I recently spent an evening leading a skull session of the top 30 people at a billion-dollar community bank.

Like many local banks, this one competes against superregionals by emphasizing service and nimble operations.

And also like many, it has a chief executive officer who has built a happy team while developing an efficiency ratio that would make any bank proud.

The executive vice president and chief operating officer taught school, quit so she could stay home to raise her children, and entered banking when they left home.

How was she trained? The same way, she told me, that she'd been training a subordinate who couldn't reconcile a difference of several thousand dollars on a statement.

That morning she had put him in a conference room and said, "Don't come out until it reconciles."

At 3 p.m. he said, "I'm down to $850. Is that enough?"

"No," she replied.

And at 5 p.m., when he had the difference down to $2.50, she let him out.

"That's how I was trained," the executive vice president said.

When I asked the chief executive what he wanted me to talk about during the roundtable, he replied, "Teamwork, teamwork, teamwork." (I had already determined that the bank was probably doing a pretty good job in this area.)

The point I stressed on teamwork is that always putting customers' problems ahead of co-workers' is a grave mistake.

Most of the time, I pointed out, the co-worker is also handling a customer's problem. Customer and co-worker requests should therefore get equal priority.

But the key to solid teamwork is empowerment. Staff members must know that they have the power and responsibility to handle most problems themselves. They shouldn't have to tell the customer, "I'll talk to management and get back to you."

Then I talked about institutional goals. I listed some:

Profit for the shareholders.

Growth - both for ego and to give employees an opportunity for advancement and new challenges.

Ego inflation for the CEO (the prime goal in too many banks).

Serving the community.

"What is your bank's goal?" I asked this CEO. "Survival," he said.

That covers a lot of waterfront. I reminded the group of what one wise thrift CEO told me:

"Sure, you can build friends by serving the community-but if this erodes profits and the bank goes under, no one cries for it or cares about the employees or stockholders."

What does it take to survive? The group agreed it depends on service, not rates charged and paid.

Larger banks often shoot themselves in the feet by changing people, policies, and procedures.

The community bank can take advantage of this-not only by offering personal service, but doing the little things.

For example, it might offer to buy a potential customer's unused checks. (It is amazing how many people remain at a bank they don't like just because they don't want to throw out unused checks.)

A bank can also help itself survive by promoting its stock to local people. "Put your money where your money is," statement stuffers might suggest. More local ownership means less chance of an unfriendly takeover bid.

But the key to survival is a skilled, happy staff that feels it is empowered to act. As this bank's CEO well knows, the best assets go home every night.

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