Daniel K. Walker doesn’t just encourage his direct reports to question his decisions at Farmers & Merchants Bank — he demands it.
“I allow them to question me from every perspective, every decision that I make,” says Walker, the bank’s chairman and CEO. “I keep it very open so I can allow them to stop me if I’m jumping off the ship at the wrong time. I have great faith and trust in these individuals. I hired them because they came with great experience and knowledge in relationship to the achievement of the bank.”
And if it turns out that those hires aren’t able to put that constructive criticism up for discussion?
“It’s really quite simple,” Walker says. “I cannot have them on my team. I have to go find another individual. It has to be a specific trait that they have and are willing to bring to the game. If they don’t come in with that expression and concern for me, I can’t have them working for me on this specific level.”
Walker and his brother, W. Henry Walker, who serves as F&M’s president, took on their current roles in 2008. They both have a deep understanding and appreciation for the value of family, teamwork and collaboration in any successful organization. The ability is critical for people to understand their roles and to know both what they can do and what’s expected of them.
“As parents, you want to be consistent and structured in your actions,” Henry says. “Running an organization is much the same way. When your employees have trust and a sense of fairness, they move forward confidently. That also relates to how they develop relationships with your customer base.
“We’re all in business because of our customers. How that translates down is consistency and structure to the customer base as well.”
Dan and Henry are fourth-generation leaders at the bank, which was founded in 1907 by C.J. Walker. He was followed as president by his son, Gus, who was followed by his son, Kenneth, who today serves as president of the bank’s main office. That heritage plays a large role in the way the bank operates.
“I had the tremendous opportunity to work my first 20 years at the bank with my grandfather, who was president from 1937 to 1979,” Dan says. “That was a great opportunity for insight as well as for learning how to handle employees, how to communicate, how to lead and how to set your expectations in relation to your leadership team. You empower those individuals so that they can go and take their goals and the objectives of the company and the ultimate goals of the bank.”
The bank has about 650 employees in 23 branches and has experienced steady growth, despite the uncertain economy, with more than $5 billion in assets. Here’s a look at how the bank has achieved this feat and positioned itself for another 100 years of good fortune.
Work as a team
In order to position your employees to be assets and contributors to your success, you have to demonstrate that you value their presence in your organization.
“One of the areas where we’ve seen companies continue to struggle, specifically in banking, is the consistency of staffing,” Henry says. “They fail in this arena because they want their employees to have a relationship with the customer, but management does not put forth the effort to truly have a relationship with the staff.
“Because they fail in that arena, the employee, instead of feeling like a valued person in the organization … they become a number. When they become a number, the job is a transactional job and they leave and move somewhere else.”
A commitment such as Dan’s to working with people who have the freedom to counter his decisions when they perceive a problem is a key component to building strong collaborative relationships on any team. You have to let people put to use the expertise that led you to hire them in the first place.
“Another very simple example is lending,” Dan says. “If you get passionate about lending to an individual, your passion and emotion takes over your ability to provide the proper analysis. Those individuals have to come to you and say, ‘Look, it’s true, whatever you’re seeing and thinking here. But let me tell you, if you applied those numbers in that particular situation, that customer is going to fail.’”
In this case, the lesson applies to banks, but it can be easily translated to any kind of business/client relationship.
“When you’re lending, you have two responsibilities,” Dan says. “You have the responsibility to protect the bank in relationship to the loan. But on the other side, you also have a responsibility to protect the customer from making a mistake in a relationship that impacts both the bank and the customer. We have to be on both sides of that coin.”
The whole team also needs to have a collective investment in the big picture. You can’t win with a group of people that dwells on what this action or that decision will mean for their own personal future in the company.
“We need officers who check their ego at the door and will get in and get done what needs to get done,” Henry says. “We see ego at a lot of other companies as very damaging. It’s just not something we want in our staff.”
You have to be deliberate about creating a climate where people will step up and contribute.
“It’s not that I have to go ask people what they think,” Dan says. “They are aware of my goals and objectives and they are aware of what I’m doing. They just jump up and say, ‘Stop,’ or ‘I need to discuss how we could do something just a touch different so that we achieve our goals.’ These are all things that additional individuals who you bring on your team allow you to do.”
