One of the more interesting aspects of consulting with independent advisory firms is that if you work with enough firms for a long enough time, you’ll see some results that you not only didn’t expect, but you couldn’t have predicted. Often those little surprises are positive, such as discovering that hiring great employees isn’t nearly as important to the success of a firm as creating great employees, and that if owners simply support employees to be great, they will virtually manage themselves.
On the other side of the ledger, one negative result that I’ve frequently encountered (but have never seen addressed anywhere) is what I call “owner’s guilt.” These are the guilty feelings that advisors have when they own successful, well-running firms, and find that they have to work quite a bit less than they used to, while making quite a bit more money than they ever expected. Yes, it’s true that my client firms tend to fit this description, but in talking with many other firm owners and firm employees over the years, I’ve come to believe owner’s guilt is a common phenomenon among successful advisors.
While these negative feelings might be considered “a nice problem to have,” they also create bigger problems: Not only can these guilt trips reduce firm owners’ enjoyment of their success, they can also cause owners to act in ways that decrease the success of their firms.
In hindsight, as my client firms became dramatically more successful, I probably should have seen this coming, but I didn’t. Think about it: Owners are trained to believe the harder you work, the greater your results; the better you lead or manage, the better your team will be; the more you are out rainmaking, the more growth your firm will have; and the more you invest in your company, the more you will get out of it in the future. Owners have been hearing this traditional management jargon for decades. It’s ingrained in their heads, and I believe that in some ways, successful advisory firms violate these business standards that owners always believed to be true.
As a result, when firm owners reach the goals they wanted to achieve, they experience the emotional equivalent of disbelief—and they start to feel guilty about their success.
These guilty feelings can make it very hard for owner/advisors to enjoy the fruits of their success: They often feel bad for being out of the office or on vacation, even when there’s no good reason for them to be in the office. While advisors rarely reach income levels or amass portfolios that would be considered wealthy (at least not before they sell their firms and retire), they often secretly feel badly about the take-home pay that substantial, and growing, assets under management can generate.
As a result, these feelings of guilt very often cause firm owners to act irrationally toward their employees. Owner’s guilt often drives owners to try to make their employees happy by simply giving them what they ask for. The problem is that what employees tell you will make them happy, more often than not, won’t make them happy. This is one of those realizations that one comes to only after years of working with employees and trying to make them happy. In my experience, and my research, the most important factor for being a “good” boss and for building a great advisory firm is to know what will make your employees happy—and therefore very productive—even if they don’t. Owner’s guilt will often get in the way of understanding what employees really want and need. Here are the most common complaints that owner/advisors hear from their employees, along with what’s usually really bothering the employee, and the solution that will make employees happy.