I was recently interviewing one of the finalists for a new associate financial planner position for our firm. At the conclusion of the interview, I asked if he had any questions of me. I was surprised and delighted when he asked, "What are you most proud of about the firm?"

It didn't take me too long to answer that question: "The people." I went on to clarify my answer. The people that I was referring to are each and every one of the associates in our firm. Their dedication, loyalty, competence, ability to interact with each other and clients, and demonstrated love for what they do make all of us proud. Of course, I would like to take credit for all of this, but the fact is that everyone in and out of management is responsible for the spirit and camaraderie. Turnover, fortunately, is so rare that I don't recall the last person who left our firm.

At a recent meeting with prospective clients, they made the point to tell me how welcomed and special they felt when Pearl (and she certainly is one!) greeted them, addressed them respectfully by their last names, and then asked whether they encountered any traffic and if they were able to find the parking lot with no difficulty. I don't know what else they talked about, but I do know that these people were impressed. I once had an analyst at a major wirehouse tell me that all he needed to know about a company he could tell by simply sitting in the reception area for one full day. I know that it's a cliché, but accurate nonetheless: "You only have one chance to make a first impression."

I'd like to share with you an e-mail I got from these people later that day: "You and your organization were very impressive. In my 30 years in advertising, I've been in my share of offices, and the atmosphere in yours says a lot about you and how you run your business. From Pearl on down, RTD is who Marsha and I would like to have advising us.

We discussed this over lunch and would like you to be our financial advisor and handle our investments. Let us know when we can meet again to get this in motion."

At our firm, we believe that having competent and dedicated associates is not a matter of luck or coincidence. Since the people on our management staff hire, train and supervise our people, it is they who are ultimately responsible for their performance. Some of my colleagues at other firms complain about their employees and how they are either incompetent or indifferent. It seems that these complaints come from the same people on a regular basis. Until they recognize that they-not their employees-are the problem, it is unlikely that they will see any improvement.

Employees are much more conscientious than many employers give them credit for. Does anyone really believe that there are people who show up for work in the morning with the intention of doing a poor job? Then why are so many employers so quick to criticize their associates when they do not perform up to their expectations? It is probably valid that happy employees perform better than unhappy ones. However, it is also true that good job performance is a factor in happiness. It is a rare person, indeed, that gets no satisfaction from performing well. So what comes first-happiness or job excellence? I'm not sure, but I do know that the only thing we have some control over is how the people we hire perform. Only when we recognize that the trouble (if we have any) is the direct result of our behavior and not theirs can we do anything to correct it.

While we have monetary incentives for all of our employees (based on what the firm has accomplished), we strongly believe that money is not the primary motivator for employee performance. We need to develop a work environment that our associates enjoy coming to each morning. It needs to be a place that brings out the best in them. What follows are a few things you can do to accomplish this.

Create A Successful Environment
There are leaders who seem to be able to consistently get the most out of people with whom they are associated. We know great coaches, corporate executives and others who seem to excel above the norm. We believe that the most important skill these extraordinary leaders possess is the ability to create environments that are conducive to success. It answers the question of why some mediocre people thrive when they change jobs or teams.

Years ago, much of the success of the New York Yankees was just "wearing the Yankee pinstripes." It wasn't the uniform-it was the environment created by management that made the difference. These players did not obtain superior pitching or hitting skills when they joined their new team. But they were in an environment that was more conducive to success.