Taking advisors out of their comfort zones and forcing them to wrestle with intractable issues in the interpersonal dynamics of their offices and their management styles would seem to create a place where broker-dealers wouldn't want to tread. But if their reps want to realize major gains in productivity, there's often no other choice.

John Gagnon of MKA Capital Planning in Boston generates $2 million in annual commissions and recently acquired a second office in Atlanta. That makes him Com-monwealth Financial Network's top producer. Yet this planner, who now oversees a staff of 60, is not above seeking advice himself. "I've been on the phone with Com-monwealth a lot over the past year," says Gagnon, who credits the Waltham, Mass.-based broker-dealer with bringing his management team closer together and ensuring a smooth transition.

Stephen Tobe, president of Signature Financial Planning in Pittsburgh, says the firm helped him double the size of his business in four years, making him the second-highest producer. "I've been with four other broker-dealers in 25 years, and I've never seen anything like it," he says. "They worked with me on every aspect of my business, from drafting mission and vision statements to helping me find the right people."

And Eileen Monahan of Monahan Associates in Portland, Maine, credits the brokerage with helping her out of a staffing crisis. "I was overwhelmed with clients and had only one employee, who I was not getting along with," she says. "I still have that employee, and I have her because of Commonwealth."

Most broker-dealers have recognized the value of helping reps increase sales, but Commonwealth is unique in making practice management a cornerstone of its business. Through a dedicated practice management division, which offers private consultations free to all 750 reps, President Joe Deitch has positioned Commonwealth as a firm dedicated to advisors in much the same way advisors are committed to their clients. In the process, the company has gained insight into the problems facing advisors today and is moving toward a systemic approach for classifying and resolving practice-management issues.

Deitch started the division in 1989, after attending a three-year course at Harvard Business School's Owner/President Manage-ment Program. "My background was in technical sales, and the program was a huge eye-opener for me," he says. "My epiphany was that, in fact, I was a business owner who didn't know how to run a business." Most advisors, Deitch reasoned, were in the same position. "If we can help reps grow their business, then we stand to profit."

In 1993, Deitch's wife, Robbie, an industrial psychologist, added a staffing and psychological testing component to the program, which kicked into high gear in 1998 with the hiring of Joni Youngwirth, a 17-year veteran of corporate consulting, as vice president of practice management. With Youngwirth, Deitch has hit on a winning formula. Mention her name to any Commonwealth rep, and praise is likely to follow.

The issues Youngwirth confronts today are quite different from those she encountered in the 1980s at Organizational Dynamics Inc., a consulting firm in Billerica, Mass., where her clients included Fortune 500 firms like Polaroid, The Gillette Co., DAK Industries, Omni Hotels and John Hancock Financial Services. She admits that shifting from huge multinational companies to boutique firms required a major adjustment. "If you're used to questions like, 'How will this play in South America?' then of course this is very different," she says.

Yet Youngwirth believes the psychological component of change is the same in an organization of any size. "Nothing changes until the captain of the ship decides he or she wants to change, whether you're dealing with a Fortune 500 executive or rep with a two-person office," she says. Ultimately, Youngwirth finds working with small-business owners more rewarding. "Changing the direction of a huge corporation is like turning a steamship around. With our brokers, you see the results much faster. I can have a conversation with a rep one day, and the next week, the change will be implemented."

The issues may be smaller than those facing multinationals, but they are much more "repeatable," she says. These include staffing, revising business plans, succession planning, the pros and cons of partnership and technology issues. Underlying these perennial concerns are more deeply psychological issues: how to make changes in an organization, how to motivate people and how to manage growth. "It's remarkable how many advisors tell me, 'I want to take my business to the next level,'" she says. "Yet when I ask them, 'How would you know if you got to the next level?' they may draw a blank. A huge part of this job is just getting reps to open up and be honest. That takes a lot of probing."

"She really makes you dig deep inside yourself," says Tobe, who describes the process as exhilarating but often uncomfortable. "She has forced me to get my act together by coming up with a business plan, a mission statement and a personal-vision statement of how I want to live my life, whether that's spending more time with my family or getting out and communing with nature. It's questions like, 'If they were doing your eulogy today, what would you want them to say about you?' It's difficult because she gets you out of your comfort zone to examine yourself, your practice and your priorities."

Youngwirth says that such provocation aims to ensure that all aspects of the business reflect the advisor's vision. "Every business has a personality, which tends to be synonymous with the personality of senior management," she says. By uncovering the underlying personality, Youngwirth helps planners realign their personal and corporate visions, establish goals and develop a strategic blueprint for the future. For some, that means achieving better support in their organizations or delegating tasks to focus on their core competencies. For others, it means working fewer hours, spending more time with their families or even getting rid of a practice.

In Youngwirth's opinion, very few problems resist change, except maybe the resistance to change itself. Another obstacle, she says, is extreme conflict avoidance-when reps seek to play down conflict in the office, even when it involves a serious employee problem. "It's important that the consultant speak the language of the broker, to understand where that person is coming from," she says. "Often, they just need soak time to think things through. It's like they put on the pause button, then come back to the issue later."

Most consultations start with revisiting the business or "gain" plan, mission statement and corporate vision. But the amount of intervention is up to the advisor. "Some just want to bounce an idea off someone, and that could mean one simple phone call," Youngwirth says. "Others are interested in an ongoing coaching relationship that might consist of a 30-minute phone call every week for three months and several visits to their office."

Tobe recently asked for assistance in getting like-minded advisors together for a study group. Others, like Gagnon, are putting together a game plan for an acquisition or new hire. The key themes, says Youngwirth, are "efficiency, balance, passions, clients, staff."

Staffing is by far the most common intervention, and that's not surprising, Deitch says. "Great employees contribute multiples more than people who are merely good," he says. "Yet someone who is hiring on average one employee a year doesn't necessarily know what to look for."

The company uses a battery of tools, including personality profiling, to assess potential candidates. "We know that certain personality traits are absolutely essential to certain types of jobs," Youngwirth explains. "For example, a customer-service assistant must be detail-oriented by nature. They have to actually get excited about dotting the i's and crossing the t's. If you force a big-picture person into that position, they will be very unhappy."

Although new hires account for about 80% of human-resources interventions, Youngwirth also helps manage conflicts with existing employees, such as Monahan's longtime assistant who had become difficult and uncommunicative. "Joni came up here and spent the whole day with us, acting as a kind of mediator," says Monahan. "She spent a couple of hours with me and a couple hours with her, going over our personal goals and what we each wanted out of the relationship. The main result for me was that my employee realized I was serious and at the end of my rope."

Monahan was able to patch up the relationship, but Youngwirth also has encountered situations that go the other way. "After a period of time and a number of efforts, including feedback and performance reviews, they may decide to part ways. We always want to do this so that the employee understands the gap and is given the opportunity to change. The reality is that the rep needs to sit down and say, 'This is not working out,' but it's often the employee who leaves of their own accord."

The ultimate goal for Commonwealth is to free advisors' time so that they can spend it on activities that really enhance their businesses. "By encountering the same problems repeatedly, we're able to create more of a systems approach so that all of our reps can take advantage of new thinking," Youngwirth says.