Greg Achten creates vision at Merrill Lynch Featured

7:00pm EDT December 26, 2008

Greg Achten thought he knew everything

about Cincinnati. He grew up there, went

to college there and even started his career

there with Merrill Lynch Wealth


But when Achten returned to the city in

February as director of the company’s

Greater Cincinnati complex after spending

18 years away, he realized the market was

quite different than what he thought it was.

“Even though I thought I knew the market, I did spend a lot of time relearning the

market with a different lens just so I didn’t

miss anything,” he says.

Spending that time relearning helped

Achten step into the director’s role with no

preconceptions and ready to tackle any

challenges that lay ahead of him.

One of the first challenges Achten had to

face was creating a vision. Merrill Lynch,

which was recently bought by Bank of

America, has an overall company vision to

“be the essential partner and to go beyond

financial solutions for our clients.” But the

company is large, with 60,000 employees

and offices in 40 countries, and Achten

wanted a vision specific to Cincinnati that

would rally his 180 employees to work

together toward a common goal.

“It’s important to have a vision locally just

so everybody has something they can buy in

to and build toward,” Achten says. “It’s

important for employees to buy in to something and be part of something that’s bigger

than just their day-to-day role, and that’s

what the vision enabled us to do. That drives

the receptionist’s behavior, it drives the

financial behavior, anything interacting with

clients, what we do behind the scenes.”

Achten dove into creating the local vision

to “be the premier solution for financial

services in Cincinnati” by focusing on getting to know the $107 million organization

better, getting feedback from employees

and holding employees accountable for

achieving the vision.

Get to know your people

Achten couldn’t start creating a vision

without any information, so he first needed

to get to know his organization and the

people in it. He did a fast overview of the

company and knew employees were delivering a high level of service to clients, but

he wanted to dig deeper and know more

about the individuals he would be leading.

“People don’t care what you know until

they know you care, so it’s important for

me to come in, get to know the individuals,

what they were trying to accomplish, get to

know their practices and how they interacted with their clients,” Achten says.

He spent most of his first 100 days there

meeting with employees, mainly the 116

financial advisers. He spent between a half-hour to an hour with each employee, sometimes over lunch or dinner, to learn about

him or her personally and professionally.

Achten didn’t set an agenda for the conversations, but he let the employees dictate

the direction.

“I wanted to know about them and their

family and interests, and just what they

were looking to accomplish in life, what

they were looking to accomplish within the

firm and how they interacted with clients,”

he says. “Just everything they were comfortable talking about — it was fairly casual, and I took a lot of notes.”

Listening is one of the keys to making

these conversations successful, so employees know you are actually interested in

what they are sharing. Achten says he did

about 85 percent of the listening and let the

employees do the majority of the talking

during conversations.

“It was through listening that I gained a

true understanding of who the advisers

were as people, what they needed from

their leader in order to provide the premier

client experience and what vision they had

of the Merrill Lynch office,” he says.

To prove he had listened, Achten met

with all employees once he completed the

process to share what he had learned.

“I just shared with them, here’s who we are as people, and I wanted them to understand that I heard exactly what they had

told me — not individual personal things,

but as a group, this is who we are, this is

our business, these are our business metrics — so everybody saw where I was coming from,” he says.

Spending time getting to know your

employees requires a significant commitment. Achten worked many long days to

meet with every employee. But even though

you need to commit time to your employees,

you also need to make time for the other

daily duties and challenges that may arise.

“As much time that I put into getting to

know people, I always blocked enough

time to deal with the crisis situations that

may come up or trying to get information

out ... and continue to get ideas out and not

just bunker in for three months and not be

visible,” he says.

From these conversations, Achten was able

to learn about the quality of the people, both

personally and professionally, and the level of

service they were delivering to clients.

“I felt like, in a fairly short amount of

time, I got a lot of feedback from the organization, and I was able to connect to people

there, so then when we went to phase three

... there was much more buy-in because I

took the time to get to know them upfront,”

he says.

Achten says you need to actively listen to

get to know them better.

“Knowing your employees inside and out

will inevitably make their professional

experience more fulfilling,” he says. “This

professional fulfillment then motivates

advisers to deliver the highest caliber of

client service.”

Get feedback

Once Achten understood his people, he

needed to work on forming the vision.

Getting feedback from employees played a

large role in creating that vision.

“A big part of my leadership style is I’m

inclusive — I want ideas,” he says.

“Ultimately, I’ll make decisions, but we’re better as an organization

when our best people are sharing ideas and we’re getting input

from all parts of the organization.”

