“We’re not dating here,” Cassel says. “We’re doing business. Ultimately, the hard decisions have to be made. People walking out of the room shouldn’t take it personally. Now it’s easy to say and hard to do in many cases. It gets back to an individual’s personality.”
Cassel is managing director, vice chairman and head of investment banking at Ladenburg. He joined the financial services firm in 2006 when Ladenburg bought Capitalink LC, a company founded by Cassel.
But the challenge he faces now as a senior leader at Ladenburg is very similar to what he faced running Capitalink.
“It’s no different than the people who work under me versus the people who I work under,” Cassel says. “You make that decision as part of an organization, and once the collective decision has been made, you have a job to carry it out. That’s what an organization is all about. In that internal meeting behind a closed door, you can argue vehemently, and I do on occasion. But once that door is open, it’s my job to carry it out.”
Effective leadership is attained when you are able to convey the issue at hand, gather input from your people and make a decision that everyone can not only live with but support, as well. Here’s how Cassel did so and helped Ladenburg grow its revenue from $96 million in 2007 to $121 million in 2008.
Connect to your people
It’s not always easy being the leader. People are constantly looking at you, waiting for you to solve their problems or waiting for you to tell them what to do next. At least that’s the way it is in a company where the leader hasn’t established a good relationship with his or her people.
Effective leaders are able to build strong lines of communication that allow them to place issues on the table, generate discussion and make informed decisions.
“It’s having an understanding, having a plan and then carrying it forward,” Cassel says. “It’s not that difficult to manage through when you’re listening and communicating.”
There are a lot more people across the firm to hear from and communicate to these days.
Ladenburg acquired Investacorp Inc. in Miami Lakes in late 2007 and Triad Advisors Inc. in Norcross, Ga., in August 2008. This gives Ladenburg a total of nearly 1,200 individuals who work in some capacity for the organization, though many of these people operate as independent broker-dealers.
But large or small, the goal is still the same. You need to find a way to connect with your people. Cassel says you only need to look in the mirror to figure out where to get started in that effort.
“My father told me there was a reason I have two ears and one mouth,” Cassel says. “That is to listen twice as much as I talk. For someone who is a type-A personality, that’s a very important piece of advice.”
It’s why Cassel makes an effort to regularly gather his key people together to discuss issues that face the business.
“We collaborate and see if there is a consensus decision and then we carry it out,” Cassel says. “At Ladenburg, there are constantly issues and philosophies that, to a certain extent, are different from my personal view or how I might do it if I was still on my own. But it’s taking into account what is a different and larger organization with, in some cases, different priorities from a financial and business standpoint.”
In some ways, the transition that Cassel has gone through moving from Capitalink to Ladenburg has opened his eyes to some of the things that employees think about when their leader is speaking to them.
“You can almost look at it from a military standpoint,” Cassel says. “The commander-in-chief makes the ultimate decisions, but as you go down the line, people need to be empowered. They need to understand what the policy is. Then they can help come up with the best way.”
Being better at conveying what you need or want to your people comes down to your own ability to know what you want.
“I think I’ve developed my style and part of your style depends on your personality,” Cassel says. “There are some people who are low-key and laid-back. And there are others who lead with a charge. Everybody is a little different, but it doesn’t just come out of a book. It isn’t one-size-fits-all. If it was, everybody coming out of GE would have wanted to be just like Jack Welch, who they all perceived to be a great leader.”
In addition to thinking before you speak, take the time after a meeting or a presentation to reflect on what you just said.
“You always try to do better,” Cassel says. “When we make decisions or carry something out, I always try to take a step back and say, ‘What could I have done to make that more effective or better?’ I obviously do it daily. I get some quiet time in the car. I don’t make return phone calls right away. You always want some time to take a step back to sort of think about what you’re doing and plan. You need some of that quiet time every now and then.”
Put it on the table
So what do you do when an important issue is on the table and nobody wants to talk about it? You usually don’t need years of business training to solve this problem. Just tell them to speak up.
