Bullish on culture Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2008
Everything you do as a leader means something to somebody.

It’s one of the favorite sayings of Bob Bowman. As the Philadelphia-based regional managing director of Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc., he is responsible for taking the big-picture initiatives that originate from Merrill Lynch’s corporate headquarters and driving them through all levels of the company in Pennsylvania.

When it comes to building and maintaining a company culture, that means he must take the principles of the corporate culture and make them personal for the company’s1,200 employees in the state. To do that, it takes good communication relayed to good employees.

“It’s all the little things that add up to big things,” Bowman says. “One of the mantras I have is that everything matters. Everything you do means something, be it in a good or a bad way. It’s like in golf, where every shot makes someone happy.”

As the head of the company, you can set the tone for culture from the top, but the momentum that sustains a culture will well up from the bottom of the company. Bowman says that for a culture to survive, it must be carried out by everyone in the organization. The only way to achieve that level of buy-in is to develop leaders who are capable of perpetuating the culture, and then engage them on their level and take an interest in what they do for the company on a daily basis.

“Do you think you can issue an edict to say ‘Have a good culture?’” Bowman says. “Probably not. In the end, it always gets down to the people you hire. We tend to hire people who are emotionally intelligent. We tend to hire people who are caring, people who would want to be a part of a team like this and perform well, who know there is more to life than just coming to work and doing your business.”

An open, collaborative company culture doesn’t just happen. It’s the product of a process, and as such, requires good project management. It’s something Bowman has practiced since becoming a leader at Merrill Lynch nearly 20 years ago and will continue to practice now that the company is part of Bank of America.

Here’s how he does it.


Set the tone

Employees turn a culture from a concept into something tangible, but in order for them to live it, the people at the top need to communicate the vision for the company.

“If you don’t, from the beginning, set the tone by what you say and do, how would you expect anyone else to do the same?” he says.

Bowman begins the process at the beginning of each year by rallying all Merrill Lynch employees under his umbrella around a set of three or four annual goals that are aimed at promoting the company’s overarching objectives of increasing market share and serving all of their clients’ financial planning needs.

Though Bowman oversees the Philadelphia market, he also is the highest-ranking director in Merrill Lynch’s five Pennsylvania markets — which also includes the Philadelphia suburbs, Allentown, Harrisburg and Pittsburgh. Each area has its own director, but the buck stops at Bowman’s desk. When Merrill Lynch’s five Pennsylvania directors meet, Bowman is the main coordinator and the one who gives the ultimate thumbs up or thumbs down on decisions if a consensus can’t be reached — though, Bowman says, consensus is the norm at the senior management level.

“It starts with a vision of the market, then it gets down to working with the folks who run each of the five different markets in the state, find the things to focus on, and then it’s up to me to communicate that to all levels of employees on a very consistent basis,” he says.

“For this year, the four things we’re working on are a huge retirement opportunity that’s out in the market. Another is what we call ‘one firm,’ which is all parts of the firm working together to make sure that we’re focused on the same things and the right things. The third is diversity, and the last thing is taking care of the client. We do this every year, we get together, all five directors in the state, and we pull in all the demographic and business data that we put together, and we figure out where the lever points are for the organization to grow the business.”

From the managerial level, Bowman and the other regional directors in Pennsylvania take the vision and annual goals back to their markets and communicate them to the financial advisers and support staff.

“We divide the responsibility to each of the five leaders in the region, and tell each one that this is your responsibility to drive this throughout the whole state,” he says.

Once the ideas are initially communicated, it’s then a matter of keeping the vision and core values of the company in front of employees so the ideas take root for the long term.

Bowman says that as a leader, you should remember that your people want to be informed. If they feel engaged and involved in the company, they’ll begin internalizing your messages, which will give them the basic foundation for helping to build and perpetuate your cultural principles.

