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Set Up to Fail: Bosses Create Problem Employees More Often Than You Think

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I can’t tell you how many times an owner-advisor client has come to me about an employee who is “not working out,” and most of the time they have already decided the employee just has to go. I usually can talk them back from that ledge, at least long enough to for me to talk to the employee in question.

When I do, what I find way more often than not is an employee who very much wants to do a good job, but is prevented from doing their best by various roadblocks created by the firm owner or their direct supervisor.

(Related: 8 Leadership Mistakes That Hurt Your Firm)

Now, I’m not some “do-gooder activist” trying to protect employees from “the man” (or “woman,” as the case may be), but advisory firm owners are my clients, and I give them advice that’s in their best interest. And having unnecessarily high employee turnover is definitely not in any owner’s best interest, especially when it involves employees who could have been valuable assets to their firms.

What’s more, in my experience, no independent firm owner ever sets out to undermine the performance of their employees. While initially they may resist the notion that they have done just that, after understanding which of their actions lead to that outcome, I haven’t met an owner yet who didn’t willingly take steps to correct the situation.

This, of course, leads to the question of why firm owners would ever act in ways that hamper employee success. The simple answer is that they don’t realize what they are doing: Most of today’s owners haven’t had any formal business management training, or much prior work experience under managers who exhibited these counter-productive behaviors. In fact, I believe that these owners believe they are helping their employees, when in fact, they are doing just the opposite.

Here are the most common ways that advisory firm owners set their employees up to fail:

  • Misleading job titles. We all use job titles to communicate what each member of a firm is supposed to do and how that differs from other employees. However, many firms use pre-existing “industry” job titles that sometimes don’t apply to a specific job in their firm. For instance, I frequently see the title of “associate advisor” used for what, in reality, is a client service job. This creates confusion among management, other employees and the employee him- or herself about what job he or she is supposed to be doing. When those expectations don’t meet the reality of the job, it can appear that a very good employee isn’t doing their job — when, in fact, they are.
  • Pre-existing expectations. When they hire a new employee, most owners have a pretty clear notion not only of what the job is, but also how it should be done — which is usually based on how they would do it or how a former employee did it. The problem is that no two people have the same mental skill sets or the same approach to problem solving. If they want their employees to succeed at their jobs, firm owners and managers need to give them leeway to do their job their way, not someone else’s way.
  • Projected motives or behaviors. Most new employees are hired to take the place of a former employee. When that employee had left the firm or was let go under a “cloud” of one kind or another, it’s not unusual for the owner to fear the new employee will behave the same way. It’s pretty obvious why this is unfair. What’s more, starting a new job is stressful enough: When you add a level of undeserved distrust, it can be overwhelming. Owners need to deal with their own baggage and give other employees the benefit of the doubt.
  • Failing to adequately train or to equip. Without the tools they need to succeed at their jobs, employees are set up to fail. This includes training about how the firm operates as well as what they need to know to succeed at their jobs. These days, it means having the right technology. As a rule of thumb, technology is cheaper than people. And you’ll need fewer people if they have the technology to tap into all the resources they need inside and outside of your firm. Today’s clients want technology interfaces, and you can meet those demands best when your employees are as tech savvy as your clients.
  • Failing to understand what employees really want. Many firm owners assume what their employees want, often based on what they themselves want. But people work for many different reasons, which often don’t include more money or career advancement. To motivate employees, you have to know what motivates them. Asking them is a start, but to really find out, watch for what makes them happy, what they smile about. Listen to when words match their actions — that’s how you know what they really want.

As I said, I don’t believe any owner-advisors intentionally set up their employees to fail. But even when it’s unintentional, it hurts both the employee and the firm. To set employees up to succeed, let them be themselves, provide the tools they need and help them align their personal success with the success of your firm.

— Read Win the Talent War by Aligning Values With Growth Objectives on ThinkAdvisor. 


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