Talk of the town

Engage employees first

When Palmer first took over SouthFlorida, she wanted to make a splash.

“I instantly got out and did big presentations so everyone could get to know me,”she says. “And I made that a very sort ofpersonal presentation, more casual thanformal and just told them about who I was,what I was and what things were importantto me — told them a little bit about mybackground and my husband and thenwhat my vision was.”

Regardless of what you’re doing — introducing yourself as a new leader or makinga companywide change — Palmer’s blueprint is all about starting off big and thencircling back for more personalized visits.About six weeks after Palmer started in hernew role, she began getting out to individual offices and spending two to three hourswith the directors of all 25 of her officesand then, throughout the next few months,she drilled down to have some sort of communication with each employee.

“Begin by standing up and telling themwhat you want,” she says. “‘Here’s myvision, here’s what I think we can all dotogether, and here’s how I’d like to do it.’And then show every day in your actionsthat, that is what you’re trying to achieve.And then reinforce it with little things,whether it be getting everybody together togo bowling — a great social levelerbecause no one can bowl very well — orplaying softball.”

The idea is all about finding a way toengage people in knowing who you are andconnecting your vision to you, the person.Once you get to that stage where you wantto make more personal connections, goingbowling one time obviously won’t get morethan 800 people to open up. But the pointPalmer wants you to understand is abouthow you can make the effort to personalizethings. For example, she says that nearlyeveryone gives out company Christmasand birthday cards nowadays, but shemakes it a point to put a personal note onthem. She also takes the time to follow upwhen people respond to them.

“It’s amazing how many you get backthat say, ‘Oh, thank you so much, and mydaughter just did this,’” she says. “Andthen you can go back and say, ‘That’sgreat, and I’ll see you next time,’ and it justcreates a bond.”

Similarly, she knows that with so manyemployees she can’t spend a great deal oftime with all of them. But whenever sheengages anyone in a one-on-one conversation, be it ad hoc, a scheduled meeting orduring an interview, she tries to get everybody talking about him or herself.

“I try to get people comfortable talkingabout themselves, get them to open up onsomething,” she says. “Because you canalways find that topic that people justbrighten on, whether it’s talking about theirchildren or their charitable work or theirdog or whatever, and once you find that,then you begin to see the person and thenyou can begin to ask the other questions.Another interesting thing is to begin to tryto find out what their passions are, whatthings they really do like in life.”

That takes questions as simple as askingabout people’s passions or hobbies. Or, ifall else fails, Palmer says that involvingfamilies really does work. For example,whenever she is hiring one of her directreports, she will try to have dinner withthat person’s spouse.

“Quite often, the spouses are a very, veryimportant part of the decision, and whenyou get to know them, it begins to puteverybody at greater ease because everyone realizes that you want this to work,”she says.

And that spousal connection can workanywhere, as Merrill Lynch often has dinners where spouses are invited as a showof appreciation.

“We all know how much time we spend atwork and how difficult it can be on ourspouses,” Palmer says. “So it’s a lot of justrecognizing that and letting the spousesknow that we understand that and thattakes away a lot of pressure.”

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