Mark and Alex looked at each other dumbfounded. Both men had been far too busy in their first six months trading together to sit down and ask themselves the four key questions vital to business success.

At first, the two partners – each with more than ten years experience in the financial services sector – had been exhilarated with the amount of lucrative business their new venture was attracting. Six months down the line however, was a different story. Both men complained of feeling “burned out” and disappointed with the discovery that running a company wasn’t as much fun as they had first hoped.

My first question to the pair – which had been met with a blank look – was “What is the purpose of your business?” Their immediate response had been that they had decided to work together in a bid to share costs and earn a higher income. I repeated the question, and as our discussion ensued, Alex began to realise that they had never questioned the venture’s purpose – and had mistakenly believed that their short term objectives of making money was the company’s purpose.

In order to discover the company’s purpose, there were three more vital questions that needed to be posed and I decided to approach them in one hit. “One of the seven habits of highly effective people (as Steven Covey expressed in his book of the same name) is to ‘Start with the end in mind’. So – what is your vision for the company; when will it be achieved – and what will you do when the vision is accomplished?”

Mark started to laugh nervously and said that with the company in its infancy, surely it was too early to start planning for the future. “But what better time to plan than now?” I asked, adding that failing to plan at this stage was tantamount to planning to fail in the future.

Alex could see the validity of the questions, repeating for Mark’s benefit that it would be very hard for the pair to “arrive” if they didn’t actually know where they were going. With a little more gentle probing, Mark began to realise that he had never taken time out in his life to plan for anything – instead just hoping that his natural charm and optimism would get him through life.

“You know how successful you are now?” I asked Mark. “Well, imagine just how much more successful you could be if you were to have a vision, some SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Ritten & Timed) goals together with an action plan.”

Mark acknowledged the truth of my statement and, turning to Alex suggested that the pair use the rest of our time together to plan for the future. This aim however, was not easily achieved – not least because Mark and Alex had different dreams for the future. Having never discussed the matter between them, Alex hadn’t realised that Mark envisaged ultimately selling the business. Worse, Mark wanted to retire at 55 and sail the world with his new wife – a dream he had kept firmly to himself. In reality, this meant that Mark wanted to build – and sell – a successful business within a ten year timeframe.

Alex however, had a completely different view of the future. He wanted to leave a legacy – not only to his children but also to the community in which he had grown up. One of Alex’s key drivers was that he wanted to show that he was capable of success – proving not only his parents wrong but also his teachers! While Alex wasn’t planning on creating a huge conglomerate, he did want to continue – in his retirement years – to be involved with a thriving business in the capacity of a consultant.

As the discussion continued, it was clear that both men did agree that they wanted to build up a going concern within a decade. However if they were to realise their future visions, they would need to start thinking laterally now. One solution, for example, would be for Alex to buy out Mark’s share of the company in ten years time – thus enabling both men to live out their personal dreams in retirement.

Earlier in the session, Mark had been complaining how fast time was flying – remarking that the first six months of trading had “gone in the blink of an eye”. “Well,” I smiled, “if you want to build up your business within ten years – you have only 20 blinks of an eye left!” The point hit home, and Mark – with a nervous laugh – sank back in his chair and told Alex in no uncertain terms that they had better start working on their goals immediately!

Agreeing that we would all meet again in a month’s time, Mark and Alex said – to my delight – that the session had been very worthwhile as it had forced them to think about the really important questions that both had spent most of their lives trying to avoid. Finally, as he was walking through the door, Alex quipped, “I guess that if you ask yourself the easy questions you get a hard life – but if you ask yourself the hard questions you get an easy life!”