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“People are our greatest asset” is one of the most hackneyed phrases expressed by heads of businesses. Every leader says it at least once.

The real world tells a different story. Employers often treat staff as chattel, especially in the financial services industry. Then they complain that they cannot find or keep good people. The four-year retention rate at traditional brokerage and insurance companies remains in the single digits, and many large public companies enact regular layoffs based on hitting earnings targets for the year.

Instead of treating people as an investment on which to get a return, these companies see them as a cost to be managed. Simon Sinek says you can tell a lot about how leaders value their people based on how they describe their order of priorities. “Leaders have ‘tells’ as human beings. They act in order of personal preference.” Sinek says. “If it comes out as ‘growth, market share, profit, shareholder return, then people,’ you can assume that employees are not first on their list of priorities.”

Sinek is a prominent speaker and best-selling author who effectively challenges the traditional mindset in American companies. When I interviewed Mr. Sinek at the 2019 BNY Mellon’s Pershing INSITE conference, he said that too many business leaders do not show employees the loyalty or consideration they deserve. He then asked, “Why are they surprised when those same employees do not give them loyalty back?

“Owners and executives treat human beings as an item on a spreadsheet,” he added. “That’s not to say profits should not be a priority in business, but not 90/10 — maybe more like 51/49.” He noted that companies who take care of people in hard times have greater long-term performance. Sinek went on to say that the best-performing companies have employees who wake up inspired, feel safe at work and return home fulfilled.

Those of us who have worked in other environments grasp this concept. When you reflect on your own management style, think about times when you experienced mismanagement. What did this feel like? What would you have wanted that manager to change? How many of those same ineffective techniques, phrases or behaviors show up in your own approach to leading others?

Motivation vs. Environment

I have long believed that you cannot motivate people, you can only demotivate them. Your job as a leader is to create an environment in which motivated people will flourish. For the most part, this means eliminating distractions from their work. These range from frustrating technology and dark offices to negative or harassing behavior. In addition, the environment has to provide what they need to focus on their jobs.

The psychologist Frederick Herzberg published a study in the late 1950s on Motivation-Hygiene Theory (or Two-Factor Theory) that helps frame choices for top management.

Herzberg said that examples of motivators include challenging work, appropriate recognition, increasing responsibility and personal growth. “Hygiene factors”— those elements that do not lead to higher motivation but can distract from employee satisfaction — include company policies, relationships, work conditions, fair remuneration and job security.

Think about how you or your leaders make decisions. A leader who gets outraged about small or less meaningful things may be more of an agitator than a manager. As an example, Sinek told the audience a story about an inspirational minister who in his sermon declared that few in his congregation “give a shit” about poor people. “In fact,” the minister said, “you are probably more upset that I said the word shit in church than the fact I said you didn’t care about poor people.”

Underperforming firms often mirror how people feel about working there. At some point, we all experience issues with our job or personal challenges we wish we could be more transparent about. Oftentimes employees are reluctant to let bosses know about these things. Do your employees ever say to you, “I made a mistake?” Do they ever reveal that they have problems at home that are making it difficult to stay focused at work? Do they ever admit that they were promoted to a job, but they do not know what to do?

Creating a Safe Workplace

Chances are, many do not reveal such issues for fear of retribution or disruption in their career progress. As a result, we create cultures in which our employees are lying, hiding and faking. Cracks emerge. Performance suffers. Good people leave.

When those who work in our business do not feel safe, a culture problem arises. Bosses may feel like they are in charge, but their role is to be responsible for employees: not to give orders, but to rush to their support. Not to demonstrate toughness and discipline, but to convey empathy and treat mistakes and knowledge deficiencies as teaching moments.

Sinek described the process that prospective Navy Seals go through before they are accepted. Candidates are evaluated with performance on one axis and trust on another. He explained, “High performance/low trust is toxic.” Yet in many organizations, performance overrides trust when it comes to bonus or promotion time. The monsters thus created become toxic leaders.

Reflect on how you might help employees grow into ever-increasing responsibility. In addition to teaching technical skills, do you model patience, effective confrontation and other human skills? Do you reward the behavior that you seek? Do you show the path to personal growth?

The financial services industry is struggling to be relevant to recent graduates, career changers and people returning to the workforce after raising kids. The gap is most acute among women and people of color who are seeking other professions or other types of companies.

Compounding the challenge, the advisory profession includes many small businesses that make only occasional hires, and rarely have employee development programs. Many young advisors, operations and service people bemoan the lack of opportunity for personal and professional growth. We all know, when you stop growing you start dying — as a business and as an employee.

It is hard to preach to entrepreneurs who cannot afford to hire and develop talent systematically. Perhaps our greatest opportunity for making the profession relevant to new hires is to encourage consolidation, growth and achieving critical mass so that more firms can compete for talent with law firms, accounting firms and consulting firms.

At a minimum, every leader — regardless of the size of the business — must understand that the commitment to employees must be as great as the commitment to clients. We have a duty of care in both cases. It is no coincidence that the goals are the same: wake up inspired, live your day feeling safe, go home fulfilled.

When you value employees as much as clients, you create an opportunity to build an enduring business and to become the employer of choice in your ­market.

Mark Tibergien is CEO of BNY Mellon’s Pershing Advisor Solutions. Tibergien is also the author most recently of “The Enduring Advisory Firm,” written with Kim Dellarocca of BNY Mellon and published by Wiley. He can be reached at [email protected].


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