But if you have some accumulated investments it is important to consider what the Canada Revenue Agency provides as advantages for certain types of giving. 

For example, if you own company stocks when you die your estate must pay capital gains but if these same stocks are gifted to a charity in your Will the charity can give a receipt for the full value while the estate does not have to declare the capital gain.  Check with your accountant before putting this in your Will, as there may be other things to consider but for Canadian Controlled Corporations this is generally true.

Life Insurance policies are another great way to leave a legacy after you have passed away.  Many of us purchased Life Insurance policies when we were younger to protect our families.  Now that the children have grown the need for this coverage may have dissipated and it might even be fully paid up.  Rather than cash it out and pay tax on the gains, it is possible to name a charity as the beneficiary or transfer the ownership of that policy to a charitable organization now and receive a tax receipt for its full cash surrender value.  The charity can then either hold on to it until you pass or cash it out early to fund a current need, once they own the policy it’s up to them what to do with it. 

Of course, I am not a lawyer so any moves that affect your Will and estate taxes should be handled with expert legal and accounting advice.  But these general strategies are great ways to leave a legacy and benefit your favorite causes even if you aren’t wealthy and while we are dealing with the ongoing fallout of a global pandemic.

Squeezing the K


How to Bridge the Gap of Inequality and Justice in a Post COVID-19 World.

When the stock market crashed in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic a lot of people hoped it would be short lived and the economy would recover quickly and strongly to the benefit of all.  And if you could measure the strength of the economy with just one metric you could make a strong case that is exactly what happened. 

Stock markets all around the world hit record highs in late February, lost approximately 40% of their value by mid March and had recovered about 90% of their February highs by mid April.  A classic V-shape that proponents and cheerleaders have been pointing to as evidence that the worst is over, and life will soon be back to “normal”. 

But the economy is not just one number.  Deeper thinking economists are increasingly pointing to a widening gap between the classes.  Those who could take advantage and buy while prices were low are reaping the rewards those that those who couldn’t, the ones who lost their jobs, even for just a few weeks, are still struggling and will continue to struggle for months and maybe even years to come. 

And it’s not just the uber-wealthy who took advantage.  The upper side of the middle class has made out like bandits too.   Owing to lock down restrictions on when and were to spend, savings rates and investments in home improvements have gone way up.  According to this article from The Huffington Post, (https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/entry/debt-insolvency-canada-wealth_ca_5f870abec5b6c4bb5471e28c) when you’re stuck at home but still working and earning an income, one of the only things you can do is work on your house.  Home ownership was already a stretch for many younger workers and those in the service sector, now with all the renovations being done, prices across the country have increased by 8.6% on the year.  The greatest gateway to lifelong financial security, personal real-estate, is almost certainly out of reach for large swaths of the population. 

Large wealth disparities between the classes is a recipe for social unrest and economic collapse.  It’s what spawned revolutions in France and Russia, coups in Iran and Chile, and the civil rights movement in the United States.  Even peaceful revolutions like the ones that ended Apartheid in South Africa or triggered the reunification of Germany had roots in economic inequality. 

In the spring of 1969 NBC aired Season 3, Episode 21 of Star Trek (The Original Series) called “The Cloud Minders”.  The plot was progressive for it’s time but has become a familiar one in dystopian literature and film since.  While on a diplomatic mission to a new planet, Kirk and Spock are caught up in a revolution in a society where intellectuals and artists live in a utopian city in the sky while the rest of the population toils in mines on the barren surface below.  At one point, after being attacked by rebels on the plant’s surface Spock muses,

“This troubled planet is a place of the most violent contrasts.  Those who receive the rewards are totally separated from those who shoulder the burdens. It is not a wise leadership.”

Star Trek, Season 3, Episode 21, Gene Roddenberry, NBC

One of the things that COVID-19 has brought to the forefront is that the people who support the vast majority, the so-called front lines in health care, food service and consumer goods are grossly undervalued.  Revolution may not be imminent like it was in the days of the Czars or the fictional world of The Cloud Minders, but revolutions rarely start quickly, they simmer and grow over time.  COVID-19 is a wakeup call.  With the right kind of leadership, the K-shaped recovery could be the beginning of a revolution in the way we value certain types of work.  The question is, will it be a peaceful revolution or a violent one?

