Making change Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2010

When the word came out in late October 2008 that The PNC Financial Services Group Inc. would purchase National City Bank, the rumblings from devoted employees and disgruntled Clevelanders could be heard all the way to PNC’s headquarters in Pittsburgh.

Investors believed the $5.2 billion purchase price was below National City’s market value. Employees questioned if they would have jobs after the merger was completed and their pride was dashed as they mourned the loss of one of the oldest local companies and one of the country’s largest banks.

Despite the initial shock to the system, it didn’t change the fact that by the end of the year, National City would become part of PNC, and like it or not, everyone had to get on board, and it was Paul Clark’s job to do so as the Northern Ohio regional president.

“As we moved into January of 2009 as part of PNC, the engagement of the team of employees here was incredible — simply incredible,” Clark says. “ … It was an exciting time for us. There was a lot of energy and a lot of enthusiasm that continues today.”

He was able to do that because he had built an effective team environment already, one that he likens to the Cleveland Cavaliers, who can still have fun even during the toughest situations. Like during a time in January when LeBron James got clobbered to the ground and headed to the line to try to win the game. But while this was going on, you also saw Delonte West and Mo Williams, both injured, hamming it up on the sidelines before James hit the game-winning shots.

“You’ve got Mo Williams and Delonte West on the sideline having a lot of fun at the most difficult time of the game, right?” Paul Clark says. “That says something about the chemistry of that team, and that’s really good. I think an important part of having an effective team is just keeping the environment light — keeping it fun so that people can bring their whole self to work every day.”

Clark created that environment, which eventually helped him lead employees through the merger, by bringing people together, communicating effectively, and trusting and overcoming mistakes. And he started with himself.

“You have to bring a certain level of energy to whatever it is you’re doing, even if you don’t have it,” he says. “Even if your energy tank is empty, you have to find some reserve somewhere to create the energy that everyone is looking for and would create that environment and bring their whole selves to work every day, and there has to be a consistency to it. You have to keep doing the same stuff over and over, even if it becomes a bit of a grind from time to time. That’s the nature of being a leader.”

Bring people together

One of the reasons Clark could lead people through the change was because he had already united them as a company, so he then just had to unite them around the new cause.

“When you’re engaged with a group of people, a group of leaders, and you have to lead through change, you have to keep the bigger picture in mind,” Clark says.

You have to remind people why they’re here.

“If they know what their goals are, if they know how we’re going to measure them, how we’re going to pay them, boy, you can engage a team really quickly if you just do those things time and time again,” Clark says.

But it’s not enough to unite people around the cause mentally, you also have to physically bring people together to create opportunities for success.

“I think my tips for how other leaders might create that type of environment is be enormously inclusive,” Clark says. “You’ve got to get away from the same five or six people that you work directly with every day. You have to bring in a large group of people.”

Several times a month, Clark has big group meetings with employees and it’s a chance to let people know what’s going on and recognize people. For example, earlier this year, one of his employees was the No. 1 performer in 2009 for the Western PNC markets, which is a huge deal in the organization.

“To use a baseball analogy, she was 30 games in first place ahead of the second place team,” Clark says. “She really had a great, great year.”

So they talked her up in one of these meetings and sent e-mails out asking people to congratulate her, and soon after, the e-mails started flying around Cleveland recognizing her and sharing in her success.

“When you bring these big groups together, it’s an opportunity to celebrate success,” he says. “If anyone can’t have fun celebrating success, they really have to think about their priorities.”

He also has recognition breakfasts for groups of employees, where they can talk about what they and their co-workers have done to help customers. The meetings not only inspire employees, but they also bring together people who may not work together regularly or know each other that well.

He also arranges small lunch meetings with certain employees that have no purpose other than to introduce employees to each other. For example, he may arrange a lunch with four employees who don’t know each other because they can help each other make the company better — if they get to know each other.

“We set up some meetings for people who don’t work together every day so they can be together and get to know one another and build that trust and build that personal relationship that makes them more effective when they work as a team,” Clark says.

Another way he brings people together is by bridging product developers with salespeople.

“You’ve got to bring them together so you can have a sharing of what the product’s all about and have a sharing of what features that product has that would benefit the customer and, ultimately, how to sell it,” he says. “If you spend a couple hours doing that and there’s 20 people in the room and you get 20 to 40 additional sales that you would not have had otherwise, that’s a great two hours coming together, and it’s that simple.”

Clark also has what they call “Impact” meetings with 20 to 45 leaders in the company every other Thursday. The whole purpose of these meetings is helping people see how what they do can impact someone else to make them successful.

“How can I do something that will impact you and make you successful because we have this thing around here where we only win as a team when every individual wins, so we have to help each other win,” Clark says.

If you have a meeting like that, then you have to have some structure to it.

“Try to have an agenda that hits all the important points and everyone understands that they should contribute if they have something to contribute, and if they don’t, just listening is an important contribution,” he says. “It’s fast-paced. It’s like a scene out of a ‘West Wing’ episode — fast-paced, fun environment.”

He tries to keep those meetings to just an hour.

“After an hour, people are really busy, so if you’re going to bring them together, you’ve got to bring them together, and they’ve got to leave thinking, ‘I got a lot out of that,’’ he says. “We try to pack a lot into an hour or so. … If you sched ule it right and everyone’s respectful, you can get a lot done in that hour.”

