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How Jeff Ransdell helped employees overcome fear and adapt to change Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2010
Jeff Ransdell understood where it was coming from, but he was still struck by the fear and uncertainty he saw in those around him. After nearly 100 years of operation, Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc. was no longer independent.

The formal announcement came down Jan. 1, 2009, as the world learned that the well-known wealth management firm had been acquired by Bank of America Corp.

With the global economy seemingly coming apart at the seams, Ransdell recognized that his people, employees and clients alike, might be feeling a little bit woozy about their future.

“We were part of Bank of America and we weren’t sure what we were really going to look like,” says Ransdell, regional managing director in Miami for Merrill Lynch in Florida and the Caribbean. “There were a lot of people that were scared and there was a tremendous amount of uncertainty. When people lack information, they tend to make things up. We wanted to take that out of the equation.”

That wouldn’t be easy as there were a lot of unanswered questions out there. What changes would take place under this new structure? How would jobs be affected? What would it all look like a year from now or even six months from now?

“The low point was the end of the first quarter of 2009 where our clients were very afraid, largely because of what they were reading and what they were hearing, which quite frankly had nothing to do with their individual financial future,” Ransdell says.

Unfortunately, perception had become reality. The combination of the Bank of America deal and the bad economy had created a state of high anxiety.

Ransdell needed to act fast.

“My biggest challenge was to get everywhere I could as quickly as I could,” Ransdell says. “This wasn’t something I could do via the phone. I needed to get out in front of people, hold their hands, sit down in front of them and be a great listener. ‘Tell me what’s on your mind. Tell me what keeps you up at night.’”

But what do you do when you have 67 offices filled with 1,858 employees across Florida and the Caribbean who all have their own questions? All of these people want to see you in front of them answering their questions and easing their fears about what’s going to happen next.

If you’re Jeff Ransdell, you grab your suitcase and hit the road.

Find another voice

Ransdell figured it would take about a month to visit each and every one of the locations in his region.

“That’s hitting the road pretty heavy four days a week for four weeks,” Ransdell says.

So he began planning a road trip. But this trip, rushed though it might be, needed to be more than just a quick 20-minute PowerPoint presentation. That and five minutes of questions was not going to be enough to reassure people.

But Ransdell was pretty sure that’s what people were expecting.

“You never do what people think you are going to do,” Ransdell says. “Typically, what someone might do in a situation like that as a leader is just go out themselves and speak. But when a leader does that, the people in the audience a lot of times are expecting you to say that which you say.”

His first step was to identify a person who could connect with the masses and not just be a mouthpiece to obediently regurgitate everything he was saying.

“I decided to grab one of their peers, someone that they respected that sat in their shoes and in their chair every single day, someone who went through all the challenges of helping our clients through this difficult time,” Ransdell says. “I asked that person to come with me and speak to my people as one of them from their viewpoint of what happened, of where we are, where we’ve been and where we’re going.”

Ransdell chose Barry Rubin, a top financial adviser in the company.

“He was their congressman, for the lack of a better word,” Ransdell says. “It’s the person you know everybody thinks highly of and is a role model. They walk into a room and everybody knows who they are. If you don’t know who that person is in your organization, you need to.”

It didn’t take long for Rubin to give Ransdell cause to believe he picked the right person.

“He said, ‘What you’re telling me is you want me to deliver my perspective as a financial adviser and speak that perspective to other financial advisers,’” Ransdell says.

“He said, ‘That’s fine, but if that’s the case, you cannot have any say in the message I’m going to deliver.’”

That was just what Ransdell was looking for.

“That was kind of risky on my part, but as a leader, I think you have to make strategic bets every now and then,” Ransdell says. “You have to believe in the people you serve. It was a little risky, but it came across as real. It didn’t come across as leadership telling this individual what to say. It came from the heart, from one of them.”

So how do you find the ‘Barry’ in your organization?

“You’re looking for that individual who is well-respected by the majority of people who work with him or her,” Ransdell says. “For whatever reason, they possess that little extra where they want to give back to the organization and help others be as successful as they are. Not everybody possesses that. But there are a few special people out there who do.

“As leaders, we always have to understand who those people are in our organization. Shame on us if we don’t ask them to step up to the plate and take a leadership role from time to time to help the organization. I believe they want to do it and in my opinion, their impact on an organization in times of uncertainty can be more impactful than the senior-most leader in any organization.”

You must get over your need to do it all yourself and instead let your people play a part in helping you.

