To reach the goal line, Citizens State focuses on 10 yards at a time

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After a period of expansion, Citizens State Bank in La Crosse, Wis., was experiencing some growing pains.

Founded in 1907 in Clayton, Wis., the bank remained relatively small for nearly a century. It had just $33 million in assets and 14 employees at the end of 2005, the year its leaders decided to add a second location in La Crosse. Citizens State would go on to expand to additional locations over the next few years, and its headcount ballooned to 57 by the end of 2017.

However, President and CEO Dennis Vogel realized about two years ago that employees were not necessarily getting enough feedback on where to focus their energy.

"I could see where people didn't really know what my vision was or what the future for the bank was," Vogel said. "We had a lot of messages and sometimes we said everything is important. That's overwhelming to the staff and the leadership team."

To build an effective way to communicate with employees and align everybody behind the same vision, Vogel eventually turned to "Traction," a management book by Gino Wackman that helps businesses boost efficiency.

The book suggests breaking down a business strategy into 90-day "blocks," each of which contains five or six quarterly goals for employees to pursue.

Vogel first heard about "Traction" two years ago and talked to business owners around La Crosse who swore by it. He eventually became convinced that the ideas in the book would be effective in helping Citizens State plot its future.

The new approach ensures greater transparency and takes employees' voices into account, creating a better work environment, Vogel said.

The $291 million-asset bank fully implemented the Traction system in January. Rather than focusing on annual goals, the senior leadership team tracks progress on the goals in the quarterly blocks, complete with monthly employee celebration meetings.

Executives are transparent about achievements that are not met in the prior month and what employees can do better during the next "block," said Jeannette Schreier, vice president of human resources.

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For employees, more face-to-face communication with the leadership team and department managers keep them informed of what Citizens State is doing and drives a higher level of engagement, Vogel said.

"We're sharing our thoughts and coming to a common consensus versus just me saying this is what we're going to do," Vogel said. "It allowed us to prioritize as to what are the biggest things that we need to accomplish and where do we want to be in three years."

To gauge the success of each block, Citizens State instituted a weekly meeting in every department to crunch data, such as the number of loan applications the bank receives in a given week, in order to identify trends and problems, Vogel said.

For one recent quarterly goal, Citizens State met with merchants to get them to participate in the coupons it offers to customers through its mobile app. Getting more merchants involved should allow the bank's customers to access a wider variety of coupons. At the same time, the discount offers should send additional business to participating merchants, Schreier said.

The bank measures progress with a "pulse" spreadsheet, which is updated every Monday to document merchants it has reached. This way, all employees can see if they're on track to reach the goal, ensuring everyone is accountable and fully engaged in the process, Schreier said.

"Traction is a good name because it does give a company or a business traction into getting employees moving forward, while also helping us give them a voice," Schreier said.

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Employee engagement Employee relations Workplace management Workplace culture Consumer banking Wisconsin Best Banks to Work For