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Managing Stressed-Out Advisors

The good thing about the financial advisors you manage is that they tend to be ambitious, Type-A personalities.

The good thing about the financial advisors you manage is that they tend to be ambitious, Type-A personalities. They want to win. The problem with financial advisors is that they tend to be ambitious, Type-A personalities. In short, stress levels for even the most accomplished financial advisor is high—even in the best of times. These aren't good times. Now—more than ever—branch managers need to be on guard for rising incidents of burnout and depression.

So says Dr. Alden Cass, a Manhattan-based clinical psychologist who specializes in treating financial advisors. Cass maintains that advisors are more prone to depression—both serious and mild—than those in other professions. Several years ago, as a graduate student, Cass conducted a clinical survey on the mental health of Wall Street's advisors. Published in 2001, the study, titled "Casualties of Wall Street," examined nearly 50 reps, and found that 23 percent of them exhibited significant signs of clinical depression, while another 36 percent showed mild to moderate symptoms. Interestingly, Cass says, "It also revealed that million-dollar producers were the most dysfunctional when it came to mental health, as they were most prone to burnout."

What to do about it? According to his new book, The Bullish Thinking Guide for Managers: How to Save Your Advisors and Grow Your Bottom Line (John Wiley & Sons, 2008), much of a branch manager's success depends upon his ability to identify, address and help eliminate some of the stressors in their advisors' lives before they evolve into more serious problems.

Cass and his two co-authors group advisors into five broad advisor personality stereotypes to help BOMs manage the branch. Of course, everyone is different, so there is no magic bullet, or "one-size-fits-all" technique for helping advisors stay mentally fit. Yet, "It helps to identify his or her personality 'archetype' or mindset, and then speak to its specific needs, strengths and weaknesses," Cass says. He offers the obvious disclaimer that individual reps don't fit neatly into little categories, and many are "hybrids." Nevertheless, by defining a rep as having a significant number of traits associated with a particular advisor mindset, Cass says, you can tailor your management approach for optimum results.

The Five Advisor Mindsets, And How To Deal With Them Under Stress:

1. The Decision-Maker/Problem Solver: This advisor is a calculated risk taker who measures success—first and foremost—by the bottom line, Cass says. He deals in facts. He gathers as much information as possible about a given issue, and then creates a specific goal. Under pressure, he can be demanding of support staff; at his worst he may blame others for his mistakes or lack of information. But fundamentally, Cass says, he wants others to agree with him.

For reps who fall into this category, Cass suggests you:

- Set reasonable expectations of their professional behavior with office staff— and hold them accountable.

- Engage in goal setting with them (obviously), and be solicitous of, and open to, their ideas. "These folks are motivated by the process of setting what they consider to be their own goals—and then meeting them," Cass says.

- Arrange regular meetings to exchange feedback. "Problem solvers don't seek much emotional support," Cass says, "and they hate feeling pitied for their problems." They do, however, want to feel that you care about what they're trying to achieve.

- Call attention to the areas where you agree with their efforts and strategy, and encourage them. In return, they'll want to help you with the bottom line.

2. The Catalyst:In times of crisis, this rep hates to sit around and wait. He too is a risk taker (perhaps less calculated than the first personality type), and is often an effective agent of change. Catalysts are socially driven and sensitive to rejection. They're often friendly with support staff, hoping these folks will rally around them in their time of need. At their worst, they may fail to get the job done, having devoted too much energy to gathering political support for their cause.

Managers should:

- Note their sensitive nature. "Give advice which shows that you understand them and have considered how they would respond," Cass says. "If you do, they'll likely act on your advice."

- "If something goes wrong, be prepared to pull them out of the cave," Cass says. "When they feel rebuffed or criticized they tend to get lost, and will need your support to get 'back on the horse.'"

- Give them reassurance when you sit down to set their goal. Goal setting is a powerful leadership tool with catalysts, he says.

- Keep them calm and steady. "They're more prone than others to catastrophic thinking (the sky is falling), and may need extra reassurance," he explains.

- Encourage them to come up with their own solutions to potential problems, Cass says. "Knowing they can do this makes them feel empowered."

3. The Voice Of Reason: This rep is often seen as unflappable. He tends to keep his cool, and go over potential scenarios slowly and methodically. He hates confrontation, and will often spend more time smoothing over relationships than solving problems. "The problem is, under stress, you won't necessarily know what he's truly feeling," Cass says. Holding things in makes him prone to emotional blowups, which can shock a manager, who may have only seen a solid rock—not the molten lava behind it.

-BOMs should:

- Knowing he hates confrontation, make it clear that you depend on his calm demeanor, particularly during a crisis.

- Ask for his input regularly to prevent a build-up of negative feelings.

- "Give him key responsibilities without getting him in over his head," Cass suggests. "Give him tasks that are well-defined, and build on his high level of conscientiousness."

- Praise his achievements. It will build his loyalty.

4. The Contrarian: This advisor goes against trends, and doesn't care much about what others think. But he also does his homework, and has facts to back his argument. Contrarians are typically bright, persistent and often abrasive, Cass says. They're also very loyal to their beliefs.

Managers should:

- Capitalize on their openness to new experiences. They love challenges. They also handle criticism with ease, because, well, they often block it out, Cass says. But, be willing to listen. "Reflect on their criticism; it may be useful to you," he says.

- Avoid pressuring them too much on a single issue, as it will most likely incite an argument. Accept the fact that they're focused on the big picture, and avoid discussions of policy or procedural minutiae unless it's essential.

- Focus on the numbers. "Talk about production, and you'll get them to respond," he says.

5. The Perfectionist: This advisor feels comfortable in his own safe environment—which he has created for himself. He is reliable and systematic. But, if things get out of order, and he feels he's not in control, he may be in trouble. When put in stressful situations, he will rarely ask for help. He's more likely to blame himself—or deny there's a problem at all. The perfectionist does not accept advice easily.

In times of stress, BOMs should:

- Remind him of the big picture so he doesn't lose confidence, particularly when he worries over small things.

- Ask him for regular feedback so his anxiety doesn't build up.

- Let the perfectionist go off into a corner and work. Don't thrust him into the limelight, as it tends to cause him more anxiety.

- Express your confidence that he "has your back" and you will earn his trust.

Regularly acknowledge his successes and positive traits. "Perfectionists thrive on hearing that they did a good job," Cass says.

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