Case Study

Cultivating culture change at Citizens Bank:

it starts with managers

The strategy execution need and vision

The gatekeepers of culture are the front and mid-level leaders of an organization. However, this same population is often an under-supported group when it comes to leadership development. Culture, or the environment created by the way that individuals in an organization react to daily tradeoffs – i.e. generally working later hours instead of pushing back deadlines to accommodate a reasonable workday – directly contributes to productivity, engagement, and attrition.

Mid-level leaders, in particular, are not only responsible for executing a constant barrage of strategy implementation priorities to meet ever-increasing expectations, but are also tasked with effectively leading and growing the talent around them. Companies have made considerable investments in leadership development programs, guides, tools, and resources in order to equip these managers to execute on said responsibilities, and define what this leadership looks like, but the resources are usually overwhelming and difficult to absorb or internalize. Additionally, leadership standards, competencies, and guidelines are frequently difficult to observe, making them hard to understand – what exactly is a manager supposed to do to exhibit a standard or a competency?

With this and the results of multiple internal and external surveys (including an annual Organizational Health Index study) in mind, Citizens Bank recognized a need to more precisely target culture change for their organization. As one of the largest regional banks in the United States, the bank has a large front and mid-level leader population serving as the lynchpin of the company’s day-to-day operating and decision-making. If this audience could be motivated and empowered to shift their behavior, the bank would tangibly benefit in multiple categories, from productivity to retention.

The solution

To accomplish this task, Citizens partnered with BTS to develop and deliver a one-day business simulation program that would be rolled out to 2,400 leaders in over 100 sessions. The solution was built around the singular focus of distilling key points from an extensive leadership guide, and articulating those in a manner relevant to Citizens’ current state of business. Foundationally, this involved defining great leadership at Citizens in a limited number of interactions which were both frequent and critical to driving business and cultural outcomes.

At the program, managers had an opportunity to work in teams of five to competitively experience ten realistic challenges. All of the challenges were rooted in the pivotal moments that leaders face on the job, when their decisions and behaviors must align with the company’s goals.

Each scenario presented multiple options to participants; some decisions were optimal based on what great managers in the organization already do, while others were typical manager behaviors or common decisions that were not as effective.

After addressing the scenarios, the teams explored the choices they made in detailed debrief discussions, and built capabilities that would aid them in yielding the highest rates of success moving forward. The simulation evaluated each team on the criteria of engagement, culture, and value, with the winning team accruing the highest number of cumulative points.

Each one-day program was kicked off by a Citizens senior leader, demonstrating executive commitment to the principles behind the initiative. Those same themes have been embedded into other collaborations between Citizens and BTS, which are delivered to the senior-most bands of the organization. Targeting both mid-level leaders and front-line managers with two versions of the same program also provided broad-scale alignment. Furthermore, delivering to geographies multiple times contributed to reinforcing dissemination to business groups.

The reinforcement of learnings

As a means for ensuring participants’ learning continued beyond the program, participants set goals for which they would be held accountable after the program was over. Using the 10 key learning points identified in the simulation, participants were tasked with setting actionable goals related to one or two of those points.

They then committed to sharing and following up on these goals with their managers – a particularly effective tactic, as the majority of said managers had gone through a similar version of the program themselves and were well equipped to support their reports in applying these learnings.

Finally, a sustainment effort was developed for alumni of the program, where they were virtually challenged by variations of the situations they originally faced in the one-day session. This refresh provided a reminder of learning points in an experiential manner.

The results

The program has been highly successful throughout its implementation, receiving an average rating of 9.6 out of 10 and with multiple sessions garnering net promoter scores of 100. The level of satisfaction has been due to both content and the performance of a team of 11 facilitators visiting 10 different locations. Positive feedback from participants has included variants of the following:

  • “The program was fantastic and thought provoking. It enabled me to identify managerial areas where I could improve and helped me validate the positive procedures that I had already been implementing. Great course!”
  • “This was the best training I have attended in almost all of my career. Very informative and thought provoking and actual things I can use not only in my work life but personal as well. Thank you!”
  • “Probably the most engaging and interesting class I’ve attended in 32 years in banking!”
  • “Since the session, I’ve been gathering additional feedback from my team and I agree with their assessment that [this program] is the best investment the firm has made that will positively impact how they lead and manage through change…thank you for making a difference in how I can help my managers think differently and make a valuable contribution to the business.”

The program rollout over the course of the 100 sessions served as a communication vehicle for managers to share their perspectives, observations, and comments regarding factors in their daily environments which impeded progress.

A follow up version of the program is currently in development which builds off of what was learned as well as the new challenges that the bank currently faces. Some participants even gained the confidence to message the CEO directly post-training, and as a reflection of the organizations’ commitment, received responses in kind from him.

The positive reception of the program has contributed to improvements in key performance indicators for the bank, including the aforementioned Organizational Health Index. It is clear that targeting front and mid-level leadership contributes significantly to culture change, and that using a narrowly scoped initiative is an effective means by which to ignite the shift.

Experiencing ten thought-provoking moments with counterintuitive or uncommon sense learning points served as an opportunity for managers to choose one or two moments that resonated most with them and adopt behaviors that tangibly improved their leadership capability. As Citizens and BTS look to create the next stages of the development journey, this initial phase has provided an essential foundation for the culture-critical leader levels in the organization.

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