From the July 2010 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

The Fast Track: Taking It Personally

Liking your employees helps in creating maximum performance

Most management books and many business school courses are adamant about not forming personal relationships with people who work for you; particularly, not socializing with them. The theory seems to be that becoming friendly with employees will cloud your judgment, confuse employees about their true status

and role in the company, and lead to favoritism and less than even-handed management between the people you like and those whom you don't. According to this notion, playing favorites can lead to disciplinary problems among those who are close to you, low morale among those who aren't, and a general lack of motivation throughout the company.

While these are all legitimate concerns for any business owner or manager, I believe that there's a far better solution. In fact, I think this dictum against forming personal relationships is not only wrong, it's counterproductive and usually impractical, especially in small companies--such as independent advisory firms. Rather than evening out your management through a lack of attachment to employees, I advise my clients to take just the opposite approach and do themselves and their employees a favor: Hire only people that they like, that they know will respect them, and get rid of anyone they don't like and who are disrespectful. After all, you're going to spend a large portion of your life with the people in your firm; you might as well enjoy being with them. What's more, in my experience, if you like them, they'll be better, more productive employees.

As a litmus test, I ask firm owners if they can truthfully say about each of their employees: "They work hard and it shows. They get the job done, they get it done right, and the results are always outstanding." Then, for the employees about whom they can't answer "yes," I ask them: "Do you genuinely like that employee?" If they've answered "no" to the first question, they almost always answer "no" to the second one. To my mind, this correlation is more than just a preference for good employees (or a prejudice against bad ones): it's an indication that your personal feelings about the people who work for you go along way to dictating their actual job performance.

It's Only natural

It's human nature to give attention to people you like, and not so much to the people you don't. What most bosses don't realize is that this natural dynamic is setting up the people they don't like to fail.

On the other hand, if you like an employee, you'll give them more attention, and be much more likely to give them: constructive feedback about how they're performing, encouragement to do their best, praise when they succeed, and support when they struggle or fail. And while you're spending time with them, you'll undoubtedly be giving them an additional informal education: the invaluable benefit of your education, years of experience and hard-earned insights and perspective, which often are the keys to whether young advisors and other staffers ultimately succeed or fail. It's very difficult to effectively mentor and train someone you don't especially like.

When you like an employee, you'll also more readily identify their strengths and their preferences. You'll be more likely to let them do things they like to do and are good at, rather than forcing them to do things they don't like and aren't good at. I think the predictable results of these tendencies are pretty obvious. Of course, you don't want to let your firm descend into chaos with no one doing the hard, tedious, or unglamorous tasks (OK, so maybe there isn't much glamour in financial advice, but you get the point). But my experience is that employees who are happy, and feel liked, respected, and appreciated, tend to also be the ones who voluntarily and without complaint, step up to tackle the most difficult tasks. That's the other side of my earlier litmus test: The best employees are almost always liked by their employers.

The simple fact is that none of us can help but like some people, and dislike others. Sometimes it's attitude, other times, just a clash of personalities. But either way, you can spend the rest of your working relationship with an employee that you don't much care for, wrestling with your ill feelings, feeling guilty--and oscillating between trying to make up for them, and avoiding the person who makes you feel that way. Or you can just face the reality, accept it for what it is, skip the judgment and self-criticism, and choose to work with folks you feel good about for whatever reason.

Personable Professionals

Radical as this may sound, I'm not making this up: There is movement among enlightened companies to hire only employees who are a good fit both in their professional skills and personally with the people they will work with and for. The leading edge of companies that focus on likeable employees is Google which credits much of its amazing success to its highly productive and creative employees, its "small company" mentality and its rigidly formal hiring process to identify them.

Google starts by publically posting detailed descriptions of the jobs it wants to fill, inviting job seekers to apply for a specific job. After initial screening, job candidates who are still in the running are asked to endure a day-long interview, spending time individually and collectively with the people they will work with, and those they'll work for, all of whom comprise that job's hiring committee. Any one of them can veto a candidate for virtually any reason, including a lack of personal chemistry. Prospective employees are encouraged to spend time during the day with one or more Google employees that they happen to know personally, both to get a better sense of what it's like to work at Google, and whether it's a place they'd be happy working.

Google's long, arduous interviewing process is in part designed to identify prospective employees who truly want to work there. They don't often like to talk about salaries or compensation of any kind until the very end of the process, when a formal offer is made. And then, it's non-negotiable: "We think you're a good fit with Google, we'd love to have you come work with us, here's what we think is fair compensation for the value you're bring to this job, we hope you take our offer." Period.

Here's how Larry Page, Google co-founder, describes the company's commitment to its employees: "We don't just want you to have a great job. We want you to have a great life. We provide you with everything you need to be productive and happy on and off the clock." (If you don't believe me, you can Google it. Sorry, I couldn't resist.)

An Essential Approach

I believe that the approach Google and other like-minded companies take to hiring and managing their employees is, if anything, even more essential to small service business such as advisory practices. An independent firm is essentially a team--one that frequently asks its employees to go above and beyond to provide its clients with the highest level of service possible, but in good times, and in bad times like the one we've just come through.

Motivating employees to go that extra mile means giving them a reason to care that goes beyond compensation, self-interest or career. To get the most out of your employees, they need to feel appreciated, supported, and, yes, liked. How that's communicated is unique to every advisor and every employee. But a good place to start is--despite what the management gurus say--by working with people whom you like, and spending time with them outside the office as well. It will make your life and theirs a whole lot easier, and give you a better firm, to boot. How much should you like them? I like to ask my clients this question: "Can you see yourself and your spouse spending a two-day vacation with your employee and their significant other?"


Angela Herbers is a virtual business manager and consultant for independent financial planning firms. She can be reached at angieherbers@cox.net.

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