Phillip Cox improves goals at Cox Financial Corp Featured

7:00pm EDT November 25, 2009

Phillip R. Cox is so insatiable when it comes to achieving goals, it makes his employees hungry to achieve more, too.

The president and CEO of Cox Financial Corp. has an unshakable desire to improve. He sets goals that constantly push his limits.

“Don’t get too comfortable with what you’ve already done,” he says. “With satisfaction comes complacency. We’re testing ourselves by setting goals to improve what we’re already doing.”

Besides stretching himself to grow in his role at the financial planning firm, Cox also has opportunities for improvement on several boards. He serves as chairman of the board for Cincinnati Bell Inc. and as a director for Duke Energy Inc., Diebold Inc., The Timken Co., Touchstone Mutual Funds and The Long-Stanton Group.

“I’m surrounded by the sense of accountability and the fact that continuous improvement is necessary,” he says. “It almost becomes a way of life.”

Cox’s multiple efforts to improve himself and his company inspire his employees to do the same. In 2008, they earned combined commission around $110 million.

Still, he keeps pushing them to do even better, keeping them accountable with multiple checkpoints.

“The person who says, ‘I don’t need improvement; I’m already there,’ is going to end up losing,” he says. “We’re not losers. We have to acknowledge that we can do better, that we want to.”

Let employees set goals

The drive to improve a company starts with employees. So Cox’s first step is helping them set challenging, relevant goals.

Instead of jumping straight to how they’ll benefit the company, the goal-setting process must start with the employees. First, ask what they want in their personal lives. Cox even examines their motivators further by having them rate certain achievements, such as prestige, money, power, self-esteem and helping others.

If goals originate from those personal priorities and then spiral outward, commitment is automatic.

“I can’t make the goals for them or they’re artificial,” Cox says. “It starts with what they have said is important to them and questions, more importantly, why is it important?”

Only after you understand the why can you ask how they’ll meet their goals and begin tying personal aspirations to performance targets. For example, an employee might say money is important and he would like to earn $150,000 this year. First, try to uncover why that’s important and why he is setting the goal there. If you know he wants to buy a new house, for example, you can motivate him with reminders of that aspiration.

Next, you address how employees can reach that goal through their job, again posing the question to them first. They’ve already bought in to the end goal because they initiated it. Now it’s just a matter of agreeing on the path they’ll take to achieve it.

Cox takes a chain-link approach by asking employees to specify each step of the way, down to the number of calls they must make, the number of appointments they should set up from those calls, the number of sales they need to land at those appointments and the average amount they will receive from each sale.

When goals are broken down into such specific steps, you will have built-in checkpoints for the future. It will be easier to pinpoint where employees fall off track. If they’re making enough calls and setting enough appointments but still falling short, for example, you know to provide additional sales training.

When you work backward from their ultimate aspiration, they will see how those steps are necessary. If instead you handed them a list of tasks to achieve, that connection might get lost.

“People have to see that the best way for them to manifest their personal goals is for the organization to manifest it,” Cox says. “You’ve got to [say,] ‘This is what you want for your life. Now here’s the vehicle with which to do it.’”

Your job is to keep that vehicle pointed in the right direction: forward. You should provide the push employees need to set challenging goals by reminding them to consider what they want.

“They try to do the thing that’s more palatable to them as opposed to the thing that will get the job done,” Cox says. “That is where the candor comes in. It always comes back to, ‘This is what you said you wanted. Are you willing to pay the price to do that?’”

Surround employees with accountability

Once you shake hands on an agreed goal, you’ve also sealed the accountability partnership. Surround employees with checkpoints and motivation to keep them tracking forward.

Cox’s board experience paints a picture of what accountability looks like in the strictest form, serving as an extreme example for his employees. Each quarter, they see his public accountability in action through the reports he must file and the analysts he must answer to.

“It’s too bad we don’t all live our lives like that, where every quarter the whole world has its spotlight on you,” he says. “It says, ‘You said you would do this. You didn’t. Why didn’t you do that? What are you going to do about it?’”

Even though Cox Financial is a private company, Cox doesn’t let his employees off the hook so easily. Besides encouraging them to enlist co-workers and family members as their personal accountability partners, he holds them publicly accountable — at least in the office. He posts everyone’s results for comparison, which often triggers self-correction.

“People are motivated by discomfort,” he says. “They have to be uncomfortable enough about where they are to want to make a change.”

Cox feels that same pressure on his boards as he constantly measures himself against other leaders who are going after similar goals for their companies.

