It’s probably the most common scenario in independent advisory firms today: employee goes to firm owner demanding a raise, a promotion, partnership in the firm or some combination thereof. Owner, caught unprepared, gives a non-response, usually including a promise to get back to the employee. Having larger issues to deal with, the owner-advisor eventually responds with some sort of raise (with the employee asking for yet more money in a year or so), or simply doesn’t respond at all—and the employee eventually leaves the firm.
We don’t have many employee problems in our client firms because our P4 strategies enable employees to be happy—and consequently, very productive. However, with our newer clients (who haven’t yet implemented P4), we often find employees demanding more money, or a career or partnership track.
Over the years, we’ve come to realize that not only are these three common “employee issues” interrelated, they all share the same root cause: an owner who doesn’t know where his or her firm is going. Now before you owner-advisors start freaking out and offering up your litany of excuses and denials (believe me, I’ve heard them all), your lack of direction doesn’t have to be a problem. In fact, it can be the best thing to happen to you and to your firm.
As I’ve written before, firm owners have a tendency to throw money at employees, particularly when they ask for it, simply because it’s the quickest and easiest thing to do and it makes the owners feel good about themselves. Unfortunately, regardless of what employees say, money is almost never the problem. In fact, when employees ask about any of the three issues listed above—money, career track, partnership—they are rarely the problem.
What Your Peers Are Reading
I’ve seen this situation so many times that when a firm has employee complaints, I just know that the owner either doesn’t have a business plan for where the firm is going or, in rare instances, hasn’t communicated the plan to the employees. I know this because I have never (Never! Ever!) seen a firm that has a clear direction for where they are going have employees who complain about money, career track or their future.
How can that be? Simple. From an employee’s perspective, the very worst thing—worse than long hours, unfriendly coworkers or even a micro-managing boss—is uncertainty. People like certainty, particularly when it comes to their jobs. We like to know where we fit in: today, tomorrow, next year, 10 years from now. It makes us feel safe, even comfortable. Why do you think, despite all their complaining about the well-known negatives, that so many people continue to work at large corporations? Because their possible futures—even though some are better than others—are relatively well-known and certain.
The Uncertainty of Small Businesses
By definition, jobs in small businesses, such as even the largest advisory firms, are uncertain. The firm could go out of business. It could be acquired. The market could take another free-fall. The owner could have a mid-life crisis, retire, get divorced and so on. Consequently, even though employees at advisory firms often love their jobs, their coworkers and the lifestyle of working for a small business, they also have a higher degree of job insecurity than most working people.
For many advisory employees, this insecurity often shows up as unhappiness with their job, which they then translate into unhappiness with their pay or their future. I’d estimate that employee concerns about firm ownership, a career track and even pay are 95% about where the firm is going and only 5% about where the employee is going. That’s because once employees know where the firm is headed, they can see how they’ll fit in, their potential and their possible futures. While the future is never certain, it’s still very comforting to know what the plan is.
Owner-advisors, of course, can’t do anything about not owning a large corporation or where the markets are headed. But they can do something about planning where their business is headed—and communicating those plans to their employees. That plan doesn’t have to be very specific or detailed: a general plan will do. To feel better, employees don’t need to know exactly where their careers will be at a certain point. If they know where the company is and where it’s going, they’ll have a general sense of their role in it. What they are really saying is: “Where is this firm going? I want to move up and to grow. Tell me how I’m going to grow.”