Wells Fargo’s challenges over the past few years have been well documented. It took a turn for the worse when it created an aggressive sales culture based on unrealistic targets.
To meet sales targets, employees opened accounts customers did not need, ordered credit cards without their permission and even forged customer signatures on paperwork.
The result was the creation of 3.5 million fake customer accounts many of which were then billed fees. Further investigations produced evidence that 570,000 customers had been sold car insurance they didn’t need.
These were failures of culture, leadership and ultimately risk management practices, something the bank had prided itself on during the mortgage crisis of 2008.
In 2017, the Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS), an influential shareholder advisory group released the following statement:
“The board failed to implement an effective risk-management oversight process in a timely way and that could have mitigated the harm to its customers, its employees and the bank’s reputation.”
It also suggested shareholders vote against the re-election of 12 of the 15 directors.
Most of the board was replaced over the next 12 months and Tim Sloan, the new CEO was tasked with cleaning up the mess.
To his credit, he did a lot of work with his top team to reshape the vision, values, and goals around the core idea of “helping customers succeed financially”. He also began to signal a shift in leadership focus away from shareholders:
“When you put your shareholders first—I hope Warren Buffett isn’t listening by the way—but when you put them first, then you’re going to make mistakes because you’re going to make short-term decisions that aren’t focused on creating a long-term, successful company.”
Sloan began dismantling the sales incentives that created the bad behavior and stopped paying employees on how many products they sell. Instead, they shifted the metrics to how often customers used their accounts and a range of customer experience metrics.
However, as with all changes, the devil is in the detail and employees had begun raising concerns again about customer-unfriendly practices emerging. A report by the Committee for Better Banks highlighted a continued culture of fear in which front line employees were not engaged in the change process but instead had it imposed on them.
“Honestly, it’s perceived as a joke — ‘Oh yeah, they’ve changed things,’ ” said Meggan Halvorson, 35, who works in Wells Fargo’s private mortgage banking division in Minneapolis. “I haven’t met anybody, personally, who believes what they’re saying or that it’s the case.”
Unfortunately, this has all been too little too late at least for Tim Sloan who was pressured into early retirement in early 2019.
In his final statement as CEO to the House Financial Services Committee he stated:
“We have more work to do, and that is an ongoing commitment by all of Wells Fargo’s 260,000 team members — starting with me — to put our customers’ needs first, to act with honesty, integrity, and accountability; and to strive to be the best bank in America.”
Within a month he would be gone.
What are the lessons?
Intensity and Velocity Matters
Changes need to be led with intensity and purpose from the top team throughout the organization. One of the reasons Tim Sloan was pressured into early retirement was that changes were not happening fast enough. There is a level of intensity and engagement required by the CEO to shift culture, and this is particularly important when the culture has gone bad.
Personally, “seeing the front.”
This term comes from the military and is based on the idea that leaders must see what is happening at the front lines themselves before making crucial decisions. The front line must be engaged in the process, the people doing the work matter and the daily interactions customers have with those people determine how the brand is perceived over time.
If change is imposed from the top, it is naturally resisted. The result is that employee initiative gets squashed, ownership is destroyed, and people keep their heads down out of fear of losing their job. In short, you get compliance, the bare minimum out of people.
If more direct attention had been paid to the front lines at Wells Fargo it would have been clearer what needed to happen to improve the customer and employee experience. If done correctly this will result in better business performance.
Metrics can help or hurt.
How people are measured can result in behavior that improves the customer experience or works against it. Clearly, the unrealistic sales targets at Wells Fargo resulted in the wrong behavior, that does not mean sales targets are bad; they are a necessary part of driving business performance. However, the way in which they are implemented matters.
Likewise, measures of customer experiences can be used in the right way or the wrong way. If they are used to performance manage, as a “stick,” they result in fear and resentment. Ironically, this works against the very thing they were designed to do which is to improve the customer’s experience. These metrics must be designed as learning tools that help employees develop and grow. This creates an environment that unleashes most people’s natural desire to deliver great experiences for their customers.
Transforming a company’s culture begins with a genuine desire by the top leadership to make things better. However, it then must be followed with concrete action by leaders at all levels.
If you want to catalyze customer-centric change across your organization, start by measuring how customer-centric you are today with the world’s only customer-centric culture benchmark, the Market Responsiveness Index.
A lesson that I have needed to relearn many times is to see what is there, not what I want to see. Seeing what you want to see, instead of what is there, causes confusion and slows progress. Perhaps this is a lesson for the bank’s current and future leaders. .
These are issues of servant leadership, fair and transparent customer practices and processes, enabled and empowered employees, and, most of all, a stakeholder-centric culture. Huge, change-resistant financial services organizations like Citibank, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America really struggle in this area.
I can cite the reasons Wells Fargo still has employee and customer trust issues. They stem from strategy, consistency, and discipline, as quoted by Yoda: “Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.”
More than just customer-centricity, the lessons identified in this post could be executed through a more ‘people-first’ cultural approach, still clearly not being done at Wells Fargo. If customer-centric culture-building and customer-focused initiatives were the only end goals, perhaps these approaches would be sufficient. Here’s the principal challenge: Customer-centric cultures and customer-focused initiatives are rarely enterprise-wide, inclusive of every employee in the enterprise. Customer-centricity, in short, is not pervasively ‘people first’. Only a culture of enterprise-wide stakeholder-centricity can be defined in that way.