The way I see it we need at least three things to help the revolution evolve along the most peaceful path possible. 

First off, we each need to re-evaluate our place in society.  Back in June my father, best known to my loyal readers as Pastor Dad, wrote an op-ed for an influential Christian Magazine called “I Am My Brother’s Keeper.”  In it he asserted that the way of love, or more specifically the way we show love for our neighbours, is to wear a mask.  Meekness or mutual submission to authority is not a sheepish game of follow the leader, it is a powerful assertion of collective strength in protection of the weak and vulnerable.

Second, we need to invest in the infrastructure of justice.  Let me be quick to point out here that justice is not shorthand for law and order.  Law and order without peace and justice leads to violence and oppression.  A just society is one that values each person’s contribution with equity and compassion and provides access for those without resources.  A just society closes the gap of the K with things like free health care, public education, housing, laws that are applied equally and punishments that fit the crime. 

Third, we need to exercise patience and grace.  Regardless of where you find yourself on the K, a return to “normal” will be long and far from smooth.  Some people will come out of this recovery stronger than before, but many more will struggle with new realities that the post COVID world will bring.  As a collective society we must recognize that while we are all in the same storm, we are not all in the same boat.  Some, those with the most resources and the best access are sailing through on luxury cruise liners, while more are clinging to life rafts and praying for a break.  Grace can take many forms, it can be as simple as following Pastor Dad’s lead and wearing a mask, staying clear of large gatherings, and supporting local businesses.  But for those with more resources it should also be active support of hospitals and charities that help the poor and vulnerable. 

At the beginning of the pandemic we were all encouraged to do our part to flatten the curve.  As a second waive moves around the world we need to remain vigilant in that regard and as we move forward into a post COVID world we need to be mindful of those on the lower rungs of society. 

Keep flattening the curve and work diligently to squeeze the K. 

Canada’s Government isn’t Likely Forgiving Your Student Loans


Here’s What You Can Do Instead

Last Tuesday, at a townhall campaign event in Miami, Joe Biden pledged to eliminate student debt for college students who went to a state school and who’s parents make less than $125,000 per year.  He further pledged to reduce everyone’s student debt by $10,000. 

https://www.forbes.com/sites/adamminsky/2020/10/07/biden-affirms-i-will-eliminate-your-student-debt/#4167eee258a7

Just how much that could end up costing the American taxpayer isn’t known but according to MSNBC the cost could easily exceed $750 billion. 

There is no doubt student debt places a heavy burden on recent graduates and slows their ability to purchase homes, start businesses, invest for retirement and make other kinds of purchases that move the economy forward.  By some estimates the total amount of debt recent college graduates are carrying exceeds $1.5 trillion.  I’m not qualified to debate the validity of Biden’s plan and to be honest I have a hard time seeing the relevance of it for Canada. 

Here in the Great White North we enjoy a number of federally sponsored programs that serve to reduce the amount that people are required to repay, a kind of government backed default insurance and preferential interest rates but the fact still remains, according to debt101.ca that Canadians owe approximately $22 billion in student loans.  As a measure of per capita that works out to $578 owed for every Canadian and a whopping $4573 owed for every American. 

Clearly the student debt load in the United States creates a significantly greater burden than it does here in Canada.  But that should not belittle the fact that student debt is still a concern for recent graduates in Canada too.  According to Stats Canada the average graduate finishes school with a little over $26,000 in debt. 

I had the opportunity to work with a recent university graduate and while everyone’s situation is different here are a few things we did to help alleviate his stress and set him on track to be debt free.

1 – Don’t panic and give yourself a break   

While $26,000 might seem like a lot of money to a broke college student, in the grand scheme of things it really isn’t that much.  In today’s interest rate environment and with the government guarantees attached to most student loans it’s possible to negotiate a 10-year payment plan around $200 per month. 

2 – Start with a Zero-Based Budget

Also known as a Reverse Budget, start every month by estimating your income for the coming month and spend every penny on paper before the month begins.  Although temptations, like a night out with your buddies will come, don’t deviate from the plan! 

Take any excess and put it toward long term goals, like debt repayment and savings.  Unlike mortgages, there is no penalty to pay off your student debt faster so get after it and pay as much as you can as fast as you can.  Using this strategy, I’ve seen people cut their repayment time down by as much as 80%. 

