How about my Kansas State Wildcats? For those of you who are living on Mars or have been serving with Advisors Without Borders in Uganda, the K-State football team finished 11-1, ranked No. 7, won the Big 12 title and was set to play Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl. And the icing on that cake is that our quarterback—Collin Klein—is currently a finalist for the Heisman Trophy. Of course, things may end badly (let’s hope not), but it’s still not bad for some kids from the sticks.

I tell you this not because my car is K-State purple (well, OK, it’s partly that), but also because the success of our football program under head coach Bill Snyder holds some valuable lessons for small business owners and how they run their firms. Perennially at the recruiting disadvantage of a relatively small state school (total enrollment: 24,000 students) in the not-so-glamorous outback of Manhattan, Kan. (the “Little” Apple, as we call it), and with no national championships to our credit, Coach Snyder, who was the unanimouis choice for AP’s Big 12 coach of the year, has excelled by building a program that creates blue-chip players out of prospects who go unsigned by the larger universities. It’s a model that I’ve found works for advisory firms as well.

Since 1993, Kansas State has won 148 games, which is an average of nearly nine games per season, or just under 75%—one of the best records in all of college football. During that time, Coach Snyder has produced 108 All-Big 12 players, 51 All-Americans and had 70 former Wildcats play in the NFL. Oh, and he turned one-time wide receiver and the 106th ranked quarterback recruit in the country, Collin Klein, into one of the country’s three Heisman finalists.

As impressive as those stats are, the way Coach Snyder, 73, achieves that success is even more striking. The foundation of the K-State program is how Snyder and his staff prepare their players to learn about and play football. This preparation begins with Snyder’s “16 Goals,” which outline the way in which he expects his players to approach the game and their lives. “The 16 Goals form the foundation for success and create the work ethic and discipline that goes with them,” he’s been quoted as saying. “With players and coaches from all backgrounds, having a single set of core values unifies them under one vision. If each adheres to the goals as individuals, then team success will follow.”

As you might expect, those goals include a smattering of team-oriented ideas such as unselfishness and unity, but most are personal qualities that will make one successful on and off the playing field: Self-discipline, enthusiasm, personal responsibility, consistency and leading by example.

In my work, I have found that most advisory firms have a lot to learn from Bill Snyder about recruiting employees and preparing them to succeed. Unfortunately, the idea of hiring star talent still exists in many firms. I see this every day in my consulting firm and also when I give my human capital P4 speeches. Owner/advisors are fighting for the top talent and overpaying to get it.

I suspect that this is at least in part because many advisors still haven’t grasped that they are small businesses, often located in small towns or suburbs, competing for top talent with large institutions such as brokerage firms, insurance companies, accounting firms and banks. The reality is that they are Kansas States recruiting against Alabamas, Southern Cals, Stanfords and Michigans. To get these young star advisors, firms have to offer competitive compensation packages, which more often than not is more than they can afford to pay. Then they have unrealistic expectations about the impact these blue-chip employees will have on their firms. When the recruits fail to live up to their expectations, most advisors turn up the heat, which results in even lower performance by an increasingly unhappy employee who usually leaves for a higher paying job, saddling their former firm with another round of high recruiting expenses and lost productivity. 

For most advisory firms, the solution to this turnover roulette is to switch their focus from recruiting blue-chip candidates to creating great employees in-house. Like Snyder’s program at K-State, the key to creating greatness in an advisory firm is preparation: that is, creating the foundation for employees to succeed. In an advisory firm, successful new employee preparation consists of five essential training areas, each of which has to be effectively covered for a firm’s employees to consistently succeed:

What the firm does and how it does it. All advisory firms are similar, yet not all firms do the same things. From prospective client interviews to data collection, information systems, client communication, client services, scheduling appointments, etc., every firm has its own way of doing things. This is not something any firm wants an employee figuring out in the middle of the game: Every professional employee should be fully trained on how the firm expects work to be done, so that every client experience is consistently excellent.

Why the firm does what it does. This is an often overlooked step, yet study after study shows employees perform at a much higher level when they feel they are working toward a higher purpose. I know, you’re not working toward world peace or curing cancer, but all the independent advisors I know do feel as if they are on a mission of sorts to provide sound financial advice. Unfortunately, most of them aren’t very good at communicating that mission to their employees. Helping people send their kids to college, care for their aging parents and get quality health care and a comfortable retirement are all good things. Make sure employees know that they have more than just a job and are working for more than just a business.

How the employee’s job fits into what the firm does. Once new employees know what their firm does and why it does it, they need to know how their job fits into the bigger picture. I know this may sound obvious, especially in a small firm, but I’ve known employees who worked at their jobs for years without realizing what some of the other people at the firm did or how all their efforts fit together. The benefits far outweigh the time and effort of explaining everyone’s role in the firm and how each contributes to high-quality service for clients.

What the owner/advisor considers success at the employee’s job. For employees to do a great job, they have to know what a great job would be. Again, this isn’t something owners should leave up to employees to figure out for themselves. They aren’t mind readers. When owners tell their employees exactly what performance they’d like to see, they greatly increase the chances of seeing it.

Create the space for employees to figure out how to be successful at their job. Many owner/advisors still believe they are the boss instead of the coach. They believe their employees should do things their way. Everybody has different strengths and weaknesses, different talents and abilities. The goal should be for each employee to perform at a high level. To do that, they’ll have to use their abilities and work around their weaknesses. Bosses who force employees to work one way usually prevent this from happening and get predictably mediocre performance. To get great performance, encourage employees to find their best way to work.

In the dead of summer, a player complains about how hot it is outside. Snyder says nothing, walks into the locker room, comes out in a snowsuit and sweats through the practice with his players. There is nothing he asks his team to do that he wouldn’t do with them. That is a coach and a humble leader, not a boss. All business owners would do well to follow his example and prepare their employees to succeed at their jobs, rather than trying to find the elusive stars.

Let’s hope that by the time you read this, K-State has won the Feista Bowl and is celebrating Klein’s winning the Heisman trophy. Regardless, I am cheering for not only K-State’s successes, but for every business owner and employee in the country who has ever had a dream of being on top.