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How to keep them (your employees)
How to keep them (your employees)

May 01 2024 / Round the Table Magazine

How to keep them (your employees)

Shrewd techniques to empower, invest in and retain your staff.

Topics Covered

What is important to you? What do you need time for?

You’ve asked clients these questions countless times, but are you just as curious to discover what your staff values and how to support them? Knowing those answers could keep them from leaving.


Jamie McIntyre, CFP, started thinking about what mattered not just to his clients but to his team as he rebranded his business in 2016 to focus on planning rather than financial products. The 13-year MDRT member from Newtown, Victoria, Australia, responded by offering staff members free financial planning as an employee benefit.

Yet it wasn’t until shifting to remote work during the pandemic that McIntyre learned flexibility was important to his staff, consisting of a full-time client services manager and his wife, Susan, a part-time client services support officer. So, he amended the fixed office hours schedule and encouraged his client services manager, a single mom, to leave early and start later so she can do school drop-offs and pickups, doctor’s appointments and other family-related needs.

“We value our team but have to understand what they value. She doesn’t value getting paid more. She values prioritizing her family and taking the time she needs, and I know she gives it back,” said McIntyre, adding that his team understands extra hours are expected during busy periods in March/April and October/November. “We all have a responsibility under the Whole Person concept to make sure that the people around us can live as a whole person as well and to make sure I can support that.”

Joshua John McWilliam, CFP, FMA, a 19-year MDRT member from Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada, has a staff of seven, including four admins with tenures ranging from a few to 15 years. The responsibilities for the two assistants he works with directly are clearly divided between tasks to be executed before client meetings happen and those that occur after. They have full agency over how and when to complete those duties. Whether those are completed in the office, at home or during regular working hours doesn’t matter to McWilliam.

I’m not focused on the number of hours they spend at their desk. I’m more focused on the fact that the responsibilities they have are met.
—Joshua McWilliam

“I’m not focused at all on the number of hours they spend at their desk. I’m more focused on the fact that the responsibilities they have are met and with their output. I really believe that micromanaging employees will lead to high turnover,” McWilliam said.

Indeed, his practice used to give the staff three to four weeks of vacation until changing several years ago to an unlimited vacation policy. Team members take days off whenever they want for as long as they need with the caveat that they don’t do so simultaneously so that someone is available to cover the office. The four staffers self-manage the schedule, including rotating Friday afternoons, when they take turns making sure that at least one of them is physically in the office. 

“That policy has never been abused, and we’ve noticed that the average number of days taken as vacation is far lower than when we had a fixed vacation policy,” McWilliam said. “The accountability to each other resulted in a stronger team environment where they communicate and back each other up.”

Roy John Hall, ADFP, CCFP, has a staff of seven, including four admins whose time with his practice range from six to 12 years. He also does not keep a time sheet, so his employees, particularly those with school-age children, enjoy flexible hours and the ability to work remotely.

“Anyone who needs to leave early or take time off just takes it, and we know that it works out in the end,” said the 19-year MDRT member from Hope Island, Queensland, Australia.

Motivation money and perks

In addition to paying salaries that are 30% to 40% above market, another way that Hall keeps admins from leaving is offering monthly incentive pay based on a percentage of new business generated from converting prospects into clients. Also, the revenue derived from existing clients who sign the annual retention contracts required by regulators and stay with the practice count toward the extra pay. These individual bonuses typically average between $1,500 to $2,000, and a big month can net an employee as much as $4,000. So, the admins — who onboarded and learned the business by accompanying Hall on client meetings and seeing him in action — take charge of making sure the back-office process runs smoothly and engage with clients to secure missing information, confirm scheduling, handle questions and prepare cases for Hall.

“The biggest thing for them is they want to see the business be successful. I’ve done my job out in front end with the client, and they want to be as successful as they can driving a file to finalization because when that person becomes a client, we all get paid,” Hall said. “They’re reaping the reward from the hard work that I’ve done and that they’re doing.”

The biggest thing for them is they want to see the business be successful.
—Roy Hall

Other perks include taking the entire office every year to the Melbourne Cup luncheon for the thoroughbred horse race and lavish Christmas parties, which one year was a four-day cruise along the western coast from Brisbane to Sydney and back. Hall and McWilliam also offer free retirement planning for their staff. While Australian employers are required to put an amount equal to 11% of an employee’s salary in that individual’s retirement fund, Hall adds more than the compulsory contribution. Canadian employers typically match between 3% and 5% of what employees deposit in their retirement account. McWilliam matches 9% in addition to providing dental and health care insurance.

