Train to Your Advantage

By Julie Knudson

As in other highly competitive industries, banks often find attracting good employees to be a challenge. This is particularly true for community banks in rural areas, where bringing talent into the organization from outside can be even more difficult. To ensure a reliable supply of strong team members, some banks are boosting their internal training efforts. The result is better retention, along with a competitive advantage over other nearby employers.

Successful strategies start with commitment
The comprehensive training program at FirstBank in Lakewood, Colo., provides the institution with most of its talent pool. Of the roughly 360 officers, John Ikard—a former ABA chairman and FirstBank Holding Company’s president and CEO—says that all but perhaps a half dozen started with the bank as manager trainees.

“We only hire at the entry level and promote from within,” he explains. Exceptions are few, typically made for individuals in areas that require specific skill sets or expertise, such as IT or compliance. Even at the leadership level, the bank rarely fills positions by luring employees away from other competitors—the majority start their banking careers at FirstBank and train their way up.

Each year, the institution hires somewhere between 50 and 60 manager trainees and immediately funnels them into the training process. It’s definitely a different approach from other large financial institutions that may have good training programs but don’t always make it a priority.

“Many of the big banks don’t spend a lot of time training,” Ikard explains. “They spend their time going out there and trying to poach people from other banks.” It’s the reason he believes some bankers may have gotten a reputation for jumping from one institution to another, something he says turns many small community bank customers off.

Developing talent in-house also provides Ikard’s team with a workforce more likely to choose bank locations that might otherwise be difficult to staff. With a branch in Aspen, for example, FirstBank has had to work through the issues associated with hiring in an area with a very high cost of living. “We have to pay quite a premium [for employees] to live in Aspen,” Ikard explains.

Similar challenges arose with the bank’s branch in Palm Springs, Calif. “It wasn’t perceived as a young person’s community, so we had a bit of a time getting people to go to Palm Desert.” By aggressively cultivating employees with a strong skill set and knowledge of the organization, Ikard says both situations have been resolved. “We have very strong groups in those branches now.”

Though Zions Bancorporation is in 11 states and has $54 billion in assets, LeeAnn Linderman, EVP of enterprise retail banking at the Salt Lake City-based institution, says that “we operate like community banks in each of our states.” Existing under the Zions corporate umbrella, the banks have different names and are locally operated.

That means that attracting and retaining talent requires a unique approach based on the characteristics of each local market. The robust training program at Zions “gives us the resources to provide each of our community banks with possibly a higher level of expertise than the competing small, local banks have,” Linderman says.

Training at Zions begins within the first two weeks after a new employee joins the team. In addition to new hire orientation conducted by human resources, Linderman says, “The local leadership sits down with a very structured onboarding program with new employees so everyone feels connected and informed very quickly.”

This means that each area is able to customize its training approach to best prepare employees to serve that region’s customers. “I’ll work with corporate HR to develop the template for the training, then it’s sent locally to be given that local brand and feel,” Linderman explains. It also positions team members to connect more closely with their bank president, creating a tighter bond between employees in the area. “They need to know who the executive of retail is, who the regional president is, etcetera,” Linderman says. “Those are the people who will make a difference in their careers.”

Competition for good employees is stiff in Midland, Texas, where the major employers include several oil and gas companies. In addition to offering a comprehensive benefits package, Katie Boyd, SVP of training and marketing manager at FirstCapital Bank of Texas, says the bank’s training program helps attract strong candidates even in their challenging environment. “In the last couple of years we’ve started focusing more on developing career paths,” she explains. As part of a greater conversation about benefits and opportunities, FirstCapital can reassure candidates that the institution will be there to help them succeed in the longer term. As a result, Boyd says, “We’re able to get very good quality folks.”

Training begins early at FirstCapital, where team members attending new hire orientation begin to learn about the systems and tools used at the bank. Boyd says it’s an approach that makes new employees more comfortable when they sit down at their desk for the first time and begin working.

“They’ve already seen some of those systems,” she explains. “It lowers the intimidation factor of going to their desk 
for that first day.” From there, tellers proceed to 
structured training given by an internal full-time teller 
trainer. Advanced teller training is also conducted once the employee has been on the job for a while. “They have the opportunity to come back and gain a higher level of knowledge to advance their careers,” Boyd says.

Additional courses are given to those tellers who will be working in-branch with the bank’s interactive teller machines, as they typically carry out a number of other duties outside the traditional teller line. Personal bankers have their own curriculum given through FirstCapital’s PB Academy. “It is definitely the most in-depth training we have,” Boyd says.

Add depth, grow leaders with mentoring

Mentoring is a significant component of the training strategy at Zions. “Those mentoring programs are all run locally,” Linderman says. Ideas are generated through the corporate HR and training functions, but the specifics behind each bank’s mentoring efforts are customized for the local market’s demographics.

