Have you got a professional will? It makes sense to arrange one – while you still can. Gill Smith and Linda Aspey report
What would happen to your clients, your livelihood and your business if you were suddenly unable to work because of serious illness, accident or unexpected death?
Have you made arrangements about who’d tell them, who’d support them (and, if they wanted, continue their coaching, or help them to access other coaches), and who would take care of the financial and administrative aspects of your work? In other words, do you have a professional will?
When one of us (Gill Smith) was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer in 2016, she hadn’t previously considered these questions. She did however, despite the terrible shock of the news, have time ahead so that her withdrawal from work could be professionally planned and managed with care.
You may have thought about retirement or had times of illness where you’ve had to juggle your work commitments. But few of us have a professional will – in fact when Gill asked around 100 coaches at the recent Henley Business School webinar on Coaching and Cancer if they had any formal arrangements in place if they suddenly couldn’t work, 64% said ‘No’ – about the same number of people who have no general will provision at all.1
Putting a plan in place
A professional will isn’t a legal document and doesn’t have to be too detailed, but preparing one now – while you can – will maintain your professionalism, even when in crisis and could save a lot of confusion, time and distress for others. Many therapists have a ‘clinical will’ in place and there’s no reason why coaches shouldn’t have something like this too. We’d suggest it covers at least three main areas: your clients, your finances and your practice/ business administration.
If you’re diagnosed with a serious illness you may be unsure about continuing to work, the potential impact on your health and effectiveness, how much to tell clients and what impact the news might have on them. Clients can feel guilty about bringing ‘trivial’ challenges when their practitioner is faced with a serious, life-changing illness, or it may resonate with other losses in their lives.
Explore these scenarios with your supervisor or a trusted colleague – think about what might change for you and for your clients, what and how you might tell them, and when. If a client turns up to a session to find you looking seriously ill, or, as in Gill’s case, suffering from hair loss, that can be a massive shock. Preparing them gently beforehand – as Gill did – is important.
If you’re suddenly taken ill or you die, you’ll be unable to tell your clients yourself. The worst-case scenario might be that a client arrives to a session to find you’re not there. Or repeatedly calls or emails you and gets no answer.
Make it work
You need to keep up-to-date client records of contact details, dates and programmes. This is an ongoing administrative task that can easily get forgotten.
Find a trusted colleague who can tell your clients if you can’t; some people have a reciprocal arrangement, where both parties have access to each other’s master file with clients’ contact details. If you share files online, ensure you’re using a suitably secure hosting site and as a routine, tell your clients that you have a ‘trusted colleague’ and what their role is. Good professional practice and client welfare means ensuring that if you can’t deliver as promised, there should be a contingency plan in place.
Don’t assume your family or partner would tell your clients – would they know what to say and how? They may be shocked and upset themselves.
It’s easy to be complacent about having put something in place and then not devote the necessary time and attention to keeping it reviewed and updated. That includes your diary. If your trusted colleague doesn’t know you have a day full of clients, that you’ve an offsite for 50 people next week, or you’re booked to present at a conference next month, they can’t
take the appropriate action.
If you’re employed in the UK, for example, you’ll have statutory sick pay and may also have life insurance or death-in-service arrangements, but if you’re self-employed and want more than state benefit cover, you’ll need to make your own arrangements. For example, a critical illness policy can pay you a replacement income if you’re incapacitated or a lump sum if you’re diagnosed with a life-limiting condition. An independent financial adviser can advise on these issues.
It’s important to consider what you’d do about refunding advance fees if you can’t deliver – and who needs to be able to access your accounting records and bank account to make transactions on your behalf. Also, if you have standing orders for professional insurance, memberships, subscriptions and so forth, it’s useful to have an up-to-date list so that someone else could cancel or claim refunds if you’re unable to. This may be a different person than the one you’ve asked to look after the client side of things for you.
Make it work
If you want others to have access to these accounts, you’ll need to nominate them to act on your behalf, and that’s not always straightforward. We’ve provided some online references at the end of this article about the different sorts of ‘powers’ you can give to others if you are ill or you die.
Ensure whatever arrangements you put in place are consistent across all your ‘wills’ if you have a personal (legal) will, a professional (work) will, and any Powers of Attorney in place. If they aren’t consistent, nominees or executors won’t be able to carry out your wishes easily.
Your practice/business administration
Your work probably involves a lot more than seeing clients. You’ll have communication tools (such as email and social media accounts, phone, text), a website, relationships with suppliers, networking groups, and so forth. Who’ll manage or terminate all of these things if you can’t?
And you’ll have notes. The confidentiality of clients and their records should extend beyond their death or yours, unless there is a legal or professional requirement to disclose. So, you need to ensure they will be dealt with or disposed of appropriately. Check your professional body’s ethical framework guidelines on notes and see the recent Coaching at Work article, “A Matter of Record” for more info2.
Make it work
A professional will should stipulate who is responsible for what when it comes to continuing to run or alternatively winding down your business. It is important to keep the arrangements live, with regular reviews to ensure that the designated people are all still fully engaged and that any new regulations or data security issues are complied with.
Don’t think this would never happen to you, or that you have lots of time to make arrangements. You may think that this is an unnecessary exercise but if you talk to people who’ve had to pick up the pieces of managing these issues in someone’s absence, you’ll probably think it’s vital!
- Linda Aspey is an executive coach, psychotherapist/counsellor, supervisor and OD consultant. Founding chair of BACP Coaching 2010-12, she is CEO of Coaching for Leaders and a member of the Time to Think Global Faculty
- Gill Smith was an executive coach before being diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer in May 2016. She was chair of the Association for Coaching, UK 2013-16. She has recently published a book about her experience of living with cancer.
- To buy Because You Can, go here: www.because-you-can.com
References and further reading
1 This is Money.co.uk: Nearly 60% of Britons haven’t written a will: http://bit.ly/2puJCuS
2 “A Matter of Record” in Coaching at Work by Eve Turner, Declan Woods and Jo Mountain: http://bit.ly/28Fjb5F