Jeff Judy

Jeff's Thoughts - August 13 , 2014

Universal Banker, Universal Culture

Have you run across the phrase "universal banker" lately? While the phrase may be new, the concept has been around a while, even if it is not put into practice all that often.

Basically, we're talking about cross-training, about having staff that can play more than one role, to varying degrees. Perhaps your tellers are taught to handle more account-opening and troubleshooting functions. Perhaps credit analysis staff learn more about compliance, or specialized customer service becomes part of everyone's job description (along with the appropriate training).

Obviously, there are practical pros and cons to this approach, in terms of staffing levels, labor costs, customer service, and responsiveness to changing conditions. I'm not here to take a position on those issues.

I just want to point out that when staff take on multiple roles or functions, it automatically "tightens" your culture. And that means that the values and standards and (habitual) practices of those staff have a greater impact on your internal operations, and on your external interactions with customers, regulators, and the public.

When it comes to culture, I'm more interested in how tight your culture is than in what specific values and practices are supported by that culture. By a tight culture, I mean one where practices and standards are highly consistent, across job levels, across roles, across branches and regions. In a tight culture, people believe the same things, no matter where you find them. And when they have to make judgment calls, or react to unusual situations that aren't strictly covered by the rule book, they tend to come up with the same answers.

Now, a tight culture can have values and practices I agree with, or values and practices I don't like. The point of a tight culture is that it is effective, efficient, and especially, nimble. New ideas, updated ways of doing things can spread very quickly through a tight culture.

And when one person performs more than one function, it automatically tightens the alignment among those functions. An employee's standards and values and judgment don't suddenly change when doing one function as opposed to doing another. Cross-training for multiple roles simply makes the culture more consistent.

If you have values and strategies that will lead to success, this tightening of culture can get you there faster. Even if some staff rarely perform some roles, being trained to do so, or just occasionally stepping into those additional roles, will boost the impact of those strategies.

But the same goes for values, standards, and strategies that will eventually lead to failure. Employees who already have a corner-cutting, short-term-gain approach to their work will, under the cross-training approach, simply spread that approach to more of your operations. Those attitudes will become more and more a hallmark of the way your bank works.

So before you evaluate a "universal banker" approach for its efficiency and flexibility, evaluate your culture. Whatever beliefs and standards and practices are embedded in that culture will become stronger under a cross-training regimen.

Would that be a good thing, or a bad thing? If you don't know the answer to that question, you may not know enough about the values and vision your employees carry around in their heads to make the universal banker move.

By the way, for a more detailed explanation of the importance and impact, the competitive advantage, of a "tight" culture, regardless of the specific values and practices involved, visit my Culture Issues page on my web site