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John G. Peluso learns by listening at Wells Fargo Advisors Featured

8:01pm EDT July 31, 2011
John G. Peluso learns by listening at Wells Fargo Advisors

John G. Peluso doesn’t mind telling people what to do. It comes with the territory as president and senior managing director at Wells Fargo Advisors Financial Network LLC. But at least once a month, he turns the tables. Peluso gives each person on his management team a chance to sit down and tell him what’s on their mind in a one-on-one conversation with the boss.

“I have no agenda,” Peluso says. “It is my direct reports’ responsibility to bring an agenda to that meeting or to talk about whatever they want to talk about. So much of the dialogue is the leader explaining why we need to do something. It tends to be largely one-way communication. I try to avoid that. Whether it’s through the staff meeting or through these one-on-ones, I want open exchange. I want people to feel they have an opportunity to talk to me about whatever is on their mind, whether it’s business or something else.”

Each of these monthly conversations is different as each person approaches the meeting with a different style.

“It’s not uniform,” Peluso says. “Some are really into the coaching aspect of it and are always trying to get better. Others throughout the month will have a legal pad and they’ll write down issues they want to talk to me about. Some come with a written agenda and some just come prepared to ask questions. I’m very fluid and I’ll let each member decide how they want to run each meeting. It varies with each person, but that’s the idea. It’s their meeting, not my meeting.”

It’s that approach of being a coach as much as a leader and working with his team to develop and implement a solid game plan that has helped Peluso lead the independent financial advisory channel of the $85.2 billion Wells Fargo & Co. He is responsible for guiding the strategy for 900 financial advisers and 476 practices across the United States.

In 2010, the practice grew 15 percent and the number of advisers grew 14 percent.

Peluso gives much of the credit for this growth to the steady flow of communication back and forth with his people.

“At the end of the day, no one can read anybody’s mind,” Peluso says. “In the absence of open, honest and frequent communication and building trust through transparency and accountability, you’re not going to know what that other person is thinking. That will destroy a relationship.”

Here’s a look at how Peluso keeps driving growth by keeping his employees informed of every step the organization takes.

Stay curious

Your business first needs a foundation upon which everything that you and your employees do is built upon. Your employees need to understand what this foundation is composed of and why it is so critical to your success.

“In our industry, being that we’re so highly regulated, supervision and compliance becomes an integral part of that strong foundation,” Peluso says.

Whether your foundation is innovation, execution, policy and procedure, profitability or even something else entirely, your people need to understand how important that one thing is to your business and how it touches everything else in the company.

“You need to really believe that that is the most important thing to your business,” Peluso says. “You need to have a lot of energy around it. You need to be willing to talk about it. You need to be able to articulate very clearly why that activity is in the best interest of your clients, why it’s in the best interest of your employees and why it’s in the best interest of your prospects, the people you’re trying to do business with. It needs to become a fabric of who you are.”

The trick is that unlike the foundation of a house, which barring something cataclysmic will do just fine holding everything up without attention for a long time, the foundation of your business requires almost constant monitoring and tweaking. You need to make sure that you have systems in place to assess how you’re doing in terms of living up to your foundational goals.

“You need to remain curious about it,” Peluso says. “You can’t think you solved it and it’s gone forever. Everything is always changing. You need to maintain this sense of curiosity.”

Talk to your clients and your customers and see how they feel about your performance.

“A lot of times, they’ll tell you things or you’ll be able to infer something from a comment that they make,” Peluso says. “If you’re a good listener and you’re listening to your clients, you’re able to take what you’re hearing from them. If you have this curiosity hat on all the time, you’re able to go back and question why you do things the way you do.”

If you feel like you don’t have time to monitor your foundation or if you believe it doesn’t require your constant attention, you could be in for a hard lesson.

“You better embrace change and be ready to evolve all the time,” Peluso says. “The people that aren’t curious, it’s because they aren’t impacted by change and there isn’t any industry that isn’t changing constantly.”

Peluso says there’s no such thing as maintaining the status quo in the business world.

“You have to be thinking, ‘How do I go up?” Peluso says. “How do I get better? Just by naturally thinking that way, it makes you curious. The opposite of that is you’re complacent. Complacency will just kill you.”

Take the time to think about your foundation and where it needs to be and how it affects your reputation and you’ll do your organization a lot of long-term good.

“Because we’ve built this company on such a strong foundation of risk management and have effective and meaningful controls in place, that has enhanced our reputation both internally and externally in the marketplace,” Peluso says. “That reputation is something we guard and care for regularly.”

Communicate

When you’re at a place where you feel like everyone has a good grasp of what it is your business is supposed to stand for, you need to develop good lines of communication to make sure you’re living up to those standards.

This is where you’ll do yourself a lot of good by stepping off your CEO pedestal and letting your team members talk to you.