“There are certain people who just don’t want to say much at meetings,” Cassel says. “Those people, you need to specifically ask them, because they will answer. Sometimes you need to take them offline, not in front of the group, and say, ‘In order to make this effective, you need to open your mouth.’ You learn each person’s management style or learning style and you try to take advantage of it and put them in the right place.”
Just as an effective meeting can energize employees to get things done, a bad meeting can leave them scrambling to figure out what to do next. You have a lot to say about which direction the meeting goes.
“You want to set the agenda and set the tone,” Cassel says. “There are times when absolutely I speak first and there are times when I put something on the table and don’t speak first. Part of that is just something you develop over time. I don’t know if I can say there is any magic to it. It really depends on the meeting.”
At this stage, it’s about establishing a framework for the meeting that allows free-flowing discussion, within the parameters of the topic at hand. Ultimately, it could come down to you to step up and make a decision, but for now, you want opinions to be voiced.
Those people who are reluctant to speak need to see your words of encouragement backed up by action.
“You have to let them give their opinion,” Cassel says. “You let everybody hear it and you discuss it. You have to hear them out. You can’t be patronizing. Hear them out and have that debate.”
In order to keep some control on the meeting, make sure you set a time limit for when you want it to wrap up. And work to ensure things aren’t being repeated over and over again.
“Have a finite amount of time that you’re going to allot to the meeting to let everybody give their inpu
t so you have all the facts on the table,” Cassel says. “When you get all those facts, let people know that it’s not necessary to constantly reiterate. One of the things that you see in meetings is one person says something and the next four people repeat it. That’s not necessary. You can just say, ‘I agree with so-and-so. That’s enough.’
“I think it’s keeping on point and making sure when people go off on a tangent, try to bring it back. Sometimes issues come up at a meeting with multiple people that are really not germane to the whole group. Table that issue, put it to the side and deal with it one on one so you don’t expend everybody’s time on it.”
Make it clear through constant reminders that you want people to bring to your attention concerns they might have about the direction being considered or the way things are being done.
“If they have a problem with me, they know they can come in my office,” Cassel says. “They know they can close the door and say anything they want. I may get upset, but generally, the next day, I’m over it and on to the next thing. People who keep a list or hold a grudge are a problem on both sides of that management style.”
Make a decision
Cassel is not one to make rash decisions, a trait that his team likes to remind him of from time to time.
“Sometimes they joke with me here when I tell people I want to sleep on a decision because I want to spend the night thinking about it, and then the next morning, make a decision,” Cassel says. “It’s very important to make a decision because no decision is, in fact, a decision.”
Cassel says he recognizes the importance of making a decision and uses the extra time to be in the best position to do so. Ideally, the burden of deciding which way to turn does not rest entirely on your shoulders but is the product of a comprehensive review with your people.
“I think the key is having the right people working with you and empowering them, not micromanaging them,” Cassel says. “You hope they are honest with you. There is only so much you can do.”
Make sure you work out the conflict and disputes in the meeting room because once a decision is made and the doors open, you need to remember you’re on the same team.
“Part of it is discussions with those who you have to communicate with to make sure the decisions you are making are consistent with the overall strategy and plan,” Cassel says. “Part of it is being empowered to make those decisions. And then to have the benefit of success, or if it’s not successful, to suffer the consequences or to take responsibility.”
Taking responsibility when a mistake is made is crucial to earning the loyalty of your people.
“If it turns out that you find out relatively quickly that your decision is wrong, it’s OK to change it,” Cassel says. “I think many people make a decision and realize it’s wrong fairly quickly, but they don’t change it. Once you realize your decision is wrong, there is no benefit to continuing down that path. It’s actually a real negative.
“If there is some advice I can give to people, it’s that it’s OK to be wrong, but it’s not OK to be wrong and not do something about it just because you made a decision. We’re all human.”
How to reach: Ladenburg Thalmann Financial Services Inc., (305) 572-4100 or www.ladenburg.com