Our guest is COO Alliance Member Gabe Muller, COO at Glassman Wealth Services.
One of the most important assets a company has is its employee. Proving to be a great place that takes care of their employees is Glassman Wealth Services. An intense focus on firm-development has earned Glassman Wealth the title of Best Places to Work in the Washington, DC area from the Washingtonian, Inc. and Washington Business Journal. Crucial to this success is Glassman Wealth Services’ COO, Gabe Muller. Gabe shares how hiring the right type of people who understand that they’re in the people business, together with doing a good job in identifying the ideal clients could make the company efficient and profitable. Gabe leads and manages firm-wide business operations with their CEO’s vision, supporting him in sustaining the drive among team members and clients in their organizational success.
Glassman Wealth Services COO Gabe Muller
We’re talking with Gabe Muller. Gabe is also a COO Alliance member and has been a COO Alliance member for the past years. He’s also the Chief Operating Officer of Glassman Wealth Services, a boutique wealth management firm in Vienna, Virginia. Gabe played a crucial role in building out the phenomenal culture at classroom involved services, which earned them the number one best place to work award, placing them in the top 25 small companies, best places to work in the US. They attribute this award to their ability to invest in their people, foster an environment of passion and curiosity in tandem with their employee’s innate desire to thrive. They believe their success firmly has been a byproduct of hiring properly and ensuring once they’re on board, their people feel valued and appreciated. I’m looking forward to learning from Gabe. Welcome to the show, Gabe.
Cameron, thanks for having me.
We did an interview with you and then you came to one of the COO Alliance national events and you did a ten-minute talk at the event. We were blown away with some of the content you delivered there. Before we dive into that, I want you to do to give us a little bit of background of yourself, where you got your skills over the years as a second in command. Tell us a little bit about Glassman Wealth Services and some of the cultures you’re known for.
I went to Ball State, which is in Indiana. I graduated with an accounting degree. As I graduated from college, I realized I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be an accountant. I decided to start looking within the financial planning industry, perhaps a fee-only financial planning to get an entry-level position into how that business operated. I was fascinated by how you could be a small business and how you can start developing teams. I had come across a firm down in Fort Myers, Florida, an entry-level position and started my career there. I learned this business inside for about a few years. At that mark, I decided to expand my horizons and look elsewhere.
I went on to Craigslist and found a blind ad to join what is now Glassman Wealth. At the time, I didn’t know who it was. After a few phone calls with Barry and a few others, they flew me to Glassman Wealth here in the Washington DC area at the corner of Virginia. I had an entire day interview. I went back home that evening and on the flight home, I received an offer from Barry. At that point in time, I made my mind up quickly that I’m going to go ahead and go out on a limb and take this risk. From all indications, I loved what I heard and how we interacted during that day and here we are. It was a quick turnaround. I’ve moved from Fort Myers, Florida to Virginia within about seven days of accepting the offer. I didn’t look back and I haven’t ever since. It was one of those risks I took and here we are. It’s been a fun ride thus far. Going from 2011, we were around $280 million to about $1.3 billion in assets under management now. It’s been a fun ride.
Everyone in Virginia in the Baby Boomer demographic is trying to move to Fort Myers. You turned around and went back.
Everyone says that and I said, “I was tired of that hot weather down there. I wanted some activity up in the DC area.”
What was it about a blind ad on Craigslist that attracted you? There had to have been something in that ad you saw. What was there?
It was the description of what they were looking for as far as the skill set. It described exactly what I was doing to the T, even down to the software programs within the financial planning industry to the CRMs that we have. It was identical to what I was doing. It was in a different location and it happened to be where I wanted to go. Before I left Fort Myers, I had come up with a plan to present to my CEO at that time to, “Let’s see if we can open up a satellite office up in the DC area.” What I wrote out was exactly what I’ve started doing at this point. It’s ironic to see how it worked, but I’m a big believer in putting on paper what it is you believe in, then seeing how you could create goals to achieve that.
Are you going to open a satellite in Fort Myers?
I don’t think so.
Tell me about the interview process and what you saw in the posting. Did you come on as the second in command right away? Did you come in as a more senior role or entry level role?
