In May, I returned from FPA Retreat where I was asked to give two speeches. In both my talks, I alluded to Tony Heish’s book “Delivering Happiness.” In his book, Tony concludes his analysis of the “path to profits, passion, and purpose” that led to the success of Zappos.com with this short list of what businesses need to keep their employees happy: perceived control, perceived progress, connectedness, and vision/meaning.
I know Heish didn’t make up this list: I’ve seen it or similar sentiments expressed in many other books on motivating employees from Daniel Pink’s “Drive” to “Streetwise Motivating” by Alex Hiam to “Stumbling on Happiness” by Daniel Gilbert. My experience working with advisory firms also has led me to conclude that the key to running a successful business is simply making employees happy.
This goal turns out to be easier than it sounds, and the way to achieve it probably isn’t what you’d expect. Often, giving employees what they say they want doesn’t work, and, in fact, can even make things worse. Instead, firm owners should strive to give their employees what they need: A perfect example of this is how one should structure employee bonuses.
Giving employees what they need is the point of Heish’s book. According his research, and mine, employees need to feel a sense of control over their jobs and their compensation (perceived control); they need to feel that they are working toward improving themselves and their firms (perceived progress); they need to feel part of a team that they can depend on and that depends on them (connectedness); and finally, employees need to feel part of something that’s bigger than they are, such as making clients’ lives better or building a successful business (vision/meaning). To fully motivate employees to be their best and make meaningful contributions to the success of their firms, firm owners need to create a working environment that fulfills each of these needs.
Properly structured bonuses go a long way toward meeting these “happiness” needs of employees and I have found in my 10 years in the industry that only a small few practices have bonus programs that meet these needs. After my talks at FPA Retreat relating to bonus programs and happiness principles, I figured out that very few advisors actually understand the types of bonus programs available.
There are essentially three ways advisors can structure bonuses for their employees: Merit bonuses, profit sharing and revenue-based bonuses. Regular readers of my column will probably already know that I favor revenue-based bonuses over the others. My more candid feelings are that the other two structures simply don’t work, and are, in fact, classic examples of the law of unintended consequences (more often than not, they result in employee behavior that is contrary to what the employer had hoped for).
Let me explain. The majority of advisors who contact me initially want to create a merit-based bonus program: That is, they want to pay their employees a predetermined amount for accomplishing some specific task or goal. For instance, they might offer to pay a junior advisor an additional $5,000 to implement a rebalancing software program, over three months.
The first problem with this “bonus structure” is it has removed forever the task the bonus pays for from the employee’s job description, making it “extra” work. From now on, whenever that employee is asked to perform a similar task related to implementing a new software program, she or he will expect to be paid extra for it. Bad precedent. You have sent the message that employees will and should be paid extra for any work outside of their job descriptions.