First things first Featured

8:00pm EDT September 25, 2009

Terry Jenkins is tired of hearing about the economy, too.

Maybe the worst is behind us, maybe it isn’t, but Jenkins is in the banking business, so you better believe it’s something he gets asked about regularly.

But the fact of the matter is, Jenkins, the president and CEO of Harris Private Bank, has more than survived the downturn now synonymous with his industry. In fact, things are pretty good at HPB, which is a member of BMO Financial Group, the behemoth diversified financial services provider with more than $348 billion in assets. As the unit that delivers wealth services to high-net-worth families, HPB has taken advantage through diverse business functions like Harris myCFO Inc., a one-stop resource for multiple financial needs. But keeping things up in a down market means keeping employees on task and away from the front page of the few newspapers left in Chicagoland.

“The challenge right now that is always there but far more prevalent today is managing competing priorities,” Jenkins says. “But managing fewer priorities falls back to keeping our people engaged and working with their clients on a day-to-day basis and just keeping them away from the short-term market noise.”

So Jenkins’ goal has been to keep his roughly 600 people on task so they don’t worry about the short-term bumps in a long-term plan.

“You have to try to get people to look above the dashboard and to the longer-term horizon, both with their clients and with themselves, so that they’re not wrapped up in the daily, hourly gyrations of the markets and the headlines,” he says.

At HPB, Jenkins has prioritized, and on the top of his list are aligning his people around stronger team-based planning, focusing on talent for the long term and celebrating wins that would go otherwise unnoticed in the onslaught of negative stories.

Align around a priority

To Jenkins, the top priority in rough seas is to get people aligned as a team with the direction you’re pursuing. At HPB, Jenkins and his senior leadership team wanted employees to better serve clients through a more full, team-based financial planning focus.

“From a leadership perspective, you need to do a couple of things — call it alignment,” he says. “It has to start from my chair and the message that we send out with the strategy of the business and our strategy is to serve our clients as a team and go to them with an integrated plan based on a team of professionals.”

In any economy, building alignment starts with you.

“It’s really interesting how your employees and your team will take the lead from how your management team works together,” Jenkins says. “If they see us working together … it starts with that senior team, and do the words and the music go together, do they see us doing what it is we say we should be doing as a business?”

To follow that up, you need to begin to put your money where you’re alignment is.

“It’s got to be part of their role mandate, what the organization asks them to do, it’s got to be part of their compensation plan,” Jenkins says. “If you pay people for things different than what you’re asking them to do in the strategy, guess what, it isn’t going to work. So you line up the strategy in the business, you line up the mandate that you ask of them, you line up how you pay them based on team-based compensation. If any one of those breaks down, you start to struggle.”

Doing that means putting in systems like merit raises on team performance. As you’re implementing, you need to make an effort to show people you’re attacking a down market.

“The way to keep your employees is they need to feel a part of something, they need to feel that they are with a firm or a wealth management business that is moving forward and going somewhere,” Jenkins says.

So as you go forward, bring in people who know what’s going on. Explain overarching team strategies with the why, as in, “Here is why we’re doing this right now.”

“If your professional teams and your employees don’t understand the why, then there’s the risk they may not understand what it is they’re attempting to do, whereas if they understand the why and the what’s in it for them or what’s in it for their clients, my view is you get significantly better engagement,” Jenkins says.

As you do that, work employees into the strategy. If you’re in a service business, have them get feedback on what’s keeping customers/clients up at night and get managers to report common themes. At HPB, for example, baby boomer clients were constantly expressing concern over being part of the Sandwich Generation — people taking care of both their children and their elderly parents. HPB came up with a program that used multiple professionals to coordinate the mature family member’s finances easily.

Keep track of top talent

Another priority you have to keep on the top of your watch list is talent.

It could be easy to worry about all the short-term things popping up, but at HPB, Jenkins gladly moves watching outside talent to the top of his priority list.

“We don’t just look for people when we need people, we are in the advisory business, so we’re always looking for top talent, good people,” he says. “When you have that in your DNA or your culture, we very often will interview or get to know people even if we don’t have a spot and, over time you build up a really strong network and you become what I’ll call an employer of choice.”

