From the November 2010 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

November 1, 2010

Don't Be a Boss, Be a Coach

A good employer has a stake in employees' success

I was on the track team in high school. My first couple of years, I ran sprints and did the jumps; I was pretty good, but nothing spectacular. Then, we got a new coach. He took me aside and told me that I would benefit our team more if I just concentrated on the jumps. I was shocked. I couldn’t imagine not
running; after all it was a track team.

Then he said something that really floored me: that I had a real talent for jumping, and that I didn’t need anyone to teach me how to do it. “All you need is to hone your jumping ability, lift weights and be by yourself,” he said. He also said to tell him if I needed anything, and I spent every practice alone, just working on my own jumping. Our track team won the Kansas State championship and I ruled the long jump and the triple jump.

After my September column about being a good employee, I got an unusually large number of e-mails from younger advisors asking for a column on “how to be a good boss.” Before I get to that, let me remind these readers that my conclusion to the column was: “The bottom line is that it’s your boss’s firm; learning to deal with them as they are, quirks and all, will make your life much, much easier.”

With that said, there are, of course, many things that firm owners can do to be better employers, and I spend a good deal of my time working with owner/advisors to do those things. Now, I don’t like the word “boss.” It has bad connotations: I don’t like to be bossed around (just ask my husband), and I don’t know anyone who does. In fact, the first thing I tell my clients is to stop thinking of themselves as “the boss.” Instead, a far better description of the role of a business owner is “the coach.”

It’s a coach’s job to understand his team, to teach, to motivate and to inspire—to put his team in the right positions, and give them the knowledge, the skills, and the support to excel in it. To do that, coaches have to treat every employee as an individual—determining their strengths and weaknesses, their needs, and their motivations, just like my high school track coach did for me. Because the real bottom line is that a coach or a business owner can’t succeed alone: Their success depends on the success of their players—or employees.

Here are the five qualities of a good coach, which are also the qualities I try to bring out in my owner/clients to make their employees, and therefore their businesses, more successful:

A willingness to help employees achieve success. Think about your employees one at a time. Ask yourself: Do you want this person to succeed at what they are doing? This may sound like a silly exercise, but believe me, there are more than a few owner/advisors who seem to be more interested in setting their employees up to fail and criticizing their employees than they are in helping them excel.

It’s true that sometimes employees need to be motivated, or reminded of the quality that their work demands. But constant criticism is more often than not demotivating, leading employees to feel that whatever they do won’t be good enough, so why try. Keep in mind that just like a coach, you can’t succeed if your employees don’t succeed. You can’t run your business alone: If you could, you would, and save a lot a cash and a bundle of headaches. But you’ve decided that you can’t take your firm where you want it to go, and provide your clients the level of services they need, by yourself.

So ask yourself: What are you doing to help your employees succeed? Are you teaching them what they need to know to do their jobs and go into even more productive roles? Are you giving them the support they need to get their jobs done? Are they in the right position for their skills and their personal goals? And do you motivate them to excel at their jobs with the same passion you have for caring for your clients? Remember: You won’t succeed if they don’t succeed. And their success is largely in your hands.

Being dependable. To be a leader, to coach your employees, they have to know they can depend on you. Good leaders lead by example. They work harder than everyone else. They come in earlier and go home later. And they’re there when their people need them. Most owner/advisors that I know understand these principles. The one place they often fall down is communicating where they are and where they’re going to be, when they aren’t in the office.

I know, it’s kind of a pain, and seems like a small thing. If you have an appointment in the morning, or an FPA chapter meeting, or an afternoon business association meeting, or even a personal day, it’s easy to forget to tell anyone where you are. But believe me, it’s important. For one thing, your employees need to know how to get in touch with you if they need you. That’s usually handled these days with cell phones. Don’t turn yours off. And if you have to, let your employees know that you’re going to be out of touch, why, and for how long.

Even more important than being reachable is the example you’re setting. It’s important that your employees know you’re working, even when you’re not in the office—especially when you’re not in the office. Don’t leave it to their imaginations. Communicating where you are and what you’re doing strengthens your bonds with your employees: It increases the feeling that you’re all in this together, you’re a team, that you’re each doing your jobs, and that you’re there for them, even when you physically aren’t.

Keeping your emotions in check. Good coaches, like good teachers and good leaders, stay in control, so they can do whatever the situation calls for at the time. They realize they’re there as much for the player/student/employee as the other way around. To do that, they have to control their emotions. Losing your temper is usually way too much about you, and way too little about the “team.”

I’ve worked with advisors who have a tendency to “flip out:” to lose their temper—on little things and big things—and take it out on their employees. I don’t think they realize how demotivating and damaging that can be. Sure, sometimes it feels good to get your emotions out, and believe me, I understand just how frustrating running a business can be. But most people don’t react well to strong emotional outbursts, and often they shut down. Which, in many cases, means that your office is shut down for as long as it takes everyone to recover their emotional equilibrium.

A good coach wouldn’t do that. Coaches and teachers accept their students as they are: knowing they aren’t perfect. Their job, and yours, is to help them get better. In the vast majority of cases, getting angry isn’t going to help—it’s only going to create a distance between you and your employees. Most employees want to do a good job (if they don’t, you don’t want them). They need to know you have some tolerance for honest mistakes: people grow from their mistakes, and if they’re afraid to make mistakes, they won’t grow, and won’t take any initiative at all. Which means you’ll have to think of everything—a sure recipe for mediocrity at best.

Treat each employee as an individual. Everybody learns at their own pace, their own preferences, their own goals, and their own motivations. Yet, one of the most common mistakes I see owner/advisors make is constantly comparing their employees (Why can’t Bill be more like Gina?), or holding their employees up to some arbitrary standard (When I was their age…). Each person is an individual and unique; that’s a good thing, bringing more skills and perspectives to your firm. Embrace your employees’ differences, and work with each person’s abilities and needs to make your business more successful.

Be admirable. A good coach, teacher, leader or employer leads by example. They personify what their employees aspire to be, at least in part. They have integrity, and credibility, and clearly care about their people, treating them fairly, equally, and not judgmentally. They earn respect, and motivate people by making them want to do a good job, to be better, to grow.

As a financial advisor, you have many of these qualities built in. You’re a professional (in the profession of choice for your younger advisors). You’re successful, have your own business, your own clients. You care about your clients. Use that position to build on by caring about your employees and having a stake in their success. The more successful they are, the more successful you and your business will be.    

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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