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Vanquish the morale-killing element in your RIA

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“Drain the swamp!” It’s a phrase we’ve heard from Washington but it applies to RIAs, too, who are plagued by their own form of swamp monsters.

What is an RIA swamp monster? To understand, think about a bell curve that represents your team. Assume it is a normal distribution curve. On the far left you have the swamp monsters. On the far right you have the true believers who are focused on rowing your RIA boat in the right direction.

The true believers are influencers and leaders. They are revered by you and your team because they focus on the success of your clients, their colleagues and your firm. They believe in what you do, appreciate the opportunity you’ve given them, are fully engaged, selfless, and are focused on doing excellent work and contributing to a highly functioning team. They are aligned with your firm values and are card-carrying culture enhancers. Simply put, you want to spend the rest of your career with the true believers and enjoy spending time with this subset of your team.

The swamp monsters (and we all have some in our organizations) are the opposite of true believers. They frequently gather around water coolers where they whine, complain and talk about how bad things are at your RIA, dwelling on how they are underpaid, are getting the short end of the stick and generally grumbling about how they don’t like this or that. They gossip and whine about your policies, think everything is unfair — in particular about how overworked they are. They don’t offer constructive feedback or suggestions.

Instead they just complain about what they don’t like. In short, they quietly undermine you and your team. They poison your RIA well. Not quickly with cyanide, but slowly with lots of small doses of arsenic. Even more troubling is that many of these people operate under the radar. You may not even know who they are because they smile at you one moment and undermine you the next. Heck, one or more of your partners might even be incognito swamp monsters. As individual performers, swamp monsters can be very good at what they do. They may have great technical or sales skills but systematically suck other people down. They can excel individually, but they can sap the spirit and energy out of your firm.

Swamp monsters gossip and whine about your policies, think everything is unfair ... and quietly undermine you and your team.

There is an African saying “if you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together.” The swamp monsters are all about themselves. They go alone. Because they selfishly focus on just themselves, your team fails to go far.

The bell curve's center
Even more troubling is that many of these swamp monsters are really smart and hold positions of authority in your firm. When you allow highly skilled swamp monsters to continue at your firm they have a destructive influence on the third, and largest, segment of your team, which I call the Silly Putty.

These employees comprise the middle of the bell curve. The Silly Putty are your solid citizens. They are not typically the leaders but they do their job well and, for the most part, carry their weight. They are nice people who take care of your clients, earn their pay, show up on time and default to being drama free.

Then why do I call them Silly Putty? From your childhood, you recall that Silly Putty takes an impression of Dilbert when you push it against the comics page. Likewise, the individuals in the middle of the bell curve are impressionable. So, if you allow swamp monsters to persist in your organization, they drag the Silly Putty into the swamp. That’s because, by nature, they are followers.

But if you fire the swamp monsters, you will naturally attract more true believers. In doing so, your Silly Putty employees will instead be positively influenced and become true believers themselves. Your firm-wide productivity, engagement and fun factor will skyrocket. A caveat: firing swamp monsters is hard. You already fired the obvious incompetent ones. So, the swamp monsters who remain at your firm are those you failed to identify; those who are in key positions; or those who would be difficult to fire (i.e. a key advisor or business partner).

How do you drain the swamp? Your first step is to inventory your team and determine how many toxic swamp monsters you have. Our firm, Savant Capital Management, uses an online assessment called Gallup Q12. It is a confidential assessment your team can take to determine overall employee engagement. It takes each team member only about two minutes every six months and provides you a report regarding your organizational health. And, while it does not positively ID swamp monsters, it does give you a rough estimate of the swamp monster-to-true believer-to-Silly Putty ratio on your team.

But how do you identify swamp monsters? Let’s be honest — you already know who some of them are.

But how do you identify swamp monsters? Let’s be honest — you already know who some of them are. You tolerate them because it would be difficult to get rid of them. You have to make a decision: Are you willing to let them keep poisoning your RIA well? Are you going to allow them to keep sapping your team’s enthusiasm? Or, are you going to figure out how to fire them? It’s a tough call, but in my experience, life is short and you are (eventually) way better off when you free your team from swamp monster dysfunction.

What about the Silly Putty after the swamp monsters are gone? They will start performing like top-tier players. There will, however, be those who will remain lower-tier players, who don’t follow through on commitments and just hang out. They spend too much of their days playing fantasy football and doing online shopping. As a result, they sap the energy from your best performers who inevitably pick up their slack. Worst of all, tolerating their underperformance sends the wrong message to the true believers, who may choose to go elsewhere.

My advice? Think hard and long about who the swamp monsters, true believers and Silly Putty are in your organization. Then, segregate the top-tier Silly Putty. Next, commit to transitioning out the swamp monsters and lower-tier Silly Putty over 12 to 36 months. It will be hard, expensive and maybe even risky. But the solid citizens in your organization will blossom, the true believers will high five you, team engagement will skyrocket, your clients and team will reap benefits, and you will make more money.

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