The private nature of a family office creates a unique set of HR challenges.
On the one hand, you must find individuals with the right mix of skills, background, experience, and personality — something that’s more likely if you cast a wider net.
On the other hand, risk and reputation management are just as critical. Between the search and the vetting, the path to hiring a new candidate is long and stressful. Each player is acutely aware that a mistake could potentially compromise the family.
Recent research from Deloitte confirms that hiring and retention are on the list of top strategic priorities for family offices, even though more than half (57%) of participants have been with their current office for over 5 years. This would lead one to believe that locating new staff is the bigger challenge — while retention should take care of itself.
But you would be wrong to think that.
Retaining your best people while optimizing the use of your overall human capital is a critical puzzle for a family office to solve. In our experience of supporting family offices, we have seen some common threads that appear to make it or break it.
Here are the three factors you must address to earn the dedication, attention, and top productivity from your staff.
The complexity of running a family office could be compared with flying a fighter jet. Before take–off, the pilot goes through a detailed checklist and follows a standard operating procedures (SOP) manual. Your team may not be flying a jet today, but by borrowing this best practice you will see a tremendous improvement in consistency, accuracy and staff development.
You might ask what an SOP manual has to do with managing human resources?
For one, a formally documented set of procedures will help you set expectations across the office. It will ensure that professionals on your team have what they need to do their best every day. Finally, it will allow your people to stop reinventing the wheel — and create room for productive conversations about change.
Every family office has a story behind the decisions that have shaped the way the team works today. For example, “We don’t reconcile cost basis for investments,” or “We do manual entry of investment data into the general ledger”.
Your staff know these rules — but who made the decisions and why is probably a mystery. Full documentation will ensure that they have all the answers. It will also trigger a re-assessment any time there is a change in the ecosystem, like a new reporting requirement or a new service made available by a vendor.
There are several significant benefits to this approach. One, each rule is fully explained and well-understood. Two, your people will use this understanding to make smart recommendations for process improvement. Finally, they will experience greater fulfilment from seeing how their work contributes to the success of the entire office and ultimately the family or families they represent. This is a powerful way to make your staff feel appreciated and trusted.
Your people will rise and fall to the level of their training and your expectations.
So, it’s important to provide feedback continually, not just once a year. Consistency is a critical factor that can either reinforce or undermine your evaluations. Give some thought to how you measure staff performance — and maintain your standards across the entire team. Most people need help when receiving constructive criticism, but they’re more likely to accept it if they know that everyone is being treated equally.
It’s also a good idea to encourage one-on-one meetings to air grievances. Hear your people out. You may not be able to prevent or resolve every dissatisfaction, but there’s a lot you can do for retention if you simply listen.
A frank conversation with a member of your accounting team might reveal that they dislike the volume of mundane manual tasks that must get done every month. They would much rather spend their time researching tax strategies. Or they might want to work with a technology vendor to finally implement format changes on a mission-critical report. Or perhaps they’ve been wanting to sit in on an investment pitch meeting. To give your people the gift of opportunity, you must know what they want and be flexible.
Your team must work within the constraints of the tools available to them, just like any other family office.
But how did you get here in the first place?
Without doing a deep dive into theory, there are two basic ways your technology ecosystem can evolve. One is organic, whereby new functions and software solutions are added as needed. The second is intentional. You begin with a master vision for what must be accomplished — and choose technology that matches.
While neither way is inherently right or wrong, there’s tremendous value in doing a strategic inventory of your technology choices every 3 – 4 years. Remember that any solution, whether off-the-shelf, custom-made, or home-grown, is ultimately just a tool.
In our line of work, we witness the power of inertia and resistance to change every day. We’ve seen it become an anchor that keeps family offices from reaching optimal levels of productivity and efficiency. Your people are extremely valuable — but do their assignments reflect that value? And do they have the right tools to do their best work?
Let’s use manual entry of data as an example.
In any family office, general ledger accounting and investment reporting are critical to ensuring that investment and tax decisions support the family’s goals. But there isn’t one ultimate way of representing these numbers. The data and methodology required for general ledger accounting is different from what’s needed for portfolio accounting.
There’s certainly some overlap — but the representation of these numbers isn’t the same across different uses. One method for solving this puzzle is to assign in-house accountants to manually enter investment data into the general ledger. While that gets the job done and keeps your people busy, it’s hardly the best use of an accountant’s time!
So, we are back to point #2 above. Talk to your staff. Encourage them to explore new service and software offerings that become available. Your staff is your front line of defense — and a source of elegant solutions that can save you time and money (and improve their job satisfaction along the way).
Creating an environment that attracts top professionals and earns their dedication and best efforts is a never-ending spiral of gradual re-assessment and improvement.