But…

3 – Don’t forget to save

I often recommend splitting your excess cashflow 50/50 between debt repayment and savings to start.   First set up an emergency fund.  Experts disagree on how much you should have ready access to but while you still have debt, I side with those who propose a modest emergency fund.  $1000.00 – $3000.00 should be enough to pay for car repairs, emergency travel, uninsured dental injuries etc.  Once the debt is repaid return to this and bump it up to a full 3 months of expenses, (6 months if you’re self-employed) and then open an account for a down payment on a house and a retirement fund. 

What constitutes an emergency?  Again, experts disagree but I say an emergency is anything you didn’t see coming and can’t put off.  There is no such thing as an emergency trip to Cancun unless your dying grandmother lives there.  There is also no such thing as emergency snow tires or an emergency birthday gift, those things are obvious to anyone with even a modicum of fore thought. 

So, there you have it.  While student debt has reached crisis levels in the United States, I don’t think we are going to see any serious attempt by a Canadian politician to eliminate student debt here any time soon.  But with a little planning and discipline most recent graduates should be able to pay off their student debt in 10 years or less without placing a significant burden on their ability to live life. 

For more information on how I work with recent graduates and help them to eliminate debt, build wealth and leave a legacy, reach out any time at lauren.sheil@f55f.com or call me at 613-295-4141.

Unity


Moravian Church, Crest and moto, “Our Lamb Has Conquered, Let Us Follow Him”

I recently took up the spiritual practice of the Moravian Watchwords.

The Moravian Church is one of the oldest protestant denominations in the world, dating back to the Bohemian Reformation of the 15th century.  They fled Bohemia (western Czech Republic) to Saxony (southeastern Germany) in 1722 to escape religious persecution and settled near the town of Herrnhut.  From there Moravians have spread across the world.  Today the Moravian Church counts approximately 1.2 million members throughout Europe, North America, Africa, The Caribbean and Latin America.

Every year, for the past 290 years, the Moravian’s have published a devotional text known as The Watchwords.  A daily set of two verses, one from the old testament and one from the new testament, paired to provide a framework for meditation and prayer.  For three centuries millions of people have relied on the watchwords as their introduction to the scriptures and as a guide to prayer.  I started using them this summer after I finished my reading of the Psalms and when I heard that one my spiritual heroes, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, credited them with keeping him grounded while in prison for opposing Nazi rule.

Today’s watchwords where from Isaiah 53:5 and John 11:51,52.

“By his bruises we are healed” and “Not for the nation only but to gather all children into one”.

It has become increasingly necessary for Christians all over the world to recognize that we are united by grace.  We gather, from all economic realities, all walks of life, all countries, and all political affiliations, at the foot of the cross to be washed in the blood of Jesus our hearts sustained by the water of life that gushes from his side and sent forth into the world as one humanity.  He took our punishment upon himself and healed us.  Caiaphas thought that by killing Jesus he could save the Jewish nation, (John 11:50) but he did not realize that Jesus’ death would save, not just the Jews, but all nations and make them one.

My childhood church used two hymn books.  One a traditional, red hard cover tome filled with all the old classic hymns from yesteryear.  The other a small, green paperback full of more modern folk songs and spirituals called the “Sing and Rejoice”, songbook.

One of the songs that I remember from “Sing and Rejoice” was called “Unity” by Gerald Derstine.  Derstine was a charismatic Mennonite pastor active from the 1950s to the 1990s who was well known in certain Mennonite circles for his evangelical teaching style and spiritual song writing.  He wasn’t a particularly prolific songwriter however but with a bit of digging I managed to find this version of Unity on YouTube as performed by the Mennonite Covenant Choral.  Close your eyes and let the words wash over you.

In these polarized times, Jesus, help us live in unity.

You Are Here


Every so often my wife sends me to the mall with a list and instructions to visit specific stores and pick up specific items.

Being a man my mission when I go to any retail establishment, especially the mall, is the get in and get out as quickly as possible.  I’m a hunter, not a nomad, I bag my prey and go home.  I don’t have the time or the patience to wander around looking for something.  If it’s not exactly where she said it would be or I can’t find it in about 30 seconds they don’t have it.

