Reaching out Featured

8:00pm EDT September 25, 2008
Bob Graham has never forgotten David Komansky or Linda Marcelli.

The two leaders were at Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc. when he first arrived at the wealth management, capital market and advisory company, and they helped him get his career straight.

While they both became well-known business leaders, the thing Graham remembers most is the way they helped him in life.

“(Komansky) would see you and he’d come over and say, ‘Hey, Graham, how are you doing?’” he says. “And I always thought, ‘Wow, here’s a guy who went on to be the chairman and he never lost that consistent behavior and demeanor, even though jobs changed and life changed and his wealth had changed. He could still connect with people.’ And it’s something that people should keep in mind; it impacts people more than you realize.”

And so, that became something that Graham kept in mind as he advanced through the ranks at Merrill Lynch, which was recently acquired by Bank of America. Today, as regional managing director for the Illinois-Wisconsin and Northern Indiana region, he constantly thinks about what he can do to have that same motivating impact on his more than 1,000 people to help their careers and to keep good people with the company.

“It’s very important that you find out what makes people tick, what’s their motivation,” he says. “It’s not mandating what I want to do, it’s really participating in supporting what their passion is. If you do that, you come across genuine, sincere and as consistent. You’ll create an environment and a culture where you recognize people and support where they’re coming from, and that environment perpetuates.”

So while Graham may have plenty of conversations about the roughly $71 billion in client assets in his region, he spends even more time working on ways that he can use his culture to motivate people. The process isn’t easy, but his system is fairly basic: He knocks down walls by breaking the ice, gets some help from people who show they are willing to be advocates, and then he makes it a point to be consistent every day.

Break the ice

The first step in getting to know people is finding a simple way to break the ice to show you want to have a conversation. At Merrill Lynch, Graham makes it a point to attend the many community events the firm supports as well as any other after-work program going on.

“When we have recognitions for the client associates, I may host,” he says. “I’ll always be there so that I’m seen. I don’t just come out of an ivory tower, show up, and then disappear.”

And even though he has more than 1,000 employees, Graham does his best to personally welcome every new staff member. Every time his group has 10 new employees, he takes them out to lunch for a casual conversation at a local hamburger place.

“I just want to sit down and talk about them, what they’re expecting, what we expect, how we operate,” he says.

If you’re trying to get to know your people, Graham says that beyond hamburgers and personal appearances, you’ll need to spend a good bit of time focusing on an employee’s big picture to start figuring out what he or she wants.

“My style is, if I sat down with you, the first thing I’m going to ask is, ‘How can I help your business and your personal life? Boom, let’s go from there,’” he says. “And I do include the personal life because I think that’s very, very important.

“If I ask you about you and how I can help you, you’re going to talk. My job, as I view it, is to be a partner to my employees to help develop them personally and professionally to find solutions. And I engage them as partners in that process so they’re not feeling like there’s someone behind the curtain making all the decisions.”

It’s not the endgame, but Graham says that by making the effort to engage employees in nonwork conversations, you’ll make up some ground.

“I’ll be standing in the café downstairs, having a cup of coffee, and they all talk with me,” he says. “It’s not as if they’re like, ‘Oh, we can’t go over there.’ It disarms them in the fact that they can have a conversation. There’s no scripting, there’s no PowerPoint. We talk about things that usually don’t get mentioned on the balance sheet but matter to employees.”

That doesn’t mean you should create a system where employees come to the senior leaders with every little problem. Instead, you draw a line by showing them that senior leadership is willing to talk about their lives and overall career path to empower them while their managers handle the day to day.

“They do have to have an understanding and respect for protocol, they can’t go around their direct supervisor,” he says. “But, you know what, when they have access, they don’t abuse it by any stretch. They feel empowered that they have a relationship with the regional managing director. They can go out into their marketplace and say, ‘I had lunch with Bob Graham.’ I’m not saying that with an ego, by the way, I just think it’s important for people to know that they’re part of an organization that cares and what they say is evaluated and taken seriously.”

Create advocates

OK, so you’ve broken the ice a bit and employees feel comfortable around you. But, if you’re like Graham, you can’t spend all hours of every day chatting with employees. So, while you want to establish that you care about every employee, you have to learn to pick the individuals with whom you spend your extra time.

“You can’t be all things to everybody,” Graham says. “However, you have to recognize there are key people in every location that have key people attached to them.”

