Talent and the Culture of Today’s Bank

By Jim Edrington

ABA’s chief member engagement officer Jim Edrington looks at how banks can attract the best and brightest employees in a world of digital engagement and commoditized products.

Throughout my career—here at ABA, when I was in software sales, and as a bank marketer—my work has centered on banking. I’ve had the privilege of seeing the industry up close from just about every angle. But it’s in the branch environment that I cut my teeth.

I understand that the branch is at the very core of retail banking.

Why? Because that’s where you find the people who interact face-to-face with consumers of every type and circumstance. They’re the folks who help customers with one of today’s greatest sources of hope, fear, and vulnerability: their money.

Every bank needs the in-house talent to rise to the occasion—and also the culture to develop and sustain the right kind of talent at every level.

Where does it come from?

Banking has changed dramatically over the years. When I got started, I was college student who spent all four summers working as a teller in Baltimore. Right after graduating, I went into the bank’s management training program, and worked my way up from there.

The beauty of that approach is that it provides a first-hand experience of all the major functions and departments in the organization. You get a well-rounded overview of how a deposit works its way through the bank, from the branch all the way through corporate lending.

However, back then there wasn’t the same type of sales environment that you see today. No one even used the term “sales environment.” Retail banking was all about passbooks and Christmas clubs…people would come in on an almost religious basis to make their deposits. It was just part of their routine.

Now consumers’ routines are all different. But the products offered by the banks are all substantially alike. Because the products are commoditized, banks have to differentiate through service—and through the quality of the customer relationships.

Bankers these days need to know much more than just how to move money through the bank. They have to know how best to move the customer through every phase of the banking experience.

People with those skills don’t grow on trees. We need a pipeline for that kind of talent. And that requires a three-pronged approach:

  • Specialized coursework, scholarships, and recruiting in the schools and universities
  • Career development opportunities for bank employees
  • Cohesive bank cultures that attract and retain the best and the brightest
  1. Educate the bankers of the future.

Recently, we’ve seen a lot of progress in this area. The FDIC, for example, promotes financial education for school-age youth through its Youth Banking Network. At least seven banks across the country have opened up school-based branches staffed by the students themselves. And each summer, the Miami-Dade County Public School System funnels some of its most talented high school students into a bank-supported Future Bankers Camp.

At the college level, there are now 31 four-year degree programs focused on community banking, according to the FDIC’s Directory of College and University Degree Programs—and an additional 39 two-year degree programs.

I recently spoke with Hilary Burns of the American Banker about the use of bank- and association-funded scholarships as a recruiting tool for the banking industry. It’s an idea that’s still in its early stages, but we’re excited about where it’s heading.

  1. Develop the bankers of the present.

This is a perennial theme for us here at ABA, and an issue that’s close to our hearts, as evidenced by our conferences, schools, and training offerings. What you need to be aware of is that many banks are leaning on legacy education. These days, banks have much better opportunities to develop their in-house talent—education that meets how the new generation of employee wants to learn.

That means, among other things:

  • Learning that’s more interactive
  • Shorter, more digestible educational snippets
  • On-the-job skills acquisition
  • Social networking

But ultimately, all these opportunities hinge on the strength of a bank’s culture.

  1. Build a robust bank culture.

Having a strong culture provides a competitive edge not only for the bank but for the employees as well. But getting to that point is a challenge for many banks—particularly those that have gone through a merger.

With challenge comes opportunity, and we’ve seen some real success stories come out of the mergers. ConnectOne in New Jersey has done a nice job making that shift from a cultural standpoint. They’ve spoken out very eloquently about how they did it.

Here are some other tips for strengthening your culture:

  • Get out of the office. Toiling long hours at a desk does little to build teamwork, trust, and values. So send your employees out into the community for hands-on outreach. They’ll internalize the ways the bank supports worthy causes and local businesses. And they’ll gain a shared sense of ownership and purpose.
  • Let word of mouth take over. Increasingly, we’re living in a “like” culture. In other words, social media has permeated every corner of the public discourse. It’s very common now for people to accumulate social media followers and then engage with them by setting out to post activities that will garner “likes.” This is a huge opportunity for banks to gain positive exposure by providing employees with like-worthy experiences.
  • Show the world who you are. In any field where digital processes are taking over, it’s increasingly important to share the human side of the organization. Norway Savings Bank in Maine gives us a great example of what that might look like with their “Live Your Life in Color” campaign. It’s all about defining their culture, celebrating diversity, and showing different ways of doing things. Their “What a Banker Looks Like” series on YouTube introduces the individual employees, their interests, and hobbies, showing what the employees are about and what they can do.

Of course, emphasizing the “human” in “human resources” by no means diminishes the importance of tending to the IT side of the business. The current resurgence of interest in the industry is a prime opportunity to promote banking as a career of choice for technical staff as well. The hottest job today is data scientist—and that data piece is so critical to banks. Anyone reading the tea leaves can see that the world we live and work in is increasingly focused on data. Banks are well positioned to tap into that.

Jim Edrington is Chief Member Engagement Officer at the American Bankers Association. Email: [email protected]. LinkedIn. Twitter.