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
“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
“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,”
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
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
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
HOW TO REACH: Greater Cincinnati Complex for Merrill Lynch Wealth Management, (513) 579-3600 or www.ml.com