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Banking on Learning

December 22, 2008
Related Topics: Behavioral Training, Career Development, Basic Skills Training, Employee Career Development, Featured Article
Will Sutton doesn’t have a BlackBerry.

    When you consider that Sutton is the manager of Branch Banking & Trust Co.’s corporate university and supervises a staff of more than 130, that fact seems astonishing. Yet, it’s a telling detail about Sutton, says Marsha Alford, sales and service training manager at BB&T University. He’s the antithesis of the in-your-face boss.

    Sutton lured Alford to the job at the corporate university from the banking network. At first, Alford refused Sutton’s offer.

    "I had worked independently in Raleigh, North Carolina, for a long time. If I moved to Winston-Salem to work for the university, I was worried about being micromanaged," she says. "But I quickly found that Will puts his faith in the people he hires to do their jobs and do them well."

    Alford also found that Sutton is unimpressed by employees who put in excessively long hours and work on weekends. Sutton makes it a priority to be home for nightly dinners with his wife and two young daughters. He wants the same kind of work/life balance for his employees.

    "This is the highest-functioning team I’ve worked on," Alford says. "There are no ego battles and no turf wars. It’s all because of the tone that Will sets."

    With nearly 29,000 employees in 1,500 financial centers, BB&T is viewed as a strong institution and is rapidly expanding throughout the southeastern United States. According to its corporate Web site, its operating strategy "distinguishes it from other financial holding companies. BB&T’s banking subsidiaries are organized as a group of community banks, each with a regional president, which allows decisions to be made locally, close to the client." As a recent story in the Charlotte Observer said, the bank avoided making subprime loans, remains profitable, and has even increased payout to its shareholders.

    BB&T University has grown substantially over the 13 years since its founding, expanding from 30 employees in 1995 to 133 employees in 2008. Sutton, 40, is a member of the bank’s senior leadership team, which provides him with a direct line to corporate training and development needs and strategic initiatives.

    Employee learning and development is a top corporate value, says Tim Davis, executive vice president of the human systems division and Sutton’s boss. The bank spends more than 2.5 percent of payroll on learning and performance each year, and every employee spends more than 40 hours on learning activities annually.

    "We need good, strong training and education programs in order to be successful. BB&T differentiates itself through our knowledgeable people, and we are committed to giving people the knowledge they need to be successful in their jobs," he says.

    Sutton didn’t set out to be a corporate educator. When he matriculated at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1987, he thought he wanted to be a lawyer. Born and raised in North Carolina, Sutton moved with his family from one small community to another as his father, a banker, moved up the corporate ladder at the former United Carolina Bank.

    "Often, my dad was the only banker in town. He knew everybody," Sutton says.

    Family influence eventually won out, and Sutton transferred to the university’s economics department. After graduating, he began working in the branch network at Southern National Bank, which merged with BB&T in 1995, the same year that BB&T’s corporate university was created. Sutton worked in branches—as branch manager, branch sales manager and financial center manager—for four and a half years.

    "When people ask me about being a training manager, I say that I really consider myself a banker who happens to manage a training department," Sutton says.

    That’s to the university’s advantage, Davis says. "Will’s banking background is really valuable. It gives him an insider’s perspective into one of our largest audiences: the branch banking network." Sutton is responsible for the bank’s training programs in operations, credit, sales and leadership, as well as e-learning training strategies and curricula. The BB&T Banking School at Wake Forest University is also under his supervision. Despite all that, he is still a little surprised to find himself as manager of the university.

    "When I went through the leadership development program, I found it enjoyable, but never expressed an interest in serving as an instructor," he says. "I assumed that my career would follow a traditional banking path." When Sutton’s supervisor recommended him for his first training and development job, as retail credit training manager within the corporate university, he learned something new about himself.

    "I discovered that I was a pretty good classroom trainer," he says, even though he describes himself as an introvert with no experience in public speaking. Having come up through the ranks, Sutton still has a special place in his heart for the university’s many classroom trainers. He holds regular roundtable discussions with them—without their managers—to stay in touch with what’s going on in the classroom.

    "Will has an excellent understanding of and sensitivity to the issues faced by our instructors, who are often away from home for long periods of time. He is a great listener and very compassionate," Alford says.

