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Five ways successful banks manage their managers

Feb 15, 2019 / Consumer Banking

You train your employees. But do you train the managers that oversee them? Perhaps not enough, according to some industry insiders. Adrian Gostick, co-author of “The Carrot Principle,” recently noted how bad the disconnect can be. In a survey he did with Towers Perrin, 67 percent of managers thought they were above average at recognition. The number of employees who agreed? Just 23 percent.

And sometimes the lack of manager appreciation can feel terminal—literally.

Don Russell and Robert Morlot, partners at Clearwater Business Advisers, often consult with banks and recently encountered a situation they’ve seen far too often. While working with an international banking client, they encountered an office where only one employee knew how to work the Bloomberg Terminal (which monitors and analyzes financial market data.)

“At first,” Morlot says, “The employee didn’t mind that his managers didn’t know how to use a Bloomberg machine. It made him a more valued worker.”

But after a while, “The employee felt like he was a captive,” Russell recalls. “That’s all he did—work the Bloomberg Terminal—because none of his managers bothered to learn how to use it. When a person gets stuck doing something like that, and aren’t allowed to grow and learn, they feel like a cog in the machine.” In this case, a Bloomberg machine.

Situations like that can cause good banks to be, well, less good—or make your bank a depressing place to work. Every bank executive knows the importance of training front-line employees who serve customers. But if you ever worry about your managers coming off like the clueless, pointy-headed boss in a Dilbert cartoon, stop and reflect. As the boss of the bosses, remember that it doesn’t have to be that way.

Here are five ways banks can help supervisors adjust their attitudes and approaches while building their interpersonal skill sets.

1. Overrule authoritarianism

“Fear and authority are how banks used to be run,” Morlot says. “If somebody said jump, you jumped as high as you were told to.”  That command-and-control culture lasted years—and still endures in some financial institutions—because “it’s almost like a fraternity hazing. The mentality was, ‘We went through it and therefore, you need to go through it.’ And it was effective. It isn’t as though it didn’t work.”

Now, not so much. Telling somebody to jump these days probably means they’ll jump over to the competition, kicking the door in your face on the way out. And where might they be headed? Perhaps to the nearest funky fintech, where the closest thing to an authoritarian is the champ of the break room ping-pong table. 

2. Replace fear with fun

“Yep, yep, yep,” says Darrin Williams when asked if he thinks banks have a collective history of managers instilling fear in their underlings; Williams is the CEO of Southern Bancorp and is no fan of command and control. His bank tries to reward employees—managers and non-managers—who lives the bank’s five core values: relationship, accountability, innovation, sustainability and empowerment, which fit the acronym “R.A.I.S.E.” That not only means raising the bank’s standards but also a nice little financial perk.

Under Southern’s raise-and-reward program, if someone spots a colleague who goes above and beyond, they can nominate them to receive $25. Put the money in a savings account and you get another $25.

Here’s where things get fun: If an employee is nominated for each core value to spell out “R.A.I.S.E.”  (“This program is a bit of a Scrabble game,” Williams says), they’re entered into a drawing for two paid days off and $2,000. The bank does this drawing three times a year.

3. Encourage positive feedback

Jordan George also confirms that banks have a long history of accentuating the negative. As the director of leadership and talent development at CFE Federal Credit Union, “I speak quite regularly at industry conferences,” George says.

He might as well speak about those conferences, given what he’s heard: “I was pretty slack-jawed when a senior training professional from another financial institution with more than 20 years of experience said to me, ‘This is the first time I’ve ever heard that feedback isn’t supposed to be negative.’”

Compare that to 2017’s “Coffee With Kevin,” where president and CEO Kevin Miller invited 16 employees to share their feedback on CFE’s operations.

4. Make training voluntary

While that may sound counterintuitive, George cites CFE’s Leadership Education Academy, which teaches skills in areas such as conflict management and leadership ethics.

“Leaders across the credit union are invited to attend any or all of the monthly LEAD events based on their availability and interest,” he says. “It was important to us that leaders choose to attend. That way, we know they’re coming because they’re genuinely interested in the subject—and in furthering their professional development.”

So far, George reports a 90 percent attendance rate.

5. Get everyone’s input—including employees on managers

Southern Bancorp recently phased in new management training that utilizes 360-degree assessments. As Williams explains it, managers—as well as higher execs, including him—get reviews from peers, subordinates and supervisors.

“We spot the gaps and focus on filling them,” Williams says, adding that once the assessment is complete, managers are coached in honing skills that could use improvement. True, many outside managers would bristle at 360-degree assessments. But Williams hasn’t heard of dissension in his ranks. “People want to be rated,” he says.

Morlot agrees.

“The hierarchy at a bank has always been a pyramid where the manager has been at the top,” Morlot says. “But banks need to turn that hierarchy upside down. The manager should be at the bottom—supporting everyone else on the pyramid.”

And while banks never touch pyramid schemes, that sounds like one new arrangement worth examining.

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A contributor to Reuters, U.S. News & World Report, CNN and AOL’s WalletPop, veteran journalist Geoff Williams is also the author of two books, “C.C. Pyle’s Amazing Foot Race” and “Washed Away.”