I came in 2011 in the client service role doing what I was doing down in Fort Myers, working with clients, working with advisors in that client service role. I was in meetings with clients here and there. Most of my job was to make sure the advisors’ lives were easier as a result of what I was doing for them. I learned from the Glassman side of things how they were operating and figured out ways to add value and to learn the client base and work with the team. When I started, we had four other people. I was the 5th person. As my role developed, I enjoyed taking on different tasks and trying to come up with solutions in leading different efforts, whether it was we need to look at this new software program or have we ever thought about doing something this way? I dove in and started to apply myself in different areas. As that continued to happen, that’s when my CEO, Barry, decided to start looking at me as more of a leadership role and how can we transition into more of a COO level of role.
When did you move in from the customer-facing role into the COO role?
I’ve been a COO now for a few years, so it was about a few years into my role here. The interesting part about that is going back to my previous point as part of putting this on paper. We were going through a lot of internal discussions. We had a few consultants working with us. How do we develop our team? How do we develop the structure of the firm? How do we develop career paths? What I did was took that as an opportunity and said, “I know what I’m doing, but this is what we might need. We need a COO.” I work with some of our consultants and I came up with a role description for the COO of this type of firm.
It took me a while and it took me weeks, probably months to come up with the solid plan one-pager, “Here’s what we need and here’s why.” We presented that to Barry and I said, “This is what we need and here’s why I believe that. What do you think?” In my mind, I was hoping that, “This would be an opportunity to move into.” What I said was, “Hopefully it is me, but if it’s not, this is what you need.” That’s how I was able to work my way up into a COO role. I’m putting a lot of thought behind what it is we needed for a firm.
I love the fact you did it saying, “I hope it’s me,” but you didn’t describe it completely as you see. You weren’t pushing them into that space, but maybe not. The onboarding is different from bringing an outsider in. How did you transition? What were some of the steps or things that maybe happened to help you transition from the client-facing role to the COO role in the first few months?
That was a challenging time for me. Not to say there haven’t been others since then, but it sticks out in my mind. At one point in time, you’re doing this role as a client service position, then overnight you have a different title. I’m not concerned about the title so much as the responsibility that comes with them. It was one of those things where I was leaning into and tapping into the consultants I had around me and having them help me. How do we design messages? How do we articulate what it is we need to have done? How do we work with people of different personalities? How do we do all of that?
I was using my consultants to leverage their expertise to learn that. Shortly after, I was able to join the Charles Schwab Executive Leadership Program. That was something where Barry and I had discussed this for a while and he said, “This would be a great opportunity.” It was a year-long program with professors from the Ross School of Business, MIT and a few others. For an entire year, I was with a cohort of about 30 different people around the country in similar roles. Some of which were CEOs. We learned about positive leadership, talent management, innovation, entrepreneurship and marketing. It was five courses split up over that entire year. That was the foundation as to moving into the COO role because it covers many different areas.
You guys definitely believe in leadership development and growing your people. Barry and I met at one of the four masterminds that I’m a member of. I invest about $90,000 a year myself attending mastermind groups. Barry put you into the COO Alliance a year ago. He’s investing heavily in you. It’s not a cheap program when you add up the national, the fees, the travel and hotels and stuff. What is it about the leadership development you guys believe in? Do you carry that across the rest of the team as well?
Barry putting in a massive amount of investment into me and the leadership development is something I’m grateful for and forever will be. It’s something where it doesn’t only apply within the business, but it applies in your entire life. It’s cool that I answered that Craigslist ad back in 2011. As far as having that mindset across the firm, it does permeate throughout the firm. We encourage everyone to be as curious as possible.
It goes to everything we do. Whether it’s someone going to a conference to learn something more about a particular area of the business or whether that’s joining a club in the area that they can start connecting and creating connections or networks within what they do. Even down to the client situations where there’s this particular situation that’s happening. How can we make this better? What should we do? What are the options we have that we perhaps haven’t explored yet? It’s this whole, “What if, why not mindset.” Honestly, everyone on the team has that quality about them. That does start with finding the right people during the interview process.
Tell us about the interview process. Tell us what you look for, how your process works.
