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“I can’t wait to get to work!”

If your staff doesn’t feel this way, consider three banks’ solutions

A “Great Place to Work” is all about teamwork, respect, commitment, fun, rewards, family. Employees come first A “Great Place to Work” is all about teamwork, respect, commitment, fun, rewards, family. Employees come first

An old Chinese saying holds that, “In order to become straight, one first must be bent. In order to become filled, one first must be emptied,” or words to that effect. Banks that have developed reputations as great places to work didn’t get there accidentally—often they evolved into examples of getting it right after getting it wrong, or, at least, having to work hard to figure it out. During ABA’s National Conference for Community Bankers, three CEOs discussed how they provide better workplaces.

The New England rehab

The early 1990s were an ugly time for Stephen Christy. He became the leader at Mascoma Savings Bank, Lebanon, N.H., in the midst of a nasty regional recession in New England that wreaked havoc in the bank’s market—and with the bank.

Mascoma Savings, now $1.1 billion-assets, was doing the unthinkable: foreclosing on customers. A longstanding point of pride that the bank hadn’t foreclosed on anybody since before World War II had shattered.

Alas, though the bank’s northern New Hampshire base wasn’t hit as hard as the southern part of the state, that was scant comfort.

“All hell had broken loose,” said Christy. He explained that bank staff found themselves foreclosing on customers who were children of earlier customers. Hard as this was on the borrowers, the bank’s staff had become shell-shocked by the experience—they were practically foreclosing on family. And for a time, no bottom was seen.

Christy was no newcomer. He’d started at the savings bank in 1973 as a teller and worked his way up, and then left banking for another business for a time. But he’d returned and found himself at the helm in the wake of two longtime leaders’ retirements. The normal transition jitters, married to the economic storm, had left people ragged, confused, and unhappy.

Seeking a new direction, in the early 1990s, Christy, the new president and CEO, gathered his board for a strategic planning retreat. Little did he know that grim would look grimmer that very morning.

Bad news in black, white, and red

The directors were assembling for the planning session. Part of the exercise was to be a review of an employee survey, where the bank was rated in a number of different categories of performance as an employer.

The report format used red ink to highlight problem areas, and the document was full of red sections, said Christy. About 18 major areas of employee dissatisfaction had been identified, and “it was really bad stuff,” said Christy. The consultant told him it was one of the worst results from an employee survey that she’d ever seen.

Coming back from ugly

The bank had long been oriented to its customers and community, and never focused on the workplace itself, Christy said. One of the things that Christy personally learned from the survey was that he wasn’t the communicator that he hoped he was. In general, employees didn’t always clearly understand what was going on. That was partly a function of the past. He explained that his predecessors, both good bankers, had been very hands-on managers, running the bank somewhat “autocratically,” in his wording. As a result, staff had grown used to top management making all decisions. In fact, employees feared making decisions.

The consultant said that as bleak as the survey results looked, improving employees’ mood was possible, and she guided the bank through it. Only 18 months later, a new survey found employees very upbeat.

“We went from ‘worst to first,’” said Christy. In part, this hinged on successfully pushing decision-making further down the hierarchy. But that was only part of it. Management had to work at ways to improve employee cooperation and communication.

Christy detailed some of the steps that management has taken to make things smoother inside the bank:

• Get people talking. “We work hard to break down the silos and all the individualism that seems to go with the various bank departments,” explained Christy. One technique is regular Tuesday morning meetings, where the bank’s 12 senior managers share ideas and information.

Over the years, said Christy, this effort has fostered friendship and more cooperation among the bank’s management team, so they behave more like coworkers. “Now, they trust each other,” said Christy.

• Hire for attributes. The bank strives for a better employee mix by using the Predictive Index tool to select the types of employees it wants, which takes some of the guesswork out of the hiring process.

• Referee with knowledge. The Index is usually used to determine what type of employee a candidate would make. Christy said the bank goes a step further by using the Index to evaluate employees who aren’t getting along well, to see if the friction arises from differing employee attitudes and approaches to their jobs and incompatible personality types.

Maryland morale booster

Jim Cornelsen admits to being a kidder. “I love going around and picking on people in the bank,” said Cornelsen, president and CEO of Old Line Bank, Bowie, Md. “My employees love it when I come through, because when someone isn’t picking on you, it means they don’t like you.”

That kind of personal attention from the CEO has helped as the 24-year-old bank grew from $304 million to $1.2 billion-assets, and from 70 employees to 260 in three years, significantly as a result of two mergers.

Cornelsen described some of the steps that the bank has taken to keep up employee morale:

• Employee health and safety. The bank sponsors a wellness program, and its headquarters features a gym in the basement for staff use. The bank has arranged for police escorts for evening tellers when they end their shifts, to make sure they get to their cars without incident. In some offices, the bank gives staff remote control of doors. For “mental health,” the bank permits employees to buy extra vacation time by foregoing pay in exchange for up to a week more.

• Eye on careers. Cornelsen puts a stress on hiring from within, and noted with pride that of the bank’s 15 senior officers, only two had to be recruited. Making this effort to spot internal talent keeps employees excited about staying at Old Line, according to Cornelsen. The bank’s mentorship program also means much to him. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t been mentored,” he said.

• Diversity from the top down. Cornelsen said his bank serves markets with diverse populations, and he believes it’s important that the bank reflect that diversity. This begins with the board itself, which he described as “46% diverse” in ethnic, racial, and gender composition. That goal carries through the organization.

• Avoid hot-dogging and “us versus them” thinking. Cornelsen tries to avoid letting territorial boundaries spring up between bank functions by establishing goals that straddle multiple groups. At Old Line, “we all share in our successes, and we all share in our misses,” Cornelsen said.

Smiles on the Chesapeake

“If I won the lottery, I wouldn’t quit my job!”

That was an administrative support employee at $657.8 million-assets Chesapeake Bank, Kilmarnock, Va., talking. And it’s part of the reason why Jeff Szyperski dons a Santa outfit every Christmas.

A decade ago, Chesapeake Bank launched its “Great Place to Work” philosophy. Szyperski, chairman, president, and CEO, said senior management decided that if they concentrated efforts on doing their best for employees, then employees would do their best for the shareholders as well as customers.

GPTW consists of ten points, which are not only goals, but which permeate standards for hiring and performance reviews. In brief, the ten points are: teamwork; respect; commitment; people; fun (that’s where the Santa suit comes in); rewards and recognition; we’re individuals; atmosphere; we’re family; and employees come first. (To read all the GPTW points in full, go to

In the ten years that the bank has been stressing these points, it has conducted an annual survey among employees to see how the effort is going and what is on their minds. The anonymous survey helps draw out issues that staff won’t raise face-to-face, according to Szyperski.

“We look every year to raise the bar,” he said, in terms of what the bank does for employees, “and they look for the bar to be raised.” Benefits and pro-employee policies feature in recruitment and retention, and the bank’s website actually publishes a sample “personal benefit statement,” showing the range of benefits workers receive. (For details, visit

Sad as it may be, said Szyperski, “you spend more time with your colleagues than you do with your family. This program helps get everyone rowing in the same direction.”

Steve Cocheo

Steve Cocheo’s career in business journalism has taken him to all 50 states and nearly every corner of banking in institutions of all sizes. He is executive editor of ABA Banking Journal, digital content manager of, and editor of ABA Bank Directors Briefing. He coordinates the popular Pass the Aspirin and First Person features and wrote the booklet series Focus On The Bank Director. He is the only journalist to have sat in on three federal banking exams, was a finalist for the Jesse H. Neal national business journalism awards, and a winner of multiple awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors.

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