“We had a belief that, to provide the most effective mentoring, you had to provide a mentor and match the mentor and mentee locally so they would meet for breakfast, coffee or other face-to-face interaction,” Linderman recalls. While it’s generally a good approach, it can be problematic in rural communities. “If you’re mentoring a particular banker on their credit skills and they’re already at a point where they’re the top-ranking credit officer in that community, you can’t provide someone locally to mentor them.”

Instead, Zions has evolved its mentoring program, embracing technology to broaden the opportunities for successful mentoring relationships. “Through Skype, FaceTime, even our own internal technology tools, you can have very strong mentoring relationships regardless of location,” Linderman says. Participants may not sit down at the same table, but they’re still essentially face-to-face through video and web conferencing.

Spots in the Zions mentoring program are highly coveted. Pairings last for six months, but before potential mentees are matched with a mentor, applications are solicited directly from the bankers while nominations are also received from executives across all lines of business. Linderman is on the corporate-level committee that reviews potential mentorship program participants. “As a group we sit down and look at all the internal applications as well as those that are received by their line-of-business executives. We have a conversation about who’s really ready for that level of time commitment,” she says.

The team typically looks for mentee candidates who have been with the bank for at least a year and whose current job performance is above average. “If it’s a self-applicant, we reach out to their direct supervisors to be sure they would be a good candidate,” Linderman says.

Selection of the bank’s mentors is equally rigorous. Leaders not only need to be experts in their various roles, it’s also imperative that they’re excellent communicators, that they have a reputation for making the time to be an effective mentor and that they embrace diversity. “We don’t want to assign mentors to mentees just because they’re gender matches, for example,” Linderman says. “First and foremost, they need to be able to help the mentee develop their skills.”

Together, the training and mentorship programs at Zions create a strong internal pool of candidates for the majority of positions.

Market presidents at FirstBank know that one of their primary roles is “to mentor and develop young talent,” Ikard says. “And we grade them on that.” Training tomorrow’s leaders is everyone’s responsibility at FirstBank. Ikard says his team has found one of the best ways to ensure that more advanced competencies are nurtured is to pair employees with senior staff that can train them on the teller line, for example, and new accounts. “Then we have younger officers training new trainees on lending,” he says.

The arrangement is beneficial for new and seasoned employees alike. Everyone goes through the process as part of their development within the organization, and advancement is contingent on both employees mastering their roles. “You want that person to succeed,” Ikard says of senior staff members, “because the junior officer can’t move up unless the manager trainee is ready to take their place.” It’s an approach that runs deep within FirstBank, where, Ikard says, “we really reinforce to our people that the number one thing they need to do out there besides generate business is to train these new-to-the-bank officers.”

Advantages of a well-cultivated in-house workforce

Ikard knows his employees are regularly contacted by headhunters. He also knows the bank’s commitment to nurturing its internal workforce is key in retaining those strong employees who are most heavily recruited. “Our pitch to people is that we can train you from top to bottom,” he says. FirstBank’s employees know that, after a couple of years, they’re going to be very valuable because they understand banking from the operations side, the lending side and the compliance side. “If you don’t train them and they don’t feel like they’re growing as bankers, they’re going to move on,” Ikard says.

His team’s training and mentorship programs are designed to provide employees with the kind of specialized, individual attention and skills development that most big banks haven’t mastered. The efforts have certainly paid off. “Our attrition rate here is much lower than it is at other banks because we’ve been able to create that kind of culture where this is a good place to be,” Ikard says.

One somewhat uncommon request Zions asks of its mentors is to “stay engaged indefinitely with the people they’ve mentored,” Linderman says. That approach paid dividends when one of Linderman’s first mentees was being actively recruited by another organization. “We meet twice a year, every year, face to face,” she says of her early mentee. Though the women are now in different areas, they committed to staying connected once their six-month mentorship program was complete.

An attractive job offer prompted a discussion between the two. Linderman recalls, “I made the conversation about our long-term commitment to her growth in the company versus a short-term pay boost. And we retained her.”

FirstCapital Bank of Texas has added a mentoring program in the past year, which is administered through the training department as a way to identify and develop emerging leaders. It’s the next step in the organization’s training program to ensure that all levels have good internal candidates when an opportunity arises. Employees chosen to participate enter into the year-long program and meet with their mentor every other month.

“They’re encouraged to do lunch and to meet whenever they can, to really talk to that mentor through their leadership journey,” Boyd says. The program is still relatively new but she adds, “I am a mentor and I’ve really enjoyed it.” It’s the sort of effort too few employers undertake, but Boyd says it’s an excellent platform for recruiting and retaining high performers.

About Julie Knudson

Julie Knudson
A freelance writer in the Pacific Northwest, Julie Knudson is a frequent contributor to the ABA Banking Journal.
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