How Bank Culture Drives Success

By Evan Sparks

Two years ago, Adam Grant became famous with a very big idea: that generosity toward others gets you farther in business than selfishness. Grant’s basic argument is simple: There are three kinds of people in the world, givers, takers and matchers (those whose dominant style is determined by whether they’re dealing with a giver or a taker). Crude intuition suggests that in a cutthroat world, takers get ahead. Grant marshals evidence from psychology and behavioral economics to suggest that on the whole, givers have an advantage—especially over the long run, when true colors eventually show.

At just 31 years old—already the youngest-tenured and highest-rated professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and an instructor at ABA’s Stonier Graduate School of Banking—Grant published Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success to wide acclaim. It hit bestseller lists, won praise from Malcolm Gladwell and landed him a berth on the New York Times op-ed page writing articles with Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg. Give and Take is chock full of Gladwell-esque insights and anecdotes that would inspire any ambitious professional to adopt giving as her dominant mode of working with others.

“[G]ivers can rise to the top across a stunningly diverse range of occupations, from engineering to medicine to sales,” he writes. “They get to the top without cutting others down, finding ways of expanding the pie that benefit themselves and the people around them.”

But how do Grant’s conclusions apply to an entire organization? What can a CEO do to foster a culture of giving across the workplace?

“Ah. That’s a very good question,” Grant says when I catch up with him by phone.

The key, he muses, is to be “exceptionally clear about what kind of behaviors are valued.” These behaviors will vary depending on the business and on individuals’ roles within the business, he points out. For example, a business that brings in large numbers of new hires would need an especially robust culture of mentoring, while a firm that relied on specialized knowledge would reward people who share their expertise.

Of course, one way to build a giving culture is to hire lots of givers. But Grant has a word of caution here. “If your organization is all givers, you’re vulnerable to exploitation by takers,” he says. “You want a mix of givers and matchers. The matchers protect the givers from takers outside the organization, but you want enough givers so that—internally—giving is the norm.”

But how to get there? As the old cliché has it, changing a culture is like turning a battleship—it takes lots of small adjustments over a long time, but you have momentum once you do it. In talking with Grant, we identify three key, seemingly small adjustments: a culture of personal investment, incentives for teamwork and diversity of all kinds.

Giving an opportunity

If you ask successful people why they’re successful, they will often be able to point to hard work and a little bit of luck. But most will also remember that, at one time or another, someone gave them an opportunity. (John D. Rockefeller famously observed “Job Day” every Sept. 26—commemorating the day he was given his first job as an office clerk at age 16.)

Within a company—and especially at a regulated company such as a bank—giving an opportunity to someone untested can seem like an investment with too little payoff and too much risk. What if the employee screws it up?

Frank Sorrentino III, chairman and CEO of the $3.5 billion ConnectOne Bank in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., isn’t worried about that. “If you make decisions in line with our core values, you won’t get to the wrong answer,” he says. “You may get to a different answer, but it won’t be a wrong answer.” This confidence allows him to invest in employees by allowing them to take on big challenges. “We’re constantly looking for opportunities for people, to say ‘Hey, you might be good at doing this or that,’” he explains. “Even if it doesn’t work out, the fact that somebody cares sends a very strong message to the organization about what we’re really all about.”

Siya Vansia saw this first-hand. Hired five years ago straight out of college, Vansia is now ConnectOne’s executive marketing coordinator. She was asked to lead the rebranding of the bank two years ago—“with a couple million dollar budget,” Sorrentino notes—and last year, when ConnectOne merged with another north Jersey bank, Vansia was on the steering committee for the merger.

“You can go make decisions by yourself!” Vansia realized. “That was mind-blowing to me when I got here.”

Sorrentino wasn’t worried about the risks of taking a bet on a young employee. “Even though we gave her the responsibility for those large projects, we gave her the tools to make decisions without telling her what to do,” he says. By giving a wide range of opportunities, Sorrentino is building the kind of team he says “you couldn’t pry away with a crowbar.”

At Reading Cooperative Bank, a $417 million mutual bank in Reading, Mass., president and CEO Julieann Thurlow is planning the company’s strategic growth in part to expand the opportunities she can give to her younger staff. Without growth, they would have to leave the bank to grow professionally; instead, Thurlow is providing new opportunities for professional growth. “You become branch manager, and then what’s next?” she says. “We want the ‘next’ to be with us.”

The bank is in the process of buying an insurance company and recently added a financial planning business line. These new lines will provide new professional opportunities that her well-mentored younger employees will be ready for. With more opportunities, she doesn’t expect them to “flatten out” career-wise after they reach management roles. Thurlow is convinced that Reading Cooperative can provide the professional growth they are seeking so it doesn’t lose them to another bank or to a different banking job not offered at hers.

This kind of investment takes many different forms, but it relies on giving behaviors. Mentoring, either in a formal program as many banks have or informally, is a good example of this kind of investment. When done right, mentoring is about more than a one-way knowledge download. It’s about amplifying the investment. Grant offers an example: one overtaxed giver found herself overcommitted to mentoring, so she arranged group mentoring lunches. Now she was able to give just as much, but her mentees were able to learn from each other and adopt a mutually reinforcing expectation that they should be doing the same for newer team members. Mentoring contributes to a culture of investment throughout the organization, and that investment can create new opportunities for employees.

