Creating cultural change in an organization takes courage but allows you to realize the true potential of your employees.

The corporate leader provides the context that gives employees a focus of purpose, a sense of belonging. Leadership lets them share a larger purpose without losing their individuality, so all team members can contribute to the strength of the enterprise.

The first step to helping them do so is to disseminate information widely and openly, to accommodate the wide differences and needs of the very best employees.

Remember, the best employees are as important as the best clients - perhaps even more so. The companies with able young people who are not easily lured away are those that have created strong leadership and learned to motivate the very best.

A more difficult step is to inspire team members who have not realized their potential but want to grow. The good news for enlightened leaders is that more people want to grow when the climate is encouraging. An employee's saying "I never knew I could do this!" is tremendously rewarding to leaders who have invested in their team members to make an enterprise more successful.

There are many ways to accommodate individual growth, ranging from redesign of the work to sharing information openly and clearly to a value- and-reward system that generates motivation.

Some say the new business ethic will require that the growth of team members become the primary aim. The idea is that workers would then see to it that the customers and shareholders were served.

This sounds nice in theory, but does it work in practice? Is it enough to answer the question "Why are you in business?" by saying, "To help people become stronger, healthier, more autonomous, more competent, more self-reliant." Well, some companies that have taken this approach have become extremely successful.

Many observers of the evolution of the work force say the greatest asset of American companies today is knowledge-the knowledge in their employees' minds. As turnover in attractive banking markets has increased-particularly at levels where most customer contact occurs, such as the teller position- attracting and retaining employees have become the primary preoccupations of many banks. Scarce human capital is being sought on all fronts.

To attract and retain the right employees, banks may have to become learning organizations-more flexible, more human, more adaptive, and more openly responsive to market forces.

Banks that take this route will also be on an ongoing quest to reduce mediocrity. In customer-contact jobs, replacing less qualified people with those who have more ability and more service orientation may provide the competitive advantage of banks in the future.

It is a difficult task, but do-able. Ms. Bird is senior vice president of strategic initiatives at Norwest Corp., Minneapolis.

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.