“People want to know,” Bowman says .“They want to work for greater organizations; they want to work around great people. They like to know when people are doing well, they revel in the accomplishments of themselves and others, and at the end of the day, when you’re in a competitive business like this, people want to do better than others but not at the expense of others. They’re all just working to do better.”

Communication also has to be a two-way street, which means avenues for feedback are also necessary. Bowman believes in the often-referenced idea of the open-door policy, but he says that’s not enough. Once you’ve communicated the values and principles you want your employees to embrace and use as guidelines for operating the business, you need to step out of your office frequently, making yourself visible and accessible.

Bowman visits each of Merrill Lynch’s 28 statewide offices twice a year to reinforce the overarching messages and goals of the firm, receive feedback and recognize high performers. When he can’t be there in person, he has regular contact with the managers running the locations to keep his finger on the pulse of the business.

“My door is rarely closed; it’s just not how I work,” he says. “I’m on the road a lot; I see my position as one where I’m hereto communicate both upward and downward to as many people as possible. If there is something happening at the firm, be it strategic or tactical, I need to communicate that in the most effective way possible to everybody else in the state. When I hear things from other people in the state, I know my job in leadership is to make sure everyone at that level knows those things so we can make this a better place to work.”

Grow leaders

Perpetuating a culture doesn’t stop with involving your current employees and managers. Bowman says you also need to lay the groundwork for future leadership by training your best and brightest to take the reins.

At Merrill Lynch — which earned $451 million in revenue last year in the Philadelphia market — leadership candidates need to exhibit an ability to serve others, both inside and outside the organization.

“I want people that are client-focused, that are here to help others do things,” Bowman says. “I want people who know they’re here to help people do more, get better, get to different positions in life, and I want the people who work in all five markets to feel the same way. I want them to have vision, to want to win, to stand for something and have an opinion about things. Every day, they need to be as positive, upbeat and helpful as they can.”

One of Bowman’s primary jobs in laying the foundation for the company’s future is to expose up-and-coming leaders to as many different experiences as possible. He says it’s easy to stay in touch with what’s going on in the company via e-mail, but leadership training should be more hands-on.

“It’s pretty hard to not know what is happening in our markets even if you’re just sitting at your desk and clicking on different computer screens,” he says. “But one of our jobs in leadership is to focus on things that can help our employees broaden their experiences with clients. We try to expose them to new products — and maybe old products that they haven’t thought about.”

By giving the next generation of potential leaders the tools and knowledge to do their jobs, Bowman and his senior managers can see how effectively each employee utilizes the resources handed to him or her. By observing, Bowman finds strengths and areas for improvement and the employee’s willingness to collaborate with others.

When building a team of leaders, both for the present and for the future, your goal should be to leverage the talents of your employees in a way that accentuates their strengths and compensates for areas of weakness.

“Somebody has to be open to being a teammate and has to be open to learn, open to growing the business,” Bowman says. “My job is to identify places where they can get better and to show them what might be a good business practice to get to another level.

“Somebody might be very good at asset allocation strategies for clients, whereas someone else might not be as good or as interested in that. But that person might be very interested in prospecting for 401(k)’s or for short-term cash management for companies. One person goes after the money, goes after that opportunity and brings that in, and the other person will manage the money.”

Once leaders have been identified, groomed and placed in positions where they can help perpetuate the company’s vision and culture moving forward, the next step is to make sure they stay at your company. To do that, you need to continue giving your employees the best available resources.

“The basis of keeping employees is to put a platform in place so they can do their job better here than anywhere else,” Bowman says. “Then you have to have a culture of caring and performance where the leadership firm cares about the folks who work for them. Again, it’s about expecting performance at the end of the day but providing them the venue to grow, being a part of their lives and doing it in a way that you might not find at other businesses in the industry.

“We spend more time at work than we sometimes do with our families, so we try to do as many things as we can to foster that family type of atmosphere.”

HOW TO REACH: Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc., www.ml.com