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On Your Way Up . . .

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The wise folks who make a living by studying advisory firms and consulting to advisory firms, and figuring out what the most successful firms have in common, often conclude that success comes to those who find and then focus on their core competency. Surround yourself with people and processes and technology that can more efficiently handle all your non-core-competency tasks, find the right partners outside your firm–whether it’s the right custodian or broker/dealer or outsourcing partner–and you’re well on your way to success. I’d like to suggest a contrarian approach: On a regular basis, assume the job responsibilities of all your staff members, one at a time, for at least a few hours. Sure, you won’t be as efficient as the staffer who sorts the mail or answers the phone, but it will give you hands-on perspective on how easy or difficult that task is, and provide valuable insight into the staff member’s value to the firm’s overall success.

Take your receptionist. A cursory examination of this job’s responsibilities would indicate that it’s not a very high-level position–after all, what are the special skills necessary to answering a phone and forwarding calls to the appropriate person, or giving clients directions to your office, or dealing with the FedEx delivery guy? But you’d be dead wrong. At Investment Advisor, we happen to be blessed with a very good receptionist (Kathy Butler), who exhibits loads of patience and forbearance dealing with confused readers and angry advertisers and even the odd colunnist who has despaired of ever getting me to answer my phone. She’s highly valuable to our success. When research editor Liana Roberts takes time off, I realize immediately how valuable she is as I attempt to help readers navigate our Web site or respond to frantic company representatives who want to make sure their entry makes it into our next directory. Thanks, Kathy. Thanks, Liana. We couldn’t do it without you.

I learned this truth early in my journalism career, when I noticed the great amount of attention one advertising salesperson seemed to be spending on our receptionist–nearly every morning he would bring her a steaming cup of coffee and a fresh Dunkin’ donut. I joked with him about his flirtation with this young woman, but he quickly corrected me. “She could make or break me,” he argued, noting that when a client telephoned and he was on another call or not in the office, her attitude towards that client could make all the difference in the world to his success.

Do you show the same amount of respect to your “lower-level” employees, who keep your office running smoothly, who make sure the account receivables are received, who make your office a pleasant place to work? Mark Tibergien is one of the great proponents of building processes to make your practice more efficient and to focus your efforts on what you do best, but one of his most profound recommendations is a simple one: treat your employees as assets, not liabilities. When you treat them as assets, you show them in a tangible way how important they are to your firm’s success. You also have a much better chance of retaining those employees. Of course, people take jobs for the salary and (increasingly) for the health benefits offered by their employer, but staff members who feel appreciated, who are made to feel part of the company and are given stakes–no matter how small–in that firm’s success, are much more likely to stay with a company, even if the money might be better elsewhere.

Just as an editor is only as good as his staff, in this time of increased commoditization of everything from model portfolios to marketing brochures, your practice is only as good as the people who work with you. That means everyone at all levels of pay and expertise. As the year begins and you start to implement your 2006 plans, reflect on that truth, and show your appreciation to all your staffers. They’ll reward you for the entire year.



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