But as Bender notes, there's considerable pressure to meet goals, and the pace - collectors must contact at least 16 accounts per hour - can be grueling. "I found myself really starting to get burned out," he says. "I got to the point where I was taking too many breaks, talking to people and complaining, creating for myself the image of someone who didn't really want to work here."
It hadn't always been like that. When Bender had taken the job several years before, he'd seen it as a way to get his foot in the door at First USA. But somewhere along the way he'd gotten off track and lost sight of how to further his ambitions.
"This is a huge bank, and I didn't really have a clue as to what else was out there for me to do, what I should learn, who I needed to get to know. I wasn't well organized, and I had trouble focusing on the job and advancing my career at the same time. And I couldn't really expect my manager to take a couple of hours and help me figure out what to do with my life."
Fortunately, First USA stepped up and offered Bender and its other employees a way to help themselves. The company's Opportunity Knocks program, now in its third year, is an innovative HR program designed to help employees zero in on their career dreams and achieve them within the organization.
What makes the program especially remarkable is the amount of resources the bank has committed to it, and the extent to which it's been integrated into the everyday workplace. First USA not only provides career-development training and follow-up guidance, but it also has outfitted special facilities at its work sites, which it allows employees to use on company time.
The program was born in the summer of 1998, when First USA conducted employee job satisfaction surveys in the wake of a merger. The results were sobering. It found that certain groups were dissatisfied with their jobs, and many seemed pessimistic about their future prospects within the organization.
"We already had a sense that career development among our non-exempt employee population was an issue," says Jeff Brown, First USA's assistant vice president for organizational effectiveness. "But the survey really threw it in our faces, and made us realize we had to do something about it."
When First USA's HR team took the grim findings to the organization's site managers, they showed enough wisdom not to dodge the issue or point fingers elsewhere. Instead, management and HR worked together to create an aggressive remedial strategy. That summer, the HR and operations management team plunged into the task of making it happen.
While the team had some specific, measurable short-term goals - improving job satisfaction, reducing attrition, and boosting internal promotions - they also wanted to promote a broader, more pervasive and persistent change in the bank's corporate culture.
"We wanted employees to own their own careers, to take charge of where they were going," Brown says. "We wanted them to choose their path, rather than wait for somebody to choose it for them. But beyond that, we wanted to get away from the idea that the only worthwhile way to grow was to move upward to a higher-ranking job.
"Promotions are one career path, but they're not the only path. A person can also make lateral moves within an organization, and develop a greater breadth of experience and perspective from working at a different job at the same level. Or a person can follow a path of job enrichment - improving their skills, or maybe reinventing the job itself, to keep it interesting."
At the same time, the team wanted to create an atmosphere in which it was evident that employees' career advancement was not only supported by the bank but also strongly aligned with the organization's own goals. First USA saved time by utilizing the services of Career Systems International, a Scranton, Pennsylvania-based HR consulting firm. CSI provided First USA with CareerPower, a seminar format built around what CSI founder Beverly Kaye calls the "Five Ps."
"The first 'P' is the person - the individual employee," Kaye explains. "The employee needs to understand the sum total of his or her skills, abilities, values, and interests, and to be able to articulate them so that a career fit is possible.
"The next 'P' is perspective - you need to check out your self-assessment with others, by going back and soliciting feedback, by examining how you interface with your colleagues and your manager and everyone else you deal with.
"The third 'P' is place. In order to be a good manager of your own career, you have to understand not only your own job and the company you're in, but the whole broader world of work, what's happening in your industry and profession. Part of that is looking for how changes in the workplace and your profession and industry require changes in your skill-set and position.
"The fourth 'P' is possibility. You need to get a fix on the different ways you can move within an organization and outside it - the benefits of moving laterally versus moving up, how to accomplish moving vertically if that's what you want to do, how you can enrich yourself. Or, if you decide that leaving is the best option, where you might go. Ideally, you want to have not just one objective, but several possibilities.
"The last 'P' is the plan. If you don't have one, all of those previous ideas aren't worth anything. You need a blueprint for how to develop those new abilities, skills, and competencies that help you move toward your goals."
First USA's team adopted the Five Ps as the core philosophy of its new culture-shift program. To get employees going in the new direction, Brown and his colleagues originally conceived a series of career management skills workshops. But when they reviewed the plan with the bank executives and managers, the latter surprised them by asking for more.
"Basically, they told us, 'We're sold on this idea, but if we're going to do this, let's really do it right.' " That feedback helped the team develop a broader vision. "We didn't want to just create another program," Brown explains. "Programs come and go. Instead, we wanted to create a process in which people could take the initiative and develop themselves, after the initial push."
As a result, First USA added two more components to the program, creating Opportunity Knocks. At each of its work sites, the bank set up Career Resource Centers, or CRCs - special rooms equipped with everything from business publications and career-management literature to computers for writing résumés. The CRCs give employees a convenient space where they can sign up to spend a few hours a week - on company time - following up on their career-development plans.
In addition, First USA hired employment development advisers, or EDAs, to continue advising and counseling employees after the initial workshops. In keeping with the program's mission of developing First USA's own workforce, the EDAs were 100 percent internal hires, with a variety of backgrounds that included HR, training, and team management.
By the winter of 1998, First USA was ready to roll out pilot programs at two of its work sites. The team marketed the program to employees through "town hall" meetings. They quickly discovered that a hard sell wasn't needed. Employees like Bender were eager for change. Before starting Opportunity Knocks, he'd had a vague ambition to become some sort of manager. The program quickly enabled him to focus on more tangible goals.
"One of the first things we did was play a card game," he recalls. "Basically, it showed you things about yourself - are you a people person, or are you more interested in working with computers, or whatever." Further coaching, exercises, and self-examination helped Bender not only to figure out other jobs that he might find satisfying, but also to identify people with whom he had to network.
Ultimately, Opportunity Knocks enabled Bender to move into a different position at the bank. "Now I'm a PFC, a production flow coordinator. I run the dialer system, make sure the computers are running properly, take care of systems issues. It's different and challenging and I like it a lot."
Another First USA employee, Christine Lolly-Harvey, says the program helped her realize that she had leadership skills to go with her skill as a collections specialist. She's now breaking in as a team relief manager. "I don't think I'd have thought to make a change on my own," she says.
The Opportunity Knocks program has produced some tangible results, Brown says. Thanks to the preparation and guidance that employees received, internal promotions at First USA increased by more than 50 percent last year.
Additionally, when First USA repeated its internal opinion surveys, the bank found that employee satisfaction with career development issues had increased more than 25 percent when compared to 1998 results. The attrition rate among people who participated in the Opportunity Knocks program was about 65 percent lower than that of non-participants. This saved First USA $2.2 million in replacement costs.
Workforce, March 2001, pp. 54-56 Subscribe Now