Share the responsibility
The effort to build a team that can be a key player in helping you to achieve your goals begins with the questions you ask in the interview process.
“You throw out the leading questions and then see if there is anything else that the person would like to share about themselves,” Henry says. “See what they share and what opportunities that presents. What things are you most proud of? Where do they go with that question? How do they respond?
“Some of the general questions give you a sense of who they are. Many times on resumes people will put what activities they like. What are they passionate about?”
The key is to ask enough questions in the first interview to see if you should bring the person in for a second interview.
“In the second interview, it’s best to give them a project,” Henry says. “Give it to them to come back and see how they approach it. What is their depth of analysis? What was their commitment to getting the project done and how interested are they in working with you? A lot of times, they can respond perfectly to the questions you pose. But it’s the miscellaneous comments or how they dress or how they approach other parts of the interview that gives you a sense as to who they are as a person and how they approach life.”
You need to know as much as you can about the person you’re thinking of hiring and how he or she will fit into the slot, as well as the workplace culture.
“You are not just looking at competence,” Henry says. “Do they, will they, mix in with the organization and complement what we’ve worked so hard to achieve? Will they carry forward the value structure? How does our value structure show within their current lifestyle?”
It’s not always an easy thing to do because good hiring requires leaders who can begin to see the future and see not only how that individual will perform, but how that individual will influence the performance of others.
“They not only need to lead from our perspective and be responsible to us for how they lead, but then the individuals that are subordinate to them have to lead in the same fashion,” Dan says. “We have to cause all these individuals to accomplish the goals and be challenged by those goals. If the goals aren’t accomplished, it’s something where we all failed together. Not one individual. The responsibility of success is with everyone.”
The numbers indicate the Walkers have succeeded in creating an environment to which employees want to belong. Out of 650 employees, 25 have been with the bank for more than 30 years, 72 have been there for more than 20 years and 98 have been employed at F&M for more than 10 years.
“You don’t have consistency of staffing like that without fair, structured and consistent management,” Henry says. “Those are the values we’ve been taught in how we respond to situations. When you look at the success of a company, you have products and you have people. In banking, products are quite similar from bank to bank to bank. People truly make the difference.” ●
- Don’t waste talent.
- Demand open dialogue.
- Look beyond the individual.
The Walker Files
Name: Daniel K. Walker
Title: Chairman and CEO
Company: Farmers & Merchants Bank
Born: Long Beach, Calif.
Education: Attended Fullerton College, Fullerton, Calif.
Who has been the biggest influence on your life? My father, Ken Walker, and my grandfather, Gus Walker. With my father, it was honesty and integrity. Strong, conservative and being friendly are the values of the bank. These are all things that were required; the ability to communicate quickly and accurately. You never present a problem without a solution.
Dan on taking credit: There is one thing I was taught that I remember very well from my grandfather. He says there is no limit to what can be accomplished if it doesn’t matter who gets the credit. If you lead in that fashion, when accomplishments are made, the entire team gets the credit. Everybody is growing together and everybody is achieving together.
Name: W. Henry Walker
Company: Farmers & Merchants Bank
Born: Long Beach, Calif.
Education: Bachelor of science degree in business administration, Pepperdine University.
Who has been the biggest influence on your life? For me, it would be my father, my brother and Jesus Christ. The men had great integrity. That’s what they taught us. They would make the right decision over the easy decision. We meet with borrowers that have been with us 40 or 50 years. They will remember the time when they were having difficulty and we backed them. That makes a difference. That’s where relationship, loyalty and friendship come in.
What one person would you most like to meet? My great-grandfather C.J. Walker. I’ve heard so much about him and who he was. I’d like to have the chance to meet him.
Henry on leadership: Leadership is a servant attitude. It’s not look at me and follow me. That’s part of our value structure.
Learn more about Farmers & Merchants Bank at:
How to reach: Farmers & Merchants Bank, (562) 437-0011 or www.fmb.com