It depends on the role. We always say we’re always looking for the next upgrade. If we’re looking for advisers, we’re looking into our networks. We’re looking in the groups we’re a part of. It’s not about what their GPA is or what their degrees are. It’s determining what they’re passionate about and how they like to create impact. It’s finding the right type of person and then putting them through a standardized process that each person we interview, we’re getting the similar type of information that we can make a decision. Apples to apples as far as what it is this person could offer and what we could offer them.
It depends on the person’s mindset and behavior. We have a whole slew of questions we like to go through during the interview process to make sure we’re honing in what it is we want to learn about that person. We also use things like Kolbe. We don’t use it as far as finding something on Kolbe and excluding them. It’s more of something that says, “This is how this person behaves and interacts and problem solved.” Let’s learn more about that.” It’s more of a conversation driver than it is excluding someone because of that or including them either way. I’m a big fan of mindset and behavior questions because it gets to the core of who that person is.
One last thing on that and this is something I learned from Barry, but one of our favorite questions to ask of somebody during the interview processes is what your favorite app is? Who have you told about it? There are a lot of things you can learn by that simple question, but if they have a favorite app, were they curious enough to find it? Who did they tell about it? You understand if they like to create value for other people. While they’re telling you that story, you can learn how they are able to articulate a story. There’s a lot within that simple question you can learn about somebody.
That’s a huge skill. Do you train your employees on interviewing? What you touched on, 95% of the companies miss completely, which is the answer to the question isn’t that’s the whole interview anyway. It’s how they’re responding, how they look when they’re responding, how they think through their response, some of the answers behind their responses and the probing on the responses. Do you tend to train your employees on those types of interview skills?
Over the past two or three hires, we have done a much better job of sitting down, briefing that conversation prior to that person arriving. Me going through, “This is what so and so in our office is going to try to uncover and go deeper into. Here are some areas where someone else can go into so that we do not have overlap. At the same time, when we ask that type of question, we’re not looking for this specific answer. We’re looking for all of that. That is something we’re working on. I will tell you that based on a few years ago to now, there’s a drastic difference. It’s produced some phenomenal hires. The past two in our office have been phenomenal. We went through that interview process at a methodical and thoughtful way that we weren’t rushing anything.
You are definitely thinking through the whole front-end of the process. The part I was blown away with and the rest of the members of the COO Alliance were blown away with at our event was how you onboard the clients. You do some creative things in terms of the onboarding that applies to your culture. Can you explain those to us and walk me through it?
Our client experiences are directly correlated with that of our employee experience. We can’t expect our employees to deliver a phenomenal client experience if we can’t do the same for them. What we’ve started doing with clients is we set the stage from our first interaction as far as what the expectations can be. Anywhere from how your prospect meeting might go to the follow-up, you’re going to get to the video you might get in between interactions. That mindset we tried to apply back to the employee experience as well.
Do you lay that out to the employees in their interview process? Are you telling them in advance? Was that the customer part you’re bringing in?
That’s a client experience part. If we’re doing that for clients, I can only expect our employees to do that for clients if we do the same for them. What I mean by that is when we’re going through an interview process with somebody we’re looking to hire, I want to do everything in my power to set their expectations as far as next steps and what they can expect in the future. Even through the interview process but then from day one from the point in which they decide to accept our offer to join our firm. There are a few people in our office that came up with this idea, “Why don’t we build them a custom webpage?” The employee, that is. Build them a custom webpage that says, “We can’t wait to have you start. We’re thrilled that you accepted our offer.” We even on the webpage put on a countdown clock. I’ll record a video for them and embed that into the webpage and send that to them as, “We’re looking forward to having you start with us.”
This is their custom web page now that has a lot of the details of their onboarding?
Within that page, we’ve already articulated the 30, 60, 90-day plan so they know what they can expect three months into their job already. They also know everything from the benefits they can look forward to, any questions they might have, things we typically hear, to our recommendations on videos, books, podcasts, articles, our vision statement, values, behaviors. We try to set the stage that whenever they walk in, what they experienced on that website matches exactly what they find internally. That’s true within marketing too. You want to bring your personality out online. We do that with these custom web pages for these new employees that are coming on board. Somebody in our office said, “Why don’t we do this?”
