Employment Sections

PeoplesBank’s Culture Is a Big Key to Its Success

An Engaging  Topic

Janice Mazzallo

Janice Mazzallo

Danielle St. Jean

Danielle St. Jean

Elba Houser

Elba Houser

PeoplesBank was in news again recently, bringing more ‘top employer’ honors, this time from both the Boston Globe, again, and the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast, also again. While the awards are newsworthy, the real story is what’s behind them, a culture of employee engagement. In a roundtable discussion, some bank leaders talk about this culture and how other businesses can create one of their own.

They might have to start thinking about securing a bigger display case for the front lobby at PeoplesBank’s headquarters at 330 Whitney Ave. in Holyoke.

It was already crowded with various awards and commendations — many of them in the broad realm we’ll call ‘top employers’ — and now, it is even more so, with some recent additions. Indeed, for the sixth year in a row, the bank has been named a ‘top place to work’ by the Boston Globe, and for the second time, the institution has been named an ‘employer of choice’ by the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast.

But while what’s in the trophy case is significant, it’s what’s behind all that ‘best employer’ hardware (and we don’t mean the wall) that is actually more important to the company.

When asked to talk about all that in the form of advice to other business and owners and managers, Janice Mazzallo, executive vice president and chief Human Resources officer at the bank, paused for a moment.

It was a poignant pause to be sure, and it essentially said what she was about to say before she even said it — that becoming worthy of these ‘best employers’ awards takes time, patience, energy, imagination, and much more than a flex-time policy and allowing people to wear jeans on Friday, although that helps.

It’s about creating an environment where people feel good to come to work every day; it’s not just a place to make a living, but it’s more of a family environment.”

“It’s sounds cliché, but it’s about walking the walk and talking the talk, and it all starts in the C-suite,” she said. “It’s about creating an environment where people feel good to come to work every day; it’s not just a place to make a living, but it’s more of a family environment.

“It’s a place where people don’t just come to do a job, but get involved in the community, get involved with each other,” she went on. “We have a lot of people here who do more work outside, in the community, than they do in their 9-to-5 work.”

It is impossible to sum all this up with one word, she said, but ‘engagement’ does the job as effectively as any other (see sidebar, page 16). There are many types of engagement, she went on — with others at the company, within the community, with mentors, with new team members, and more — and the bank works hard to ensure that employees have experience with all of them.

And this hard work goes a long way toward explaining not only all those plaques in the display case, said Mazzallo, but the bank’s continued growth and success in the local market.

tptw_logo-smallIn an effort to dive deeper into this discussion of culture and employee engagement, Mazzallo was joined in a broad roundtable discussion on this subject by Danielle St. Jean, Human Resources coordinator and training specialist at the bank, and Elba Houser, commercial banking credit analyst, both fairly recent additions to the team.

The stories about how and why they came to the bank and what they’ve experienced since help drive home the importance of culture to a company’s success — not in winning awards, but in building teams, promoting innovation, attracting and retaining talent, and, yes, gaining market share.

The three stressed that a culture of engagement starts at the top — in this case bank President Tom Senecal — and filters down to all levels, and all locations (the institution has 17 branches scattered across Hampden and Hampshire counties), within the company. And it also encompasses a number of other words and phrases, including communication, listening, connecting, mentoring, empowerment, volunteerism, even fun.

“It’s really a personal experience,” said St. Jean as she sliced through all those words and what they mean collectively. “When people feel supported from day one, they perform better and are more likely to be engaged in what they do.”

Houser agreed. “From day one, there have always been people I could reach out to who have guided me through the ropes,” she explained. “It’s a community here, and it’s a family; these are not only people you work with, but people you can depend on.”

Listen Up

To effectively get many of those talking points and bullet points across, Mazzallo recounted Senecal’s recent decision to visit many of the branches personally with the stated desire to meet with employers and listen to them about their work and any issues or concerns they may have.

She said some of the employees were initially intimidated by the notion of the boss coming for a visit, but soon, most fears evaporated.

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“At first, people were scared and shocked, saying, ‘here’s the CEO coming out to my branch and my department,” she recalled. “But when he came in and genuinely wanted to learn more about what they did, with a mindset of ‘how can I understand your role to make this a better place to work and walk a mile in your shoes?’ the word spread very quickly that not only did he want to understand, he really wanted to hear their ideas.”

Better still, he responded to what he heard.

“He brought some of the ideas to management meetings, and we talked about them,” Mazzallo went on. “And changes were made as a result.”

Senecal’s road trips represent just one of many ways in which the bank’s operating mindset, or culture, has generated benefits in the form of improved communication, idea generation, and continuous improvement.

Others, as noted, include a greater ability to attract and retain talent, which is significant at a time when many in banking can relate their careers through a large stack of business cards they’ve disseminated over the years, and also when individual lenders — and sometimes whole teams of them — are moving from one institution to another with great regularity.

And it’s significant also because, from a big-picture perspective, PeoplesBank is still a relatively small institution (about $2.3 billion in assets) based in Holyoke.

