Comfort zone Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2007

Dishing out recognition to employees who do well is a picnic compared to supporting someone who is struggling, especially when that employee has always been successful in the past.

Yet Tim Riddle, managing partner and CEO of Chartwell Investment Partners LP, has found that when one of his more than 50 employees is struggling, it may be best to let him ride it out and tell him he’s not alone.

“It’s kind of like being a manager of a baseball team,” he says. “Maybe there is a pitcher out there struggling. He’s been doing everything right, and it looks like things are going to start turning around for him because he is working hard and not doing anything differently than he has before. Sometimes it’s just luck, and you have to stay with him.”

Smart Business spoke with Riddle about how to create an open environment and how to find the right employees for your business.

Q: What can leaders do to make employees feel comfortable coming to them?

It does have to work itself out over time. You can’t send everyone an e-mail. That doesn’t work.

It all adds up. There are lots of pieces to this because that is why you try to have these get-togethers where you see them at the company picnic or have an impromptu softball game after work or you get together and take them out for a cocktail after work.

It’s the one-on-ones and casuals that tend to break down any sort of the sort of old-fashioned — I hate to say this — but I think a lot of this has become old-fashioned protocol, quite frankly, that really in a lot of places, particularly in a small firm like ours, you have to make sure there is less and less of that, and people don’t feel like there are any of these formal lines of communication.

Some of it does have to function in any firm, but you can’t become too wedded to that type of organizational structure because if you do, then all of a sudden communication breaks down and people don’t feel like they can come and just talk to you about an issue.

But, usually there is someone else in the firm, if they can’t approach me, then there is someone they can approach, who will approach me and get the job done. That’s the issue. It’s not like everyone has to because not everyone is going to feel comfortable doing that.

As long as you make sure you get the information and it’s correct, you have the opportunity to, hopefully — if, in fact, it’s something that needs to be corrected — you get in front of it before it becomes a major problem.

Q: How do you know if employees are buying in to change?

You have to talk to them, and individually is probably the best way to get that done. It’s not always me because I realize they may tell me one thing and tell somebody else something else.

You try to let people know they need to be open, and if they got concerns, no one is going to hold anything against them. Oftentimes, from those concerns, you are able to address something that may be a weakness and improve the firm.

Q: How do you know during an interview that a potential employee is being honest?

The best thing you can do, in that case, is have plenty of people, certainly, everyone they are going to be working with, have an opportunity to spend time with them in the interview process.

Something else that is important, that we found anyway, particularly from the standpoint of hiring the investment professional, is to give them, it’s not really an exam, as more as it’s a project. Say you are hiring an analyst. Give them a stock and tell them, ‘What do you think about this?’ A lot of it is, let’s see the way you write, write a summary about this company, but also be able to sit down with us and point out pluses and minuses.

That’s a wonderful way to uncover the way someone thinks. From that, then you get a little bit better idea of how they would fit within the group.

And to try to put them at ease so they are willing to be candid with you in terms of discussing things that have worked well for them at their current job or a previous job. What they liked, what they disliked. The more time you spend with them in the interview process, the easier it’s going to be to get through to them, and hopefully, make them feel comfortable so that they are willing to talk about some of those things.

HOW TO REACH: Chartwell Investment Partners LP, (610) 296-1400 or www.chartwellip.com