Whether or not you need someone right now, you will soon, so you’d better keep your senior leaders focused on people.

“As a senior leader, you have to walk the talk in terms of interviewing people and regularly meeting people,” he says. “We’ll have four, five, even six people on my senior team meet them. Even if we don’t have a spot, we will have them. It’s nothing for my head of investment to give me a call and say, ‘Hey, Terry, I just met this great lady; I want you to meet her’ and you know what, it goes to the top of my priority list and we’ll take 30 minutes or an hour to make sure we meet that person.”

Taking that time now is one of those long-term investments that can’t get lost in the short term.

“What a lot of people don’t realize is when you’re hiring really good people, there are two decisions that are made,” Jenkins says. “One is, are they right for us, which is why we have them meet a lot of people. But it’s also, are we right for them, and you need to get that connection done and you need to build those bridges long before they are on the job, otherwise you get three to six months on the job and they don’t stay.”

That means demanding that time of people upfront can prevent later problems.

“It’s an expectation of your managers and your leaders that they survey the best talent and when you have talent in the marketplace, you bring them in and you continually fill the bullpen. Our client retention is superb even through these difficult times because we’ve built our culture around that, and the best time to do that with new people is before they are on the job.”

Prioritizing talent is a two-pronged job: You also have to keep a strong eye on your current people.

“You need a robust talent management process, so you need to be very good at identifying talent within your organization a

nd developing them,” he says.

You may not have promotions available in tough times, but you can make notes for your next upswing.

“We identify what we would call top talent or those that we believe can go on to bigger and better things in the organization,” he says.

What’s important is to have leaders be talent scouts of the entire company. Have them work with other departments and share notes.

“We’ll make sure that my senior team members have the opportunity to meet other professionals in other parts of our business,” Jenkins says. “So, for example, if my head of trust is going into a marketplace, she’ll make a point of working with the investment people and the bankers and really understanding where the talent is across the business, and we identify those people for her, and it’s part of her job to get to know those people.”

Celebrate good times

Along the way, one priority that can’t get lost is honoring the good your people are doing.

“Don’t forget to celebrate success,” Jenkins says. “Our business has been having some great success on the sales and growth side, and it’s easy, with all the noise in the marketplace and people’s stress, to forget about that. We always make time to celebrate success wherever possible.”

Here’s a case in point from HPB: The company took advantage of some opportunities in the first quarter of this year and had some successes where business was up more than 25 percent. Jenkins used an already scheduled quarterly town-hall meeting for three primary agenda items.

“One is having one of our offices come up and talk about the success they had in the first quarter because they literally blew the doors off of their goals,” he says. “So the managing director is going to come up and talk about it, then one of their colleagues is going to come up and do some presentations for some exceptional achievement. Then, we have some tenure awards, some 10-year anniversaries for the group.”

First, traditional tenure things that are always done can’t be cut at the risk of hurting morale. Second, you have to take the opportunity to shine a spotlight on great behaviors — like if people are showing the alignment you want.

“So it’s just kind of sending the message subtly and not so subtly that we’re having some great success in this environment,” Jenkins says. “We’re doing some good things and I want to hear from the people who are doing it and what it is they are doing to be so successful.”

Even if you think temporarily suspending celebration awards can save you some money, Jenkins warns against it.

“Your professionals are in front of clients every day,” he says. “Think of the conversations they need to be having with clients now and the depth of the planning because of the marketplace. What you need to do as a leader is you need to remember your professionals, in many cases, are struggling with exactly the same things.”

If you can keep your company filled with top talent that is aligned to your plan and believes in the organization, downturns could very potentially become an opportune time.

“This is also a time to build a business and a time to be, I don’t know if assertive is the right word, but certainly not to be timid,” Jenkins says. “Good organizations with good leadership and good professionals can do some good things with clients now, and the clients are frustrated and worried, and an organization that focuses on the right things can make some gains — call it being opportunistic or however you look at it.”

How to reach: Harris Private Bank, (312) 461-7335 or