October 26, 2018

When The Cat’s Away

“When the cat's away, the mice will play.”

Prov.  - When no one in authority is present, the subordinates can do as they please.

-         Freedictionary.com


We’ve all heard this phrase many times in our lives and have more than likely been both The Cat and one of The Mice at different times, haven’t we?


If you were ever a student, or on a sports team, or let’s face it, someone’s child (I know - in this age of artificial intelligence I’m assuming only humans are reading this!), then you have been one of The Mice. If you have ever been a parent, coach, a teacher, a boss, or a leader of any group of people, you have most definitely been The Cat.


But in order to build a great business and a well-oiled machine similar to today’s successful financial planning and advisory firm, this analogy has to be thrown out of the window.  Having a hierarchical structure of an authority figure whose physical presence, or lack thereof, determines the amount of effort, the quality of the work, or the results of their subordinates is a surefire path to high turnover, low productivity, and career dissatisfaction for everyone involved. But hey, it wouldn’t be all bad. At least their Instagram and Facebook feeds will be updated throughout the day and they won’t fall behind on that Netflix series they are binging.  ;)


In other words, if your mindset is that you are The Cat and they are The Mice, then don’t be surprised to find them “playing” when you are away. Even if you own the firm, or the majority of it, you are not The Cat,and they are not The Mice.


So what are you and if you find yourself in Cat/Mouse mode, what do you do about it?


The first step is your own mindset, i.e. how you think about yourself, your role, and the business itself.  Since I’m only an expert on me and no one else, I can only share with you what I know has been part of the successful sauce at our firm.  So take that as my disclaimer that I would never ask anyone to copy anyone else’s way of doing it,but I’m always happy to share what has worked for us.


The short formula is:


1.      Develop your own teamwork/teammate framework and mindset and get crystal clear about everyone’s role on that team, including, and most especially your own.  More than likely, you are only really great at a few things, and that’s true of others as well. Look at your teammates as partners with different skills, abilities and interests.  It doesn’t matter if they are literal legal partners.  It only matters that your mindset is around “partnering” your skills with theirs.  Yes, Derek Jeter could probably have played a lot of positions and done okay, but he was BEST for the team at shortstop.  But if he wasn’t partnered with pitchers,catchers, first basemen, etc… he couldn’t even have been a great shortstop.  Not mice. Partners and teammates.

2.      Put your stake in the ground on why you exist as a company, what your purpose is on the planet, and how your team makes difference in the lives of those people you exist to serve, including each other.  Everyone is on your team for their own reasons, not for yours.  But they will stay and thrive if their “why” connects with “why” your organization exists.  How will you know?  Ask them, “Outside of the obvious of taking care of your family financially, why are you on this team versus some other team, in some other profession?  What itch does this scratch for you?”  Our team settled on the fact that we all enjoy helping others live more confident lives.  Giving others confidence, including each other, is why we exist and it is a very aspirational calling.  Confidence makes everything better and we all enjoy seeing things improve and make progress.

3.      Decide where your ship is sailing to, what it will look and feel like in the future and the opportunities your teammates will have in the future by being part of this team.  You are not The Cat, but more than likely, you are The Visionary.  You are the person everyone is looking to for guidance on the direction the company is heading so that they can decide whether to stay on the ship with you or get off at the next stop (or opportunity they are approached with). Your teammates have to see themselves in that picture you are painting about the future. If they don’t, they won’t stay long.  So how can they possibly see themselves in a picture that doesn’t exist?  They can’t!  That’s why you have to communicate it in as vivid terms as possible, so that they have all the information they need to decide if this is the right path for them. Imagine boarding a ship or a train where they give you a nice cabin or seat, a per diem, and a set of daily duties to knockout.  But when you ask “what is the destination?” their answer is, “Not sure really….we’re just going to wake up every day and decide where to go that day and see where that takes us.”  Adventurous I guess, but I don’t see that approach breeding confidence.

4.      Once everyone knows where the ship is heading, help them all get rowing in the same direction,working closely together to help each other out, pick each other up and otherwise support one another on the journey. If you don’t row together, you go in circles. I’ve seen businesses like that.  On the other hand, if everyone knows their role, and is willing to be “all hands on deck” when that is called for, you get right to the heart of the beauty of teamwork.  Almost everyone is asked to play multiple positions at times, but if everyone has a “How can I help?” attitude vs a “That’s not my job” attitude, the team keeps moving forward toward the vision they are all on board with.

5.      Share the winnings appropriately, fairly and proportionally to each teammate’s role on the team. This is not about equality as much as it is about fairness.  There’s a reason there is a discrepancy between the earnings of the Derek Jeter’s and Michael Jordan’s of the world versus the equipment manager of the Yankees or Bulls.  At the same time, because of the way our industry has grown up on a sales definition of “production”, and because so many veteran advisors and firm founders lived on Rama Noodles and tuna fish while they built the business in an eat what you kill model, they may not take a broader view of sharing the wealth with those who help create and protect it.  Running a firm with salaries, performance incentives and ownership distributions keeps things fair but certainly not equal.  In a firm like ours, where over 90% of the annual revenue is recurring in nature, what is“production” anymore?  Has your model shifted to sharing the financial results fairly with those who bring in the business and those who have a bigger hand in keeping it on the books?

6.      Empower everyone with leadership responsibility and ownership of their area of competence, their position, or their role with a voice and opinion that must be in the mix in team decision making.  We’ve all heard successful people say that they have surrounded themselves with people who are a lot smarter than they are and just let them do their jobs.  Yet, we all know micro-managers who have a “know-it-all” mentality.  I guess it’s hard to surround yourself with people smarter than you if you really don’t think anyone is smarter than you!  Truth is, there are many forms of genius, and the person doing portfolio research, or managing your team, or heading up compliance, or doing your marketing, is a genius in ways that you could never be.  For that matter, so is Michael Jordan.  But that’s okay, because you have your genius and they need that just like you need theirs.


At the end of the day,what you are striving for is what Dan Sullivan, of Strategic Coach, calls a Self-Managing Company.  That is a company of leaders, who are there because they want to be there, for their own purpose that aligns with the team’s purpose and vision. It’s not a team of mice, but a whole team of cats that just keep right on doing their thing regardless of whether the rest of the cats are present or not.


I’ve had some extended absences from the office and yet, we are having a record year in all three divisions of our firm – wealth management, retirement plans and the advisor network.  With all the buzz talk these days from consultants about engagement and alignment, it’s really about building a self-managing team of high caliber teammates and partners at every position on the field.  That’s not to say a leaderless team because all teams need that. But the right people don’t need managing because they see how their daily efforts lead to the team’s success and they also see how their lack of effort in their area of responsibility could lead to problems for the team.


You are not a cat.  They are not mice.  You are the leader, they are your partners and teammates.  And partners and teammates don’t “play”, they achieve results regardless of who is in the building.