Because I am always in a hurry, the first thing I do when I go to the mall or any large unfamiliar place is look for the map or seek out an associate who can point me in the right direction.  Most people when they look at a map will spend most of their time looking at their destination.  Of course, that’s important but knowing where you are going is only half the battle.  You also need to know where you are right now so you can plan a route.  It doesn’t matter if it’s the most direct route, or the most picturesque, or the one that takes you past the Dairy Queen so you can get that banana split you’ve been craving.  It just matters that it gets you from where you are, to where you want to go.

That’s why every mall map has a bright red dot marked “You Are Here.”

Personal financial planning is kind of like a mall map.  It’s all well and good to have clearly defined goals but without a clear understanding of your current situation, and how you got there, all the planning in the world is really just staring at your destination and wandering around without any clear idea of how to get there.  You might make it you might not but more often than not you’ll end up spending your whole life in the food court eating banana splits and wondering why your dreams never seem to come true.

There are key moments that occur in every financial planning relationship.  Usually sometime after, but sometimes before we determine some goals, we need to have the “you are here” discussion.  This is where we gather the data, look at what you’ve done up to this point and map out the route from where you are to where you want to go.  It doesn’t have to be the most directly route, there may be a few detours along the way.  Just like going to the mall, family members have a way of pulling you off course.  Goals and circumstances can change and sometimes that banana split, new car or dream vacation just calls out to you.  That’s okay.  But a financial plan, just like a mall map, only works when you have a clear understanding of where you are at any given time.

Now, here’s where the analogy breaks down a bit, so stay with me.

Once the plan has been established it’s the job of the financial planner to be your constant “you are here” dot.  Continually reminding you of where you are and providing route options to get you to your destination.  If you take a detour or break for a banana split, the planner is there to help you get back on track or reassess your goals.  The last time I checked the dot on the mall map doesn’t move around with you, a good planner does.

So, how does your planner keep you on track?  Let me know in the comments.

I’m off to Dairy Queen, I suddenly have a craving for a banana split.

“When in Doubt, Castle”


What Kurt Vonnegut Taught me about Chess, Swedish Cars and Financial Planning

Kurt Vonnegut is best known for his 1960s novels, Player Piano, Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-five. The later of which he admitted was written specifically so he could cash in on the movie rights and retire to fabulous wealth and fame. The film adaptation of Slaughterhouse-five was released in 1972 to critical acclaim but was a box office flop, which just shows, making art is rarely an easy path to financial security. Vonnegut would continue to struggle as a writer for another 40+ years, gaining a measure of fame but never achieving the kind of fortune he dreamt of in the late sixties.

Vonnegut’s last published work before his death in 2007, was a memoir of sorts called A Man Without a Country. I recently finished reading it and I can say it reads more like a one man play, or a 200 page monologue than a traditional book. It’s basically a riff on everyone from Jesus Christ, to George W. Bush and everything from reality TV, fossil fuels and a new communication medium called The Internet. I tend to write in a similar style, so I loved it but if your politics leans a bit to the right, be warned, Kurt Vonnegut was a liberal humanist, with a capital ‘L’ and some of his insights into the human psyche will make you uncomfortable.

Vonnegut opens one of the chapters of A Man Without a Country with the phrase above and then goes on to tell a story about his brief time in the early 1980s as a car salesman. This was 10 years after the film catastrophe of Slaughterhouse-five and while still very much an artist, he took a job selling SAABs before they gained their yuppie-chic appeal. You gotta pay the bills, right? Back then a SAAB was little more than Swedish made Volkswagen Beetle. The way he tells it, in the 70s and early 80s a SAAB was what happened when an aeronautics engineer decided to build a car on the weekend for kicks. Which is pretty much the truth. Then sometime around 1984 a yuppie stockbroker bought one and drove it down 5th avenue, suddenly they were parked in every second driveway from Connecticut to Long Island. But Vonnegut washed out of the car business before he could cash in.

Anyway, back to the quote. I played a little chess in high school. While I never really kept track my lifetime record it is probably something like 2 and 25, mainly because I got bored easily and after about 10 minutes would stop paying attention. Accounting for my short attention span, my record is probably more like 2, 20 and 3, where 20 of the losses are just the result of apathy. My signature move though, was to castle. I did it just about every time.