“Were competing with larger banks, and at the end of the day, there are other organizations that can offer more money and probably big bonuses,” said Mazzallo. “And so, I have to be able to answer the question, ‘why should someone be excited work with us? And once they’re here, why should anyone be excited to stay with us?’”

Why indeed? The answer, she said, lies in that fact that, for most people, contentment goes well beyond money and to things that “pull at the heartstrings,” as she put it.

For St. Jean, who was working in Boston before she came to the bank, it was the culture she said was in clear evidence starting with her first interview with the company roughly six months ago.

She and her boyfriend, who is from this area, had made the decision to leave the Hub and relocate to the 413.St. Jean needed a job, but more than that, she needed the “right employer and the right community.” And she found both at the bank.

“The strength of the culture here really does begin before day one; it all begins with the recruitment and onboarding process,” she explained. “For me, personally, leaving behind the city life, I had a lot to do to get ready. When I first started here and accepted the offer, I had to find a car, move all my belongings, and get established. And the team here really helped me with all of that.”

And she said she’s seen that scenario — meaning several layers with assistance with the process of relocating and starting the next chapter in a career — repeat itself several times since she arrived, re-emphasizing that this is the culture at the institution.

“This is a place that can help individuals with that type of transition in their life,” she said, “which speaks greatly to the culture and to what keeps associates engaged.”

Houser tells a somewhat similar story. Her transition involved returning to work after taking some time off to start a family, and, like St. Jean’s, it wasn’t an easy journey, and one for which support was appreciated.

“I started as a management-development trainee, and when I came in, I had a network of colleagues who were management-development trainees prior,” she explained. “That first day, they took me out to lunch, and they discussed what was to be expected of me in that role, and that helped a lot, especially after not being in the workforce for two years and having to build a career again. That help is the reason I succeeded as I did.”

The Not-so-secret Sauce

Returning to the subject of retention, a key ingredient in any company’s success, Mazzallo said one of the main reasons why people leave an organization is a feeling that they’re not being heard, or that their input isn’t entirely welcome or appreciated.

“People get wooed by other companies because they’re getting attention, and often, they don’t feel they’re getting attention from their current employee,” she explained. “So it’s very important, especially with your higher performers, that you’re paying attention, and sometimes it’s just as simple as making time to listen to them and listen to their ideas.”

If that sounds like advice to other business owners and managers, it is. And those we spoke with at the bank had lots of it as they addressed the question of how other companies can become more engaging and, in the process of doing so, become better competition for ‘top employer’ awards.

For starters, they said, repeatedly, that a culture of engagement starts with those at the top setting the tone, walking the walk, and giving employees at all levels a voice.

“Ideas can come from anywhere, and they should be encouraged,” said Mazzallo. “And companies should look to not only implement them when it’s appropriate, but communicate that they’ve been implemented. We do that here, and it takes on a life of its own; people hear about these ideas, they get inspired, and that creates more innovation and involvement.”

But while listening and encouraging ideas and innovation, a company must also take the proper attitude when things don’t go as well as everyone would like. In other words, a company can’t be afraid of — or in any way punish — failure.

“Failure comes with the territory, and you have to be careful with it,”Mazzallo explained. “You don’t want to have too much, obviously, but here, when we work on a project and it runs off course, we take the opportunity to bring the team together, to course-correct, to find out what’s happened, and learn from those experiences.

“You embrace the problem and find out what out what’s happened,” she went on. “That way, people aren’t hesitant or afraid of making a mistake in the future. If you’re in an environment where you’re afraid to make mistakes, that’s where innovation gets squashed.”

Still another big part of the equation, she went on, goes back to that notion of a workplace being more than a place where people go to work.

“Just show people that you care,” Mazzallo said simply. “Show people that they’re more than just there from 9 to 5. Show people you value them as more than just a worker.”

As an example, she said the bank’s leaders, recognizing how stressful the holiday season can be and usually is, scheduled a lunch-and-learn (a healthy lunch) that addressed the many stress-inducing aspects of the holidays and how to deal with them head on.

There’s also that fun factor, which all those we spoke with said cannot be overlooked.

Which brings us to something the bank calls Employee Fest, which is a week, not a day, of what amounts to employee recognition and celebration.

Staged in September to coincide with the United Way’s Day of Caring, Employee Fest involves volunteerism, a luncheon, team games, visits to the branches, and more.

This year, there was a carnival theme, said Houser, adding that activities were designed, many with some assistance from the Internet, to bring the branches and the main office together.

This year’s festival was St. Jean’s first, and she was struck by its ability to connect people, even if they were working in branches separated by miles of asphalt.

“It really strengthens the community,” she told BusinessWest. “It connects different groups within the organization with friendly competition and provides insight into what different people are doing for the institution; it helps keep them productive and engaged.”

Bottom Line

There’s that word again. Engaged.

It’s a simple term, but it covers a lot of ground, said Mazzallo, reiterating that, ideally, employees should be engaged in everything from the community to innovation; from the well-being of their co-workers to the art and science of listening.

Creating such a culture doesn’t happen overnight, and there are absolutely no quick fixes.

But all the hard work that goes into creating and maintaining such a culture and making it part of the company’s DNA pays off in all kinds of ways.

And we’re not even talking about the those plaques in the display case.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

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