I said, “Let’s go for it. Let’s see what we can do. She came up with this phenomenal way in which we can do it, which is scalable. When you start working with WordPress, you can duplicate and have a template and it’s simple. On those web pages, we ask the person who is going to be joining us, “We’d love to know some questions about you and get to know you a little bit better.” We have a short survey that we can customize their experience as they’re on-boarded as well. That same philosophy is what we do for our clients. Employee experience is directly correlated with that. It’s client experience and vice versa. That’s the way in which we operate around here.
You guys are clearly doing something right in attracting talent. I want to go back even to a quick question I had when Barry was trying to attract you in that first role a few years ago. What was it that made you say yes to a job offer the same day you went into the interview?
It comes down to the personalities that were in the firm and the people, but also the authenticity. When I walked into Glassman Wealth, I had this different feel to it. It had this feeling where I’ve been in the financial planning industry for a few years. To me, it always seemed like I walk in and you do your job and then you go home. When I came to Glassman, there was energy in the office that permeated and Barry is an infectious person with that type of energy and I felt that. Something in my gut told me this was the right thing and I go with my gut on a lot and that was one of those things.
We were talking about when the CEO had been gone for several days and there were some experiences you were going through when he was gone. Can you walk us through that? How you lead a company when the CEO is absent or how do you lead it when allowing him to stay in his unique ability on vision?
That’s been a work in progress, but also something that has been set forth via the vision from Barry for a few years at this point, if not longer. The vision was we need to create an organization that is, “Bigger than Barry.” In order to do that, we need to leverage his unique abilities as well, which is he communicates well with people. He can share messages in such a phenomenal way. If that’s the case, what can other people do on the team that he’s not going to be then doing? That was where the COO role came in. While he’s out of the office, everyone on the team understands we have to move this forward. We have to continue to create an impact and add value to our clients’ lives. In doing that, we have to step up and lead these different efforts because Barry is not going to do it.
That’s what he’s relying on us to do. Having him physically gone provides a lot of opportunities for different people to step up and fulfill their role. For example, while he was gone at one point in time, we had a team meeting without our CEO there. We only have thirteen employees, but at the same time we’re having a team meeting without him present, which sends a lot of different messages. At the same time, people that came to that meeting still knew it was a serious thing. We were there to accomplish something and that was the productive time we need to make sure we capitalized on. Having him removed adds opportunity and allows for people to fulfill what it is they’re hired to do and what they’re here to do.
How do you and Barry divide and conquer? What are your roles and what are his roles? What are both of your Kolbe profiles? I’m curious if you know what his Kolbe profile is and yours and how that differentiates between both sets as well.
Barry and I went through the Kolbe process with the entire team. We have a spreadsheet with scores in the entire team. We then combine that with the StrengthsFinder as well. We know the top strength of each person plus their Kolbe score. For Barry and me, it’s ironic in that his Kolbe score was 3-3-9-4 and my Kolbe was also 3-3-9-4. Knowing that, it has added a heightened sense of awareness from my part. I know that Barry’s profile’s very much like mine and vice versa. That means I need to do and communicate with him in a way he is going to understand when we’re problem-solving or how we’re going to work together.
The Kolbe for us has shed light on what it is we need to be aware of. Not particularly to maybe change anything but be aware of it and learn how to communicate with each other in different ways. I think of a COO role very much of an integrator fashion. When I learned of the Kolbe and what my profile came back as, I thought, “This makes so much sense.” There were points in time where Barry and I were coming at something the same exact way versus having a compliment as far as what we are looking to do. For me to have that heightened sense of awareness has been super important. We talked about it almost on a weekly basis.
It’s good to be aware of the way you start projects with Kolbe talks about how we start things. Are your StrenghtsFinders similar or were those different?
Our StrengthsFinder are similar as well. He has positivity wooing futuristic in his top five as I do. It’s eerie, but at the same time it’s cool. We do think of things in a similar way, but I’m working hard to make sure I’m providing him the compliment as much as I possibly can in a way in which we approach problem-solving.
In most cases, the CEO and COO have different personality profiles. In your case, you guys are virtually identical. Does it force you to approach projects or approach the business in a different way? One thing you said is you’re aware of each other, what you learn from their skills, aware of the way it works. Does it force you to think outside of the box in a different way knowing you might be missing some of the focus on systems or the focus on asking questions when you’re both high quick starts?
