Standards vs expectations


You would think in a world of compliance that I wouldn’t have to write an article about the differences between ‘Standards’ and ‘Expectations’… but here we are!

Add to this that – for someone who talks a great deal about standards – I do fall into the same trap and assume that the differences are obvious and understood! However, there are some fundamental differences between standards and expectations.

I did have to smile to myself as I looked up the official dictionary definitions of the two! Simply googling the words confirmed everything that I have believed for years but something which so many overlook!

I am sure many of you reading this would also share the same cheeky little smile if you too had turned to the trusted ‘internet’ to get clarification.

Standard – a level of quality or attainment.

‘their restaurant offers a high standard of service’

Expectation – a strong belief that something will happen or be the case.

‘reality had not lived up to expectations’

So, why the revelation?

It literally happened about a month ago when, believe it or not, I was ‘bored’. Granted, it doesn’t happen very often but I was deliberately enjoying some quiet ‘non-screen’ time which will be no surprise to any of you – it’s when I come up with some of my most amazing ideas (even if I do say so myself! 😉

Making space and freedom to think and not just do allows us to gain a real and valuable strategic view over what is really going on in our teams and businesses. Somehow the freedom allows us to see with such clarity the real issues which are the triggers for the complexities and challenges facing not only our business but our profession and our marketplace as a whole.

the profession is finally waking up to the fact that high standards, well-thought-out structures, and robust processes and procedures are the bedrock of everything they are trying to achieve

I’ll be honest: it can often take me a while to capture in a succinct way what I see, how I feel and my proposed solution to problems, but I get there in the end – as they say, all good things come to those who wait.

Before I dive in – let me ask you two questions.

When I say the word ‘standard’, what do you think and how do you feel? Now, when I say the word ‘expectation’, what do you think and how do you feel?

To me these two words – despite being so similar in their initial positioning – mean totally different things. And when they are confused it causes an unnecessary amount of tension, stress and upset which is quite frankly a complete waste of everyone’s time.

Just have a think about how often you find yourself saying things like, ‘I expected it to be done this way’, or ‘I would expect them to know how to do that’, or ‘Well, I would/wouldn’t have done it like that’, or the classic ‘Isn’t it obvious? It’s not rocket science!’

If you are nodding right now – please read on!

From experience I can tell you that one of the most common reasons why people leave an organisation is because they feel that they cannot meet the expectations of the business, of the business owners, or of the financial planners. It can feel like a constant kick in the teeth that they are just not quite good enough!

It is human nature to want to please, to deliver and to make someone happy by meeting the expectations of another person BUT with the continual moving goalposts of one person’s expectations over another – trying to second guess what people expect is not only exhausting, it’s quite frankly impossible!

Expectations are personal to the person that has them, and are then shared with others.

Yet there is often little to no guidance given about how to meet these expectations in the first place; because, let’s face it… our personal expectations can change from one minute to the next depending on how we feel in any given moment.

In the area of regulation and governance you may argue that there is little to no room for expectations to overtake standards; however, even though I think you ‘should’ be right, in my experience the opposite is sadly true!

So, let’s imagine a business that has replaced expectations with standards. A business that’s been robust in its design and built on purpose. It has a fantastic team who are supported by well-documented, tested, effective and super-efficient processes and procedures, each one allowing them the freedom to share their creativity, their tactical and strategic thinking fully because the nuts and bolts of their role can be done without even thinking about it!

Businesses designed like this will thrive!

Sadly, we continue to see so many firms making it really difficult for themselves! They put the barriers of expectations up so high that the only outcome is the continued disappointment of those who are trying so desperately to meet them. But nobody wins!

Even if expectations are not focused on what should be done, they are well and truly in place for ‘how’ things should be done! This is worse in my opinion, as it simply only manages to undermine the person who has tried to get the job done only to be told that their methods and best intentions fall short of the expectations. The dreaded ‘I wouldn’t have done it that way…’ takes hold! Yet again nobody wins!

When standards replace expectations – the magic truly starts to happen

Although we think they do, we know standards, structures, processes and procedures are not the most glamorous of subjects for most people, nor do they bounce teams out of bed in a morning, but the tide is changing. The need for them is becoming ever more apparent as the profession is finally waking up to the fact that high standards, well-thought-out structures, and robust processes and procedures are the bedrock of everything they are trying to achieve.

We get many enquiries every week from new firms that understand the importance of standards over expectations. They literally say, ‘I’m starting out and setting up my own firm’, or ‘I’ve/we’ve just bought out the previous business owners’, or ‘I want to set up my own practice… and I want to set the standards so I do this right from the beginning!’

My first questions to these aspiring businesses are always:

  • What are your personal standards?
  • What standard of business you want to build?
  • What standard of skills, abilities, attributes and behaviours do you want to establish in your team?
  • What standard of client service do you wish to deliver?


  • What standard of client do you want to work with?

At NO POINT do I ask about expectations! Why? Because his or her expectations are secondary to the standards they want to set.

By setting the standards, you have a business which is repeatable, sustainable, scalable and of course if it’s in your plan sellable!

It’s time for a new approach

I urge you all to hold that mirror up and look at your own language, look at how you position what needs to be done and to what level. Is your positioning of your ‘standards’ or expectations getting you the results you want?

It’s time to change the narrative. How about banning the words ‘expectation’ and ‘expectations’ from your own and your business’s vocabulary?

What next?

  • Start by reflecting on your current positioning of both expectations and standards within your own mind and business. Be clear on your view of the differences.
  • Speak with your team about this – get their input and ask them to define the two words, ask them how they feel about the words and how they feel you set, meet and even exceed these with the business.
  • Does your business plan capture the essence of what the business is in relation to what it is striving to achieve in relation to quality and standards?
  • Look at your current processes and procedures. Do they capture at the right level the actual standards that you have and hope to set for how things get done?
  • Look at how your current standards are documented and communicated with the team. Are they clearly shared and more importantly understood?

Ultimately, you need an operating model which sets the standards across the whole business!

Strive for excellence

One way to establish and then stress-test your internal and external standards is through external third-party certification assessment. Only through an independent objective review can you get a clear view of where standards are being met and exceeded – but more importantly where standards have fallen or are not meeting the desired benchmarks of excellence.

Standards International certifies against five certification standards which have been specifically designed for financial planning firms and their teams.

The firms that strive for excellence and really put the procedures in place, firms that are really pushing to establish and deliver to the highest level of standards, achieve amazing things in all areas!

For more information feel free to have a look at how your business may benefit from independent standards certification –


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We believe everyone has the power to realise their extraordinary potential. “Standards International is the powerhouse behind professionalism and operational excellence in financial services. We set the standards, we live the standards, we are the standards!” That’s us in a nutshell! We support the development of financial adviser business owners, their business partners, practice and business managers, and support teams in all areas of personal and business development. We have some super-exciting developments under way and it gives me such a buzz when I sit for a moment and realise what an impact all of this could have on our magical profession! Please be sure to keep in touch with us via social media, use our contact form or email us on to say “Hi”.

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