Creating a cycle of leadership

First United Bank & Trust Company staff

Paul Bass, Shawnee, Okla., president (far left), put together a local group to go through First United Bank & Trust’s Foundational Leadership Course. Photo courtesy First United Bank & Trust Company

Leadership isn’t just a principle at First United Bank & Trust Company. It’s a practice. The community bank is using leadership as a community-building tool through classes for local changemakers.

By Eric Best

Community banks are the economic engines of their communities, cycling deposits into loans, allowing small businesses to begin and grow—and the cycle continues. What if that principle were applied to leadership?

“Leadership is key to the advancement and the enhancement of a community. You’ve got to have quality leaders in your community.”
—Paul Bass, First United Bank & Trust Company

Such is the case with $12 billion-asset First United Bank & Trust Company in Durant, Okla. It is taking an unorthodox approach to boosting the well-being of the communities it serves by developing the skills, practices and emotional intelligence of local leaders so they can improve their organizations and the community at large.

“Communities have lives just like businesses or individuals. Leadership is key to the advancement and the enhancement of a community,” says Paul Bass, the bank’s Shawnee, Okla., president. “You’ve got to have quality leaders in your community. [Our founders] believe if you’re not going forward, you’re going backward. If we ignore that, the town may be going backward.”

In February 2020, First United launched its own version of the 13-week Foundational Leadership Course developed by the Stagen Leadership Academy in Dallas. The leadership-focused organization allows graduates of its year-long intensive training course, such as First United Bank & Trust president and CEO Greg Massey, to take the lessons they’ve learned and run their own 13-week courses. But the bank is replicating the class with key community members.

“You can scale it with your organization. You bring all this leadership training in your organization,” Bass says. “But Greg wanted to take it one step further. He wanted to scale it in the community.”

No more silos

The community bank has run these courses, dubbed the Spend Life Wisely Academy after its “Spend Life Wisely” slogan, in several of its markets. The bank selects top leaders in that market’s institutions in a variety of industries, from schools and hospitals to faith groups.

As such, the program features training that’s relevant for leaders regardless of sector or organization: attention management, active listening, creating an empowering workplace dynamic and more. Several weeks are set aside for participants to practice and integrate their lessons inside their organizations. Class sizes are small at 13 to 15 people. They’ve been run in virtual, hybrid and in-person formats due to the pandemic.

The aim of the program is to create networks of leaders and arm them with common practices that will make them and their employees better managers and better community members.

“It creates a uniform language among leaders in a community,” says Bass, who graduated from the Shawnee course. “Having gone through a program like this really breaks down some barriers between leaders in different silos and helps unify the community.”

First United Bank & Trust keeps the course to a cost of $500 per participant. So far, dozens of leaders have graduated. The bank has run each city’s course one at a time, but it hopes to expand the program, with several going on simultaneously.

“This [course] came out of Greg Massey’s vision of training outside of our organization and sharing leadership training with the community,” says Gregg Engle, First United Bank & Trust’s leadership development facilitator.

Engle, a small business customer of the bank, joined the bank in January 2020 to execute the courses after Massey recruited him. He invited his nephew, the owner of an electrical company, to take the course. Faced with some skepticism, Engle made a bet with his nephew that if he didn’t take something away from the course, Engle would give him his money back.

“We got to the end, and he said, ‘Keep my money,’” Engle says.

Elevating lives

The Spend Life Wisely Academy isn’t a one-off program for personal and professional development. It feeds into the bank’s wider goals. Growth and learning make up just one of four core pillars of First United Bank & Trust. Others include faith, financial well-being, and health and wellness.

The family-owned community bank has a robust internal professional development program in part because of the vision of Massey and his father, chairman John Massey. “At the end of the day, if we’re helping people grow and just getting better at leading change and managing their direct reports, they’re going to get better outcomes and the bank is going to function better,” Bass says.

All of this growth-focused work is one of many ways First United Bank & Trust hopes to elevate 10 million lives by 2030, a 10-year undertaking it began in 2020. It may sound like a lofty goal, but with course graduates going back into their cities and organizations, the cycle of leadership will continue to reach more and more people.

“[We] have more responsibility than just making money in the community,” Bass says. “It seems like the larger the bank, the less engaged you are. We’re fighting to be the exact opposite of that. We want to be highly engaged at the community level.”

Eric Best is deputy editor of Independent Banker.