For the uninitiated, castling is the only move in chess where you get to move two pieces at once. Provided, you’ve never moved them before, you take your king and move it two spaces toward either rook, then you take the rook and move it one space to the opposite side of the king. Thus, putting the king in a more easily defensible position in the corner of the board and the rook in a more aggressive position in the middle of the board. I would then build a little fortress around my king using pons and the rook and wait for my opponent to attack. When I got bored, usually about 2 minutes later, I would move the rook out into an attack position, leaving my king defenseless and eventually lose the game.

Most chess experts will tell you that castling, when done correctly, is both a defensive and offensive move. It protects the king while freeing the rook to be available as an attacking piece when the time comes. My problem was that I rarely waited long enough for the opportune moment to attack and wasted my advantage.

So, what does this have to do with Financial Planning? Well, some financial planners have a castling move of their own. Something that can be viewed both as a defensive and offensive move. All you need is a bit of foresight and patience. It is called Cash Value Life Insurance.

Cash Value Life Insurance provides a guaranteed death benefit and secures your defensive position protecting your loved ones from financial hardship should you die too soon. It also builds up a cash asset over time that can provide an additional offensive tool for income later in life. Most people view their life insurance as a purely defensive tool but by castling with cash value you can use it to provide valuable support for your purely offensive wealth building activities without sacrificing any of its defensive properties.

Like my little fortress on the chess board, the longer you hold the life insurance policy in its defensive position the more cash value it can accumulate. If you hold it all the way to death it has the potential to grow to Elephant Gun proportions, completely offset all income tax on your estate and create a significant legacy. The return on investment on a life insurance policy held for this purpose is often in the triple digits, it can literally cost just pennies to generate thousands. The key, like in chess, is to resist the temptation to cash in too early and hold it in its defensive position for as long as possible.

So, there you have it. Kurt Vonnegut reminded me of a key component of financial planning while talking about chess, a poorly performing movie, and the selling of Swedish cars. If you are curious about how these things can relate to your financial plan lets have a chat. But if you prefer we can just riff about Swedish cars and movies, that could be fun too.

 

Cleaning Out The Junk Drawer


How Social Isolation Is Leading to Societal Reckoning

I’ve never been an overly social person.  I work in a solo environment, I prefer to be self-directed and self-motivated and have always gravitated to jobs, goals, tasks, and hobbies that are best done alone.  That is why Triathlon is my sport of choice, I would much rather take my bike out, alone, for a 50 km ride than walk around a golf course with 3 other guys for 4 hours.

You could say that makes me an extreme introvert.  But it’s not the whole story.

My work is necessarily social.  I go out and talk to people, listen, and interact on a very personal, some might even say intimate, level.  I’ve never enjoyed live networking events, too loud and superficial, so over the years I have perfected the use of tools like the telephone, email and social media to facilitate the personal connection required while still providing the physical distance I crave.  A certain degree of physical distancing is comfortable for me and serves to make it easier to achieve the level of personal connection required to do my job.   Somehow speaking to a disembodied voice on the phone is less threatening than revealing the particulars of life face to face.

At the beginning of this pandemic I slipped into the new protocols, the elimination of in person meetings in favor of video conferencing and more phone and email interaction etc., like an old shoe.  We all had to learn new ways of doing things and for the most part we’ve done pretty well.  Humans are nothing if not adaptive.  But this prolonged level of isolation and introspection has pushed much of society to consider and examine things in ways that we aren’t used to.  Once the pandemic’s initial shock wore off and we started to settle into a different routine the cracks in our society made up of social, racial, and economic inequality, began to show.  These cracks are not new, it’s just that before we could cover them up with our busyness, now we have to sit with them and ask “what does this mean to me, and to our collective experience?”

Ashlee Eiland, author of the book “Human(Kind); How Reclaiming Human Worth and Embracing Radical Kindness Will Bring Us Back Together” recently likened the experience to cleaning out a junk drawer.  She said that it’s as if the junk drawer of society has been dumped out and we are now being forced to sort through it, deciding what to keep and what to throw away.

Here are a few observations learned listening to her and examining my life these past few months.

1 – We must rethink how we interact with and serve one another. 

