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How Selden Martin plans for success by always having an eye on the future Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2010

Selden Martin always has a plan. It’s an attribute that has served him well over the past couple of years as he has adapted to the global recession and the big changes at Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc.

It was Jan. 1, 2009, when the world learned that the well-known wealth management firm had been acquired by Bank of America Corp. With the economy already struggling, this was yet another reason to be scared. But Martin’s diligence about planning left him in a strong position to deal with the uncertainty that arose.

“One of the early lessons that evolved for me in leadership was to continue to adapt as a leader,” says Martin, managing director for the St. Louis Metro Complex of Merrill Lynch since 2005.

“I’ve always been a big believer that having a plan is important for any kind of business that you run. A lot of times, business owners are very entrepreneurial or very defined by the specific product or service that they produce. But they don’t have the experience or haven’t had the luxury of being in a position where they build an organization around it.”

In other words, it’s great if you grew up working on cars in the garage with your father and parlayed that knowledge into a chain of auto repair shops, but if you don’t know the mechanics of managing people and following a budget, your ability to fix a busted alternator may not be enough to keep your business going.

“Having a plan is important at any level, and then secondly, communicating that plan is paramount to getting the buy-in and getting the success of the employees in the organization,” Martin says. “That helps specifically all the way through the life cycle of the business.”

More than a year after the acquisition by Bank of America, both Martin and Merrill Lynch have adapted. The overall company registered $23.3 billion in 2009 revenue and Martin did his part to keep things moving with the nine offices and 200 financial advisers he oversees in St. Louis.

Here’s how Martin stays organized and stays in touch with his employees to make sure everyone understands what’s going on.

Know your purpose

It sounds simple enough, but do you know why you’re in business? Have you ever thought about it? If you haven’t, you need to start.

“You’ve got to have identification of a mission statement of what you’re about,” Martin says. “What’s the purpose of your enterprise? What are your goals and objectives for that? Once you identify that, you can decide the approach and strategy of how you want to operate the business, conduct the business and fill in the other parts that help you along the journey.”

You also need to secure resources to invest in your business and start breaking down your financial metrics.

“But all that is much more difficult if you don’t start with being grounded as to what your mission statement is and what you’re about and the broad-based goals and objectives,” Martin says. “If you properly address having a mission statement and having goals and objectives, you’re able to develop a comprehensive longer-term business plan. It’s very much part and parcel to the whole consultative approach we have for wealth management.”

The goal when helping clients with wealth management is determining what the clients want and mapping out a plan for how they can achieve that goal. It works the same way with a business in that you shouldn’t expect that you can do it all yourself.

“You have to have the right kind of mentors and advisers around you,” Martin says. “Advisers can be a board of advisers, they can be key client relationships, they can be key employees in the mix. It can be external partners that fulfill advice competency to your enterprise that you don’t necessarily warehouse within the business enterprise. … The advantage of working with mentors and boards of advisers is to draw upon their experiences in having similar paths of professional experience.”

The effort to be able to clearly state what you do and show what your business is all about and demonstrate planning will pay off in your ability to retain employees.

“The fact that you have it and the fact that you can stand up and communicate it to your employees as it relates to an overall plan for the business and the vision for the business puts you in a much better position to have employees who view your company as being something on an enduring and sustaining basis,” Martin says. “It all ties back. The existence of the plan puts you in a better position to articulate and communicate to your employees and to your clients what your company is about.

“Take a business where there’s X employees and it’s just a job and they show up and they punch in and punch out and it’s a place to collect a check,” Martin says. “They don’t feel like they are part of a bigger thing. They’re not locked into the mission of what they are fulfilling to the client and other possible goods that a company exists for.”

By attaching a purpose to your company and a clear reason for being in existence, you give your employees a foundation to stand upon.

“When companies define themselves much more broadly about an enduring purpose, the clients understand that and the employees are there as more of an avocation as opposed to a job,” Martin says.

Talk to your people

Planning can’t just consist of you issuing directives and strategies about how you want things to be done. You need to get feedback from your people on what they think about what’s going on.