“Ultimately, we’re retirement planners, so I want our staff to have a financially secure retirement as well. I feel that responsibility, but it creates that long-term mindset and commitment that goes a long way,” McWilliam said.

Connecting to community

Multiple studies and surveys contend that paid volunteer time off can make employees feel they are part of a noble cause and more committed to their employer. Each quarter Hozumi Hanada, LUTCF, an 18-year MDRT member from Monrovia, California, USA, brings the company’s 24 staff members on a community service outing. In recent years, the team volunteered at Foothill Unity Center, an organization that helps with food, crisis case management, job development, housing and homeless services to people in need.

The community outreach was started in 1992 by the practice’s founder and Hawaii native, Stephen Kagawa, FSS, LUTCF, a 31-year MDRT member, based on the principles of aloha (love and respect), acting with pono (righteousness), being imua (proactive), treating people like ohana (family) and beginning with mahalo (gratitude). Connecting the business’ goals in the office, which serves approximately 500 clients from Japanese-speaking communities, with community involvement strengthens the team and retention.

We want our colleagues to learn the importance of community service through directly experiencing giving.
—Hozumi Hanada

“We want our colleagues to learn the importance of community service through directly experiencing giving,” Hanada said.

During debriefing lunches after each volunteer outing, everyone shares what they did and how they feel about their experience.

“There’s never a shortage of tears shed. Now some staff members dedicate their own time to volunteer and better the community. Employees really feel our company’s guiding principles in real terms,” said Hanada, adding that the practice also matches employees’ gifts to qualified institutions. “It helps us to be better people, and you can see everyone’s increasing levels of engagement.”

Unleashing passion and understanding

Administrative teams can feel bogged down with all the back-office tasks they support. With three support staff aiding 17 advisors and 500 pre-retirement and retirement clients, Andrew Tice, FIC, a six-year MDRT member from Hurst, Texas, USA, knows they could lose sight of being part of something bigger than just a job.

After an especially challenging death claim — and a conversation with his wife about all the burdens a surviving spouse has on their plate — Tice considered an alternative to merely telling his assistants about what happened when he returned to the office. He started bringing staff with him to appointments so they would develop personal connections with clients and ownership of tasks that support them. The first time Tice brought his assistant, she reassured the widow that she was not alone and asked her to promise to reach out if she needed anything.

“I was blown away by her compassion toward this client, and afterward her continued concern reminded me why we do what we do,” Tice said. “When clients call to complain or are having a bad day, the out-of-office experience helps the team meet them with empathy, and that shows them we care.”

Such compassion can boost client satisfaction, but there is also a mutual benefit for the practice. The staff develops a deeper understanding about the impact of the practice’s work and more respect for clients they haven’t met yet. As they gain more insight into Tice’s work, they’re providing more feedback and ideas for streamlining office tasks and improving communication.

“People who believe in what they are doing do it with passion that far outweighs any great motivational speech,” he said. “When you take pride in the people you serve, it is not easy to just leave and go somewhere else.”

Empowering to make a difference

Ten years ago, a client called to ask what the office could do to smooth over a mistake and was told she’d have to wait until Michael Joseph Haggerty, CPCA, CFP, a 16-year MDRT member from Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada, could provide an answer. The two-day delay made the client more upset. Subsequently, Haggerty determined everyone would be better off if his six staff members serving 2,500 family and business owner clients had the authority to make gestures involving reasonable expenses.

“The new way lets staff know that their view on things is as important as anybody else’s,” Haggerty said.

When clients call to complain or are having a bad day, the out-of-office experience helps the team meet them with empathy, and that shows them we care.
—Andrew Tice

This empowering approach enables the staff to give a $25 or $50 gift card as a thank you for a referral. It’s ordering flowers for a woman who stopped into the office distraught over the loss of her husband and her friend’s husband (the woman was referred by that friend and later became a client). In one case, it was a thank-you note and gift card for another woman who drove her mom, unable to drive herself, to the office for an appointment.

“It never would’ve entered my mind to thank the daughter, but it was brilliant for my staff member, Travis, at the front desk to subconsciously plant in her head, ‘These guys are amazing, and I’m not even a client,’” Haggerty said. “The policy lets staff know that I don’t want to micromanage them to death and if they think something is important, it’s important. It absolutely increases their investment in the firm.”

Impactful recognitions

Gary F. Heuer, FICS, uses gift cards and cards a little differently.

