Why it pays to educate your employees

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Ongoing education is no longer a nice-to-have. It’s a key driver of employee retention, job performance, cybersecurity and more. Learn from the community banks we spoke to.

By Elizabeth Judd

Not too long ago, community bankers regularly balked at the expense of providing educational opportunities for employees. “Community bankers used to jokingly say that we’ll let the U.S. Banks and Wells Fargos of the world train our people, and then we’ll hire them away,” recalls Greg R. Raymo, president and CEO of First State Bank Southwest in Worthington, Minn.

That has changed as education has gone digital and community banks increasingly recognize the role professional development can play in fostering and improving a unique banking culture.

Take $285 million-asset First State Bank Southwest, which ensures each of its employees completes at least three educational webinars or other courses every six months.

“My story to every new employee is, ‘People don’t bank with banks, they bank with people,’” Raymo says. “So every one of your 62 employees is developing a personal brand and a personal reputation. And the way you do that is by taking advantage of the educational opportunities that we are offering to better yourself.”

I tell employees, ‘The bank is the overall beneficiary of your personal career development. When people want to do business with you, the bank benefits.’
—Greg R. Raymo, First State Bank Southwest

Raymo notes a direct connection between investing in employee education and his community bank’s ability to attract customers. “I tell employees, ‘The bank is the overall beneficiary of your personal career development. When people want to do business with you, the bank benefits.’”

Steve Adamo, senior vice president and director of training and quality services at First Fidelity Bank in Oklahoma City, Okla., agrees. He is such a believer in professional development that he helped launch the bank’s FFB University in 2016 (the first full semester commenced in the fall of 2017).

Adamo finds that education is central to retaining talent. Since launching FFB University, turnover rates at the $1.5 billion-asset bank plummeted from 34 percent one year ago to 13 percent this year. “Employees feel valued because we’ve invested in them as people, not as an employee number,” says Adamo.

“All of our staff has a clear direction on how they can advance within our company and within their positions,” Adamo continues. “That’s what creates morale: Clearly communicating to your staff what’s their direction and their ability to grow. Lighting up that path is a huge part of why our turnover rates are now so much lower.”

Classes on stress reduction, leadership, juggling multiple tasks at once, mastering Excel, becoming a better writer and even parenting skills might not sound like the typical fare for a community bank providing professional development, but Adamo contends that these popular courses help his employees grow personally. He says that by surveying employees on what they want in terms of education, he can literally use employee preferences as “a shopping list” for FFB University’s offerings at the beginning of each new semester.

FFB University offers 300-plus courses from ICBA’s Premium Plan online learning program, and another 200 to 250 courses of its own design. The offerings are proving extremely popular. With a workforce of about 320, the bank is averaging 2,000 completed courses per month.

Clear goals

Raymo takes a more hands-on approach to helping employees choose the courses they enroll in. Course selection happens at an employee’s annual and mid-year performance reviews. During each of these reviews, a supervisor adds into an Excel spreadsheet those training materials and courses that the employee should complete within the next six months. Most of FFB University’s webinars come from ICBA or from the Independent Community Bankers of Minnesota. “It’s been absolutely wonderful,” he says of the ICBA unlimited webinar pass. “It was a great investment on our part.”

Reviewing those spreadsheets helps supervisors see exactly which webinars and seminars each of the bank’s 62 employees has completed. It can also help management determine whether or not an individual is prepared for the next opportunity. In this way, professional development is not only a retention tool, keeping employees happy. It also helps bank executives to progress in their own succession-planning goals.

Lindsay LaNore, who heads ICBA’s Community Banker University, points out that while annual or ongoing training is a required part of most community banks’ compliance management systems, “professional development programs also allow banks to promote from within.” When banks invest in their employees, individuals grow and “there are some incredible impacts to the institution as well as to the bankers,” she says.

LaNore says engagement levels soar when employees realize their employers are investing in their futures. “Professional development programs give employees a sense of empowerment that they’re growing both professionally and personally in their level of knowledge,” she says. “It gives them a sense of ownership in their roles at the bank and what they want to contribute to the organization.”

No question: Digital delivery is a game-changer when it comes to professional development and how knowledge can be disseminated and absorbed.


Annual employee turnover rate at First Fidelity Bank in 2018 following the launch of FFB University, down from 34 percent in 2017

“In this space, there are so many mechanisms to offer training to staff,” says LaNore. “One of the ways to be really successful is to be diverse in your offerings.”

She is convinced that the one-size-fits-all model for designing a training program no longer works. Instead, she recommends providing classes both from internal sources (business leaders make great instructors) and external ones (ICBA, state associations and even educational experts on law, governance or cybersecurity).

Community banks are turning to a variety of delivery mechanisms, some face-to-face and some digital. LaNore notes that employees all have different personalities and learning styles, so the wider the range of options, the greater the chance of engaging them. She even recommends experimenting with offering classes at different physical locations to spark interest and keep your approach fresh.

“Banks are trying to be diverse and flexible, and improvise in how they’re providing training to their staff—and that’s a good thing,” says LaNore. She notes that bankers are pressed for time, so online offerings may appeal, especially those that employees can easily start, stop and complete at their own pace. To underscore the importance of making the most of whatever time is available, she cites a statistic that less than 1 percent of an employee’s work week is generally available for professional development.