Beware of a creeping sense of judgmentalism, it’s one thing to say you respect everyone regardless of race, sexual-orientation or religion, it’s quite another to put into practice especially when those things lead to differences in the way people think and act.  Are you engaging with people through self-righteousness or a genuine desire to value the individual?  Are you open to learning from those with a different perspective?

2 – Much of the work ahead will be conducted in the hidden places.

Real change happens when people of different backgrounds get in proximity with one another and begin working and learning together.  This does not happen on the streets or the television screens, it happens on the shop floors and boardrooms of society.  And it does not happen overnight.  How long does it take to cultivate an authentic relationship?  No one really knows.

3 – We must be willing to move forward without fear.

Someone will say or do the wrong thing, someone will be misunderstood, and someone will be offended.  When people of differing backgrounds get together we can’t avoid these things, but if we act with humility they can be easily addressed and corrected before they cause too much damage.  This will be a long process and we must not grow weary.

The heart of the matter is this; when we allow grace and humility fill us it flows out into the world like a overflowing river quenching the longing of a thirsty world.  We’ve been in the desert for a long time, the world is crying out for water, grace and humility are the eternal spring that we all need to drink from right now.

How do we do that?  Come thirsty but stay humble.

 

The Only Thing That There’s Just Too Little Of


In the spring of 1965 singer Jackie De Shannon released the single “What the World Needs Now is Love.”  By mid-July the song, written and produced by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, had worked its way up the Billboard Hot 100 to peak at number seven in the US and number one in Canada.  Written during the Vietnam War it is a folk anthem originally intended to bring people together regardless of their political views.

The song popped into my head recently while I was flipping through some journal notes.   A few months back I wrote, “every community of love can love more”.  As I read those words, quite unbidding into my head popped the lyric:

It’s the only thing, that there’s just too little of.

We live in anxious times.  Back in February I heard that over a quarter of Canadians surveyed said they would be fearful of being around someone with a serious mental illness.  I get it, mental illness has a unique capacity to make us all feel helpless.  If you have ever spent time with someone suffering from anxiety or depression you know that it doesn’t take long before you are feeling completely inadequate to help.  At that point it’s just easier to walk away and leave the afflicted to the “professionals” but the fact is that people suffering from mental illness need community more than they need clinical intervention.

And that was also before COVID, before we all started dealing with enough severe stress and anxiety to be classified as mentally ill ourselves.

It’s true that perfect love drives out fear, but repeated exposure just desensitizes us.  So the best way to manage fear and anxiety is to suck the drama out of it and just admit that it is part of being human.  Draw together, do not run in fear from one another.  We are designed to bring healing and wholeness through one another.

In addition to love at times like this we could also use a bit more justice and a bit more hope.

“Lady Justice” – there is a reason she’s always blindfolded

Justice has been a big topic lately, ever since race relations successfully bumped COVID19 off the front pages of newspapers around the world.  But we don’t want just any justice, we want the kind that puts people and things into right relationships with one another and justice that doesn’t add burdens to the already over-burdened.

And we need hope, the kind that is tied up with honesty.  We need the kind of hope that says we believe things can get better while acknowledging that things aren’t right at the present moment.

So, I guess there is more than one thing that there is just too little of, Love, Justice and Hope to name a few.  But that wouldn’t make for a very good song.

 

 

 

 

Three Cups of Tea


The Balti Theory of Relationships

I’m a coffee drinker.  This is a story involving tea but that shouldn’t matter.

I’m not a fan of a lot of fancy coffees.  Just straight up brewed coffee from a pot or Keurig machine is all I need.  If I am going to splurge on something exotic, I go for a strong espresso or café americano, nothing too foamy or overly sweet.  I always drink my coffee black, mostly because I am lactose intolerant but since I discovered that, I have found I prefer the fuller taste that milk or cream can tend to dull.

I used to do a lot of business networking in coffee shops.  Until recently there was no better place to have an informal, meet and greet with a new or perspective client.  Of course, COVID19 has changed all of that.  Now all my meetings, regardless of purpose have gone virtual.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it saves a lot of time, no more driving across town, paying for coffee, looking for a table etc.  Even though I do miss the atmosphere of a good coffee shop and I feel for the entrepreneurs that run them I can’t say I’ve really missed a beat by moving my meetings online.

Regardless of where our networking occurs, one thing has not changed.  It’s still all about personal relationships.