    Sutton has led some major changes since assuming the reins of BB&T’s corporate university. Although the university’s offerings remain primarily classroom-based, Sutton and his staff have met with e-learning guru Allison Rossett, a professor of educational technology at San Diego State University, and are exploring new ways to leverage instructional technology.

    "Although I’m pretty old-school, I know that there are different ways to do things, and I encourage our staff to try new approaches," Sutton says. An online graduate-level class in 2005 led to a real "Aha!" moment for him: "It really opened my eyes to the power of self-directed learning. That’s what made me realize that we could do it successfully."

    BB&T’s corporate university targeted teller training as the appropriate venue for its first truly blended training approach, and launched the new program in June 2007.

    The two-week program incorporates computer simulations, virtual classroom experiences, on-the-job observation and classroom instruction. Each day begins with an interactive program that leads participants through tutorials and exercises on a laptop or workstation in the branch. These activities are overseen by a BB&T University instructor who reviews the employees’ performance daily and provides assistance to anyone who may need it.

    "Will has been very open to changing the way we handle training and learning," says Davis, who hired Sutton for the corporate university job. "Although many managers might hold on to the traditional methods of stand-and-deliver, Will is open to changing with the times and has embraced the blended learning approach."

    BB&T University has adopted a maxim from Aristotle as a guiding philosophy: "Excellence is an art won through training and habituation." Sutton and his staff have translated that maxim into an approach known as "Teach, Preach, Reach," which conveys that employees and their managers are vital elements of the learning culture. The interpretation looks like this:

  • Teach (training): BB&T University provides foundational and specific skills through courses, seminars, e-learning and support materials.

  • Preach (habituation): Local managers must be actively involved in their employees’ learning by reinforcing what is taught in class.

  • Reach (excellence): Through this combination of efforts, employees can reach their full potential.

    All BB&T employees have personal development plans. The plans outline each employee’s annual objectives, strengths and opportunities for growth. Employees are formally evaluated twice a year and informally coached on a regular basis in accordance with the plans. The plan’s learning and development activity section specifies training opportunities to be completed during the coming year. Formal learning activities, knowledge bases, job aids, electronic performance support and on-the-job learning are available to employees to satisfy these learning needs; managers are trained and required to suggest learning opportunities to remedy developmental issues.

    BB&T’s leaders underscore the importance of learning to the organization by participating both as teachers and learners. All but one of the members of executive management, as well as most members of the senior leadership team, have completed the company’s leadership development program, an intensive, six-month course that focuses on such topics as banking knowledge, corporate culture, leadership and lending skills.

    "Leadership development is one way that we ensure the sustainability of organizational results," Sutton says. "It’s how we continue to ensure that BB&T is a viable organization and that learning is a big piece of that." The program proves its worth with results: The bank retains graduates of the program at a rate 50 percent higher than that of direct hires.

    The university’s next big project is an executive development program, which will round out the bank’s leadership development offerings. Designed to take people from middle management to senior management, the two-year program will bring in experts from all over the country to address participants in quarterly learning events.

    "This program really bears Will’s stamp," Davis says. "There are a lot of executive development programs out there, but we are going to try to attract the very best faculty from around the country to deliver sessions within BB&T University. We have a well-developed blueprint, I believe."

    The executive development program is emblematic of the positive changes within the corporate university under Sutton’s leadership, says Roz Guerrie, leadership and professional development manager since 2004. "Will really tunes in and gives his attention to all of the various initiatives that groups have going on. There’s a real interconnectedness to his approach toward learning gaps, and the university is much more client-focused and customized, rather than catalog-oriented," she says.

    Sutton describes himself as a big-picture kind of manager. "I don’t necessarily enjoy the details," he says. "I try to set things up and back out." He carries with him the memory of a truly bad boss he once had, an "image of what not to be: moody and inconsistent."

    "Will is all about relationships, both with the managers who report to him and the university as a whole," Guerrie says. "His banking background allows him to lead by example, and he is comfortable in his role."

    Davis adds: "Will is passionate about the university and its mission, and truly believes that he has the best job at BB&T." 

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