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BirdsEye View

building a culture for success

Quote of the week: "If five people tell you you have a tail, turn around and look at your butt".

The article below is another offering in my series aimed at "making more with what we've got", a central topic for 2009. I hope you'll find it useful and actionable.

TARP has also continued to play a central role in discussions in the Forums, board rooms and our second conference call on the subject. While so many feel it's a given we'll take it, the angst about potential government involvement in our business is growing fast, especially since section 5.3 has been brought to light.

On the personal side, Dick visited Paul for the fraternity's "father and son" weekend, and I'm busily preparing the menu for Thanksgiving. Everyone is coming home and I'm very excited! Everyone has crammed hard the last two weeks for midterms, and is easing up slightly now that they are over. Liat is working on an application to do a summer internship in Bhutan, studying the country's medical practices and system. That would be such fun! My guide and friend from our last visit to that magical kingdom, Sonam, is giving a hand. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

Football has been a sore subject in our house the past two weeks. Two games ago the team led, with Arik's active help, yet lost to an inferior team at the end. Last Thursday, we were ahead 21 to 7 by half-time, only to lose again. How disheartening. On the positive side, Arik has been voted by his team-mates MVP offensive player AND defensive back. What an honor! I'm very proud of him!

Article synopsis: A strong culture can make all the difference.

Building a Culture for Success

An organization's culture is its soil, from which success grows with nurturing, feeding, watering and care. It could range from loam to dessert sand. During these challenging times, in the quest to make more with what we've got, working on your culture is an opportunity for improved profits. This intangible, when tended to, can lift your performance to the next level.

The cornerstone of successful companies and brands is a strong emotional connection to customers. Banks have notoriously been poor in creating such a connection. A strong culture can bring a bank and its customers closer, but the first pre-requisite is to get your own employees involved.

Ask yourself the question: Is there a sense of community inside your bank? Surprisingly, while the culture itself is often difficult to define and describe, the answer to the above question is clear to most bankers as they examine their own institutions.

How does one create such a sense of community? Think of your own family and what binds it together. Often, it's not the obligations family members feel toward each other. It's the common memories and goals that weave a strong sense of belonging to most families. Organizations are no different. They need memories, corporate lore, great stories of feats and achievements, to emotionally connect employees to their company with a strong sense of pride and identity.

A culture involves its own language and symbols, and an unshakable core of values. Companies that have been through some sales training programs often mention the unique language associated with their program. The sales program becomes the binding force since folks have been through the training together, have memories of the events related to the learning and execution of the program, and have their own way of communicating about it.

Establishing a high performance culture requires these stories and words as they depict your few, unshakable values. Determine what these values are and share them loudly with your team. Start from your employee orientation, where the soul of the company is shared. A recent conversation with a bell hop brought the point home to me yet again. He mentioned how powerful the hotel's orientation program was. We spent the first two days just walking throughout the hotel, talking about its history, understanding the service level we are so proud of. We also had lunch with the hotel manager. That was very meaningful to me. Experiencing the company, be it a hotel or a bank, is the first step to inculcating a culture into employees, yet so many of us are mealy mouthed and unclear about who we are and what we stand for.

Typical banks' employee orientation is more about administration and far less about our bank and its heritage. Disney, for example, not only includes a Disney video in its employee application process but also a most explicit spelling out of the job expectations at the company. That specificity helps weed ill-fitting prospective employees out of the bank before they create internal discord.

Offer employee testimonials in your orientation and on your website; those are powerful corporate lore elements. Show long-term career opportunities for all applicants, and be clear about expectations regarding both the specific position and the bank's overall culture.

Some companies offer on their websites a checklist to help applicants consider whether they are the right person for the job. The lists include characteristics and job elements that are key to success, such as quantitative skills, enthusiasm, Saturday hours, empathy, drive etc. Clarity about what you really expect from a position, including the negative elements, will improve your employee retention and overall performance.

Last, a performance-oriented culture is also clear about the quid pro quo between the employee and the company. It is explicit about the employee value proposition, what they get out of the position in addition to wages, as well as what the company expects to get out of its employees. Professional growth, financial security, community connection, a great place to work, are all possible parts of the employee value proposition. Conversely, the bank might expect dedication, minimum level of productivity, strong empathy with customer needs etc.

A great example of effective culture building and nurturing is Johnson Bank in Wisconsin. Every employee receives a small booklet (ala the Ritz Carlton's set of principles) that spells out clearly the company's value proposition ("We are financial advisors and creative problem solvers offering clients unmatched service at a fair market price"), a mission statement that is differentiated from the myriad of mission statements in our industry, and a set of values that guide interaction and desired results by employees, customers and communities. Values include:

  • Having fun (#1!)
  • Sustainability (I love that one)
  • A client-focused work ethic
  • Freedom to make decisions and mistakes
  • Straightforward communications

In addition, the booklet iterates the company's belief in the importance of family and community, and the strength of teams. It further includes comments on personal growth and a set of service standards.

Last, the booklet offers a talent development map that is extremely beneficial to all employees in every company. It clearly spells out the set of competencies every employee needs to be successful and move to the next level: from an individual contributor to a manager, senior manager and executive. The competences are organized along four dimensions:

  • Culture, teamwork and collaboration
  • Talent development
  • Customer building relationships
  • Growth, strategy and execution

Among the competences included in the grid are:

  • Managerial courage
  • Learning on the fly
  • Priority setting
  • Driving for results
  • Conflict management
  • Managing vision and purpose
  • Dealing with ambiguity

And many more. What a refreshingly clear path to promotion and success! No wonder the Johnson Bank has achieved its stated goals consistently for years under Dick Johnson's leadership, and that the company's turnover is so low, while employee engagement is high.

Culture is one of those topics that never gets any respect. Perhaps now is the time to reconsider.