LaNore adds that another advantage of online courses, such as those offered by ICBA, is the ability to track employees’ completion and success rates. This helps management gauge their motivation and see which courses are most valuable.

Raymo endorses online delivery of professional development as a way to provide education for all employees “without spending money on traveling and hotels.” That said, he doesn’t want to encourage employees to attend webinars exclusively, because the networking opportunities are lost. He notes that he belongs to the ICBA CEO Network, while his CFO attends ICBA’s CFO Forum and his head of human resources participates in the ICBA Human Resources Network.

“With webinars, you never get the opportunity to develop relationships with people in the industry,” Raymo says. “We challenge every employee that when you’re at a seminar, you don’t sit back in the corner and hide. You develop relationships with professionals you can call on later in your career.” He continues, “Career development is not just knowledge. It’s the development of relationships within the industry. I may be old school, but I truly believe that networking and interacting with people you can rely on is critical.”

Keeping knowledge within

One classic problem for organizations investing in their people is that when employees leave for new jobs, the knowledge gained from seminars and conventions walks out the door with them.

Raymo addresses this problem by making sure that employees share materials and cutting-edge information from webinars and conventions during internal training sessions that take place during the third week of each month from September until April. “Employees use the materials they gathered at those seminars and pass those materials on to the appropriate staff during those training sessions,” he says.

LaNore finds that community banks have gotten creative about sharing information. “Some banks can’t send all employees to certain conferences,” she says. “So they then ask that those participating give a report to their teams, whether it’s at the department- or business-line level, or whether it’s to the entire bank.” She has observed that some banks ask their employees to create a summary write-up, outlining the key points and takeaways from external training programs they have attended.

LaNore believes that it’s human nature to want “to share and empower those around us.” Community banks should therefore devise ways that knowledge can easily be spread. “By giving staff and employees the opportunity to learn, we teach others, and it does start a ripple effect within an institution,” she says.

The bottom line, though, is that professional development is such an overwhelming positive that community banks should avoid getting too hung up on whether the employees they’ve educated eventually leave.

We used to joke: What’s worse than training your staff and having them leave? Not training your staff—and having them stay.
—Steve Adamo, First Fidelity Bank

As Adamo says, “We used to joke: What’s worse than training your staff and having them leave? Not training your staff—and having them stay.” He continues, “As fast as the industry is moving, you cannot afford to be complacent and comfortable and get left behind.”

Top-down initiative

Some see the most persuasive arguments in favor of professional development in extremely personal terms. Raymo, for instance, views education as critical to realizing his own potential. “In my career, I was given a lot of opportunities to attend educational events that helped me advance my career, not only from a knowledge standpoint but from connectivity and networking,” he says. “I had the benefit of having a management team that valued my training, and I’m passing that on.”

Study up

ICBA’s Community Banker University (CBU) offers member banks an entire ecosystem of industry-specific professional development courses, certifications, webinars and live events across the country. Online certificates range from Audit & Compliance to Human Resources to Universal Banker. If you are looking to train your entire staff, a menu of online training plans and bundles offers partial or full access to CBU’s 300-plus online courses. Individual courses are also available for purchase. Learn more and register at

Arguably, education is a core value for community bankers in a way that might not always hold true for their megabank counterparts. That’s because community banks distinguish themselves by adding a personal touch to finance—and this personal touch can take the form of professional development opportunities that positively change a bank’s culture.

“Education plays a huge role in the development of the culture of your organization,” says Raymo. “If you provide education, even when your employees are not in the bank, they act like they’re proud of working here because they know they’re being invested in.
“The future of any organization is dependent on the investment you’re making today.”

Adamo agrees. He notes that in two years, it will be the centennial of First Fidelity Bank, which is still owned by its founding family. “There’s a lot of experience and a lot of things we can lean on because of our leaders and the leadership they’ve navigated us through for nearly 10 decades,” he says. “We have a culture that embraces continuing education, and it has to start from the top.”

Adamo believes that these values should apply to all community banks. “Every community bank should have a duty of continuously challenging and educating their workforce,” he says. “That’s really the best investment we can make for our company.”

Cybercriminal-thwarting school

In 2017, it took organizations an average of 191 days to identify a data breach, according to a new study by the Ponemon Institute. Given that most breaches go undetected and therefore unaddressed for more than six months, many community bankers understand that cybersecurity awareness needs to be part of a mandatory curriculum of what employees are taught.

Steve Adamo says First Fidelity Bank partners with anti-phishing firm Cofense to help educate employees about the latest in information security. The goal is to make them more adept at identifying phishing scams—a common problem at community banks. He notes that many of the bank’s cybersecurity courses are mandatory for all bank employees: “Defending our company from phishing attacks, and defending not only our integrity, but our customers’ integrity, is paramount.”

ICBA took cybersecurity training to new levels by inviting a former hacker to address participants at its sixth-annual LEAD FWD Summit, held last month. The title of the panel was “Cyber Crime for Today’s Banks: How to Beat the Fraudsters (from a reformed fraudster!).”

Lindsay LaNore of ICBA’s Community Banker University says learning from a hacker is one way to understand the mindsets of cybercriminals. For her, cybersecurity is an area that all community bankers need to prioritize in their education efforts, because the nature of these attacks is constantly changing. Staying ahead of cyber crime is tricky, says LaNore, and up-to-the-minute education is a community bank’s best defense.


Elizabeth Judd is a freelance writer in Maryland.