A Lesson in Leadership: First Horizon Adds a Deep End to Its Talent Pool

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When Bryan Jordan took over as chief executive of First Horizon National Corp. in 2008, he found much to appreciate about its culture. He liked that the workplace was collegial and family friendly, that the workforce was diverse and that management had a long history of encouraging — and acting on — employee feedback.

But one area where he believed the Memphis company could do better was in grooming talent. Though it was common for senior executives to mentor junior-level employees, he felt that First Horizon needed a more formal training program to build a stable of potential leaders who could think strategically about changes facing the company and the industry.

So, at Jordan's urging, the company launched its Employee Leadership Program, a 10-month course designed for mid-level managers who are seen as having senior-executive potential.

The roughly 25 employees selected for the program each year take part in webinars, classroom instruction and executive coaching sessions. They also have reading assignments on roughly a dozen topics, including personal branding, leading for innovation, shaping organizational culture and understanding profitability.

Getting into the program is competitive, with the final selections based on applications and interviews.

"For us to build the organization over the long term, we need to have capable leaders who can not only get their people to follow them into tough situations, but who can think expansively about how the banking business is changing,"
Jordan says.

Though the program just started in 2010, it is already helping the $24 billion-asset First Horizon and its First Tennessee Bank unit build bench strength, according to Jordan. Many of its graduates have moved on to more senior roles.

Ben Hopper called his participation "life changing," saying the skills he acquired and contacts he made through the program helped to earn him a promotion to his current role as vice president of retail strategy.

Joy Bowen's career trajectory also changed because of the program. She was a private client relationship manager at the time she participated, and though she wasn't looking to switch roles, her thinking changed after she graduated. The program "enhanced my leadership skills, my cognitive thinking, my personal skills," she says. "It really gave me the power to think about career advancement." Bowen is now a vice president in Treasury management.

It's initiatives like the Employee Leadership Program that help make First Horizon such a desirable place to work. Attractive pay and benefits are a plus, but what employees want, above all, is to feel valued, to feel empowered to make decisions and to be given ample opportunity to better themselves professionally and personally, says Hopper.

The company has been scoring high marks for employee satisfaction for decades, dating back to the tenure of Ron Terry, its chairman and CEO from 1973 to 1995. Its own research found that its best customers tended to want to do business with longer-tenured employees, so, under Terry, the company implemented programs aimed at improving job satisfaction and reducing turnover.

A key initiative is what is now known as Firstpower, a rigorous quality control program that instills in employees how things should be done and empowers them to make decisions. Terry was also a strong advocate of encouraging employee feedback and an early champion of flexible hours — a big reason why Working Mother magazine has named the company a top place to work for 20 years running.

But, Jordan says, while the workplace culture is "extraordinarily strong," it can always use tweaking. Jordan, who was promoted to CEO of First Horizon and its bank unit after serving as chief financial officer for a year, is a strong proponent of communication, so he put in place a program that helps encourage more constructive feedback between managers and their employees through role paying and other techniques.

Jordan himself routinely meets with employees across the company through informal "brown bag" lunches. "I always say he could never do 'Undercover Boss' because he knows every employee," jokes Kim Cherry, the head of corporate communications, referring to the popular reality television show.

Cherry joined the company 28 years ago, when Terry was CEO. While that may seem like a long time to stay in one place, Cherry says that's not unusual at First Horizon.

Hopper is a relative newcomer. He joined from a much larger bank about five years ago and says that the cultural differences between the two institutions were noticeable within the first few days. He saw it as such a refreshing change from the more corporate culture to which he was accustomed that he even recruited one of his former colleagues to join him at First Horizon.

"It's a very different working environment — more like a family atmosphere," Hopper says. "You get the feeling that everyone here cares about each other's family life and personal and professional success."

That environment fosters loyalty in employees that might be hard to imagine at less-enlightened companies. Hopper says he is "working three times as hard" in his new role just as a way to thank the bosses who took a chance on him.

Jonathan Lewis, a retiree relationship manager, says he is grateful the bank let him work remotely from New York City for a time, while his partner, a doctor, did his residency at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

"I'm devoted to First Tennessee for allowing me to do that," says Lewis, who has been with the bank for a decade.

For his part, Jordan says that treating employees fairly and providing them with opportunities to stretch themselves is not only the right thing to do, it's good business.

"Having strong employee engagement and enthusiasm is vital because that's what shows up to your customers and, ultimately, drives shareholder returns," he says

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