Graham says those people tend to show themselves to you. If you take the occasion to spend time with everybody at a location, you can see who is passionate about and accurate with the mission. By mixing that with the knowledge of who your high performers are, you’ll have an idea of the opinion leaders who can help you drive ideas.

“Identifying who they are goes a long way in extending who you are,” he says. “I can’t spend all time with everybody, but I do spend more time with larger producers and certain pockets of people.”

As you identify those people, they can act as your testimonial. At those hamburger lunches that Graham hosts, for example, he often brings a few of those people with him to help break down the barriers with younger employees beyond just that day.

“I usually have people in there that kind of bridge a generation gap,” he says. “I would have a handful of people that have been with me for a year, two years, someone that can give a perspective on that.

“Having testimonial, having other people around and engaging head on that, ‘Hey, I’m taking you out to lunch as a new employee and want to make sure you have the ability to indicate to me issues of concern and ways that we can get better.’ So people know that they can approach me, and if they still don’t, they just have to check with someone who’s been here to find out that it’s OK.”

The more effort you make to improve your relationships with employees, the more of these advocates you’ll have.

“I have a whole cadre of people who are turning 40 and celebrating their 15th anniversary, and I hired them,” he says. “So these are folks that have impact, have loyalty, they’re advocates, and they’re out there validating or diffusing perceptions.”

And the more of those people you get, the easier it is to move the company in a new direction or take on a bigger challenge.

“Everything we do is touching people and having, hopefully, an impact on people,” Graham says. “So they become advocates and not saboteurs. The more advocates you have, the more they can be disciples conveying whatever the message is that we want to permeate and also sustain.”

Be consistent and genuine

The final part to building a culture meant to motivate employees is probably the most tiring: You have to take your own temperature every single day.

If you’re trying to create a culture that emphasizes caring about employees and helping them grow, you can’t be Mr./Ms. Nice Guy/Gal one day and Mr./Ms. Sour Grapes the next.

“People need to have a certain comfort on consistency,” Graham says. “With that consistency, people get a good handle on where you are and who you are”

Therefore, Graham takes the time to think about what kind of things he can say to employees the next time he sees them to help improve relationships.

“You’re always testing your impact, how you’re engaging people,” he says. “I think about people all the time. They may not know it, but I’m thinking about them. And when I do think about people, I’m always thinking about that one thing that, when I see them, I can touch them. And it’s usually not a business thing, it’s a personal thing — something that means something to them and their families. The business conversation is easy, it’s the other things that people need to feel part of a greater environment, that they have a worth.”

That consistency also comes from your ability to handle people ad hoc. Remember, if you’ve been encouraging people to come to you, you better show that you appreciate it when they show up at your door.

“It has to be genuine,” Graham says. “You don’t look up and say, ‘What are you doing?’

“If they think you’re not sincere or you’re an empty suit, the next time you engage they’re going to have less trust or believability in your delivery.”

Treating people with consistency does-n’t cost the company anything, but Graham believes a little bit of empathy goes a long way to motivate people for their willingness to open up and helps them become advocates that will move you forward.

“Sometimes they’re shocked someone in the corner office is going to do that,” he says. “But if you bring it down to a level where they feel comfortable, they become advocates.”

Even in a culture meant to help employees succeed, you’ll have to make tough decisions, but you’ll gain a lot more credibility if you treat people right consistently and follow through on things you say.

“If you do what you say you’re going to do and treat people the way you want to be treated, they will respect you,” he says. “Now, they might not all like you, but they’ll respect you ... and they’ll want to be part of it, and they’ll share that with people.”

In Graham’s group, that policy has kept his number of advocates growing. In his nearly two decades of management in the Chicago area, he’s never had a first or second quintile performer quit. And while the other benefits don’t always pop up on the balance sheet, he says you’ll see how much impact a fulfilled employee can make.

“In order to drive a culture, you have to have the stability of good people,” he says. “[Low] turnover is one benefit, enhanced productivity is another. Getting more employees engaged and involved in things is yet another. They also become recruiters to your culture. So there are a lot of things that you can tangibly capture if you’re attentive. Monetarily, it’s not as easy. But, overall, there are a lot of metrics that you can look at and say, ‘Because of stability, because of consistency, because of respect for the individual, because of engagement, these are byproducts of that.’”

HOW TO REACH: Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc., (312) 869-6200 or www.ml.com