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'De-skilling' Flagged As Key To Successful Management

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When it comes to overseeing an advisory practice, one of the most important things a top-tier manager can do is delegate to underlings tasks they are equally well equipped to handle.

That was a key theme of a talk given by Daralee Barbera, who spoke during a general session of GAMA International’s Leadership and Management Program (LAMP) 2007 at the organization’s annual conference held here last month. The talk recapped lessons applied from GAMA’s 5-day residency program, “The Essentials of Leadership and Management,” which covers multiple elements of agency and career development.

“We all need to grow new business, retain and service old business, hire and develop new advisors and managers, keep senior advisors happy and stay current on all pertinent information,” said Barbera, a certified financial planner and managing principal at Waddell & Reed Financial Services, Overland Park, Kan. “But if we’re not careful, we can get overwhelmed by all this stuff.”

To avoid that outcome, she said, managers have to “de-skill,” meaning they should delegates tasks that others on staff can accomplish equally well, while maintaining under their charge responsibilities only they can fulfill. Citing her own experience, Barbera observed that managers often fail in this exercise because they trust only themselves to do certain jobs or because they don’t want to impose on others. One result is lost productivity and a misallocation of resources.

“If you catch yourself doing something that someone else can do, then you have just got to stop it–even if it’s a small thing–because it all adds up to time not devoted to things only you can do,” said Barbera. “By giving someone else the opportunity to develop skills [in delegated areas], you will increase your organizational depth and improve everyone’s ability. And if you don’t have anyone to hand a job off to, then you have a hiring opportunity.”

One area that Barbera de-skilled at Waddell & Reed is office administration. An assistant who reports to her now oversees administration of 5 California-based registered offices for which Barbera has overall responsibility. (The company has more than 500 registered offices nationwide.) Barbera additionally hired individuals to provide administrative support–managing special projects, assembling seminar packets, placing calls, etc.–for company advisors.

The delegated work extends to keeping tabs on advisors’ productivity as well. To that end, Barbera hired an activity manager to assign points when advisors complete certain tasks (e.g., securing an appointment, conducting a fact-finding or closing a sale); to impose accountability standards that require a level of oversight beyond what the firm’s managers had time for; to attend “focus meetings” with advisors; and to handle record-keeping.

Also impacted was top management. Weekly staff meetings at each of the 5 offices, which formerly fell under Barbera’s purview, now are conducted by the locations’ district managers, though she continues to attend and contribute to discussions. One upside to the change, she said, is that meetings now conform to the managers’ own style, which allows for a more free-flowing interaction among participants.

Barbera additionally shed responsibility for joint field work with advisors, a task now handled by district managers and supervisors; and, except for making the final decision on job candidates, most steps in the selection of new hires. This change, she said, freed an additional hour per day to devote to other activities–or more than one month’s work over the course of a year.

District managers have themselves shifted leadership responsibilities to district supervisors or senior advisors. This was essential, said Barbera, to ensure proper oversight of junior advisors. Waddell & Reed fields 11 managers and nearly 70 advisors, yielding a manager-to-advisor ratio of 6-to-1 at the 5 offices. The assistance of 12 senior advisors eased the supervision of financial professionals in need of mentoring.

Barbera emphasized, however, that de-skilling does not absolve individuals of ultimate responsibility for tasks under their charge. Such responsibility requires that managers never be more than “3 layers” removed from the decision-maker.

“Although you de-skill, you still need to personally have your finger on the pulse to be sure that things are working and flowing properly,” she said. “If you’re more 3 layers away, you can’t stay in the loop.”

While delegating authority to those lower in the management hierarchy, Barbera also tailored positions to play to the strengths of the individuals holding them (or, as she described it, “making sure that everyone is in the right seat of the bus”). The effort led her to pair individuals with complementary skills–for example, advisors well versed in asset allocation with others whose expertise lay in long-term care. One benefit: The firm now retains people who in years past might have been downsized because they didn’t possess certain skills.

Many of those who have specialized in niche areas of financial planning now also serve as “faculty” to other advisors. The in-house teaching–yet another area that Barbera has delegated–is particularly targeted to new hires, who will have met with 15 faculty members before completing their training.

Barbera said 2 other lessons imparted by the Essentials program are the value of information-sharing among company units and the importance of distinguishing between leadership and management skills–and understanding that the former cannot be exercised without the latter.

“Leadership and management are not mutually exclusive activities,” said Barbera. Being a strong manager is the foundation for being a strong leader. Also, being a leader requires that we ditch the need to be control at all times and to realize that the best we can hope for is to influence others.”


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