“Some leaders want to be more in control and they get really concerned about relinquishing too much,” Ransdell says. “My grandfather used to tell me, ‘You never corral a stallion. If you do, you’ll rob them of their spirit.’ I try to surround myself with stallions and let them run. That empowers them. They know I trust them and I think it fosters creativity. I have a belief that the people who are closest to the problem tend to have the solutions.”

Ransdell was confident he had his stallion.

Plan the show

Ransdell and Rubin quickly got to work planning their trip by gathering feedback about the key issues that people were concerned about.

“Knowledge is everything you do before you ever sit down with a client or employee,” Ransdell says. “... I reached out to one of the top financial advisers in the state of Florida, who happens to be a good friend of mine. I knew he would be very critical with me with feedback. I asked him, ‘How are people feeling?’ We put together a whole list of things that were on our financial advisers’ minds, which, in the end, are results of what’s on our clients’ minds.”

It was crucial that the duo had its act together before Ransdell and Rubin started meeting employees. They needed to earn employee respect by showing they were in touch with what was happening.

“When things are very difficult, I think it’s extremely important for leaders to shut down the plant and think,” Ransdell says. “You have to think very strategically and absolutely everything you do must have meaning and be thought through to the smallest ripple effect.

“Leadership is about being in front of people. Leadership has nothing to do with e-mails and it has nothing to do with phone calls. Leadership in times like this requires leaders to work harder than they have ever worked. And I will tell you, I’ve never worked harder.”

Ransdell reached out and contacted the leaders of the offices he would be visiting and explained his plan.

“I told them what I wanted to do and got their buy-in and then we just hit every single office,” Ransdell says. “We didn’t want to disrupt the financial adviser by them coming to us. We came to them.”

Be sincere

You need to show employees that a problem matters to you just as much as it matters to them.

“The most successful leaders are the people who have the ability to connect to the people they serve,” Ransdell says. “The person who can walk into the room and it doesn’t matter if it’s the janitor or the head of that particular market, everybody gets treated like they are special. You’re never more important than the people you serve. You have to remember that you’re here to serve people. If they don’t trust you, you’re never going to get anything done. If they don’t trust you, they don’t like you and they don’t know you, it’s going to be very difficult to move the needle.”

Ransdell and Rubin sought to earn this trust by acknowledging upfront the difficulties that the company was experiencing.

“Barry started off his presentation by going back and reviewing what we had all gone through and what our clients had gone through,” Ransdell says. “It was very emotional. It connected to everybody what we were trying to accomplish. I never gave him any critique or any feedback on things I wanted him to change because it was real. In times when they are really ugly, you have to be real. You have to speak the language and you have to be a human being and that’s what we did.”

After both Ransdell and Rubin had spoken, they opened the floor for questions. While they did as much research as they could, there were some questions they didn’t have answers to.

“We wanted to eliminate the uncertainty so that there was no more make believe and we could get people focused on the opportunity and move past everything that had happened,” Ransdell says.

If a question was raised that Ransdell didn’t have an answer for, he made a note of it and a commitment to respond within 24 hours.

“Not only back to that person, but then e-mail that answer to the entire population of people that were in that room,” Ransdell says.

If it ever seems too easy to get up and give a presentation to your people about an important topic, it could be that you’re not giving all your energy to it.

“If I go to the last office, for me, it’s showtime,” Ransdell says of his office tour. “Those individuals deserve the same energy and passion as the very first office I hit. If I crash in the car after that meeting, it’s OK. But when I’m in front of those ladies and gentlemen, they are going to get the best that Jeff Ransdell has to offer. If I can’t do that, I shouldn’t be in this role.”

Overall, Merrill Lynch as a company took in $23.3 billion in revenue for 2009. In his region, Ransdell said his tour of meeting with employees did exactly what he wanted it to.

“From an attitude perspective, almost immediately. From an, ‘I’m going to get focused’ perspective, almost immediately,” Ransdell says when asked how long it took to see results from his meetings. “When people started feeling good about the new organization, they started sitting down with clients and sharing that story and vision with them. Our business picked up significantly.”

Ransdell gives credit to the message, but he says the delivery is just as important in terms of making it sure your people get it.

“You have to take care of yourself and you have to be physically fit,” Ransdell says. “You have to take the time to recover when it’s time to recover. If you can’t physically do it, you’re not going to have that energy level you need and you’re not going to have that passion you need to get people to see that which they cannot see. That’s our job at the end of the day.”

HOW TO REACH: Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc., (305) 442-1122 or www.ml.com