To Motivate Employees, Listen to Them

When David Rockefeller was chairman and CEO of Chase Manhattan Bank (now part of JPMorgan Chase Bank) he created a strategy he called “management by wandering around.” That is, he would spend as much time as he could actually wandering around the bank’s headquarters talking to employees that he didn’t regularly come in contact with, from receptionists and secretaries to managers and vice presidents. He would inquire about lives and their families, but equally as important, he asked about their jobs—particularly, what challenges and problems they had when trying to do a good job—and what could be done to make things better. You can imagine how quickly bureaucratic roadblocks got fixed with a word by the Chairman, and the impact on employees, that he cared enough to talk to them—and actually listen.

Most financial advisors are “people people,” who enjoy meeting with their clients and helping them to live happier and more rewarding lives. Yet I’ve found that  many firm owners don’t apply their people skills to their relationships with their employees. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that, like David Rockefeller, most good leaders understand that their success largely depends on the people who work for them. Of course, as business owners, you’re free to treat your employees however you want (within the bounds of employment law). But if you don’t make them feel like valuable members of your team, your firm will be plagued by low morale and high turnover—and will never grow larger than your own abilities.

I currently have an owner-advisor client who’s a perfect example. He doesn’t know how to talk to his employees. He constantly gives them directives meant to be carried out to the letter, and doesn’t care about their thoughts and ideas. He has his employees so beaten down that they’ve stopped offering any opinions of their own, and simply carry out his instructions, no matter how harmful they maybe to their firm and its clients.

As you may have guessed, his firm has very high turnover and very low productivity. The problem, of course, is him. Yet, when I have discussions about what’s holding his firm back, he doesn’t want to listen to my opinion, either.

This may be an extreme example, but it’s not an uncommon problem. The really tragic part is that it’s not that hard to solve.  

All that advisors need to do is make an effort to use the same skills with their employees that they use with their clients.To do this, we recommend that owner-advisors start with the question: Do I treat my employees differently than the way I treat my clients?

If the answer is “yes,” then use this test in all of your interactions with your employees: Would I talk to a client this way, or say something like this to a client? 

More specifically, here are four guidelines for advisory firm owners to apply their people skills and build better relationships with their employees: 

1) You need their buy-in.
Start with the “Aha!” that a group of people who are doing their best and coming up with good ideas is way better than one (no matter how brilliant you are). Add in that, more often than not, they are closer to their jobs than you are, and therefore, often have a better perspective on the problems involved and workable solutions. Finally, don’t overlook that motivated employees are way more productive than disgruntled ones: feeling valued is the best motivator on the planet. 

2) Listen to their issues.
This is really the key. Nobody likes to be ignored or discounted. An employee’s issue may not seem important to you, but if they think it’s important enough to bring up, then it’s important enough to listen to. And really listen—with empathy. When an employee feels that you’ve taken their issue seriously, they’ll feel like you take them seriously. 

3) Suggest a solution.
The operative word here is “suggest.” You probably have other things to do, and want to solve this issue as quickly as possible, and move on. But remember, it’s their problem: the solution has to work for them, too. So when you do offer a solution, don’t get too tied to it—ask what they think about it, and take that seriously, too. 

4) Brainstorm solutions.
The best “solutions” usually come from a number of involved people looking at problem from many angles. So work through problems with your employees and get as many of them involved as makes sense. 

As the leader of your firm, one of your primary jobs is to get all your employees working hard to achieve the goals you together set. Nothing is more motivating than letting them know that you value their contributions and their input—and nothing is more demotivating than making them feel that they are not important to you. If David Rockefeller thought his employees were important enough to listen to, perhaps you can fit it into your busy schedule, too. 

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