To be a truly ‘people first’ enterprise, making both employee experience and customer experience an obsession, culture and operational processes are critical. My paradigm example is, or was, MBNA America. In 2006, when it was sold to Bank of America, MBNA was an enterprise of 25,000 employees, the U.S.’ second largest credit card issuer, and an organization noted for both low cardholder and employee turnover. The company’s cultural mantra, shown in the image above, was ‘Think of yourself as a customer.’ Having guided clients through MBNA’s corporate HQ in Wilmington, DE, this slogan was written over each doorway, printed on payroll checks, embossed on desks – – in other words, it was EVERYWHERE and so always top of mind to employees and anyone visiting MBNA offices. Perhaps more important, MBNA was a people-first culture, with an array of approaches to benefit the experiences of both employees and customers.
There is a major, multi-regional financial organization where the culture is built around employee experience and customer experience. It’s TD Bank, whose culture, and employee and customer practices I’ve frequently profiled (https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/2394964317690843)
Thanks for your insightful comment Dan, no doubt this is a challenge for us all!
Well the new CEO shifted the focus from profitability to helping customers succeed financially. However execution does not follow suit. Setting goal without method is not a goal. Processes need to be in place such as how employees are prepared, set-up and equipped for change. Interactive planning I believe need to be in place. There’s a need to know about variation – special as well as common cause. Motivation need to be intrinsic rather than relying on incentives, which is external. Review of strategy execution should employ the scientific method.
Hi Chris: I generally agree with your point that when employees face job loss for voicing moral or ethical concerns, they are more likely to acquiesce when facing values conflicts. Wells Fargo’s management deployed this odious tactic to an extreme when they not only fired employees, but made it clear that they would deliberately ruin careers by slapping “U5” on the employment history of any individual having the temerity to resist management’s requests.
I say generally agree because it doesn’t have to be that way. In most cases, employees have more power to voice their values than they realize. But it takes practice and preparation. When recruiting new staff, HR and hiring managers must make a pitch to prospective employees that includes selling them on the organization’s integrity and honesty. Little wonder, then, that employees enter situations like Wells Fargo under-equipped to handle the inevitable values conflicts they will face. I have yet to meet a colleague, client, or co-worker who hasn’t encountered similarly difficult situations. Personally, I’ve handled values conflicts poorly and well – and a lot of “in between,” too. I am not suggesting that Wells Fargo’s staff was culpable for the pervasive deceit that John Stumpf et al designed and implemented, just that there wasn’t inevitability regarding the outcome. Voicing values is like exercising a muscle. But figuring out that you have the muscle in the first place can be difficult, as I know firsthand.
Your recommendations are useful, however I believe that they are part of the chemistry for ethical and legal business conduct, and not a full solution. Every employee must endeavor to learn effective ways to stand up for their values. They must anticipate situations, and regularly practice responses. In doing so, they can be more prepared to exercise their strength when they are challenged.
Michael, Yanasekaran, and Andrew thanks for taking the time to add your perspectives to the discussion.
Michael, I think the TD example is a very powerful example of the alignment of culture with what drives value for customers.
Yanasekaran, your point is valid, just saying we are shifting our focus does not make it appear at the front lines, work needs to be done to enable the change.
Andrew, very interesting perspective. I agree employees do have the ability to push back.
How do employees build that “values muscle”? Any examples you can share or your story of how you developed your own would be great to hear!
Hi Chris: Thank you for your question. it’s critical to build self awareness. 1) consider what your own values are, and record them. 2) think about a time when you were confronted with a dilemma at work that conflicted with your values or ethics, and you facilitated an compatible outcome, or at least prevented you from compromising your values. What were the conditions? What did you do? How could you replicate that outcome in other scenarios? 3) think about a time when you compromised your values. What biases or other variables inhibited you from exercising your better instincts? How might those inhibitors be overcome?
No one is perfect. Almost everyone I work with has a personal inventory of situations with disparate outcomes, and these can be extraordinarily valuable when figuring out the right way to make a response. What’s critical is to avoid moralizing, or to passionately believe you have the high ground when the other person does not. This might seem odd in the context of Wells Fargo, where management’s deceit was painfully clear, and the consequences for not complying were draconian. But often, “right” and “wrong” less distinct, and it takes conversation to understand the other person’s point of view. That doesn’t mean endorsing something at odds with your values, or enabling a particular course of action that you don’t agree with, but it does mean gaining insight into the rationale and reasoning for another person’s choice.
What’s important to remember is that deliberate stakeholder exploitation requires compliance, usually from employees. There’s a power imbalance right from the get go. In most industries, employees are hired at will, and can be terminated at any time. The fallacy is that a “moral leadership,” and “measuring and rewarding the right things” will prevent companies from creating pain and damage. Pressures to make revenue goals, profits, and other corporate objectives will always be present in the moral situations employees face. The first line of defense for any systemic fraud are employees who know how to get the right things done – or who feel empowered to do so – according to their personal values.
Thanks for elaborating Andrew, this is a great exercise on understanding personal values and how self-reflection can make these clearer.