A craving for feedback presented an opportunity at First National in Alaska

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How do you know if your bank's culture is really as strong as senior leaders think it is?

That's a question executives at First National Bank Alaska in Anchorage began pondering a few years back, when federal regulators started assessing banks' culture and values in the course of conducting examinations.

So in late 2016, the $3.6 billion-asset bank brought in the Pacific Institute and the Michigan Ross School of Business to gauge employees' impressions and see if they matched those of Chairman and CEO Betsy Lawer and other senior leaders. The results were encouraging.

In surveying employees and top executives, the consultants found First National's culture to be above average when compared with peers and concluded that employees, by and large, felt good about where they worked.

But the companywide survey — the first-ever conducted by the 96-year-old First National — also exposed a few shortcomings, particularly in the areas of training and development, said Chief Administrative Officer Cheri Gillian.

Though the bank has a long history of promoting from within, employees said in the survey that they wanted more constructive feedback from supervisors and more formal training and development programs in place to prepare them for new roles.

"We felt like we had a good program, but one of things we learned is that employees crave individual recognition from their supervisors, and personalized discussion about their strengths, challenges and opportunities for growth," Gillian said.

The bank wasted little time responding. Over the past 18 months, it has established a customized review process that Gillian said has increased engagement between employees and their supervisors. It also has formalized its training program and strengthened the curriculum to include more webinars and off-site education.

Though it always provided education, "it's much more deliberate now," Gillian said.

This heightened focus on developing talent will only enhance the bank's already strong culture. Apart from being recognized as a Best Bank to Work For, First National has been honored by Alaska Business Magazine as the state's No. 1 place to work among companies with at least 200 employees for three years running. The magazine also has honored the bank as top corporate citizen for two consecutive years.

The emphasis on culture dates to the early 1940s, when lawyer Warren Cuddy acquired a controlling stake in the bank and said that part of its mission was to "furnish employees with competitive salaries and a pleasant working environment."

First National's and Alaska's fortunes ebbed and flowed over the next eight decades, but the family-owned bank under Cuddy, then his son, Dan, and now his granddaughter, Lawer, always aimed to be one of the state's premier employers.

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Perhaps the best way to measure employees' job satisfaction is length of employment, and Gillian said that many of the bank's roughly 650 employees across the state have two decades of tenure or more.

Some of the bank's employees also left at one time or another in their careers, only to return a few years later. Gillian herself joined the bank right out of college as a graphic designer, left after four years to pursue a career in advertising, and then rejoined it in a marketing and communications role. That was 25 years ago.

"We have so many long-term employees here, and many of them, like me, are rehires," Gillian said. "They go somewhere else, they recognize they weren't as happy there and they come back."

For a bank, or any company for that matter, is there a better compliment than that?

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