I recently reached my 20th anniversary in the banking industry. In the old days of banking, that would mean I'd almost qualify to be trusted with the vault keys of a branch.
My earliest banking job, however, was as branch manager of a community bank's first in-store location. I had keys to the vault, a teller drawer, and my desk which often doubled as my staff's lunch counter.
That first in-store location was internally thought of as the bank president's folly. Being open late, on weekends, and on all but one bank holiday gave our operations folks heartburn. Training our 4.5 full-time employees to handle every task from the security room to the teller windows to the new-accounts desk to the manager's office really irked our Human Resources and Training department.
It was an experiment that many on the management team wouldn't have minded seeing fail. Calling a 450-square-foot, three-teller-station, 20-steps-from-the-bananas operation a "bank branch" just seemed wrong to serious bankers.
But when our tiny operation began generating monthly growth that often surpassed the "main office," folks began taking it a bit more seriously. I remember being questioned by a senior officer about what made us successful. I told him that we were such rookies we didn't know we weren't supposed to succeed.
What that initial small team lacked in experience was made up for by enthusiasm. It became apparent to me that our small team could accomplish as much as larger ones if we worked hard, kept our sense of humor and respected each other.
Somewhere in a closet, I still have promotional materials from 1994, touting that type of branch as "The Branch of the Future."
I went on to run a large in-store program and eventually moved into the consulting side of the banking industry. Through the years, I've been involved in innumerable discussions and debates with bankers who were trying to make their in-store locations mimic their traditional branch operations. But I've held firm to the belief that brick-and-mortar branches should operate and look more like in-store locations and not the other way around.
After all of these years, it appears to be happening.
Today, more and more brick-and-mortar facilities that aren't appreciably larger than the in-store locations we've operated for decades are beginning to proliferate. Improved technology and transaction migration away from branches are making the smaller-team model more attractive and feasible than ever.
Sure, there are challenges involved in asking employees at lean-staffed branches to take on multiple roles. But team members who are developing and utilizing broader skill sets in their jobs tend to be happier and more engaged. Our best and brightest branch personnel realize that as our industry inevitably evolves, so will the roles they play in it.
The term "universal banker" is now often used to describe cross-trained, multi-tasking employees. In the future, the descriptive adjective in that job title will seem redundant.
When discussing these "new" staffing models with management, I usually inject only half-joking remarks about basing hiring and reassigning decisions as much on employees' attitudes as their abilities.
I've long preached to in-store and on-site managers that I'd take the green, good-attitude person over the experienced malcontent any day. Inexperience can be addressed soon enough. More importantly, it doesn't spread to coworkers.
Bad attitudes tend to spread like a virus and can actually bring down the performance levels of the entire team. They also tend to damage customers' experiences and erase goodwill.
And as an increasing percentage of our total branch visits are by customers seeking advice and/or problem resolution, the outward demeanor of our branch personnel is even more critical than ever.
Years of working with smaller teams of universal bankers has shown me that it isn't hard work or long hours that burn these folks out. In fact, most take pride in being good at a demanding job.
What does tend to burn them out, however, is when chronic poor-attitude teammates and the toxic cultures they create seem to be tolerated by management.
Those comments tend to garner a few chuckles from those unused to the dynamics of small teams working in close quarters. They tend to elicit "amens" and "hallelujahs" from folks working in those environments today.
Ardently define and defend the cultures you will have, the behaviors you will reward, and those behaviors that you will not tolerate in your own "leaner" branches. Your best employees - and best customers - will thank you for it with higher engagement and lower turnover in the future.
Dave Martin is an executive vice president and chief development officer at Financial Supermarkets Inc., a Market Contractors subsidiary that offers design, construction, consulting and training services for retail banking programs. He can be reached at email@example.com.