It does. I will tell you the way in which I’ve tried to combat that. Awareness, but tapping the people that are around me to help with that. We have a phenomenal team here. I love every single person on our team. We have great advisors and everyone here has their own unique abilities. We have vice presidents on our team who I can consult with, bounce ideas off of, take what’s happening and discuss it with them. They’re completely the opposite of Barry and me. What I tried to do is not solve everything and not try to think of it all by myself but tap the people who I know have that skill set and then work together and collaborate. They’re good at that. They might see something different than I did and we have that conversation and we will work through it in a methodical way. It’s trying to tap other people who have that skill set, but also having awareness around it.
You guys have got, in terms of the industry that you’re in, an insanely high asset under management per employee number. Without giving your trade secrets away, what is it you’re doing that has allowed you to be efficient and profitable?
Number one is hiring the right person. People who stay away from complacency, who embrace technology, who believe in innovation, who believe in culture and core values and behaviors and those that understand we’re in the people business. At the same time, we do a good job of identifying our ideal clients and working with them in a nominal way. We do stick to a $2 million minimum so that we can maintain that advisor to client ratio. That’s something we focus on because if we try to be everything to everyone, we’re not going to be anything to anyone. Focusing on that is super important, but it starts with the type of people we hire, those that embrace change and have the ability to adapt.
It’s that old adage of one A player replaces three Cs. You’re able to get away with less by hiring the right people and hiring the strong people. How do you and Barry stay on the same page? What are Barry’s roles in the organization and what are your roles? What functional areas does he oversee? Which ones do you oversee?
Barry and I stay on the same page by having a rhythm of meetings. Every quarter we’ll meet around compliance. Every quarter we’ll meet around marketing. On a monthly basis, we’ll go through financials. We do have set times that we know we’re meeting, we know what we’re going to be talking about and we work towards that. As far as the functional areas of the business, at this point in the game, Barry’s vision for what we need to do as a firm is phenomenal. He sets the vision and I set the operational tactics and strategies to get and achieve that vision.
What we’ve done is we created a 2018 vision. We have goals and tactics that will allow us to achieve that. We check in as a team almost on a quarterly basis to see where we are. Barry envisioned me as the operational executive, making sure we’re hiring the right people, developing the right people and having purposeful meetings with everyone as far as how they can develop. How their career paths developed and what it is we’re looking to have them do.
I love that you talked about the different meeting rhythms that you have in place. I tried to cover that in depth in my second book Meetings Suck. What meetings do you and Barry have to keep yourself on the same page? Do you have a weekly meeting and coaching meeting? Are there one-on-ones? Do you get offsite together? What do you do to stay on the same page or to stay in sync?
We’ll typically have a one-on-one and most of the time would be over lunch, probably once a month. We have the great ability to go up a few flights of stairs here and there’s a beautiful spot up there that we’re able to disconnect from everyone else and regroup, see where we stand as far as mindset. Check in with each other. That was something we didn’t have a habit around years ago and now we do. If he’s traveling and things like that, having the ability to check in, send a quick text, see how things are going, making sure there’s an open line of communication in real time in the event we need to discuss something. We do a good job of staying in touch with each other and making sure we are on the same page. It comes in the form of one-on-one at this point. That is also something I do with almost everyone on our team is have weekly one-on-ones and that consist of about 30-minute meetings and we discuss goals, development and mindset. Check in with each employee, making sure we’re on the right path. I had a one-on-one with one of our newest hires to see how things were going and set a few things in place. Those constant meetings are happening and drive deepening culture.
Talk a little bit about how your one-on-one works with your employees. I’m big on those. Tell me about how those work.
It’s different for every employee, which is a challenge for me. I do have to make sure I’m 100% present for each person in their own way. We do have people on the team who like to come prepared with a structured list of we’re going to cover this and this. We have others that sit down, have maybe some small chat here and there, but then we get into some in-depth things and I’m able to provide them some feedback and check in with them that way. It does range and it’s cool, but at the same time always making sure the conversation is productive, meaning there’s action on the other side of it. We check in on that the following week to see where we stand. I’ve been trying to customize how those one-on-ones are approached based on how that person likes to receive information.
