A lesson sharp CEOs have long since learned is that their presence around the bank is one of the greatest morale builders and a good way of gathering information.
Most of us known about the technique of MBWA, or managing by wandering around.
CEOs say that they not only give the staff the feeling that they care, but as one put it: "I almost never finish my morning rounds without having someone come up to me and tell me something of importance that I would not have learned had I not been there in person."
Top officers similarly report that when they have regularly scheduled breakfasts with staff members chosen at random, they not only boost morale of those chosen and of the other people in their departments, but they learn as much as they give.
New Year's Eve Tradition
"Being there" can be carried further. One chief executive told me that he spends every New Year's Eve in the operations center with the staff working that night to show how important their efforts are to the bank.
I once went to a three-person drive-in facility of a major bank on the day before Christmas and mentioned the CEO's name to the platform officer. She responded, "He was in here this morning to wish everyone a happy holiday."
Contrast this with the "horrible examples" I have seen in other situations.
A Rare Glimpse
I had a fellowship at a major manufacturing company as a young professor. On a day off, I went to Washington, D.C., where the CEO was testifying before Congress.
After sitting through the hearing, I went up to the executive, introduced myself, and thanked him for his company's hospitality. The entire encounter took about 20 seconds.
On telling this to my host on my return to the company the next Monday, I was approached by the boss of my host's boss -- a man with 40 years with the company.
"What did the CEO look like?" he asked.
"I've never seen on in 40 years here," he added. What a comment on company attitudes.
The Cold Shoulder
Similarly, I was part of a movie on banking being made by a banker's association. The film featured six interviews, including one with the CEO of a major New York bank and one with me.
To save them the expense of bringing the cameras to my home or office, I agreed to do my part in the office of this CEO just after he had finished his.
As I walked in, he stood up, gathered his papers and left the office. He walked right by me, without a word, though he had to know why I was there.
I am told he treats the entire staff the same way. Had he taken 10 seconds to shake hands, I certainly would not have remembered the incident, nor felt it worth repeating almost a decade later!
Citi Versus Chase
Another example: I started teaching a course for Citibank on "Economics for the Thinking Citizen" -- a program to educate the bank's lower-level employee as to what economics involves and how their own attitudes can help or hurt their employer.
Naturally, as soon as our program got some good publicity, including a story on the front business page of The New York Times, Chase Manhattan had to hire another professor and imitate the course for its employees --since the rivalry between those two organizations for top size and everything else was intense in those days.
Gesture Sets the Tone
The difference was this: Every term, David Rockefeller, famed CEO of Chase, would come down and say hello to the students in the Chase class the first day and tell them how important the course would be to them.
Over at Citi, I just stood up and introduced myself.
Guess who had a better attitude toward the facts and ideas provided in the 14 sessions of each course?
Finally, I remember vividly when my daughter was a freshman at Northwestern. I told her to look up my friend Don Jacobs, the dean of the Kellogg Business School.
What would you expect? Margaret would go to the office, introduce herself, Jacobs would come out, shake hands, and that would be it. Not Don Jacobs.
He comes out and says, "Margaret Nadler, Paul's daughter, what are you doing for lunch?"
The Royal Treatment
Two hours later, leaving the faculty Club after meeting half the Kellogg staff, this 18-year-old went back to her dorm feeling like a queen.
When I called Don and asked "Why were you so nice to her?" his answer was. "Why shouldn't I be?"
This is the attitude that has made Kellogg tops and landed Don's picture on the cover of Business Week two times. I hear he treats everyone the way he treated Margaret.
The conclusion -- being seen and being available are the two greatest assets a CEO has in this "touchy-feely" environment, where we want relief from impersonal computers.
It's sad how many bankers feel their loans and deposits need all their attention and neglect this key to bank performance.
Mr. Nadler is a contributing editor of American Banker and professor of finance at the Rutgers University Graduate School of Management.