Issues : Strategy

Conversing with Chief Cultural Officers

Bankers talk about the importance of culture all the time, and a few have created a specific executive-level position to oversee it.

Chief culture officer is an unusual title, even in an industry that promotes culture as essential to performance and customer service. The title was included in a 2016 Bank Director piece by Susan O’Donnell, a partner with Meridian Compensation Partners, as an emerging new title, citing the fact that personnel remain a critical asset for banks.

“As more millennials enter the workforce, traditional banking environments may need to change,” she wrote. “Talent development, succession planning and even culture will be differentiators and expand the traditional role of human resources.”

Yet a recent unscientific internet search of banks with chief culture officers yielded less than a dozen executives who carry the title, concentrated mostly at community banks.

One bank with a chief culture officer is Adams Community Bank, which has $618 million in assets and is based in Adams, Massachusetts. Head of Retail Amy Giroux was awarded the title because of her work in shifting the retail branches and staff from transaction-based to relationship-oriented banking, which began in 2005. Before the shift, each branch tended to operate as its own bank, with the manager overseeing the workplace environment and culture. That contributed to stagnation in financial performance and growth.

“We decided that we wanted to grow but to do that, we really needed to invest in our workplace culture,” she says. “When you think of a bank’s assets and liabilities, which represents net worth and capital, cultural capital becomes equally important.”

The bank’s reinvention was led by senior leadership and leveraged a training program from transformation consultancy The Emmerich Group to retrain and reorient employees. The program incorporated Adams’ vision and core values, as well as accountability through measurable metrics. Branch staff moved away from acting as “order-takers” for customers and are now trained to build and foster relationships.

“It’s worked for us,” says CEO Charles O’Brien. “We’re the go-to community bank for our customers, and they rave about how different we are. We’ve grown significantly over the last five years.”

As CCO, Giroux works closely with the bank’s human relations team on fulfilling the bank’s strategic initiatives, aligning operations with its vision and goals, creating a framework of visibility and deliverability for goals and holding employees accountable for performance. She reports to O’Brien, but says her efforts are supported by the whole executive team.

“A lot of times, people think that culture is invisible. They’ll sometimes say, ‘Well, how do I do these things on top of my job?’” she says. “Culture isn’t something you’re doing on top of your job. It’s how you do your job.”

At Fargo, North Dakota-based Bell Bank, the chief culture position is held by Julie Peterson Klein and is nestled within the human resources group, where about 20 employees are split between HR and culture. She says she has a “people first, workload second” orientation and has focused on culture within HR throughout her career; like Giroux, the title came as recognition for work she was already doing.

She says her job is really about empowering employees at the State Bankshares’ unit to see themselves as chief culture officers. Bell’s culture team supports employees by engaging the $5.7 billion bank’s 200 leaders in engagement and training, and works with HR to handle onboarding, transfers, promotion and exits. The group also leads events celebrating employees or giving back to the community, using storytelling as a way to keep the bank’s culture in front of employees.

“We focus on creating culture first, and we hire for that on the HR side,” she says.

Culture is important for any organization, but Giroux sees special significance for banks because of the large role they play in customers’ financial wellness. Focusing on culture has helped demonstrate Adams’ commitment of giving customers “extraordinary service.”

“Prior to having the collaboration and the infrastructure for culture, everybody kind of did their own thing,” Giroux says. “This really solidifies the vision and the mission. And it really is, I believe, the glue that holds us together.”