When you think of your branch manager, what images come to mind? Does he or she send off positive, negative or neutral vibes? Perhaps the message is mixed.

Since this individual represents the management of your firm more than any other executive, that relationship is most influential in determining your image of the corporate culture. In fact, it is your branch manager who runs the ship, sets the tone, and translates home office ideals into everyday practices.

Corporate culture refers to an organization's values, beliefs and behavior. It is concerned with how employees interpret experiences and behave. It is management's job to articulate and demonstrate the desired culture. In other words, they can't just simply talk the talk, they must walk the walk.

Firms with strong corporate cultures are typically very successful. Employees are more focused on what to do and how to do it. Furthermore, the message sent to clients and prospects tends to be more on-point and consistent.

Many years ago, I was an internal wholesaler for a wirehouse and I traveled nationally promoting a product line. I had the opportunity to visit over a hundred branches, spending time with our managers and financial consultants. The differences among branches were shocking. Some were well organized and productive, while others were disasters. Generally, the advisors at the less successful branches had negative opinions of the firm and their branch manager. Advisors at successful branches usually felt good about the firm and either admired or at least respected their manager. It became evident that leadership and the culture they created were vital to my firm's success at a local level.

Somewhere during my two year nomadic stint, I decided that I wanted to become a branch manager. Granted, I was tired of living out of a suitcase, but the real appeal was to be in a role where I could make a difference. So, I continued to travel the branches and carefully observed branch managers words and behavior.

This was during the 1980s, and as hard as it may be for some of you to believe, firms in that era aggressively promoted proprietary products. Government bond funds were the rage and most firms had their own version. Senior management expected every branch to participate in the initial offering and branch managers were held accountable for performance. At most firms, the heat was on and my firm-which is no longer in business-was no exception.

I was fascinated by the different ways managers handled the dynamics of this offering. There was a group that performed poorly and in the process lowered morale. There was another group that got the job done, but it was at the expense of branch culture. But there were also leaders who engineered the desired results while creating a positive team experience.

It was hard to believe how some of our managers were addressing the issue of the government bond fund offering in their sales meetings. I heard various versions of this approach: "Hey guys, this thing looks pretty good and the firm wants everyone to sell it. They are really putting a lot of pressure on me, so help me out here."

This appeal asked the advisor to help protect the manager from the big bad firm. The message was the firm does not care about the advisors or client interests, but my poor boss needs me to sells this stuff and help protect his job. Both the product and firm lost credibility while netting weak sales.

There where also those with a heavy handed approach: "You will sell a lot of this fund or else!" This management style was fraught with threats and deals. Established advisors were bribed with branch amenities. Perks, such as secretarial coverage or syndicate and account distributions were all tied to advisors' ability to push the deal. Rookies were told to sell the deal if they wanted to survive. This technique usually yielded strong sales, but proved culturally destructive. Managers who operated in this fashion created a climate of fear, which ultimately led to general negativity and advisor retention problems.

So how were some managers able to achieve top results, while creating a positive cultural experience for their branch? First, they focused on the softer concept of customer needs rather than the numbers. It was obvious to everyone that the firm was pushing the product, but the best leaders focused on why it was a great idea, where it fit and how to present it. They enlisted the support of branch leaders and asked them to share their success stories. The bond fund offering in these offices became a smart idea that was the right thing to do for clients. Not only did the managers like it, but the best advisors in the branch were all over it. When I visited with advisors in this type of environment, they were proud of how highly their branch ranked in the offering. It is your leader in an organization who is most influential in establishing your perception of culture.

The Right Environment

My son played basketball growing up and was fortunate enough as a youngster to be on some very successful teams. We were both thrilled when he made the high school team, but I was floored by the presentation the head coach made at the first parent meeting. The coach told the crowd that he had been around for a long time and knew that none of our boys would ever be Division One players. He added that we did not recruit players from outside our area, like some of our opponents who break the rules, so it was not likely that we would win many games.

I heard this exact speech for four consecutive years, and I felt confident that the boys consistently heard a similar message: None of you are great players. Our opponents beat us because they cheat, and we will not win many games.

Unfortunately, the environment he created produced the results he expected. In contrast, both our football and baseball teams, which had very positive leaders, won championships during the same time frame.

The era of the product push has passed, but the pressure is still on branch managers. These days, the focus is squarely on recruiting-a subject dear to my heart. Your branch manager's career trajectory is closely tied to his or her recruiting track record. Like the old basketball coach, some managers create a losing culture for their firms. They say: "It's impossible to recruit in this town," or "How can I recruit when the other firms have a better financial package?"

So, what separates the great recruiting managers from the rest of the pack? The best recruiting branch managers are empathetic, positive and passionate. They focus on understanding the details of a candidate's business and personal life. They also discuss how that business might fit, and how the individual would prosper in the new culture. While money is a key element in a candidate's decision to leave or join a firm, top recruiting managers know that most are looking because they are unhappy with their current branch manager and the associated local culture.

Unfortunately, many branch managers are not happy with some of today's trends. Certain managers feel that their firm affords them less freedom to create and make decisions a local level. Citing mergers and increased regulatory pressure, they complain that it is more difficult to establish that unique corporate culture, which traditionally had differentiated them. It seems that many feel that they are being asked to take on more responsibilities for the same or even less pay. Last but not least, the general compensation compression facing branch managers is not being well received.

Consolidation and complexing have forced an unprecedented number of experienced mangers to look for new positions. It is truly a buyer's market and some are paying mangers what they can, rather than what they are worth.

To me it seems penny-wise, but pound-foolish for a firm to take advantage of the market at the expense of their leaders.

If management discounts the leaders who are in charge of corporate culture, they risk harming the morale of those who represent their firms to a significant group of their employees and clients.


William Willis is president of Los Angeles-based recruiting firm Willis Consulting.