When a branch program unravels, it tends to be because of decisions made by middle management rather than those that trickle up from branch managers.

I have often suggested this in meetings with both middle and senior managers, and it is a point that can feel unnerving for them to hear. The responsibility of middle and upper management in such failures extends to both traditional and nontraditional branch programs.

I always point out that I am not indicting middle management roles. Instead, I'm observing how critical those positions are to a branch program's success.

Branch managers are undeniably essential. No group within a bank has more influence on individual branch performance and customer satisfaction than branch managers. This is just as true today as ever.

However, the level of management just above the branch level has also become more critical as the makeup of our teams and roles of our managers has evolved – especially in newer branch models that require a different skill set.

Over the years, one of the points I have repeatedly made to banks entering the in-store and nontraditional branch banking arena relates to what motivates people to work at a traditional branch. Rather than the money, folks tended to like branch jobs primarily for lifestyle and environmental factors. They liked the banker's hours, the predictable job duties and the often-sedate environments.

The first things thrown out of the window with in-store and other nontraditional branches were the limited hours, the predictability of daily job functions and the sedate branch environments. Moreover, more retail-like environments tend to bring more retail-like levels of turnover.

As our traditional branches have adopted nontraditional schedules, staffing models and job descriptions, the pressures of keeping employee engagement up and turnover down has only increased. Middle managers play more integral roles than ever in addressing those challenges.

You can hire the most talented and motivated people in your markets to manage and work in your branches. However, whether they remain motivated or even remain with your organization depends largely on their interactions with their managers. Branch employees' direct supervisors become the prism through which they see the rest of the company. This is as true for community banks as it is for regional and national players.

The job titles of these middle management levels vary by institution. In larger banks, they may be called area, district or regional managers. In smaller operations, they may even be called head of retail. Regardless of title or bank size, this level of management tends to be the glue that holds programs together, or not. A middle manager is likely the reason you have high engagement levels, which can lead to strong performance. If you do not have high engagement, branch-level improvements tend to be temporary at best.

Most institutions seem to realize the importance of regular reinforcement of best practices and core philosophies to their branch teams on the ground, who are the faces of their organization to the lion's share of their customers. But some smart institutions are increasing the time and resources dedicated to reinforcing best practices with their next level up of managers as well. Many of these managers were once successful branch managers. However, leading diverse teams in multiple locations is an entirely different dynamic than leading single teams you work shoulder-to-shoulder with each day.

To tackle the added responsibility, the most effective middle managers tend to visit their branches often. Sure, they communicate frequently with their teams through phone calls, e-mails, text messages and more. However, they realize that no amount of electronic correspondence can match personal interactions and hands-on assessments of the state of their facilities and their branches' sales and service cultures.

Talented middle managers understand that branch visits aren't simply branch audits. They know the importance of identifying, celebrating, reinforcing and publicizing the positive things they find in their branches. They also understand that when they do not see teams every day, the times in which they do see the teams take on even more importance.

They strive to treat their branch managers and teams fairly and show no favoritism. They also personally model the behaviors and engagement levels they ask of their teams during their visits.

Technology may transform banking. But it will not differentiate one bank from another. Engaged branch managers and teams will. Banks with the best managers of their managers are best positioned to thrive.

Dave Martin is the founder of the retail bank performance company bankmechanics. He can be reached at dave.martin@bankmechanics.com.