As credit unions look for ways to stand out from the competition, the most obvious differentiator is people, and the best people are often the ones employers invest time and money training. Nowhere is that training more important than with branch managers, who must consistently deliver the best service to members every day while inspiring their employees to do the same.
But when America’s First Federal Credit Union ($1.33B, Birmingham, AL) needed managers for new branches, the cooperative realized it didn’t groom existing employees for the job.
CU QUICK FACTS
AMERICA'S FIRST FEDERAL Credit Union
data as of 03.31.14
HQ: Birmingham, AL
12-MO SHARE GROWTH: 2.72%
12-MO LOAN GROWTH: 3.04%
“We didn’t have any managers in the wings,” says Audra Weber, vice president of human resources at America’s First. “We wanted to hire from within, but we didn’t have any means of doing that.”
The solution was LAUNCH, a nine-month training program for branch managers that America’s First introduced in March 2013. In future, the program may be used to offer further training to existing branch managers as needed.
Just getting into the rigorous program is a feat. Applicants must submit both a resume and a letter of intent, and then pass an interview, three paper assessments, and a profile test. The latter uses the test scores of the credit union’s top three branch managers as a benchmark to determine how well applicants stack up. In addition, the credit union looks for candidates with three main qualifications: a college degree, management experience, and lending authority. Of 10 applicants, only three were admitted.
The program is so demanding that branch manager trainees attend it full time. The credit union hires replacements for the positions that trainees have vacated. A portion of the program involves time in the classroom learning some 20 different topics, all related to what Weber calls the soft skills of management: conflict resolution, time management, and delegation.
The largest component of the program is hands-on training. The credit union assigns each student a senior-level mentor and a branch where the trainee shadows a manager. In addition, students spend time learning about the work of every department, education that Weber says the credit union derives the most value from. How much time trainees spend in each department depends on how relevant the department’s work is to the branch manager’s job. Lending and collections, for example, command considerable time from trainees while accounting does not.
The idea of the departmental training is to teach these future branch managers what the back office does and, more importantly, why. Employees on the front lines often don’t understand why loan decisions take so long to come through or why paperwork has to be filed a certain way. By shadowing personnel in different departments, trainees get a holistic view of the credit union’s operations so that branch managers develop a team-oriented mindset that includes back office staff.
“It is not us versus them. It’s we,” Weber says of the mindset America’s First wants to instill.
Plus, if a branch manager understands how a particular department functions, that manager is better equipped to instruct employees about how to work with the back office and get jobs done.
The program is designed so that graduates become branch managers by either replacing current managers, as the three 2013 graduates did, or by managing a newly constructed branch. Weber says program participants generally will have a manager job waiting for them after graduation, but if that’s not the case, they will become assistant branch managers and fill in as branch managers as needed until a position opens up.
The three graduates have been managing their own branches since January of this year, and the credit union is already seeing a big payoff from its training program.
“They’re blowing the doors off of corporate goals,” Weber says.
Every branch establishes its own goals for production and efficiency, tracking performance accordingly, with lending considered one of the most important barometers of a successful branch. In the five months that the three program graduates have been managing their own branches, all have exceeded lending goals and by a significant amount. They’re performing at 213%, 141%, and 107% of their respective lending goals, Weber says.
“They were able to significantly increase the production of these branches,” she adds.
That’s not a bad return considering that the only cost America’s First incurs is that of finding replacements for the jobs that the program’s participants previously held. The credit union also had several minimal one-time costs for the first year, such as buying books and other course materials.
A Culture Of Self-Improvement
LAUNCH is not the only training program that America’s First has. The credit union also offers two other professional development programs, POP and SUCCESS, for employees at other levels.
Any employee is eligible to participate in POP, an online course about the credit union’s different departments. Because the course is designed for autonomous use, employees don’t need a supervisor’s approval to participate. After completing as many as five course modules, employees receive a certificate.
SUCCESS targets mid-level employees, those below branch manager but higher than a teller. The 24-month program has two courses that alternate each month. In one, the program’s 10 participants attend class at the credit union’s headquarters and spend the next month completing homework assignments. The program is similar to LAUNCH in that it teaches many of the same soft skills for professional development, though in less depth. Unlike LAUNCH, participants shadow only two departments and are not guaranteed a higher-level position after graduating.