Guest Blog: Building Teams Essential to Building Your Business


If there is one thing I’m passionate about when it comes to business practices, it is the concept of teamwork. At Merrill Lynch, I have cultivated a team that is effective and collaborative. It didn’t happen overnight, but I’m positive it is the key to our continued success over the past 34 years.

When I started as an entry-level employee, I didn’t know much about finance or business, but I was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam and knew a lot about the importance of working together as a team. In the military, everything — including your life — is dependent on teams. Everyone has to be proficient at his or her job.

One of the things I learned in the military is everyone has strengths and weaknesses. To build an effective team, you need to maximize those strengths and minimize the weaknesses. I know who the best salespeople are on the team and the best closers. There are some who aren’t as adept at business development, but have other talents they bring to the team as administrators or portfolio reviewers.

I think there are three essential traits to a good team: honesty and integrity, work ethic, and chemistry. They all hold equal weight. None is more important than the others.

Honesty and integrity speaks for themselves. Our team members must uphold the highest ethical standards at all times.

Work ethic is key, as well. When I address a group of trainees, I tell them that every person in the room has the capability of being successful or they wouldn’t be here, but 80 to 90 percent will still fail. Why? They aren’t willing to pay the price and put in the hours.

For example, we have 170 physician clients who need to come in at night or on the weekends, so we have four people in the office each weekday through 8 p.m., and at least two people on Saturday. Our team is large enough that each employee needs to work only one night a week and four hours one Saturday a month. I do it, too. It’s important to lead by example. I never ask anyone to do anything I wouldn’t do because I need to set the pace. I set goals for myself and work hard to achieve them just as I expect my team members to do.

When it comes to the third essential ingredient to a successful team — chemistry — I’m an extremist. Since we spend most of our time with our colleagues, people not only have to get along, they have to like each other. I started a policy when we first formed our team and have never deviated from it: after a potential new hire’s probationary period is over, the entire team must be unanimous in the decision to bring the new person on board. Just one dissenting vote means we pass on hiring the candidate.

Just like any organization, teams need reinforcement. Although we all like each other, we rarely socialize after work, with one exception: In the summer, we close the office on a Thursday afternoon, leaving a skeleton crew, and go up north to (a) camp for three days. There is no business talk, we just enjoy each other’s company, golf, play tennis, fish for trout, play bocce ball, or just relax.

There are big benefits derived from having a cohesive team — one of which is that everyone gets a partner. When your partner is out of the office, it’s your job to be in the office and vice versa. We tend to pair up veterans with younger people so our clients get used to hearing from them. If I had (left) five years ago, a large number of clients would have left. Today, that’s not going to happen because my partner, Nicole Holmes, communicates with these clients more than I do.

We never do a presentation alone. You are far more successful having two, maybe three people at a presentation. Just having a couple people supporting you, seems to help change the energy in a room.

I’m very pleased with every member of my team. No doubt most businesses get hung up on numbers, but people should come first. If you have the right people, the numbers will follow, and each year we have exceeded our goals and continue to do so.

John Kulhavi is a Merrill Lynch wealth management advisor and the managing director of the Kulhavi Wealth Management Team of Farmington Hills.