Achten formed groups from the four subsets of employees in his

organization — the leadership team, financial advisers, client associates and operations staff — to get direct feedback on the vision.

The boards are voluntary, and Achten asked for board member

nominations from employees. He looked for people with a positive

attitude who had an influence on the company culture — people

who collaborated with others, placed an emphasis on the client

experience and were determined to improve the business.

Before jumping into work, Achten provided a direction for the

groups to head during the meetings. He wanted the discussions to

deal with what the organization could do to make the client and

employee experience better.

“I emphasized the importance of, No. 1, being collaborative and,

No. 2, working within the context of our overall mission,” Achten


He met with these groups quarterly to get feedback on the vision,

and he still meets with them to get the pulse of the organization. He

says these groups are able to help with identifying and solving issues

that might stand in the way of fulfilling the vision.

Employees know who their representatives are and are encouraged to go to them with questions or feedback.

“If they have suggestions on how we could do things better, they

funnel it through that group,” he says.

While feedback was abundant, Achten needed to remember that

it was his responsibility to make the ultimate decision.

“At the end of the day, the decisions are mine, but I make better

decisions as a whole when I get more feedback,” he says. “The

quality of decisions ... it’s crazy not to listen to everybody through

the organization when you’re making decisions. More input is better.”

Getting feedback from your employees, along with taking time to

get to know them, allows you to form the vision together as a team,

which creates more buy-in.

“If you come in and try to instill your vision without any input,

then you’re just not going to get the buy-in,” Achten says. “There

are innovative ideas inside of every organization, and those ideas,

if harvested, will make the client experience better and will ultimately drive revenue. It is hard to get buy-in from employees if

they are not fully heard first.”

Implement the vision

Once Achten had a good sense of his environment and received

feedback, it was time to implement the vision. Because of the time

he spent connecting with employees and seeking their ideas, it was

easy to communicate the vision to them and get buy-in.

“The win we were able to get early on was spending that upfront

time to get to know people and understand where they’re coming

from so when we get back to them and say, ‘Hey, have you looked

at this or tried this,’ they’re much more receptive to new ideas if

they know that you spent the time listening to them,” he says.

While it’s important to communicate the vision, you need to

make sure employees have the necessary tools to achieve it.

Achten provided training, such as wealth management training, to

improve employee skills in areas related to the vision. He says

training needs to be tailored to the individual. By listening to what

employees are interested in, Achten can recommend what training

is best suited for them.

Providing tools is important, but you need to hold employees

accountable for using these to achieve the vision. Every employee

at Merrill Lynch has quantitative goals that are measured by individual and overall office financial productivity and qualitative goals that are measured by client testimonials, business referrals

and the length of time the client has been with the organization.

“At the end of the day, accountability to metrics is important, but

nothing is more important than the accountability our team has to

our clients,” Achten says.

He says holding employees accountable is not just about looking

at the numbers.

“Accountability is threefold — accountability to yourself as a professional, accountability to clients as essential partners, and

accountability to your team and the larger company,” Achten says.

“Find out what motivates your employees, and do your best to tap

that motivation and turn it into strong results for the business and

the client.”

Publishing numbers is a way to hold employees accountable.

Achten publishes positive numbers from the organization’s client

satisfaction index regularly, sometimes weekly through a memo.

The organization also has a bimonthly strategy session to discuss

metrics and celebrate successes.

Celebration can also be with a group or individually. Celebrating

and sharing helps build the team, but you also need to deal with

those unsuccessful numbers.

Achten meets one-on-one with employees who do not meet their

goals to map out a plan to turn them into successes, whether it be

facilitating network opportunities with clients or sponsoring additional training.

After spending so much time developing a vision, it should be

fresh on the mind of employees. But you need to work and keep

that vision front and center so employees do not lose focus.

“If it’s not front and center, then there might be employees who

are less on the front lines and others who lose sight of it,” Achten

says. “For example, if the receptionist isn’t continuously reminded

of the mission of being the premier solution in Cincinnati, she may

let the lobby go and not look at its quality. Every employee needs

to be reminded of what we’re trying to accomplish — and the more

regularly you can do it, the better.”

Developing a vision specific to the organization’s four offices has

helped get employees on the same page. Achten says when developing a vision, especially if you are new to the organization, you

shouldn’t assume anything.

“Until you get there and get in the group and see the numbers,

hear what’s going on, feel the client experience and get in there,

don’t make assumptions,” he says. “I would encourage other leaders who are coming into something that is working but want to

take it to another level, spend some upfront time to get to know

the people.”

HOW TO REACH: Greater Cincinnati Complex for Merrill Lynch Wealth Management, (513) 579-3600 or