Advisors Paul and Leslie Strebel tell how they learned to handle workers.

    Aschism has developed in planning industry business models between sole practitioners, with no staff or a few part-timers, and single- or multiple-principal firms with full-time staff. This is codified in the annual reports the Moss Adams accounting firm does for the Financial Planning Association, and is the source of much controversy when it comes to discussions about maximizing the value of one's firm vs. creating a firm that serves one's lifestyle (the implication being that employee management is neither easy nor fulfilling).
    But maybe value vs. lifestyle doesn't have to be an either-or proposition. Perhaps those building firms with growing client bases and burgeoning staffs can have both value and quality of life?
    Paul and Leslie Strebel of The Strebel Planning Group ( in Ithaca, N.Y., certain think so. This husband-wife team, with CPA, Certified Long-Term Care and CFP designations between them, are both Certified E-Myth Consultants, and their discovery of E-Myth principles is what unlocked the puzzle of how to finally get a grip on their own employees.
    For those not familiar with the "E-Myth" (short for entrepreneurial myth), it's a body of principles espoused by small-business consultant Michael Gerber in his series of books including the one most advisors are familiar with, The E-Myth Revisited (HarperBusiness 1995). Gerber's message, briefly, is that you must be more than a good technician to be successful at running a business; you must work "on" rather than "in" your business, systematizing all of its parts and hiring other people to operate those systems so the business, ultimately, can run without you.
    When we read Gerber's books or hear talks on his subject, the part most often emphasized is that of systems. His books use the example of a McDonald's fast food restaurant to illustrate how every operation within a business can be systematized and handed off to an employee. Yet, what we hear relatively little about is the teamwork that is necessary to make all of the systems work in concert.
    The Strebels were particularly open to this message about five years ago, when they and their five employees were struggling as most small businesses do. They had a decent set of client services and some systems underlying them, but employee problems were getting in the way of having a really top-notch planning and CPA firm.
    "We had one employee who was extremely productive," says Leslie Strebel. "She could really crank out tax returns and would work very late to get her job done during tax season. However, her attitude was a big problem. We tried for years to change her, always hoping things would someday be different." 
    One of her problems was her basic disrespect for other employees. Says Leslie, "We had a dedicated employee who drove 35 to 40 minutes each way to commute to her job with us, which is considered a long commute in the Ithaca area. Rather than saying to this person, 'Wow, you must really like working here,' our problem employee would say, 'You must not value your life to drive that far to come here.'"
    The Strebels' business development process was threatening to this employee. She was uncomfortable having open and frank discussions, since her modus operandi was trying to position herself to the best political advantage within the firm. "She might say something very positive to Paul and then walk upstairs and say something derogatory about him or our strategy to another employee," says Leslie.
    Sound familiar? Almost all small businesses-particularly if the owner starts out as a technician, which most of us do-have experienced problems like this. And it doesn't take a large staff for personnel problems to fester and erupt.
    The Strebels eventually learned about the E-Myth principle of Primary Aim, which helped them turn things around. "Primary Aim describes the essence of who you are," says Paul Strebel. "Maybe your Primary Aim is to be healthy, complete and peaceful, with great capacity to love and share. Or maybe it's to keep the child inside you alive and well-to play like a kid and have fun. Many people think in terms of what they want from their business, family or community as their Primary Aim, yet it is even more fundamental than that. A Primary Aim tells the story of what gets you out of bed in the morning."
    Their discovery of their own Primary Aims led Paul and Leslie to seek out employees whose Primary Aims aligned with theirs and, therefore, could assume a position on a team of like-minded people. One must be willing to be introspective to discover his Primary Aim, so looking for employees with the right attitude became critical-even more critical than finding people with the right skills.
    "Hiring the right employees and developing them properly was one of the hardest things for us to do," says Leslie. Taking a lesson from Jim Collins' book, Good To Great, the Strebels learned how to get the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus. "We believe the right people, once assembled, will figure out how to take the bus in the right direction," she adds.
    To make this happen, say the Strebels, hiring must be systematic, and the business owner must be rigorous in his hiring practices. If he interviews a prospective employee and has any doubts, he must not hire that person but, rather, keep looking. The Strebels now believe there is no reason to settle for mediocrity. And when an employee isn't working out, a change should be made immediately.
    "One of the greatest lessons we've learned," says Paul, "is if somebody's not pulling his weight as a team member-and we're not necessarily talking about productivity, but how he interacts with other team members, which is equally critical in our eyes-he's done. The mistake we made over and over again is we would try and work with an employee on his personal development. We were always telling ourselves this employee is too important production-wise to let go. But that's a Catch-22, because that employee would be poisoning our other staff with her cynicism or back-biting behavior."
    So the Strebels now realize it's the attitude of the person who works for them that determines whether he stays on board. "When a prospective employee applies and interviews for a job," says Leslie, "we're looking for the right attitude and a record of cooperation to determine whether we believe there's a good match. Technical skills are very important, of course, but without the right attitude, all of the applicant's degrees and technical capability won't help us build the organization we want to build."
    What does that person look like? After the Strebels' high-production tax preparer left but had not been replaced, it was getting late in the year and close to tax season. Paul was thinking about a CPA he knew in town and mentioned him to Leslie. "Next thing I knew, I ran into this fellow in a store, which resulted in him calling up Paul to go to lunch," says Leslie. Paul adds, "He starts telling me about the local CPA firm where he works and how dysfunctional it is. I told him about our accounting firm, our teamwork, and he's going, 'Wow, you do that, you have these meetings and employees get to have input?'"
    The CPA came back to the Strebels' office, met their employees, and saw how high the morale was. "It blew him away," says Paul. "He was working for us within two weeks after giving notice at a job he'd been at 15 years. He's been with us six or seven weeks now and it's been awesome. He's brought clients with him ... he's a total team player."
    The meetings this CPA referred to are the business development meetings the Strebels hold regularly for both the employees and the business. "We conduct what we call employee development meetings, which are regularly scheduled meetings between employees and their managers that become a forum for problem solving, conflict resolution and planning. It is just as important to hold such meetings to let employees know they are being listened to and that they are empowered to take action as it is to discuss critical business matters," says Leslie.
    In addition to employee development meetings, the firm as a whole schedules four-part, month-long business development meetings. Employees come together in management teams each week and work on systems, training, the firm's performance and, finally, what Collins calls the Hedgehog Concept: what the firm is best at, what could accelerate its economic growth engine, and what everyone is deeply passionate about.
    These meetings, which are sometimes done over lunch out of the office, all contribute to team building. However, says Leslie, "With all of the precautions we take, until a new employee is in our company and interacting with others, we never know for sure if that person is a team player. We had someone who worked out just fine through our 90-day probationary period and literally unraveled on Day 91. She apparently had forced her attitude for 90 days and then the real one came through. She became uncooperative, and things she'd been doing correctly, she suddenly lost the drive to do right."
    Of course, we shouldn't put all the emphasis on employees. "Business owners themselves are the number one impediment to growing a business," says Paul. "Employee problems are merely a symptom. It all comes back to the business owner allowing those problems or not knowing how to correct them. It's not necessarily a character flaw. It's a combination of fear and a lack of skills."
    Which is why you may want to avail yourself of some coaching in this area from those who have used E-Myth principles to tame their employees, like the Strebels.

David J. Drucker, MBA, CFP, a financial advisor since 1981, sold his practice in 2001 to write, speak and consult with advisors. His newest book is Tools & Techniques of Practice Management. Visit for more information.