Lesson: Appearances can be deceiving. By listening to the stories people tell, a good leader can identify strong and weak performers from a single encounter.
On paper the man was superior to his peers. He went to the best schools, got the best grades, and was generally well-liked. In the job interview he had impressed everyone. His past experience resonated with all the managers of BB&T. This man’s experience said he would perform at the highest level. Yet, a few years into employment, and the now branch manager had underperformed, under-delivered, and underwhelmed. This story was not uncommon.
John Allison, CEO, was again flabbergasted by the performance. Just as he was beginning to believe he understood human nature enough to select the right man for the job, he was thrown another curveball.
One way to test performance at BB&T was the Sterling Award program for high performers. Every time it seemed the same few men and women won the award. Rarely did someone who appeared resplendent on paper ever win it. The winners were less educated, less experienced, and supposedly less skilled. But there they were, the same twenty five percent winning time and again.
Over the years, Allison had noticed a fundamental difference between the two types of performers. Now he was determined to understand what that difference was. He was headed to a particular branch manager whose performance had been subpar, unlike what was indicated in the interview and on his college transcript.
Out the window went all Allison’s preconceived notions. He was going to listen and offer no advice to the manager. He was there to check in as he did with all his branches. This one was located in a flourishing southern American city as were most of the BB&T banks. The economy had been down lately, but the local farmers were bearing through, as farmers are want to do.
Allison’s car stopped at a broken light. The driver waited for the oncoming traffic to pass, and then turned left toward the bank’s parking lot. The manager came out to greet the CEO. He had a warm and attractive smile, pressed suit, and not a touch of sweat in the sweltering heat.
“Welcome, Mr. Allison,” he said through a thick smile.
John Allison followed the man into his offices and listened to the pleasantries about the weather, local economy, and the morale of the troops. Conclusions were trite. Weather: hot. Economy: poor. Morale: moderate. Allison said very little, but waited for the man to explain the poor performance.
As if his discussion on weather, economics, and morale should suffice, the man sat silent having nothing more to say.
“And how are the loan numbers?” Allison asked.
“The rates of those other banks in town are too low, so I could not develop any more business.”
“And the Certificate of Deposits?”
“Competitors pay astronomically high rates for their CD’s, I was unable to attract new depositors.”
Allison said nothing.
“Surely you noticed the stoplight on the way in? Been broken for months. No one’s come to fix it. Customers have an incredibly difficult time finding the branch.”
Allison said nothing.
“Home office isn’t managing the computer systems well. Customers are unhappy! I’m doing all that I can.”
“Thank you,” Allison said and the branch manager thought he was referring to his final statement.
Allison got up and shook the man’s hand and left.
On the way home he contemplated the problem of the storytelling branch manager. He thought about that year’s Sterling Award Winner, too. The winner, he understood, did not seem to notice the problems his branch faced. He had the same poor economy, he had the same competitors to contend with, he had the same issues with local construction, yet his numbers more than doubled the other manager’s branch.
It suddenly occurred to Allison that therein laid the key difference. When he had talked to the Sterling Award winner the man never once mentioned any of these obstacles. He spoke of the signs he had made and placed around the street so that customers could more easily find his office; he explained the training he gave to his people to ensure they could deal with all the objections customers had to their higher rates; he spoke of the community outreach programs he was partaking in.
Allison understood now. Both men told stories. One weaved a tale—to his CEO and to himself—that the problems, the obstacles, were the main character of his story. These were his sole focus. The Sterling man’s story features himself as the main character. His end goal was his focus. The hurdles on the path were merely that, hurdles to be hurled out of his way.
This knowledge served Allison and BB&T well. He now had a clear sense of the type of man he needed to hire. In the coming months, he replaced the poor performing branch manager for one who told better stories.
The stoplight remained broken.
The banches numbers rose steadily.