Toughest Job

A number of years ago a branch manager in Western Canada happened upon a situation which provided him some hard lessons in leadership. In the late afternoon on a hot summer’s day, one of his brokers returned to the office after being at a doctor’s appointment. His face was ashen and in a shaken voice he explained that he had been diagnosed with skin cancer which was going to require some drastic surgery to his jaw. The devastation on his face was palpable as he contemplated how much recovery time would be involved and the effect on his family.

The manager guaranteed him then and there that the company would support him financially for the time he would be away and that his clients would continue to receive service on a daily basis. The next morning the manager called his CEO in Toronto and explained the circumstances and the decision behind it.…Bam!!, the reaction on the other end of the phone was explosive and right to the point. “ There was no way in hell that this firm is going to front $5,000.00 a month to a broker (he usually referred to them as animals) under any circumstances!”

The manager then dutifully lied to his leader and told him that the guarantee had already been put in writing AND on corporate lettehead. If the CEO wanted to overturn all that, he would do so at the cost of his branch manager and whatever might follow that event. The CEO reluctantly acquiesced. Naturally, of course, the manager was eventually terminated under a “restructuring” exercise.

The relevance of that true story is to show the human element involved in the role of branch manager in the securities industry. In my estimation it can be the toughest job in wealth management because, to be successful in the role, it requires a wide and varied set of skills. Here are some thoughts on the position as viewed on a daily basis from the corner office:

1) Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Honest to God, there is no mercy! The branch manager is in between every nickel and dime decision made by the powers that be and/or every bitch and moan coming from the bullpen or mahogany row. Finding the right balance requires a strength of character that will be respected for the empathy it brings to the table. The managers who think they will find support and solace with the sales force by wearing the “buddy” hat in battle will soon find their credibility in question from both sides. By accepting the title and the compensation that goes with it really does mean you are no longer “one of them”. What is required is that the manager delivers on behalf of the IA’s and branch staff so that the royal “they” know that their needs are understood. Conversely, the job requires that the corporate view and goals are properly communicated to the field so that the message is delivered and clearly understood.

2) The “Babysitter”

An ill–defined and misapplied term used by some managers who don’t adhere to the idea that the securities industry is a relationship business. A really good branch manager is one who truly understands the rigours and realities in the daily life of IA’s. Whether it’s a production slump, an upset client, a back-office screw up or a marriage that just tanked there are a myriad of issues which will invariably cross the manager’s desk. To be able to grasp the importance of these issues to those who have them is not a by-product of “babysitting”, it is a reflection of the leadership called for in the role.

3) ‘Peeing in the Pool’ or the Compliance Factor

One day I was sitting with a U.S. branch manager while on a visitation to N.Y.C.. As I was contemplating moving into management at the time he offered me this pearl of wisdom. “ Imagine that you as the manager had invited the entire branch over to a pool party at your place. Everyone was having a splashing good time and were all smiling when from poolside you offered a toast to the best crew in town. And, as you looked out past them, you had an uncomfortable but, sure feeling that someone was peeing in the pool! “

Say it ain’t so, Joe. Well, unfortunately from time to time it is. In a branch manager’s world the responsibility for compliance can be a living nightmare. Regardless of the ever-expanding methods of observation and protection in our business the bad stuff will hit the manager’s desk. The manager’s hat is firmly affixed as tough decisions will be made. These will be amongst the most difficult times in the role and in accepting the scars that will accompany the event the successful manager will embody the experience and move forward.

4) Chief Cook and Bottle Washer

The myriad of issues that will cross a manager’s desk in the brokerage business can be staggering. The postman rings more than twice in this job:

– Hiring and firing people is a daunting task in that it has a profound effect on the culture of the branch. Recruiting revenue and assets into the mix is a must but ,it must be done with the local environment in mind. Level-headed and determined judgment is necessary when terminating someone; your decision will have a negative effect well beyond the person involved. The hire/fire factor will weigh heavily on the manager’s mind and it is often the career-ender if that weight is not born with confidence.

– Mentoring and Coaching effectively comes more easily with one’s own hard-earned experience. If the manager hasn’t “been there” it will be hard for the troops in accepting the guidance being offered. That is perhaps somewhat unfair given that not too many of us are born with a natural sales gene. Still the art of teaching an I.A. how to avoid a/o absorb the debilitation of “NOOOOO’s” is probably more effective when the person delivering the serum has tested it.

– Delivering is perhaps the most important aspect of a branch manager’s job. I.A.’s can put with up a quirky personality and even handle the producing manager grabbing the odd account as it walks in the door. And the staff can suffer the lack of love the manager bestows upon the ‘hitters” but, the quality of life in the branch depends upon the manager’s ability to deliver what he/she says they’re going to deliver. Failing in this regard means a loss of credibility and there are damn few managers who can recover from drinking that Kool Aid.

All in all it is not difficult to see how the branch role is pivotal to the quality of life and the measurement of success in a securities firm. But, as we go forward where will that role fit in the changing world of costs and compliance? If some key elements of the job can be siphoned off to a different level of responsibility, does the branch manager figure disappear? What we’re beginning to see is the compliance officer servicing the manager role as some firms shunt the responsibility for recruiting, cleaving, growth and profitability to a regional type figure managing a close cluster of offices. Under a principal/agent model that structure is largely there now; as the employee model invariably moves towards large asset-managing brokers and the banks further implement their control culture we’ll start to see a serious shift to this end.

Is that good or is that bad? If the branch manager, as they are currently loved or despised, actually disappears from the wealth management landscape who will turn on the lights in the morning? For now however, it is still the toughest job on the block.

Your thoughts and comments are invited.

Written by: Brian L.Curry, CEO, Curry-Henry Group (Copyright 2014)

“It’s a simple business but, it’s not easy”.

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