Hefren-Tillotson Inc stays accountable Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2009

Kim Tillotson Fleming might love her job a little too much.

“I love what I do; I have an absolute commitment to our people,” says the president of wealth management firm Hefren-Tillotson Inc. “That level of commitment that’s required, it can be all-consuming.”

So in order to stay accountable to her 140 employees, Fleming starts by finding a balance in her own life.

“Running a business is a very demanding thing,” she says. “Especially if you love it, it’s hard to separate yourself from it.”

She does that by complementing her work with outside involvements and having plenty of people keep her accountable along the way. As a result, she has earned her employees’ trust and maintained her sanity, all while doubling Hefren-Tillotson’s revenue in the past five years.

Smart Business spoke with Fleming about how to establish accountability and trust with your employees by finding your balance.

Build your employees’ trust. In order to gain the trust and keep your integrity, you have to be honest, you have to be fair, and you have to be consistent in the kind of things you do. [Trust is] certainly not an entitlement; it’s something that’s earned over time by showing the kind of skills they can count on.

In order to earn the trust, you have to set that example every day. Do it through your actions; you do it through your words. If we’re going to say, ‘These are our values,’ then a leader can’t earn their trust unless they follow those values.

You have to be accountable to other people. Make sure you have good people around you, that they can keep you accountable and you keep them accountable. We’re a flat organization in leadership because we count on everyone to take a leadership role in one way or another.

A lot of that comes through the interview process. Look for the way that they’ve approached difficult situations. We really look for people that have a good attitude and people that take personal responsibility for things.

I need people that can come to me and say, ‘Hey Kim, you messed up here,’ and I can know that there are people watching what I do if I’ve made mistakes. Part of being a leader is also having the humility to recognize when you’re wrong and acknowledge it.

Make everyone part of the company. When we worked on our mission, vision and values statement, we involved the whole company. We went through almost a two-year process of developing that based on what employees felt was important. We actually had different groups that gave their views and then we had a final group that wrote it and put it out so people could kick the tires.

A lot of it really goes down to, one person can’t do it all. It’s really instilling a certain culture in the firm. We say, ‘It’s OK to make mistakes. It’s important to learn from them and try not to make them again.’

From the time they come in, we spend a fair amount of time trying to give them the history and the culture and make them feel a part of what things were before they got there and let them know that it’s OK to bring ideas forward.

We really try to use those [values] in what we do every day. Everybody has a copy of them at their desk in a nice frame. That’s one of the first things a new employee will receive.

Keep your balance. Personally, I also have someone — I call him my coach — who’s outside of the firm. He helps keep me accountable. He helps me bounce ideas and thoughts about how to handle different situations and how to create vision and all those things.

It’s very lonely to be a leader if you don’t have someone that you can open up with. I’m involved in a couple different CEO groups, and those are great venues.

For me, having the coach is important. Having strong friendships and people or groups that you interact with outside of work, having your outside interests, will help keep your balance because those people will pull you into things.

Surround yourself with other leaders and learn from them because people have so much to share. You don’t have to learn it all on your own. You just make so much progress if you have the opportunity to interact with other people. If you do that, then most of them would probably have referrals that they could give you of people that could be coaches.

Most people who are in the management role or who would step into the position of CEO, they probably have been out in the community for a while. You have to be proactive, though, in getting out and getting involved in things in the community. I reached out and made phone calls to different organizations to say, ‘How can I get involved?’

It’s through people you know who can introduce you. If it’s not happening because of the kind of activities you’re involved in, then I think you do need to reach out and just ask people, ‘Can you make an introduction? Can you tell me about this organization?’

You really need to find things that you care about. There’s not much value in getting involved in something if you don’t really have an interest in it. I don’t think networking just for the purpose of networking makes sense.

How to reach: Hefren-Tillotson Inc., (888) 405-0990 or www.hefren.com