When Financial Advisory Partners Don’t Get Along

April 26, 2016

by Beverly Flaxington

Beverly Flaxington is a practice management consultant. She answers questions from advisors facing human resource issues. To submit yours, email us here.

Advisor Perspectives welcomes guest contributions. The views presented here do not necessarily represent those of Advisor Perspectives.

Dear Bev,

I work in a small advisory firm, and we talk about the leaders of our firm as “the married couple” even though they are not literally married. One is more nurturing and connected to the employees and clients, and the other holds the hammer and keeps people in line. In fairness, the “father figure” is the one who makes the most money for the firm and the reason we have really good bonuses each year, so the three of us who work here don’t prefer one to the other. The problem is that this “couple” seems headed for “divorce.” There are heated discussions with the doors open. They badmouth each other to us, which is extremely uncomfortable. They don’t seem to notice how badly this affects us. The three of us have banded together to agree not to say anything negative about one partner to the other, but it doesn’t stop them from doing this with us. Frankly, we’re scared about how things are going. What if they don’t resolve their differences? What will it mean for the firm? Do they even know how terrible their behavior is? Do you have advice for how we can deal with this, or should we run for the door and find other opportunities as quickly as possible?

T.A.

Dear T.A.,

What a difficult situation for you and your colleagues. I’m sorry you are going through this. Your analogy of the “married couple divorcing” gives me insight as to how emotionally tough this situation is hitting you all. Of course, intervening in your bosses’ bad behavior is fraught with potential landmines, so we’ll tread carefully here.

Much of my advice will depend on the style of your partners, as well as on your individual styles. If the three of you who are working in the firm all agree this behavior is distracting and distressing, you may all want to approach each partner individually. In a non-confrontational way, you could discuss your observations and tell the partners that, while they are entitled to deal with issues however they like, the current approach is making life difficult for all of you. You could ask if there is anything you all could do to help build bridges (don’t get drawn into the badmouthing!) and talk about how much the firm means to you and your desire to have a better working environment.

If talking to the partners seems too difficult or confrontational, another option is to write your thoughts out to both partners at once and ask them to review together. You would have to be careful not to accuse or demand, but rather to seek to understand why things seem so negative and inquire as to what you can do to provide support.

Both of these options could work if (a) you have self-reflective or open-minded partners, and (b) you and your colleagues are comfortably approaching them. I have found in many cases, people in charge don’t realize the havoc they are wreaking on others, so sometimes just bringing it to their attention can turn the behavior.

If (a) and/or (b) are not the case for you, other options include the following:

  1. The next time a partner tries to draw you in, simply walk away or say, “I prefer to focus on what’s positive here.” Say this with a matter-of-fact, non-accusatory tone.
  2. Go out of your way to tell the partners what you enjoy about each of them. Talk about the positive aspects of the culture as much as possible, and focus on what you do want, not what is going wrong.
  3. Find ways to engage both partners in making decisions. If you have the power, call a meeting including both of them with a clear agenda, and outline what needs to be addressed. Engage them in a productive and proactive way.

If your partners had written to me, the question would have been much easier to answer. It is really hard when you are the subordinate watching this behavior and without a great deal of power to intervene. I hope one of these ideas might be workable for you.

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When Financial Advisory Partners Don't Get Along

Financial Advisory Partners