“It’s pretty straightforward,” Peluso says of these conversations. “Look, I want to meet with you on a regular basis once a month where I’m not driving the discussion. This is not about the firm’s initiatives or my objectives as a leader to drive the business forward. This is about your role and your responsibilities and you having an opportunity to talk to me. Not only about what’s going on with the ability for you to effectively execute your job and the challenges that you may or may not be facing in the organization but also to just talk to me about anything, whether it’s business or personal.”

Use this time to identify the issues that are on the minds of your direct reports, talk through those issues and develop solutions.

“They are bringing things to me and asking questions and all I’m doing is asking questions back and letting them self-discover,” Peluso says. “It really flips the traditional role of leader to report in that one-hour dedicated meeting. I don’t have the answers. I try to avoid pretending like I have the answers and I try to turn it back around and challenge them. So I end up asking a lot of questions.”

Peluso says the universal theme that seems to run through all his one-on-one discussions is pace.

“Most mistakes that leaders make have to do with pace,” Peluso says. “You’re either going too fast or you’re going too slow. One of the things these coaches meetings do is it allows me to see the pace that these leaders are operating at. Sometimes they are going too fast on an issue and they’re getting ready to jump off the tracks and other times they are probably going too slow.”

The meetings also present an opportunity to deal with mistakes. Your people need to have a forum where they can bring mistakes to your attention without fear of punishment.

Peluso says he approaches mistakes with the idea that the person who made it had the right intention in their action.

“Always assume positive intent,” Peluso says. “Never assume someone is trying to do something evil or that someone is trying to do something that would be contrary to a positive outcome for the business.”

And if you’re going to talk about someone’s mistakes, do it in person. Even if you’re not talking about a mistake, it’s best to avoid lengthy e-mail conversations, but this is especially true when a problem is the topic.

“It’s a lot easier face to face to say, ‘You know what, I think I was wrong. I think I’m going down the wrong path. Which way do you think I should go?’” Peluso says. “E-mail does not lend itself to that type of communication.”

There’s one more thing you can do that can help you build better bonds with your people: Smile.

“I have this one woman who as I walk in, she gets here early and she is always here,” Peluso says. “I call her my smile corner. When I walk in, she always looks up at me with the biggest smile and says, ‘Good morning, John.’ It’s always a great check for me to have that same smile on my face when I see my team members and my reports. It’s amazing what ease and comfort that puts people at when you just smile.”

Keep reaching higher

The final step in Peluso’s plan for building a successful organization is one that he will never actually achieve, but one he must keep reaching toward.

“As a leader, you should always be focused on what you’re doing well,” Peluso says. “If you’re keenly focused on what you do well, you’ll find different ways to do it. There will be new and better ways to do things. The way you would become complacent is to say, ‘We’re doing our best. The results are there, revenue is growing, our clients are happy. We’re doing our best.’ Shift that concept to, ‘Are we the best there is?’ What does it take to be the best there is versus we’re doing our best. That subtle shift in mindset is huge. To be the best there is, there is no end to that. You’re forever seeking that.”

Your people need to always know how well they are doing on the job and what they could be doing better. If they don’t know that, how can they ever get better?

“People need to know how the outcome of their work impacts the result of the business,” Peluso says. “It doesn’t matter how hard I work. Unless everyone who touches things around here every day, unless they understand the impact or the outcome of what they do every day and how it impacts our clients and how it impacts our business, it won’t work.

“They are highly engaged and understand the impact of their work. If that’s the case, they are serving our clients better and they are always looking for new and better ways to do things. Those naturally and organically propel the growth of the business.”

How to reach: Wells Fargo Financial Advisors Network LLC, (866) 485-5383 or www.wfafinet.com

The Peluso File

Born: Richmond, Va.

Education: Bachelor of science degree in economics, College of William & Mary, Williamsburg, Va.; MBA, Virginia Commonwealth University

What was your very first job?

I was a newspaper boy for the Richmond Times Dispatch, in Richmond Va., delivering papers to an apartment complex.

Who has been the most influential person in helping to make you the person and leader you are today?

My older brother, Louis Peluso, who is a VP for PNC Bank in Dayton, Ohio. When I entered the corporate world in 1988, he told me to ‘Show up early, work hard, and go home late. If you do that, you’ll be better than 90 percent of the other people you work with.’

What is the best advice anyone ever gave you?

My mother, LeReve Mallory Peluso — a registered nurse for over 40 years, until she died in 2005. She taught me the value and importance of the Golden Rule. Both professionally and with my family, I believe in being fair, honest, considerate, accountable for my actions and to communicate clearly with all of those who surround me. That’s just how I want others to treat me.

If there was one person, past or present, in the whole world that you could sit down and have a conversation with, who would it be and why that person?

I have been an avid Green Bay Packers fan since I was a little boy. I would want to talk to former Packers quarterback Brett Favre. I would like to understand his perspective on leadership and perseverance that it took to bring such a proud franchise back to the top in 1997 to win the Super Bowl.