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Building a Top of the Table Staff

It's time to find, keep and motivate top-notch employees; here's how.

By Sarah J. Kaelberer, CFP, ChFC, and E. Dennis Zahrbock, CLU, CFP

A very good staff gives you a very good team, and a very good team gives you outstanding results. Here’s how to build an MDRT “Top of the Table” staff.

Finding the right fit
The first step in building your team is finding the right people. The key to choosing the best employee is to focus on the person, not the resume. For example, we have an employee, Lisa, who did not have a resume at all when we hired her. We hired her away from a company that was going out of business. We offered her the job because we knew what kind of person she was and how she worked. Over the years, we’d seen her demonstrate that she had a heart of gold and the desire to do anything it took to help a client or teammate. Those qualities made her a good fit for our team. If the spirit and ability are there, procedures and processes can be taught.

The old saying, “One bad apple spoils the bunch,” can prove true in an office environment. One negative person or nonteam player can seriously damage a team’s morale. One way to combat this is to get to know the candidate for the job as well as possible. Our office is small enough that we can have a job candidate meet with all the current team members. Make sure all employees meeting with a job candidate are familiar with interview laws in your state.

Training your team
Although the real key to a Top of the Table staff is TOT heart and attitude, everyone needs training. So once you’ve found your diamonds in the rough, you’ll need to polish them.

Product and industry knowledge, as well as tax elements, can be taught. Technical accuracy is a must. It is vital that all employees understand our products. The more the team understands why we do what we do for clients, the better service they can provide.

One of the trickiest skills in this business is knowing how to ask questions. We all know that when a client calls to ask a question, the answer is rarely as simple as what they actually asked. There is often an underlying reason for the question. We work to teach our team how to get to the bottom of the questions.

Not only should your employees be trained, they should also be cross-trained. It is not reasonable to expect all staff to be experts in all areas, but there should always be more than one person who can perform each task, no matter how small that task may seem.

The “To Don’t” List

Everyone talks about the best things to do when building a good staff. Here’s a list of don’ts.

• Outlaw fun. Work-only—all the time—is a good way to lower morale. After all, liking what you do is for after hours.
• Banish initiative. Keep your staff concerned with doing their strictly outlined jobs, and no one will go above or beyond to serve your clients.
• Ignore the future. When hiring, focus only on the ability to do the current tasks.
• Judge by resume only. Let the resume drive your decision when hiring. After all, aren’t all resumes totally accurate?
• Be rigid. Don't offer any flexibility. Force employees to do things your way and on your timeframe.

Keeping the team productive
A happy team is a productive team. One way to keep people on your team happy and productive is to keep them involved. Our employees really own their positions, both the good and the bad. They get credit for the good and are accountable for the not so good, which does happen on occasion.

Part of owning a position means that all employees need to feel they have a part in the direction of the company. We keep the entire office involved during new marketing campaigns, ownership changes or other strategic developments.

The ownership also comes into play in their work schedules. No one in our office is in five days a week, eight hours a day. The team knows what needs to get done. If they get it done, and done well, they are all entitled to have flex days, where they can work more flexible, or nonstandard, hours. Most generally plan their week based on a four-day workweek. This arrangement does not worry us, because we know that they will get their work done. If a job takes longer than they’ve planned, they stay until it is done. This arrangement shows our staff that we respect them, and this respect creates more loyalty and teamwork than any monetary incentive.

We do, of course, offer monetary compensation. Never underpay a good employee. Our team receives incentives on both the total revenue of the company and for their individual business segment. Additional bonuses may be available at the end of the year, based on profits.

Remember, once you’ve found your ideal team, work to keep them. Don’t take them, or the work they do, for granted. We’ve found that by treating our employees with respect and offering them the flexibility they need to have lives outside the office, we’ve created a solid and loyal team. And this team enables us to truly have a TOT office.

This is an excerpt of a speech given at the 2004 Million Dollar Round Table annual meeting. Used with permission from MDRT. All rights reserved. For more information, go to

E. Dennis Zahrbock, CLU, CFP, founder and president of Business & Estate Advisers Inc. in Wayzata, Minn., has 17 Court of the Table and nine TOT accolades. Sarah J. Kaelberer, CFP, CHFC, vice president of the firm, is also an MDRT member. Both are members of Minneapolis AIFA and can be reached at 952-475-0440.

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