How is this for a dream job? Unlimited paid leave. Time off for philanthropy. Friday afternoon chair massages. And that’s just the icing on the cake. Imagine creating a culture where empowered employees have the opportunity to do what they do best every day.
No, we didn’t make this up. Advisory firms, at least the forward-thinking ones, are developing innovative, intentional—and often inexpensive—initiatives to create employee buy-in, loyalty and goodwill. One frequent result? Peak performance.
“If you look at a profit and loss statement, 70% of all expenses go toward human capital. If you can get a better return from the investment, the firm is going to be in some cases significantly more successful,” notes Tracy Beckes, who coaches financial advisors from Tracy Beckes and Associates in La Conner, Wash. “It’s extremely important. But it’s got to be a thoughtful process.”
The process starts with hiring the right person in the first place. “Most advisors don’t know how to hire properly,” says Beckes. “Most hire who happens to show up and ask for a job.” The danger of not making the right hire: workplace drama, gossip, blaming and complaining, indicators that employees aren’t in the right job for their talent and skills.
Just as important as hiring right is the creation of an environment that includes clearly defined roles, recognition for jobs well done, a set career path, and participation in the strategic direction of the firm.
As Joni Youngwirth, managing principal of practice development for Commonwealth Financial Network, observes: “Employees want to know what’s expected of them. They also want to know how they are performing on the things that are expected of them. They need to understand what the business plan is. That way they’ll understand that their little piece is part of something bigger. They get how what they do day in and day out contributes to the mission and vision of the firm. ‘I don’t just do paperwork, I do paperwork that helps our clients achieve their most important financial goals.’ That’s huge.”
Another big piece: Employees want to feel that they are valued. Often, that means giving employees a certain level of autonomy along with a pat on the back when deserved.
Matt Halloran, who heads Top Advisor Coaching in Omaha, Neb., suggests advisors put a reminder on their computer screen to deliver positive feedback at least once a week. “It’s a huge culture-building tool that’s a small thing,” he says. He’s also a fan of off-site strategic retreats that involve a third-party. A business professor at a community college, for example, can provide a big add at a modest cost. A retreat, according to Halloran, provides a healthy venue for setting goals and analyzing firm strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Moreover, every employee should have a say at the strategy sessions.
“Feeling appreciated goes a long way with employees,” adds Matthew Stegmeier, a consultant with Stegmeier Consulting, a workplace management expert in Cleveland. “Just being flexible to employee needs is important. You see more and more top talent demanding work/life balance. It’s okay sometimes if you have to leave early to take a kid to baseball practice. If you view that as a concession, you’re really missing the point. This is an opportunity to change your organizational culture. When employees have a say and feel empowered and part of something special, that’s when you have true buy-in.”
Here’s a look at four advisors who are at the leading edge of workplace innovation:
Building a Bond
When she opens an employee meeting, Abacus Planning Group President Cheryl Holland first asks everyone to practice a “relaxation response,” a breathing exercise that calms. Then she has them giggle, either by watching a funny video or by using techniques of a “laughter club,” an India-based movement that promotes the health benefits of laughter.
“To me, I feel an immediate difference,” says Holland, whose Columbia, S.C.-based firm has $700 million in assets under management. “It’s energizing.”
At least once a quarter, Holland takes all 25 people in the firm on what she calls a mini-sabbatical. The togetherness has included a hike through a national swamp with a park ranger, a tour of the renovated South Carolina statehouse, whitewater kayaking, laser tag, cooking and dancing lessons and a waterfront workout with her personal trainer.
“When you’re in a collaborative environment, you need to think of ways to make connections. We’re all team members here; it’s not a silo. We’re all very dependent on one another. You may not sit next to so-and-so but to walk with him is very powerful,” says Holland. “Also, this is a very intense industry. I think you need a way to let steam out in healthy ways. Secondly, I want people to be loyal, to have pride, to have energy. I want people to get out of bed and say ‘I can’t wait to get to work today.’ Doing this does all of that.”
Holland also uses a corporate psychologist to assess the “cultural fit” of prospective employees. The process includes screening for personality, IQ and skills. Just recently, the firm hired a talented CPA advisor. Part of her job description was to write a newsletter. Screening, however, showed that was not her strength. “We knew out of the gate not to do that,” says Holland.
Once a year, Holland holds a “360 degree” peer review, at which everyone comments on their colleagues. “When you hear from a peer, people pay a whole lot of attention. Feedback is a gift, and it can be painful,” she acknowledges. “But it’s very helpful to me because it gauges the mental health of the firm.”
Advisor Adam Koos drew heavily on his own experience as an employee when he started Libertas Wealth Management Group in 2004. The biggie? “I didn’t like people telling me what to do. I liked people asking, always with a ‘please.’ Rather than telling an employee to do something for me or for a client, I ask them: ‘Can you please help?’ Everyone likes to help if they’re asked,” says Koos, who is headquartered in Dublin, Ohio. “No one likes to help if they’re told.”
Libertas has an office manager and a client service associate. A third employee is about to join the firm. Koos says he would be lost without them.