Warren Bischoff was the new guy twice over when he took the branch manager job at RBC Dain Rauscher's Washington, D.C., complex in 2002. But he wasn't just new to the office; he was, in a sense, new to retail branch management, having spent the previous 12 years at CIBC Oppenheimer, an investment bank.
The process of getting comfortable in his position has not been a speedy one. “I can't believe it's been two years already because it feels like I'm still winning people over,” Bischoff says.
He is hardly the first new branch manager to feel this way. Indeed, it is one of the primary reasons that branch management is not for everybody. One of the prerequisites of the job is to be able to live with uncertainty and instability while sustaining a desire to work towards improvements, says Dave Jennings, an associate professor of organizational leadership and strategy at Brigham Young University and founder of Business Acumen, a Santa Clarita, Calif., consulting company.
Jennings, a former stockbroker, knows that branch management is fraught with potential missteps. Six of them are listed below. At one time or another, each one of these lines runs through the mind of just about every new branch manager. The trick to thriving in a new setting means coming to terms with the implications of each statement.
“What am I doing here?”
In his manager coaching sessions, Jennings helps his clients focus on one key issue. Some sample questions aimed at identifying this: What is the central issue or problem you're trying to answer right now? Were you installed in this new job to tackle a specific performance situation, operational issue or marketing problem?
Unfortunately, many branch managers duck this issue because answering it means wrestling the proverbial bear — a bear that might have actually killed his predecessor. Unfortunately, the alternative — remaining passive while you “get comfortable” in the new job — is no alternative at all. In all likelihood, the office is already in turmoil from change at the top, and the advisors are looking to see what kind of leadership they can expect.
Bischoff says that his initial instinct was to “come in as the new sheriff in town with guns blazing.” Instead he chose a more constructive way of tackling the issues facing his branch: scheduling a series of dinners and social functions to feel out his financial advisors and to uncover the problems he would need to attack. The touchy-feely approach turned out to be a good one.
“The mere fact that you're there is too loud,” Bischoff says. “You have to let the staff get comfortable with you. Bonds are made when they open their hearts, not when you open yours.”
Jennings adds, “When you figure out what needs to be done and how you want to do it, you'll know how to prioritize the daily stuff.” The mellow approach also helps the branch manager find the middle ground between hasty pronouncements and indecisiveness.
“I'm the boss.”
According to Steve Katz, a consultant and author of Lion Taming: Working Successfully with Leaders, Bosses and Other Tough Customers (2004, Sourcebooks), it's a mistake for a new manager to assume that his way is automatically the best way. Imposing a unilateral new order is a recipe for alienating an existing staff. Instead, managers should solicit the opinions of the branch's staff as to what's broke and what needs fixing.
Sound like a no-brainer? Most managers never get these words out of their mouths. “They don't want to look weak,” says Katz. “The biggest problem people have coming into new positions is they think that, as a dominant person in the office hierarchy, they have to look strong all the time on the off-chance they need to can someone.”
In reality, not even firing someone calls for high-handed drama, says Jennie Kaiser, director of Merrill Lynch's global private client services in Chicago, where she oversees more than 120 employees in the Oakbrook and Schaumburg offices. For her, even high-tension conversations should be conducted as calmly as possible.
“It's a tactic that's worked for me since 1984,” she says. “I've never had a situation where anybody gave me immediate pushback, because I don't come in roaring like a lion.”
The secret lies in treating each person in the office as an individual. Kaiser invites her advisors to tell her their life stories behind the closed doors of her office. She uses such conversations to uncover the relationship that they'd like to build with the boss and their family goals.
Bischoff agrees that one-on-one conversations are a great way to build trust. “They'll tell you what they need to be happy, and nine times out of 10, they are very simple things,” Bischoff says. He's fielded everything from “I don't like my chair” to “Can I have a new mentor?”
Nor does he necessarily start at the top — or bottom — of the food chain. Staffers upset with the change get first crack at spilling their guts, whether a senior broker or the receptionist.
“I know it all.”
No manager in his right mind would say this aloud. But unless a newbie branch office manager quickly demonstrates his ability to learn something new, internalize it, then adapt and delegate, that is precisely the message he sends out, Katz says.
Katz suggests that branch managers tinker with meetings. At the general information gatherings on Monday or Tuesday morning, rotate responsibilities so that each person takes a turn at tasks like interpreting how the markets did and what it means to clients, issuing a client recruiting tip of the week or evaluating trends within the brokerage firm and their impact on branch goals.
“The fact you can read this on MarketWatch is irrelevant,” Katz says. “You need to create a dashboard affect that lets people know what you care about. If someone wants to add a gauge to that dashboard, make them do the research to support it.” The end result is that everyone in the branch feels responsible for contributing to the group's collective knowledge.
The manager's role is to represent the corporation, holding himself accountable for questions about the who, what, where, when and whys of headquarters. That means if The New York Times prints an article about your firm or your competition's business on Sunday, you arrive at the office 24 hours later with the scoop.
Cheerleading also is the manager's responsibility. “You need to remind everybody on a weekly basis why they work for a good company,” Katz says. “It's the branch manager's job to declare an internal victory once in a while when they reach goals.”
“You're going to be a pain.”
When Bob Edon, branch manager for the Nebraska/Iowa territories and executive vice president of AXA Financial's Midwest division, took the place of a retiring branch manager a decade ago, he girded for trouble. His branch was rumored to have special deals for different producer groups, and that simply didn't mesh with his philosophy.
But a funny thing happened to his expectations: They proved incorrect. No one at the branch claimed favored status, and he received full support for what he wanted to accomplish in the branch. He attributes the happy start to his policy of listening to the advisors and matching their effort at work.
“I wasn't riding in on a white horse to make everything right, and I let them know that,” Edon says. “Instead, I emphasized open communication, and I don't think you can overdo it in these situations. The things I don't know I get by with through caring.”
Bischoff, too, had his first impressions burned. “Somebody whom I thought was negative turned out to be a genuine salt-of-the-earth person who just took a little while to warm up,” he said.
“It wasn't me.”
Managers who make no mistakes probably aren't doing their jobs, says Jennings. The trick lies in owning up to them. Take Bischoff's situation, for example. His reports include five senior producing managers — brokerage veterans who essentially were demoted by the new boss' presence. Not a happy predicament to begin with, but then Bischoff made it worse by moving too quickly on big decisions, like renting new office space, without getting the group's buy-in. Once he realized his mistake, he admitted to an error and laid out plans to fix it.
That's exactly the right strategy, says Jennings. “It's not about ‘Oh man, was I dumb!’ It's about ‘Given the information I had at the time, I thought it was a good choice and I was wrong. Let's figure out what we're going to do.’”
“It's another day at the office.”
Human beings hate change. But new management also equals new hope if the changes that are made clear the way for improvement. One way to reinforce this feeling of hope is to clear away obvious roadblocks to success. If there are few pieces of dead wood in the office who are dragging down morale, get rid of them. “I come bringing gifts like a brighter future,” Bischoff says. “It's hard not to like me.”
Kaiser gives branch workers a feeling they can participate in the new beginning by making herself available 24/7 and encouraging people to call her whenever she can help make things better. “I'm there to work for them,” she says. “I'm overhead — they're the ones who keep the lights on. So when they understand I'm there to bring value and that I'm accountable to them for that value, it erases resistance.
Writer's BIO: Julie Sturgeon is a freelance writer specializing in business trade publications.