I learned what I call The Balti Three Cups of Tea Theory of Relationships from educational activist Greg Mortenson.  He learned it while building schools in the mountains of Pakistan.

Mortenson’s story was first published in the 2006 book, “Three Cups of Tea”.  In a nutshell, back in 1993, while climbing K2 he got separated from his party, ended up injured and stranded in a remote, underserved region of Pakistan.  There he discovered a Balti village tribe where the children had to walk several miles, over treacherous mountain trails to the nearest school.  In winter, the trail would be impassible, leaving the children without access to basic education for several months at a time.

After spending weeks among the Balti people, recovering from his injuries, he promised to repay their hospitality and build them a school.  Over the next decade Mortenson would return to Northern Pakistan several times and oversee the construction of over 50 schools across the region.

Since the publication of Mortenson’s story, the details and results have been called into question.  It seems when one person sets out the change the world there are no shortage of others who want to tear him down, but that’s a different post.  The point of this post is how Mortenson learned to build relationships across a religious and cultural divide, not to mention a significant language barrier.

The Balti people do business over tea.  According to one of the village elders that Mortenson worked with, the first time you share tea with a Balti you are a stranger, the second time you are an honored guest, and the third time you are family.

I’ve been in business for nearly 30 years, the last 10 of which have been in my current capacity.  Before COVID I used to joke that I’ve met with clients and prospects in every coffee shop from here to Deep River, (about 200 kms away) and I have found the Balti theory to be remarkably accurate.  It takes an average of 3 meetings before enough trust has been built to get anything done.  I have also found that each meeting must be approached in its own unique way to maximize your effectiveness and move the relationship forward.  Poor execution at one meeting can seriously damage your chances of getting the to next one and ultimately to the sale.

Here are some of the things I have learned moving relationships forward.  While we can’t meet in coffee shops right now these tips and tricks for execution are still incredibly useful and tend to work just as well in a virtual environment.

The First Cup

“The first time you take tea with the Bakti you are a stranger.”

Likewise, the first time you meet with a prospective client.  It has been my experience that no real business ever gets done in the first meeting.  People don’t do business with strangers.  The purpose of the first meeting is for the prospective client to get to know you.  Start by asking a lot of open-ended questions about their business, their personal life, how they got started, and what their hopes and dreams and plans are.

By asking those questions and letting the prospect talk as much as they want you will gain a ton of information without being aggressive or sounding like a salesperson.  When they start to run out of steam ask a few follow up questions about what they have done to achieve their goals, who they have worked with in the past and most importantly, what their experience has been with individuals similar to you.

That last one is too often overlooked, and it is key in moving out of the stranger pool.  Everyone has a bias or preconceived notion about you and what you offer, even if they won’t admit it.  By asking point blank what their experience and impression has been with people like you, you immediately uncover what that bias is.  Once you know that you can tailor your offering to address their specific needs and concerns.

Now it’s your turn to talk.  Don’t forget, at this point you are still a stranger so don’t be aggressive or say anything that could make the prospect feel uncomfortable.  Repeat back some of the things they have said, affirm their goals and dreams, congratulate them for their accomplishments and acknowledge their concerns.  Then make it clear that you do business differently and that you have a unique approach that can make a significant impact on their goals.

After I have determined the prospect’s main goals and biases, I finish off with one last question that sets the stage for the next meeting.  “If I could show you a way to achieve x without y, would that be a conversation worth having?”  That answer is almost always yes, at that point it’s time to wrap it up and book the next meeting.

It’s important at this point not to pitch a product.  You are still a stranger, by piquing their interest you are on the verge of becoming a welcome guest the next time but you haven’t gained enough trust to ask for a sale.  That comes later.  Go away leaving them wanting more and looking forward to your next meeting.

The Second Cup

“The second time you share tea with a Balti you are an esteemed guest.”

If you did your job in the first meeting, the prospect will want to hear from you again.  When I arrive at the appointed time and place of this second meeting, I sometimes visualize a grand welcome like how you would expect a visiting dignitary or celebrity to be greeted.  I rarely get the literal red-carpet-treatment but it helps to build up my confidence and put me in the right frame of mind, remember, the prospect wants you here, you are an esteemed guest.

