After a particularly arduous day with an advisor who was tormented by his inability to have constructive interactions with his staff, I mindlessly clicked through the channels on my hotel TV until I hit on the classic movie “My Fair Lady.” “Why can’t a woman be more like a man,” the arrogant Professor Higgins laments about his infuriating prot?(C)g?(C), Eliza. With this misogynistic tune running through my mind, I searched online for the rest of the lyrics:
“What could’ve depressed her?
What could’ve possessed her?
I cannot understand the wretch at all…
They’re nothing but exasperating,
irritating, vacillating, calculating,
agitating, maddening and infuriating ….”
Higgins wonders why a woman can’t have the same:
“Honest, so thoroughly square,
eternally noble, historically fair…
so pleasant, so easy to please…
so friendly, good-natured and kind…
so decent [qualities that] a man has.”
Of course, those of us with, shall we say, more enlightened views recognize that this song could have been about friends or foes, clients or business colleagues (although I’m having trouble imagining a musical about financial planners). For those of us who work with advisors that have employees, those words come out in this way: “Why can’t my staff be more like me?”
Oh, how we long for everybody to be like us. A recent column by Aziz Junejo in the Seattle Times recalled an exchange between the two longtime friends–a rabbi and a Catholic priest–who founded Camp Brotherhood, where people from different faiths, ethnicities, and racial backgrounds come together. Father Treacy asks Rabbi Levine: “When are you going to enjoy a good ham and cheese sandwich?” The rabbi replies: “At your wedding, Father.” Their ability to recognize their differences yet communicate clearly made them effective in pursuit of their common goal.
Homogeneity is elusive for a reason. The differences within businesses make them dynamic–and interesting. We find that practices in which people assume different roles based on their strengths, and who proffer different views based on their training, education, and perspective, tend to create a strong culture. Discussions don’t become arguments but rather cauldrons in which a magical elixir of innovation and growth is brewed. Conversely, dysfunction in an advisory firm is less about work style and more about how people communicate with each other. Owners and employees seem to assume a lot: People in this business often fear being direct when it comes to real issues.
The criticisms that we hear from bosses about their staffs and vice versa tend to presume all sorts of motivations, but we often have difficulty finding those ulterior motives to be real. I’ve come to realize that many of us believe others should intuitively understand what our issues are through osmosis or telepathy. Other people can have a hard time understanding the source of our frustrations. Of course, it’s easy to dismiss what we don’t understand, so distrust and cynicism creep into the relationship, and this ultimately undermines the aspirations of all who work there. Often, employees and their bosses are wallowing in their own angry words and don’t realize that they are having a screaming agreement with each other.
I recall the frustration of an older advisor trying to sell his business to an associate 30 years his junior. He viewed the younger advisor as the daughter he never had until it came time to work out the deals of the transfer. “Imagine,” he said, “she had a lawyer draft an agreement!” This formality seemed to change the family dynamic, and he was insulted. Did he tell her of his feelings? Nope. He grumbled. He fumed. He decided the breach of etiquette was so great that he was going to withdraw the offer completely. Fortunately, in time rational thought returned.
Recently, I had the opportunity to co-present at the FPA Retreat with Aaron Coates, one of the founders of “NexGen,” an FPA subgroup of young professionals who are employed as financial planners at advisory firms (NexGen’s first conference will be held this summer). One member of the audience asked Aaron how he could find employees who would just do their jobs and quit whining about their lack of opportunity. The advisor pointed out that he had to create his own opportunity and that’s how he had learned to be so good. Without being flip, Aaron asked his questioner if he had talked to his young employees about his concern. The silent response was deafening. Open dialogue: What a concept!
There is nothing particularly surprising about the angst that both owners and employees have in their relationships with each other. Tension in business is always heightened when communication is poor, career path is unclear, and expectations are unspoken. But the question I have long wrestled with as both a current employer and a former employee is what role should staff have in making things work well? Is that just the job of management?
The Role of the Employee
For years, I’ve been telling people who work in my business that they need to manage me, not the other way around. I view my job as creating new business opportunity, working at a high level with clients and helping staff to develop. I view their jobs as managing the details. When they hit a wall or are in uncomfortable territory or simply don’t know how to go about the process of finding a solution, they should grab me by the lapel and shake me until I give them attention. Do employees squirm over this idea? Of course. It’s a foreign concept, and they don’t know what the repercussions will be since bosses are usually perceived as intolerant ogres. But one message is clear: if they don’t have the courage to ask, then they will have a hard time making it as either a consultant or a financial advisor.
It’s the job of those running a business to create an environment in which it is okay to make mistakes if one learns from those mistakes, and where it’s okay to ask for help without being perceived as an idiot. This does not mean having a high tolerance of mediocrity or navel gazing, but it does mean giving staff a safety net when they try and fall. For those who are working in a business, it’s their job to demonstrate intellectual curiosity, perseverance, and the willingness to seek clarity about what is expected of them if they don’t know. This does not mean seeking validation of their worth at every turn, but it does mean being more proactive in the development of their own careers.
To improve how each works with the other, it would be helpful for both employee and boss to create an agenda of issues that are important to the practice and which are not working at the optimal level.
Every firm has its own culture of openness and candor. Some are hell holes of intolerance and indifference to other points of view. Others are wild experiments in free thinking. Different people respond to staff challenges in different ways. The good news is that there is an acute shortage of talent in the advisory world, so most of the capable professionals have options from which to choose. That said, you should work with the practice leader to create a culture of constructive interaction. We see that too many firms have created this notion of “us” and “them,” management and staff, owners and employees. Elite firms have people who only see the world as “us,” with no diminution of accountability because of titles or ranking. No matter your position–boss or employees–if you hear yourself saying “that’s not my responsibility,” you have achieved the pinnacle of mediocrity in your career.
Mark Tibergien, a principal in Moss Adams LLP, is chairman of the firm’s Securities & Insurance niche. A nationally-known consultant to financial advisors, he is the co-author of Practice Made Perfect, available through the IA Bookstore. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.