The Motivation Equation for Bank Employees

By Kerry O’Leary

It’s no surprise that employees who can articulate what an organization stands for—and believe in the mantra themselves—work harder to reach both personal and business success. But, how can an organization instill pride in its employees so that they walk the walk, when people are uniquely motivated? The question becomes: are people uniquely motivated? Or, are there innate motivators organizations can emphasize to build what Chester Elton and Adrian Gostick call a “culture of belief”?

“There absolutely are,” says Elton—an author, speaker and organizational culture guru who has shared his insights on MSNBC and CNN and published in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and his own series of best-selling books. “And the best managers are those who can follow a simple, yet effective road map to getting their team ‘all in.’”

The “all-in road map” charts the seven steps to attaining a high-performing culture, which in and of themselves are sound tips: define your burning platform, create a customer focus, develop agility, share everything, partner with your talent, root for each other and establish clear accountability. This isn’t advice that would shock a seasoned manager. When all seven steps are at play, a high-performing workplace culture begins to exist.

Chester Elton speaks at ABA’s National Conference for Community Bankers earlier this year.

Elton offers an equation to define high performance: E+E+E, or, engaged, enabled and energized. The three Es pave the road map, so to speak, giving a path from step to step and back again. A high-performing employee is one who can say “I believe what I do matters, and I can make a difference,” explains Elton. And the key to getting there centers on managers’ abilities to tap into motivators (fulfilling the seven steps), resulting in both bottom-line and reputational wins.

It’s an entirely people-first philosophy, says Elton. As evidenced from a 2012 study from research firm Willis Towers Watson—which surveyed some 300,000 individuals from industries across the spectrum and informed the Elton and Gostick book All In—motivation counts because people come first, he explains.

“The research reaffirms that the human element of business was still critical, even in today’s world of automation and virtual contact,” says Elton, “In essence, your people drive your business.”

Communication counts

The respondents tell a story of open communication and authentic recognition as motivators to perform, what Elton refers to as the flattening of an organization. “A flat organization has a direct line of sight to leadership, and that is always a positive,” Elton explains.

Among the first steps toward flat status: executives who walk the floor, creating opportunities to interact; all-employee town halls; more structured internal communications vehicles like newsletters or online forums; and the all-important “recognition piece,” which shows that employees who receive personal recognition for their work are more motivated to perform.

“The old school way was ‘no news is good news’ or ‘I’ll tell you if you need to know’,” says Elton, noting the contrast to what was found in the survey. He says employees are three times more likely to love their jobs when they have trusted relationships at work. He also cites a Harvard Business Review study from 2013 that concluded a five-to-one ratio of positive to negative comments in the workplace translates to higher performance. That same study found that culture accounts for nearly 30 percent of the differential in corporate performance when compared with “culturally unremarkable” competitors.

Brand equity

Let’s not leave out the importance of an effective brand, Elton reminds us. From a brand’s esoteric elements—such as core values and customer service credos—to graphics and physical space, all help shape and influence employee trust and motivation. “A brand is a distinguisher, a chance to tell your story,” says Elton, who incorporates branding and visuals into his teaching. This leans heavily toward the third E for “energized.” “High-performing cultures are as energized as they are engaged,” he continues. “And a lot of that has to do with how the employees view their organization. When [employees]have a strong attachment to the company, they are, in turn, willing to give extra effort.”

Annette Russell, CEO of Security Federal Savings Bank in Logansport, Ind., put this theory into practice in 2012, when the $250 million mutual set out to overhaul its image by conducting a market assessment. Security Federal had just expanded with its fifth branch, which was in a new market. The bank’s look and feel—from logo to website to physical branch design—was overhauled to convey Security Federal’s core values, which every employee played a hand in defining. During the assessment, all 75 employees were asked to name the primary characteristics of both excellent customer service and a good working environment. “And when we talk about customer service, we use that to define not just our external customers, but our internal customers as in the way we treat each other,” says Russell.

Russell attributes many successes at the bank to this work, which also included a new onboarding experience created by consulting firm Market Insights—which Russell credits with “helping from the ground up, all the way through the final finishing touches on the interior and exterior of all of our locations.” Security Federal hired a marketing director, a first for the bank. The bank also no longer advertises job postings. “When other employees talk about their level of satisfaction and the bank’s commitment to our core values, résumés and referrals are of a higher quality,” says Russell.

Staying grounded

Elton’s culture of belief is also a safeguard against many cultural growing pains, and Pinnacle Financial Partners in Nashville knows this first-hand. Terry Turner, president and CEO of the $11.7 billion organization named a 2016 best bank to work for by American Banker, has prioritized “continuing to meet and exceed our associates’ and clients’ expectations as we grow larger and expand into new markets.” He, like Elton and Russell, started at the core of the organization to ground Pinnacle’s culture into something sustainable.

“As always, it’s the people. More specifically, it’s the people and the unchangeable core of the company that keeps us grounded even as we take on new challenges.” Turner and other Pinnacle leaders describe the bank as a “values-based company.” One of those values is partnership, which begins on day one when Turner himself takes center stage during new employee orientation. March’s orientation took the team to Nashville’s Nissan Stadium for trust-building physical challenges, a standard closing experience of the three-day program. “Picture the look on my face when, on my first day at Pinnacle, I was told that the CEO would personally lead a three-day orientation for me and my class of fellow new hires,” a new hire said of the experience.

“The way we treat each other leads to exceptional service for clients and a family feel even in a larger company,” says Turner. “That doesn’t change just because we get bigger.”

Adds Chester Elton: “The customer experience will never exceed the employee experience.”


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