In the previous meeting you not only listened to their goals and dreams, you affirmed them.  And then you heard their concerns and gave them hope.  You’ve gone from stranger to welcome guest.  You aren’t yet family, but you potentially hold the keys to a better tomorrow and for that you will be honored.  The stakes are exponentially higher in the second meeting, now you must deliver value.

At the end of the last meeting we left the prospect wanting more by leaving the open question; “If I could show you a way to x without y, would that be a conversation worth having?”   But you haven’t gathered enough details about their unique situation yet so this time I like to bring a full proposal that answers a similar question but is based on a completely different client’s set of details.  I use this as an example to show the kind of work I do for people with similar concerns as the prospect.

By using a different set of details, I accomplish three things in a non-threatening manner:

  1. I show the prospect that they are not alone in their concerns, alleviating any doubts they may have that their issue is, or isn’t a big deal.
  2. I show deep expertise in the subject matter at hand.
  3. I show them that there is a solution.

After walking the prospect through the solution that I used with another client I can then ask for the exact details of their situation.  If I’ve done my job to this point, the prospect will almost always give me everything I need to build a proposal for them.

Once I’ve gathered all the personal details I need, I set a time to come back a third time with their unique proposal.

The Third Cup

“The third time you share tea with a Balti, you are family.”

If you’ve made it this far in the relationship you know a lot of personal details about the prospect, you’ve been invited in and are now family.  In fact, you probably have a more intimate knowledge of certain aspects of their life than some actual family members do.  The trust you have been given is sacred and the care with which you present your solutions must rival that of a doctor laying out a treatment plan or a priest counselling them through a major life event.

Forget about the red-carpet this time.  When I arrive at this meeting I like to visualize standing on holy ground and presenting the prospect with the tools to embark on a sacred journey.  Again, I am rarely treated like Gandalf or some other mystical guru, but the mental exercise helps set my mind on the monumental importance of what I am about to share.   I present the solution with a level of reverence and respect that shines through to the prospect and helps cement my position as the one who holds the key to unlocking their goals and dreams.

It might take a fourth meeting to fill out an application and collect a cheque but if I’ve done my job to this point, validated their goals and dreams, affirmed their concerns and presented appropriate solutions, the sale is all but assured.

 

I’ve presented this process as three neatly planned meetings.  The reality is that it there can often be several months of telephone, email, and other discussions between each of these meetings.  It takes time to build relationships but given enough time, Gandalf always wins.

 

How Does your Garden Grow?


Learning to Speak (and Listen) with Wisdom and Intelligence

I fancy myself a bit of a gardener.

I don’t grow anything exotic or even all that special, but I have about 100 square feet of flowers in my back yard and another 50 or so square feet out front. It’s mostly bulbs and other perennials, things like tulips, daffodils, and lilies that I supplement each spring with a selection of annuals. I like looking at the variety of colours as they come and go throughout the season and there is something primal about digging in the dirt that satisfies my caveman instincts.

This year I got brave and added a strawberry bush, here’s hoping.

I planted everything this past weekend and when I was looking at my handy work, I was reminded of something I heard a long time ago. The 13th century Persian poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, more commonly referred to simply as Rumi, once said –

Raise your words, not your voice. It is rain that makes the flowers grow, not thunder.

The meaning here should be fairly obvious; when faced with conflict or embroiled in a heated discussion Rumi advises not to yell but to speak with wisdom and intelligence. People learn and grow best when information is presented calmly, like a gentle rain, not through loud and violent outbursts.

We live in a very polarized society. You are either conservative or liberal, capitalist or socialist, inclusive or exclusive, with us or against us. It seems more and more that people are less and less likely to listen to anyone who expresses opinions contrary to our own, let alone have a calm and intelligent discussion about them. How are we to learn and grow if all we do is loudly dismiss and discredit anything we disagree with?

Last week I talked about confirmation bias, which in one sense is our tendency to look for and associate only with people with whom agree. The best way I know how to combat confirmation bias is to listen and learn from people from all walks of life and those with whom we might disagree. Associating across various socio-economic and political lines might not be enough to change our opinions about things but we might at least learn something.

Remember – You don’t know what you don’t know, so raise your words, not your voice. Who knows, you might win someone over and gain a new friend or at the very least learn something new that you hadn’t considered before.