When T. Joseph Semrod, chairman and chief executive of UJB Financial, articulated his vision for the organization's future in the spring of 1994, his chief emphasis was on creating "total customer satisfaction."

That statement became the impetus for an innovative program within its United Jersey Bank subsidiary that was designed to ensure that the human resources strategies of the bank's retail division directly supported its business goals.

Although there has been a great deal of talk in recent years about service excellence and the customer coming first, the message often does not get translated into meaningful action. As Sabry Mackoul, the head of United Jersey's retail division, put it, "Employees hear that they're supposed to concentrate on serving the customer and then continue to get rewarded for adhering to controls."

But Mr. Mackoul, responding to the challenge outlined by Mr. Semrod, was determined to change all that.

In May 1994, he gave the retail division's professional excellence task force - a group made up of both corporate managers and people from the field - the job of defining what sort of skills key jobs in the retail division were likely to require in the future. Gail Howard, senior vice president of human resources and chair of the task force, emphasizes the importance of having field people involved throughout such a process: "They're the ones who really know what goes on on the front lines and can serve as a reality check."

Task force members and Rick Lepsinger, a managing partner at the consulting group Manus, began by developing broad job outlines for the five positions requiring close contact with customers: branch managers, assistant branch managers, teller supervisors, service and sales reps, and tellers. Rather than focusing on what these jobs currently involved, they defined them in terms of Mr. Mackoul's mandate for the division's future - which meant more time spent on selling and on developing people, and less on administration and compliance.

A representative group of 80 branch managers - about a third of the retail division's total - was asked to participate in a study that involved getting feedback on their management practices from a broad range of sources. To obtain this feedback, both the managers' supervisors and their direct reports filled out a questionnaire developed by Manus, which asks highly specific questions about how often a manager uses certain leadership practices. The questionnaire was customized by the task force and Manus to reflect the specific characteristics of United Jersey Bank; for instance, a technical mastery section was added to gauge managers' skills with regard to using automated systems and other technology effectively.

Though all of the 14 practices were shown to be relevant and valid, five practices in particular - informing, clarifying, planning, problem solving, and inspiring - were found to be highly correlated with objective measures of the branches' current financial performance, such as growth in loans and deposits.

Thus, branches whose managers used these core competencies more often showed better financial results "For the first time that I know of," says Ms. Howard, "we established a clear link between managerial competencies and branch performance. As we go forward, we'll be able to see how well these practices correlate with success in the new, sales-oriented environment, and with our goal of total customer satisfaction. It's our feeling that the correlation will continue to be strong, but some adaptations are likely to be needed."

Once the model was established, the corporate human resources division took on the task of scheduling and delivering the training required to put it to use.

The first step in the training process was to give all the managers in the retail division a chance both to assess themselves on their use of leadership behaviors and to see how others had rated them in terms of the key practices. (In the case of those who had no management responsibilities or direct reports, a different model - one made up of characteristics that customers felt made for exceptional tellers and sales and service reps - was constructed.)

Corporate training then scheduled a series of one-day workshops, during which managers had a chance to analyze the feedback they had received and nonmanagerial staff could evaluate themselves in terms of the customer service model. During the course of these workshops, each participant was asked to clarify preliminary development targets and to prepare for scheduled development meetings with his or her boss.

These development meetings, which followed the workshop for 2,000 of the retail division's employees, were essentially goal-setting sessions during which the employee and the manager reviewed the feedback and/or self- evaluation together and arrived at a set of development goals. The final outcome of the meetings was to formulate a development plan for attaining the targets that had been set.

The task force and Mr. Lepsinger, along with the people in corporate training, are now in the process of identifying significant skill gaps in the division and deciding if there are internal training programs in place to address them. In cases where such programs do not exist, they will either be developed internally or found outside the bank, so that the managers can attend them on their own. In addition, all managers will go through a coaching course that emphasizes giving constructive feedback and empowering their direct reports.

In keeping with the systematic approach at United Jersey Bank, participants in the program will be given 18 to 24 months to close their skill gaps.

Says Mr. Lepsinger, "Too often, human resource goals are expressed in very vague terms, and nobody really expects them to be achieved by any given date. That sends a message that senior management doesn't really see them as being important the way financial goals are. By making an actual schedule for reaching the targets, United Jersey is demonstrating that it takes the program seriously."

One of those decisions involved what to do with managers who do not want to make the changes required of them. Ms. Howard noted there is resistance among some managers to the idea of getting more actively involved in selling. These managers will be given the option of transferring to other roles within the bank or of receiving outplacement counseling.

"It's never easy to bring about change within an organization," Howard says, "and we're very aware of the impact this could have on some individuals. At the same time, we see the program as a genuine source of empowerment for those who stick with it. Instead of being order-fillers, they really will get the chance to be entrepreneurs - and that's a change many of them are greeting with enthusiasm."

Ms. Toynton is a consultant with Manus in Stamford, Conn.-based.

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