Do your employees ever push back on the one-on-ones or do they like them?
When they first start with us, most people will sit down and we’ll start going through what a one-on-one is and what they can expect. Most of the time, the feedback I receive is, “I don’t understand what these one-on-ones are going to be,” and we talked through that week over week. At some point in time it’s like, “I can’t wait until that one-on-one.” Our firm is unique in that I do think everybody enjoys them. Everyone does keep on schedule. They’re already on the calendar. I rarely have anybody miss it. Those meetings, at some point in time go long. I need to get better at keeping us on track probably. At the same time, I like to allow people to share what it is that’s important to them that I can understand what they’re saying that I can help them. Having that active listening component is super important.
Tell us in terms of what you’re pulling out of the COO Alliance. What are some of the great skills or insights you’ve been able to pull out of the COO Alliance? What are you working on personally in terms of your skill development going forward?
The COO Alliance for me, there are many different dynamic pieces to it. Outside of being there coming back to the firm and sharing with the team your book Meetings Suck and saying, “This is something we need to do.” Everyone on the team read the book and now that is something that has been taking place as far as setting the agenda, sending out in advance, making sure everybody’s there up for the purpose. Those things are happening. This last session I was at with Joel Weldon talking through how to structure messages to people and how to communicate in the most powerful way. That’s something I hope to focus on more intentionally over the next year or two.
I believe it does apply not only to your team, but to the world, to any audience you’re speaking to. Being intentional with the word you’re using. That’s something we discussed and having Joel at those meetings providing feedback in a real-time setting after ten-minute talks, to me has been super powerful. You often don’t think about it and you can get up and share your message and feel good about it. Joel, I feel he spoke to me in that you need to be intentional with your words. Much like coming back from the COO Alliance and saying, “I feel we could change this and this.” What if I came back and I said, “We can perhaps improve here and here. What do you think?” It’s those small little nuances that he did a great job of outlining something that came to my mind. It’s like, “I need to work on that over the next few years.”
What do you think has been the biggest learning you’ve had over your few years you’d like to pass on to any second in commands or any good leaders out there?
It comes down to two different areas. Number one is having an incredible sense of self-awareness. Number two, understanding what you see is often much more than that. Being able always to say, “There’s got to be more. There’s got to be something else there we can do.” Whether that’s working with people, if they’re going through challenges, approaching it from an empathy standpoint saying, “There’s got to be something going on in that person’s mind that we got to learn more about so that we can help them.” On the other side, if a person is absolutely killing it, what can we do more of so that they can excel even further? It’s always having that sense of awareness around those issues.
It’s good that you’ve got that. You are doing an amazing job with your culture. It’s certainly apparent with the awards, but even more so when we pull you into the National COO Alliance Program and you’re sitting around with these peers of another second in commands. They’re all scribbling notes as you’re talking about what you had done with some of your onboarding and interviewing and doing a great job.
Thank you so much.
Thanks very much for sharing all the insights. I appreciate it. Say hi to Barry for me.
Will do, Cameron. Thank you so much for having me. I enjoyed it.
About Gabe Muller
Building and growing businesses through tactical planning is what I do best as a strategy consultant known for creating innovative solutions to optimize the client experience. After more than a decade of proven success in increasing revenue and assets under management for wealth management firms as an operations executive at large financial services institutions, I wanted to do more. In 2018 I launched Muller Consulting Services with the intention of sharing the extensive knowledge I acquired during my executive career.
As founder and CEO of Muller Consulting Services, I help organizations to create a remarkable client experience by focusing on human capital, technology, marketing & branding and communication strategies. When you work with me, you can expect one-on-one attention, laser-targeted solutions and a commitment to excellence. I’m with you every step of the way to keep each project and activity on track.
I draw on a unique background in financial services. Most recently I was appointed City Forum Alliance Regional Chair for professional training and coaching services organization, COO Alliance, where I provided COOs with the support and resources to competitively position their companies. Before COO Alliance I served as COO of a wealth management services firm, steering the company’s vision and business strategy. During my tenure I played a key role in taking the firm from $280M to $1.5B in assets under management. If growth is your goal, I’ll shape and execute the strategy to get you there.