When Jeff Brown arrived at First usa Bank in 1998 and took up his role as assistant vice president of organizational development, he knew he had to soak up the company's culture and business structure before he could effect change. As the nation's largest issuer of Visa credit cards, First usa's primary service to customers is call center assistance and collections from card holders, which makes for a data-heavy infrastructure. It was paramount for Brown to understand the company's information exchange while getting to the heart of what was important to employees.
To gain these insights he became one with the workers. That is, the upstate New York native took leave of his office at headquarters in Wilmington, Del., and set up camp for nearly a year at a local First usa Bank facility, where he observed and absorbed front-line action. "I was on the floor next to the call center advisers, and I just became one of the regulars," Brown recalls. "I'd listen to what they had to say to card members and customers and just sort of experienced a day-in-the-life of the workers."
To further comprehend company processes, he eventually traveled to each of the bank's operating centers and held focus groups with his advisers, as well as sitting in at the centers, silently plugged into calls to evaluate the best practices of dealing with customers. "Through a bit of immersion, I was able to learn some of the basics around the terminology, the programs and the issues our card members are calling in about," he says.
As well as looking out, towards the customer, Brown was interested in learning what the company was doing for its employees. He and his colleagues learned some disconcerting news: When First usa conducted an employee satisfaction survey in the wake of its merger with Chicago-based Bank One, it became apparent that many internal groups were disillusioned with the professional growth prospects. Employees felt unmotivated and unclear about how to advance themselves and earn promotions. Enter the Opportunity Knocks program. Unleashing the program in the summer of 1998, Brown and his management team collaborated with HR to create an intensive career development agenda designed to open doors for employees within the organization and equip them with the tools to achieve their goals.
Among the various initiatives of Opportunity Knocks were a series of career management skills workshops and the establishment of Career Resource Centers at each bank. The crcs are special rooms furnished with the latest business publications and career management literature, as well as computers for resume tweaking. Also, the company promoted development advisers from within its workforce to advise enterprising employees who are enrolled in the program.
By all measures, Opportunity Knocks has been a hit. Subsequent opinion surveys leaped 25 percent in employee satisfaction with career development issues, along with a 65 percent lower attrition rate among participating members of the program versus nonparticipants—all told, the program returned $2.2 million in employee replacement costs to the bottom line.
The results raised some eyebrows in the industry and earned Brown's team the 2000 astd Excellence in Practice Award for Career Development. The reason the industry took notice of First usa's program, says Brown, comes down to the sheer comprehensiveness of it—from the aligning of various departments to the scope of the resources invested by the organization—and its ability to show tangible results. "We were able to show reduced attrition. We showed increased internal promotions, increased employee satisfaction and roi," Brown says. "And those things grabbed some attention."