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Show Empathy to Your Staff, Not Just Your Clients

August 11, 2017

This time we hear from Al Zdenek, president and CEO of New York, N.Y.-based Traust Sollus Wealth Management. He recounts how he realized he wasn’t the manager he thought he was, and why he needed to change.

Back in the 1980s when my firm was just getting off the ground, I was having trouble keeping staff. At first I just took this as the cost of doing business. Employees come and go and that’s the way it is. I stayed focused on my client base and building my book of business.

But one day, one of my best employees – someone I respected and was counting on to stay with me for a good number of years – came to me and said she was leaving. This was quite a blow. I remember telling friends that I felt like a captain on a sailing rig that kept losing crewmembers. I was worried one day I’d find myself washed up on the rocks, alone in my boat.

Her departure left me reeling and unsure about what to do about my staffing situation. Coincidentally, shortly after that staff member left I attended a seminar on the importance of communication. I was irked by the presenter’s assumption that advisors were good technocrats and analysts but bad communicators, and that our weakness in this area was certainly hurting our business.

To prove her point, the presenter asked for a volunteer. I quickly raised my hand and went up on stage. After a few minutes of questions and some roleplaying she made her point. It was clear I had issues with listening, trusting and empathy. After that seminar I hired her to help me improve my communication skills.

What I learned, over time — and believe me, this took years of coaching and growing — was that I was someone who believed he didn’t need any help or advice, and consequently my staff felt devalued and almost worthless. They didn’t feel they could contribute in any meaningful way because I didn’t seek or desire their advice.

The truth is I was raised to do things on my own and to not expect help from anybody. My problem was that I thought they should feel the same way. In addition, I realized I spoke very directly to people – often without consideration for their feelings. That type of communication style doesn’t work well with most people. And even if people can put up with a boss like that, it still doesn’t give them confidence to make suggestions or to challenge authority.

Al Zdenek

Changing these deeply ingrained habits wasn’t easy. About three years into this process an employee emailed me and said I didn’t keep my word. I was shocked and immediately called my coach for counsel. She just said, “Look, you asked for honest communication and you got it; now be happy and deal with it.”

So I sat down with that employee, heard her out, explained my reasoning, apologized for any misunderstandings and resolved the issue. It wasn’t easy for me, but boy did I feel better in the end.

Another time an employee didn’t like how a comment I made at a meeting made him feel. He approached me about this and I ended up apologizing. We then gathered everyone who was in the meeting together and I expressed my apologies to the group. In the end I was most happy that the employee felt empowered enough to confront me — that he trusted I would treat him fairly.

What I do now is always place myself in my staff’s shoes and I ask everyone to do the same with their team members. We also have a no-gossip policy. Everything is out in the open and honest.

I’m so glad I made the changes I did. Where I once couldn’t keep staff for longer than a couple years, I now have team members who have stayed with me for a decade or more. It goes without saying that these better staff relations have made for good client relations too. It was hard for me to lose those employees early in my business career but at least it got me to change my ways.