“Can you create an environment where people feel engaged, and where they are creating value?” is what Sorrentino thinks bank leaders should be asking. “If people feel valuable, then they do great things for you, and no one can steal them away.”

Giving a good reason to give

“The organizations that manage to create a culture where giving is prevalent will actually have a whole set of performance measures that are not only about what you have accomplished but what you contribute to others,” Grant says. “Work backwards: What are the giving behaviors that are most critical to our success?”

Bethany H. Corum has thought long and hard about this. She is EVP and “chief people officer” at Capital City Bank, a $2.6 billion institution in Tallahassee, Fla., that has been recognized as one of Florida’s best workplaces every year from 2012 to 2015 and by American Banker as one of the best banks to work for in 2013 and 2014.

Corum and her colleagues implemented an incentive program for everyone at the bank, “from teller to CEO.” Between 20 and 50 percent of the incentive opportunity is based on how the bank does at meeting four key goals that she calls “top of the house goals.”

Selfish, taker behavior is not going to get to these goals, which include targets for growing performing loans and reducing non-performing assets. Performance is rated both on an individual basis and as a whole for particular departments or markets. “Everyone in a market shares in a common pot depending on how that market performs.” Thinking as a team is essential.

City First Bank, a $240 million institution in Washington, D.C., has a similar approach. Bonuses are based half on individual contribution and half on bank performance—and the individual contribution is itself divided into half individual performance and half on how well employees embody the bank’s core values. The structure gets everyone thinking about the importance of a team-based culture.

Corum emphasizes that it is important for everyone at Capital City Bank to feel like they can give, that they can contribute to the overall goal. One goal included a target for getting customers signed up for e-statements. “You’d be surprised how a group like tellers will mobilize and get those numbers on e-statement conversions,” she says.

Giving a different perspective

Grant has another surprising observation. “One of the unexpected advantages of diversifying your workforce is that it’s one of the surest paths to encouraging giving behavior,” he says. (This is surprising, in part, because of research by renowned sociologist Robert Putnam showing that diverse environments tend to reduce trust among the individuals in them.)

“Minority group members tend to be more likely to give than majority group members,” Grant explains. “There’s a growing body of evidence indicating that people who have less give more. If you’re a member of a non-dominant group, it’s a lot easier to empathize with whatever disadvantages other groups are facing.”

Can banks create a culture of giving with more diversity? They’re trying, and aiming for diversity in all its forms. For example, Corum notes that “banking is still a white male-driven industry in a lot of places. It’s something we think of when we are developing programs.”

In building a diverse workforce, bankers are also considering those whose experience is primarily outside of banking. At Capital City Bank, three of the twelve executive team came to the bank without prior experience in banking. “To bring in outside talent, whether from another industry or another institution, is a big benefit,” Corum says. She adds that it’s important to have people “with a different business perspective. You don’t have to be a lifelong banker to be a champion at Capital City Bank.”

Sorrentino wants employees to bring an outside-the-box mentality to their work challenges, so he looks beyond the banking industry when he can. “There are a lot of parts of the company where I’d almost prefer you didn’t have a background in banking because it can be a hindrance,” he explains.

Are bankers givers?

Grant has a few final words for those who point to bankers and label them a bunch of takers: “That is so false.” Instead, he sees bankers as people with “strong financial skills who appreciate the importance of financial security in life and are drawn to use those skills in ways that help other people.” In other words, bankers are givers. Some just might not know it yet.

Research has found that “plenty of people hold giver values, but suppress or disguise them under the mistaken assumption that their peers don’t share these values,” Grant explains. If givers assume a workplace to be a taker-take-all environment, they’ll act like takers—even if it’s more natural and better for everyone involved to give. This gets back to what Sorrentino and Corum emphasize: clearly communicating the values the bank expects every employee to have. If giving is emphasized from the top, it makes it easier for givers to be themselves.

It’s also hard to remain motivated to give when people “don’t have enough understanding of how their actions on a daily basis benefit other people,” Grant says. He points to Wells Fargo team leader Ben Soccorsy, “who created videos of customers talking about how the company’s low-interest loans helped them to reduce and eliminate their unwanted debt.”

When employees at Wells Fargo watched the videos, “it was like a light switch turned on,” says Soccorsy. “Bankers realized the impact their work could have—that this loan can really make a difference in their customers’ lives. It was a really compelling motivator.”

Giving is a challenge in a regulated environment, especially one in which bankers’ interactions with customers are so closely governed by prescriptive rules. “The more constraints you place on people in terms of where and how they can help, the less likely they are to give because it becomes more difficult to align what and how they want to give with what’s actually doable,” Grant says.

Taking all this into account, bank leaders need to energetically promote a culture where giving behaviors are publicly encouraged and rewarded, where employees invest in their colleagues and where diverse points of view are welcomed. If they do this, they’ll stand a strong chance of unleashing their employees’ inner givers.


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