Once owner/advisors grow their firms beyond a couple of support staff, one of the biggest challenges they face is communicating their expectations to their employees. Of course, if a core group works together for long enough—a few years or so—the employees will eventually figure it out for themselves; and those who don’t, usually leave or are asked to do so. But this ‘natural’ process can be a bit painful and inefficient, and the resulting high turnover rate can severely limit a firm’s success. 

In my work with advisory firms, I’ve found a simple solution to the problem that both greatly shortens the learning curve for employees, and reduces much of the friction of building working relationships. As part of a firm’s orientation process, we ask the owner(s) to tell each new employee two things:

  1. What drives them nuts, i.e., the things they really don’t like
  2. How that employee can be a hero, i.e., what doing a really good job would look like. 

I know this sounds too simple to be very effective, but in our experience, it really works. I think that’s because it’s difficult for employers to remember what it’s like to start a new job working for someone else: how much new employees don’t know, and how much they need to learn. From that perspective, most orientation programs assume way too much: you really can’t start employee training at too basic a level. 

The first question about what really bothers the owner/advisor is one that, sooner or later, needs to be answered in any long-term relationship, whether it’s personal or professional. It eliminates a lot of the guesswork if you can just get it on the table right up front. In a working relationship, the focus should be on job performance or behavior around the office; such as getting to work on time, leaving early, not proofing written work, a messy desk, poor telephone etiquette, etc. Sometimes, out-of-the-office behavior is a legitimate peeve as well: especially things that would reflect poorly on the firm, such as DWIs or public intoxication. But whatever an owner’s pet peeves are, stating them up front is both fairer to the employee and more effective. 

On the other end of the scale, it’s also important to tell employees what they can do to stand out: what exceptionally good job performance would look like. Getting a CFP, bringing in X number of new clients a year, sending out the quarterly reports on time, keeping the client files up to date, or whatever else doing a great job would entail. It’s crucial to keep these goals within reach: setting up employees to fail is counter-productive. And it’s good to point out you’re describing a great job, not your expectations. You’ll be surprised how many employees will actually achieve greatness if you just tell them what it is. 

Finally, it turns out there is another benefit that we didn’t anticipate to telling employees what you don’t like and what would be great: It encourages owner/advisors to think about their own answers to these questions. 

For a manager, it’s important to know what your hot buttons are, and to reflect a bit on how reasonable each one is. It’s also valuable to know what great performance in each job would be, so you can help your employees work toward greatness, and recognize it when they achieve it.

Creating a team mentality is much easier when every player knows what he or she should be trying to do—and trying not to do.