The Balancing Act

By Jennifer Salopek

Oct. 29, 2008

As LPL Financial’s head of human capital, Denise Abood is responsible for everything that relates to the company’s relationship with its 3,000 employees—training and organizational development, human resources, compensation and benefits, even real estate and facilities. This comprehensive approach, bringing together all of the hard and soft elements that shape the employment contract, is typical Abood.

    She will tell you up front that she’s a Libra, astrologically driven by the sign of the scales, and an eternal optimist. She says she is “completely passionate about people,” and has crafted a career path that combines balance sheets with work/life balance and other employee engagement touchstones. At LPL since January 2007, Abood has forged her own job description with an intense focus on improving—and lengthening—the company’s relationships with its employees.

Focusing on development and retention
    LPL Financial is one of the nation’s leading financial services companies and largest independent broker-dealer. The company has experienced double-digit growth for the past 15 years, and now employs nearly 3,000 people in its core business serving independent financial advisors. Such rapid growth has generated a new commitment to employee training, development, and retention.

    There have been significant challenges to overcome. As recently as two years ago, LPL’s employee attrition rates were hovering around 25 percent. As it grew and acquired other companies, including UVEST Financial Services, its business model became more complex, requiring more from its employees. Yet, because of turnover and rapid hiring, more than half of the employees were new to the company at any given time. Many were being thrust into management and leadership roles for which they were unprepared. More than 50 percent work on the front line, as phone representatives or processors, forging crucial customer relationships.

    Abood was chief financial officer of UVEST and point person for the due-diligence process during the acquisition. This gave her a close look at the acquiring company and its leadership, and helped her decide to accept LPL’s job offer.

    The role was created for her. She was given a blank slate to create her own job description, driven by an overarching goal: LPL had been very focused on its external business, and needed to turn its focus inward. It needed to show that it recognized employees as a valuable asset, but 53 percent of the workforce had been there less than a year.

    “For me, it was a real opportunity to combine my passion for people with my business and financial expertise … an opportunity to run an internal business that brings the interpersonal and the financial together and watch it grow,” Abood says.

    Abood earned her bachelor of arts degree in business administration from Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio. She had served previously as chief financial officer for the TIG Insurance Co. commercial division, chief operating officer at PricewaterhouseCoopers Financial Solutions, and head of the technology business office at Wachovia.

    Sheila Hunter, senior vice president of human resources, worked with Abood at PwC and joined LPL in order to work with her again. “Denise has a management style that combines linear thinking with vision,” Hunter says. “Her CFO background helps the human capital organization with ‘street cred’ within the business.”

    Abood agrees, and says she leverages that advantage: “My background brings credibility that opens people’s ears; people listen to my perspective.”

    Jodi Gold worked as an external consultant to LPL for 12 years before signing on last year as senior vice president of organizational development and training.

    “The last couple of years have not been typical,” she says. “The company is now making an overall commitment to its employees in general. Leadership is working to understand the relationship between employee training and development, employee satisfaction and business success, and as such has made a big investment in the human capital group.”

Broad strokes
   Under Abood’s leadership, Hunter and Gold have been working to develop an infrastructure to support and guide LPL’s employees through the career relationship. In the training area, the focus is on developing mandatory, brand-related training in values and actions, such as onboarding, communications and harassment prevention; customer service skills and financial knowledge; and management and leadership development. Whereas previously five to 10 people had worked in human capital, Abood now supervises a staff of 100. Their capabilities are supplemented by the judicious use of external consultants.

    “This is a totally new function,” Gold says. “We are focused on the broad strokes, using internal people to work on the basics, and bringing in external consultants to partner with them. In order to determine the need, we ask ourselves, ‘How long is the training need? What is the driver? Does the training require specialized expertise? Do we need external perspective or credibility in order to sell something new within the organization?’ ”

    Gold and Hunter are jointly responsible for onboarding. “Previously, new employees faced baptism by fire hose, and were left to sink or swim,” Hunter jokes. “Now we give them a boat and a map.” The new onboarding program includes detailed background on the business and its channels and organizational charts for every area; responsibility is shared between the employee and his or her manager.

    The organization has also focused on creating career-path guides for various functions, beginning with the compliance area. The guides illustrate the many facets of each job and illustrate possible lateral and promotion paths.

    “That’s been an education for people in and of itself,” says Abood, who reports that all training and development efforts are driven by a new focus on performance management. “We had a very subjective system before. You do have to have a meaningful structure, but we want to provide guardrails, not bureaucracy.” Some 700 people within LPL recently received training on performance management.

    “We’re just getting people to understand talent management and succession planning,” Gold says. “The company has always used people on a project basis; now we’re engaging in conversations about long-term needs.” Next steps include a reworked compensation structure that aligns pay with performance. Through her leadership, Abood enables these initiatives, ensures their funding and educates other company leaders as to their importance. Having come up through the financial ranks, she has done some learning of her own.

    “I have learned that training and development are extremely critical. Employees must be trained and must understand their career paths. Organizational development is a massive responsibility: How will we lead and motivate our people? How do we prepare for the future? How do we think strategically? I didn’t realize how quickly you can impact that curve,” she says.

    Abood never leaves her financial training behind, however. “I torture people with financial questions, and am very aware of ROI issues. But I believe that there is so much power in information if we look at data in a certain way.”

    She admits that “human capital” is an impersonal term.

    “I would change it if I could,” she says. “When we were creating this position, I researched titles online, and that’s what the big companies were using.”

    Although it’s now a big company, LPL Financial still thinks like a small one in many ways. Abood makes frequent references to “Mark and Esther”—that’s Mark Casady, chairman and CEO, and Esther Stearns, president and COO.

    “LPL feels like a family business; and its culture has enabled my position and my ability to be effective. We are very focused on cultural integration, and I am a living, breathing example of Mark and Esther’s commitment to people,” Abood says.

    She wants to share that good fortune: “I always want to be in touch with and positively affecting our employees’ psyches and their profitability,” she says, describing herself as a “high-energy” manager who delegates well, doesn’t micromanage, and will volunteer for anything—which is how she ended up with payroll and mail services on her plate.

    Hunter thinks it’s a good thing: “Corporate facilities, office locations, look and feel, building amenities—all of those things have an effect on our culture,” she says.

    In the near future, Abood plans to do pulse surveys of employees. She wants to know more about how they view LPL’s progress—but she knows things are on the upswing.

    “I feel way better now than I did a year and a half ago,” she says.

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