Managing in Turbulent Times

Sales Management - Autumn 2011 | By Paul A. Werlin

“We live in interesting times” is what people say instead of the truth—things are a mess! From European default issues, to gold near $2,000 an ounce, the budget fight here at home, to stubbornly high unemployment, there seems to be a constant stream of problems and negative news.

Combine that with interest rates at historic lows (and expected to remain low for the foreseeable future), and it becomes clear that financial advisors (FAs) and program managers don’t have it easy.

It sometimes seems that trust in banks and all financial institutions has fallen to the lows last seen at the height of the financial crisis in 2008 when AIG and Lehman were in the headlines. At best, clients are paralyzed, not wanting to make any investments; at worst they are selling, sitting on cash, or buying gold.

Paul A. Werlin

But despite the negative environment, bank FAs still have a job to do: help customers make sound investment decisions that bring them closer to their financial goals.

Program managers have a choice: they can keep doing the same things, or they can accept that these are difficult times and ‘step up their game.’

And it’s up to program managers to manage, lead, and motivate their FAs to work to the best of their abilities despite all the negativity and uncertainty.

Program managers have a choice: they can keep doing the same things, or they can accept that these are difficult times and “step up their game.” Fact is, there are 10 things managers can and should do that will make a real difference.

1. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate. Nothing is more important than talking to your team. Let them know you understand what they’re going through and you’re there to help. Don’t keep them in the dark if the program isn’t making the numbers, but don’t dwell on problems either. Just be realistic and as honest and open as you can. Step up the one-on-ones with your FAs to give them your undivided attention; let them know you’re listening and you’re fully focused on them. In both formal and informal group get-togethers, concentrate on sharing good ideas and building rapport. Your communications style—openness, truthfulness, and a positive attitude—will encourage a can-do attitude among your team members.

2. Stay positive. It’s so easy to get down when sales are down, FAs are worried, and bank management is pressuring you for results. But it’s imperative not to give in to the negativity around you. Don’t ignore the problems or pretend that everything is rosy when it’s really not. But your job is to find solutions and deliver results, and the only way to achieve that is by focusing on what you can control, not what you can’t. Complaining about low interest rates or poor bank support will get you nowhere. Develop a plan to achieve your goals and stay focused on the things that will get you there.

3. Lead by example. Don’t preach that working harder and smarter will pay off—and then take the afternoon off to play golf. Your team is constantly looking to you as an example. Determination, a positive attitude, professionalism, conviction, empathy—these are just some of the traits your team is looking to see in you. Your confidence and focus will be contagious.

4. Get and give constructive feedback. Never forget that communication is a two-way street. Listening to your team—their concerns, fears, and suggestions—is perhaps the most important thing you can do. No one wants to be criticized, so it’s important to provide constructive feedback, not negative feedback. Don’t tell FAs they are not working hard enough—show them how putting in the time will lead to better results. And you must be open to suggestions and feedback from your staff. They can sometimes see things from a different perspective that can help you make better and more informed decisions. Constructive criticism is an indispensible part of the improvement process.

Too often, program managers make critically important decisions when that is the last thing they should be doing.

5. Set realistic goals and objectives that adapt to circumstances. One of my favorite business sayings is: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” While it’s important for every program manager to have a comprehensive business plan, what’s more important is what you do with it. Your plan needs to adapt to changing conditions and circumstances. Program managers should be reviewing their plans at least monthly —everything from assumptions to tactics. A business plan that has real value is a “living” document that is relevant to today’s realities, not those that were present six months ago.

6. Don’t make “bet your job/company” decisions. It’s really not often that desperate times really do call for desperate measures. Too often, program managers make critically important decisions when that’s the last thing they should be doing. When you’re under stress and facing critical challenges, that is usually the time for “incrementalism”—making small changes in response to new circumstances that will keep you on track with your business plan. Making radical changes to FA compensation plans, restructuring management positions, or kicking off massive new marketing programs—these are things that cause more uncertainty and confusion. Now is not the time to make radical changes that may or may not work. Fundamental alterations may be necessary eventually, but don’t make these changes just for the sake of making changes.

7. Use all the tools and relationships you have. No program manager is an island. Within your team and your financial institution is a wealth of talent and support. Your bank’s marketing, training, and human resources areas, to name a few, shouldn’t be ignored because “they don’t know my business.” From help in training to design of marketing programs, get your entire organization mobilized to help you.

Lead by example. Don’t preach that working harder and smarter will pay off—and then take the afternoon off to play golf. Your team is constantly looking to you as an example.

8. Network beyond your own program. There are two major sources of help out there—your peers and your product providers. Chances are, other program managers are facing many of the same challenges you face. Many successful managers have gone beyond just talking to their peers on an ad hoc basis and have joined formal groups of managers that have regular meetings (in person and on the web) to discuss issues, opportunities, and strategies. And your product sponsors have ideas, programs, and frequently the financial ability to support your program. Of course, they want you to sell their products, but most sponsors are happy to help you as long as they benefit as well. And it goes without saying that financial institutions that use third-party marketing firms (TPMs) should be in constant touch with their relationship managers or contact person to get the support, tools, and help they need. Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention organizations like BISA that are excellent resources for their members.

9. Get back to basics. See the ball, hit the ball. It’s not complicated. Too often program managers make financial advisors’ lives too complicated. Compliance issues, reporting, meetings, continuing education, etc., can make an FA’s life hectic, disjointed, and complicated. Simplifying their jobs will allow advisors to focus on the really important matters. Study after study has shown that unsuccessful people spend far too much time on things that don’t directly impact their results.

10. Take a deep breath. A “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” attitude is only right when you’re sure you know where the torpedoes are coming from! Every so often it’s important to pause, check where you are, determine what you need, and decide if you’re still on plan. And don’t forget to clear your mind every so often by taking some time off or just focusing on something besides business. This will keep you fresh, help minimize stress, and avoid burn-out.

Paul A. Werlin is President of Human Capital Resources, Inc. He can be contacted at

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