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From chaos to harmony

Matt Pais

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Wallingford learns how to resolve miscommunication with a valued team member.

When Kerry Therese Wallingford, RICP, ChFC, spent 12 weeks out of the office for a disability claim, not a single client knew she was out of commission. That’s how well Mariah, her office manager and a team member for 20 years, holds down the fort for the 21-year MDRT member from Seattle, Washington, USA.

But while such care suggests a harmonious relationship, the two have a more tumultuous dynamic behind the scenes.

“We clash like bulls,” Wallingford said. “She is diametrically opposed to who I am.”

It’s common business wisdom to hire your opposite because they can complement your own skills. But the benefits of this strategy often come with inherent conflict. For example, Mariah’s strength of being a detailed-oriented list-maker can clash with Wallingford’s expressive, list-averse ways — sometimes generating misunderstandings.

If the dueling parties aren’t able to find the sweet spot and operate in harmony, tension can brew over an extended period of time. For example: The practice is split between employee benefits and individual medical insurance, which Mariah handles, and individual planning such as life insurance and long-term care insurance. Because of the open enrollment period for medical insurance, the fourth quarter is Mariah’s busiest time of year, and particularly stressful for a person as detail-oriented as she. Just a few years ago, Wallingford found herself not even wanting to go into the office because Mariah was so on edge, and because of the difficult interactions that resulted.

I had to learn how to incorporate their needs with my wants.

Rather than let the strain tighten between her and Mariah, Wallingford tasked her sister Kathleen — a business owner with a knack for leadership and motivation — with helping to navigate the communication breakdown. The outreach led to three years of monthly, hourlong meetings that began with Kerry and Kathleen and then expanded to include Mariah. Sometimes the practice’s third employee, Kala, would join as well.

These were the biggest takeaways:

Listen and guide. Instead of simply disagreeing with Mariah, Kathleen taught Wallingford to engage with Mariah by acknowledging her opinion and asking her to consider another perspective.

Open dialogues rather than giving orders. Rather than declaring, “I want to do this,” Wallingford might instead say, “I have an idea I’d like to implement; I’d like your input to see if this will work.” Or, “I’ve been researching an online voice system; I would like to discuss it so you can ask the questions you want answered.” Adds Wallingford, “I had to learn how to incorporate their needs with my wants.”

Create KPIs for the team to give them more ownership. For Mariah, that meant setting her own goals and being able to talk with Wallingford about any help that she needed to meet them, while also recognizing how her own performance drove the business. This created more motivation to drive referrals and benefits because her income is influenced by the office’s performance.

Show that their opinion is valued. When Wallingford was deciding whether to offer a part-time employee a full-time position, she asked Mariah for her input, who voiced that the person wasn’t the right fit. The discussion led to hiring Kala, a much better fit, and Mariah having an increased recognition of her own importance to the practice.

Ask the simple questions ahead of changes. In addition to inviting her opinion, Wallingford also tries to prepare Mariah for changes as early as possible. “This is going to change, and I would like you involved in this process. How can I make this easier for you?” Through this conversation, Wallingford sets out a clear timeline and can learn how Mariah may best perform during the process.

Identify what makes them tick. This ranged from being flexible to meet her team’s schedules and needs, to using the Birkman Method personality test to determine the best encouragement style. For example, Mariah has had a fluid schedule for 11 years (allowing for remote work and school pickups), which Wallingford understands is a requirement for Mariah to best perform her duties.

The process made the team more of a “we” than a “me vs. them,” Wallingford said. She sent a message to her team recently about a task to perform after open enrollment was over. Mariah, still stressed about her workload, indicated that she didn’t have the bandwidth.

“The old me would have said, ‘Stop being so snarky,’” Wallingford said. “But instead I let it slide because I knew she was in her stress mode.

“It’s always a work in progress,” she said. “Having a good employee is like any good relationship: It requires work, and you can’t just assume your employees are happy. As a business owner, you have to embrace differences and also understand how to communicate and know what the other person needs.”

Contact: Kerry Wallingford


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