“You watch how other very talented, smart people — often with greater resources — fumble and fail. That buoys me to say, ‘Jeez, we are doing some things right,’” he says. “You also watch them succeed and you learn from what they do.”

He wants to create a similar environment where his employees can be motivated by and learn from each other. To build that, you have to do more than simply promote accountability. You must also empower employees to take their progress into their own hands.

All you have to do is remind employees that they set the goal in the first place because they wanted it.

“People have to motivate themselves,” Cox says. “I can only be the reminder of that motivation and the reminder of the accountability for them living up to what they said they were going to do. That’s where the motivation takes place: ‘Are you really committed to what you said you’re going to do? Are you a man or woman of your word?’”

Help employees reach goals

Although employees are responsible for setting and meeting their own goals, your support can make a big difference. You’ll help them more by setting an example and offering subtle pointers than by dragging them in the direction you want them to go.

If they’re falling off track, the solution must start with them — as in every other step of the employee-centered process.

“You ask them first because they’re the responsible

party,” Cox says. “Trying to solve problems of other people is the wrong way. Before you say, ‘Let me help you do this,’ you’ve got to see what they’re willing to do to help themselves.”

First, remind employees that they said their goal was important for a reason. Ask if that really is still important or if it needs to be modified. Also investigate whether something else is going on to keep them from achieving it.

You should be more like a guide than a dictator. So even if you’ve observed their inadequacies, you’ve got to give them the first shot at improving their performance.

“You can observe all you want and tell people what’s wrong, but until they believe and buy in, you’re going to have a difficult time changing them,” Cox says.

Realize that it’s often hard for people to admit weaknesses, so it may take some coaxing. That’s where your example can set the pace.

“The first way to improve is to acknowledge that we need improvement,” Cox says. “I will always say I need improvement in several areas and I’m working on it so they will get a sense that … it’s OK to seek and need and want help. But you can’t say, ‘I’m not good,’ and just leave it there. You get better at it.”

To show your support for the second half of the equation, you can walk the path toward improvement alongside them.

“You do the same things you ask them to do in training,” Cox says.

And he does.

During cold call training, for example, he’ll grab a telephone and a list of unfamiliar names and start dialing. Not only will employees learn from your approach, but the simple fact that you refuse to watch from the sidelines will both encourage them and gain their respect.

“I make it clear [that] I don’t like this. Particularly at this stage in my career when I don’t have to do it, it’s even more difficult,” Cox says. “But I’m going to give what I command so that I can command what I will.”

Tie it all together

Each employee’s progress toward a goal should fuel the company’s overall improvement. Although that usually happens naturally, you have to keep the relationship in check.

Obviously, an employee’s financial goals will directly affect the company’s cash flow, making a connection between the individual and the team clear. But even abstract goals, like improving communication skills, tie into the overall company’s growth.

“You can’t not improve the team when you improve yourself,” Cox says.

For example, a baseball player will hone his batting skills independently with additional practice. But when he hits a home run at a game, the reward isn’t solely his own. Because he’s part of a team, his improvement is inherently a contribution to the other players.

“Even in being self-serving, if you serve yourself well, you will serve the organization of which you’re a part,” Cox says. “Motivation has to contain a certain amount of self-interest.”

That’s why goal setting shouldn’t start with a heavy-handed fiat of what’s best for the company. It’s easier to start with each employee’s internal motivators than to force yours on all of your employees. Their internal drivers will propel them further and faster than your mandate — and will automatically reap broader benefits, as well.

But you do have a problem if someone’s self-interest becomes paramount. For Cox’s domino effect philosophy to be true, others have to actually benefit. Personal motives become cancerous if — instead of serving as an example and encouraging co-workers to improve — employees boast about their achievements and demean others.

Cox keeps an eye on this by simply walking around the office and watching employees interact. You know there’s a broken link when other employees shy away from the top performers instead of asking them for advice.

If you give employees recognition that’s relevant to them, they’ll be less likely to demand it from others egotistically. That may range from a simple thank you to a night on the town. Cox personalizes recognition by pulling from the priorities each employee built their goals on in the first place.

“Everybody should be treated individually and in a special way,” he says. “It’s about really reading that person at the first discussion when you say, ‘What motivates you most?’”

By setting an example in your own search for improvement and building several layers of accountability, you create an environment where employees feel compelled to challenge themselves. When each employee strives to improve — even when their goals start with personal motives — the whole company will benefit.

“It’s like Lily Tomlin says: We’re all in this together alone,” Cox says. “At the end of the day, each of us are responsible for ourselves. And when we do that … all of us are the better for it.”

How to reach: Cox Financial Corp., (800) 481-0996 or