Bob Johnson values Merrill Lynch employees Featured

8:00pm EDT April 6, 2010

As a financial adviser, Bob Johnson learned that caring for clients could make the difference between keeping or losing them. Now, as managing director of Merrill Lynch Wealth Management, he sees how the same thing works for employees.

“You have to treat your employees just like your clients. You can’t take them for granted,” says Johnson, who manages 179 employees and $14 billion in assets at Houston’s downtown complex. “There’s a lot of movement within our industry. It’s my goal to minimize that, and the way to do that is to be responsive to employees.”

Even the way you organize meetings can make employees feel valued. Telling them what to expect shows you respect their time.

“It’s all the little things that matter,” Johnson says. “When you tell them how long it’s going to be, who are going to be the speakers, what the topics are and when you’re going to be out, that shows them that you’re thinking about them and not yourself.”

To set the pace of those meetings, Johnson follows the advice of an old boss who told him to start each meeting with recognition.

“What separates average leaders from great leaders is promoting that and publishing it, shining the light on others,” he says. “So much recognition that people want has nothing to do with financial incentives.”

You also may want open communication in the meeting, but you actually have to initiate it, because some people will be intimidated.

“You have to take the lead,” Johnson says. “I think it’s my responsibility, not theirs.”

To get employees accustomed to opening up in meetings, Johnson gathers small groups of four to eight employees in his conference room. He invites a variety, from the highest-producing financial advisers to the newest employees, and makes sure some outspoken ones are in the mix. He introduces the issue and relies on willing ones to get the ball rolling.

“When you’re in a smaller group, that tends to foster people’s willingness to communicate. Once they see one or two people [talk] and that it was OK, then the others feel more comfortable,” Johnson says. “It doesn’t happen overnight, but after four to six months of consistently doing it, they see that you really do care about their opinions.

“You have to make it about other people. You’re in the wrong profession if you make it about yourself. It’s a job requirement, kind of like you need to have good eyesight to be a pilot. You need to be tall to be a center in the NBA. You need to care about other people more than yourself to be a competent leader.”

How to reach: Merrill Lynch Wealth Management, (713) 658-1200 or http://www.ml.com/

Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc. is wholly owned by Bank of America Corp.

Barron’s named more financial advisers from Merrill Lynch to its 2010 list of 1,000 Top Advisors than any other firm — 317 to be exact. Merrill Lynch also had the most No. 1 advisers in each state. Six advisers from Bob Johnson’s complex made the list.