“The first tip we all learn is that it’s a lot easier to get other people talking about themselves,” Martin says. “For a person that is a little bit more uncomfortable doing that, I think going in with a couple of good open-ended questions takes the pressure off. Go to an employee and say, ‘Tell me what’s going on in your life. How have you been? How’s work been going?’

“If you just shut up and listen, it takes a lot of that connectivity pressure and communication pressure off yourself. It puts you in a little bit better position when you are put on the response podium to communicate and deliver back to them. That holds true in the context of a business organization or a social setting.”

You also need to take some time to think about who you’re speaking to, in whatever setting you encounter them.

“Always try to think, ‘OK, who is my audience? What’s important to them today? What is it that they want to hear about?’” Martin says. “There are a lot of things that I think are important on my agenda that I want to get communicated, but if it’s coming off as me-centric or organization-centric, it’s not as relevant to the particular audience I’m talking to. I have to tweak it and figure out how I can accomplish the things that still need to be communicated, but do it in the setting of what’s important to the listening audience.”

Just as you plan for your company’s future and you plan when you have a problem, you need to plan when you’re going to speak to your employees.

“It’s always a helpful exercise to do your prep work about what it is you want to talk about,” Martin says. “Then back up and think, ‘OK, let’s think about the listener. What is it that they want to hear?’”

This is where your ability to stay true to yourself becomes vital. It’s a lot easier to speak with integrity and honesty when you’re talking about something you truly believe in and feel passionately about.

“You’ll come off as knowledgeable as opposed to you’re asked to speak on a topic you know nothing about and you have to go research it and it’s more likely you’ll have to operate off some kind of script because it’s not about something you’re inherently part of,” Martin says. “We try to authenticate the way we communicate. We try to use relative examples that the listening audience can relate to and put it into concepts they can relate to.”

If it seems like you’re having a problem getting employees to believe what you’re telling them when you speak to them in a group setting, maybe it’s because you don’t talk to them on a regular basis.

“You have a plan, you communicate it to your troops, you revisit that on a periodic basis,” Martin says. “That keeps you in the habit of doing it. If you never do it and then you wake up one day and say, ‘I’ve never sat up here as a business leader and communicated what we’re about,’ it’s going to be a pretty awkward presentation. Everybody is going to go, ‘Why is he doing this? We never do this.’ And you’ll be rusty at doing it. Like a lot of things, practice and frequency make you better at doing it.”

Take notes

Some people carry a micro-recorder with them or on their phone that they use to keep track of things, but for Martin, he just takes notes with a pen.

“I keep a little pocket sleeve on the inside part of my jacket and a pen,” he says. “The first thing I did this morning was I went down the hallway to meet with one of our top advisers who was out meeting with a significant corporate relationship yesterday. I wanted to know how the meeting went because I knew it was an important meeting.”

When Martin left the meeting, he jotted down a few notes that he deemed important.

“There was every potential it could be another hour before I got back to my office because I might get stopped along the hallway talking to other people,” Martin says. “I record things and I try to keep a daily log in a side drawer where I sit at my desk. I’ve tried to capture things in the course of a day. It could be thematic things that I’m starting to see systemic repetition of. It could be anecdotal pieces of information. It could be a good idea I want to share across the broader population of the employees. It could be a people issue that we need to address. Whatever it is, I keep a master list.”

No one questions the value of face-to-face communication, but it’s not as easy to keep a record of what’s being said when it’s not in an e-mail, text message or voice mail. So as your company gets larger, you need to find a way to keep track of what you hear so that you can process it and possibly incorporate it into your organization.

“Then at the end of each week or before I leave on Friday or even when I come in once on the weekend, it’s easy for me to get over and plan my week ahead,” he says. “By the time you’re running a $300 million or $400 million business with 300 or 400 employees, you’re going to have a lot more issues come up than something on a smaller scale. At some level, you can keep track of it in your head, but at some other point, you’ve got to move beyond that.”

How to reach: Merrill Lynch & Co Inc., (800) 637-7455 or http://www.totalmerrill.com/