Many years ago, the 32-year MDRT member from Lake Oswego, Oregon, USA, received a handwritten thank-you note from a client he’d set up an annuity for, and Heuer thought about doing something similar for staff members. That was the beginning of “caught you doing good” cards. After a client called to tell Heuer that his assistant was helpful and patient in setting up a complex beneficiary change, he praised her with a card identifying and appreciating what happened and enclosed a Starbucks gift card.

“It’s those little touches that help retain good staff, who otherwise may never know when clients tell us that so-and-so was very helpful. Bonuses help, but little things go a long way,” said Heuer, who serves 350 clients with one full-time and one part-time admin staff.

When his assistant of five years mentioned that a weeklong trip to Denver with her husband was going to be expensive, Forrest DeBuys III, CLU, ChFC, used his frequent-flyer miles to pay for their flights. It cost him nothing to show he appreciated her and saved her more than $1,000. 

“The tickets showed up in her phone, and she said, ‘What is this?’” said the 25-year MDRT member from Birmingham, Alabama, USA. “She loved it and was very grateful going forward. I do think that, for good employees in a small business, unconventional, personalized things like that can make a big difference to retain people and connect to culture and morale.”

When Shawn R. Bjornsson, CPCA, learned his assistant of 20 years was planning a two-week cruise with family, the 26-year MDRT member from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, gave her a bonus to help pay for part of it.

It’s those little touches that help retain good staff. Bonuses help, but little things go a long way.
—Gary Heuer

“People say they want to work somewhere where you respect their time, and communicate and treat them well,” Bjornsson said. “I think my staff is really good, and I don’t want them going anywhere.”

Haggerty took appreciation a step further. His executive assistant of six years had long expressed a desire to renovate the deck on her home. He also realized that if he gave her a bonus to pay for the deck project, she probably would spend it on her children instead. So, he recruited a client who was a contractor, arranged for the remodel project to break ground and paid for it.

“It shows that I know employees well enough to know what’s important to them,” he said, noting that he also provided a bonus to cover the taxes due on the deck work. “Little things show the people who work for you that you care.”

The benefits also work for the employer. When Haggerty asked his assistant why he gave the client’s daughter the gift card, Travis explained that establishing goodwill with the daughter was “good for us.”

“If you can get to ‘good for us,’ you won,” Haggerty said. “He views the company as ‘us.’”

Advice for retaining advisors

Jason L. Smith saw many great advisors over the years leave his firm to start their own or work for someone else. The 19-year MDRT member from Westlake, Ohio, USA, realized he needed to stop training his future competition, so he developed a process for keeping his employees.

“I didn’t have a career path for them internally, so I documented one to show them that they have a future to ultimately earn their way to be a partner in the firm,” Smith said.

He devised a retention strategy using an easy-to-understand visual: a ladder with five rungs. He shows it to job candidates and new hires to illustrate how they can advance and what is ahead of them within the company. The first rung is client service associate, an entry-level position responsible for backstage pre-appointment and post-appointment work. The second rung is also a back-office tier, but the employee is handling more paraplanner tasks while earning their financial services designation or licenses to become a financial planner. 

They start moving to the frontstage, client-facing role with the third rung as an associate advisor where they sit in the second chair with the lead advisor and work with the firm’s smaller clients and prospects.

“They’re going to watch you, and they’re going to learn from you and take on a lot of heavy lifting off you because you already taught them how to do all that stuff at the backstage, paraplanner rungs. They take notes and do the due diligence, and that frees you to be the rainmaker while you’re informally mentoring them through the two-chair approach,” Smith said.

Lead advisor is the fourth rung, and the fifth rung, practicing partner, is for the firm’s elite advisors. 

“Those are your rainmakers, your best. Those are the people you want to attract, retain and ultimately reward. You want to put the golden handcuffs on them and never want them to leave. Having that visual to show when you’re hiring an advisor and developing them makes a huge difference from a competitive advantage standpoint,” Smith said. “They understand where they are at on the rungs and how they can get to the next level. So, there’s no guessing game and no favoritism as to when they’re going to be promoted because it’s very clear what they need to accomplish to get to the next rung.”

An advisor who started working with Smith as a college intern for $10 an hour climbed those rungs and recently became a 20% equity partner in the firm.

“Show prospective or current advisors that they have a bigger future with you. They don’t have to leave to become a partner. They don’t have to become a business owner to earn the amount of income they desire. They don’t have to leave to do it. Show them they can do it by staying with your firm,” Smith said.