Communicate effectively

Nearly every leader will tell you that you have to communicate and listen to be a successful leader, and Clark agrees, but he also says it’s more than that.

“Those are great characteristics of leading through change, but I just go a little bit further in describing that,” he says. “What really works is face to face — looking each other in the eye and talking. That’s what makes a difference. If you can do that rather than make a phone call, do that. Talk face to face. If you can, make a phone call rather than e-mail. Use the e-mails as a last resort for communicating. At that point, it gets personal and it gets real, and have an adult conversation about what it is we want to accomplish. When you do that in a room full of people, that’s when you really engage a team of people and get power in the team.”

When you’re communicating, you need to be transparent and use the correct language.

“People should expect and people deserve just candid communication,” Clark says. “The example that I often use is often people will say, ‘We need you to do this,’ but I think what’s more candid and hits it home right is to say, ‘We expect you to do this.’ That’s clear, and that’s the type of transparent communication I think this requires for a leader to develop a team so that team can lead an organization through change.”

The other key to communication is recognizing the difference between information and data.

“It’s the leader’s privilege to be able to take a lot of data and create an information story from it so you can communicate that in a transparent way to make a team more effective,” he says.

One of the biggest mistakes he says he’s made in the past is just throwing a lot of data out there and assuming that people will just put it together the same way that he did.

“Boy, is that a huge mistake,” Clark says. “So you learn from it. People put data together the way they do it for themselves, and everybody does it differently. I think the leader’s privilege is to take that data and create an information story that leads the team in a certain direction.”

You’re not looking for people to interpret it the same way that you did but rather for them to understand your point of view.

“You have to put it together in a way that you can communicate, ‘Here’s the data that I’ve used to come to this conclusion — what do you all think?’” he says. “More often than not, the team that we have is incredibly bright people that are a lot brighter than me, and that’s one of the things that you have to do is set up teams that are better than you, and they’ll come back and say, ‘What about this, or what about that, and here’s what’s really going on.’ That provides the rich discussion that makes the team effective.”

But as the saying goes, communication is a two-way street, so when you’re talking to people, it’s also important that you listen extremely well.

“It’s really hard to be a listener,” Clark says. “I always think I’ve done a good job of listening in a meeting if I’m absolutely whipped afterward and haven’t said much. The act of active listening should be tiring. You should put a lot of energy into not saying anything and listening. The trick is to not be judgmental. The trick is simply to listen and listen and ask clarifying questions and keep listening, and then respond after you’ve had some time to think. If you’re always listening to someone and you’re trying to formulate a response, I don’t think it’s going to be as good a communication effort as it could be.”

Most of Clark’s career he’s been a relationship manager trying to understand clients’ needs, and a lot of his take on listening was learned from those experiences.

“Every time I thought I had something to sell them, and if I was listening to them, all I could think about was what I could sell them; I never sold them anything,” he says. “But when I would kind of just go there with an open mind and a sense of really trying to understand their needs, then over a period of time, as I listened to them and understood their needs, I could solve their problems for them, and I was selling all sorts of stuff. You’ve got to be in a mindset where you’re just really conscious of the other person’s needs and listening strongly.”

If you’re not actively listening to both customers and employees, you’re not going to get very far.

“You will only go far with that if you provide value to the team, and the only way you’re going to provide value to the team is if you really understand what their needs are,” Clark says. “So if you’re talking to someone and trying to engage them and trying to help lead the team through change, it’s all around listening to what’s important to them and then responding to that, and then making sure that as you respond to that, you do it in a way that’s clear.”

You may think you have to have an elaborate communication process set up, but it’s really much simpler than that.

“We try to make this stuff a bit complicated at times, but you just have to ask somebody, ‘What’s important to you?’” he says.

For example, nearly every company has employee reviews, but for it to be most effective, you should ask how that employee prefers to receive that review.

“Some people like to get that in a meeting, some people like to get that in a piece of paper that they can read and think about, some people like to get that over a lunch,” he says. “Everybody has a different way in which they like to talk about issues that are of a real importance to them, so you’re never going to know what that is unless you just ask them, ‘What’s important to you, and how would you like to receive important information?’

“You just have to keep asking questions, so you really understand the individual, and then that’s how the team comes together. If everybody does that and everybody has real clear accountability as a team member to do that, then the communication around the team is just exponentially powerful.”

Trust people and overcome mistakes

Think about your life. Most likely, you’ve made more good decisions than bad ones. You probably have a family, a home, a successful career. You run your life. And here’s the kicker: Your employees run theirs — and probably just as good as you run yours, if not better.

“If you think about people at work, they come to work after they’ve left their home, so at home, they run their lives like adults,” Clark says. ‘They’ve had successful lives. No matter what their status, no matter what their family situation, no matter what it is, they’re running their life really well, and they’re managing a lot of different things in a very adult way, in a way that works for them, so they bring that to the workplace, and I think that’s really important for leaders to just acknowledge that the people they work with are adults who run their lives really well because the stuff we do here is, arguably, less important than running your life really well.”

Once you can come to terms with that, then you can trust your employees more easily, which also builds a great work environment.

“Let people make decisions,” he says . “They make great decisions every day of their life, so when they’re in the work environment, set up an environment where lots of people can come together to make great decisions and have the types of discussions that foster decision-making. People come to work because they do want to be part of a success, something that’s bigger than themselves. Everyone wants to know that their work is meaningful, and that it’s significant. That’s how we derive richness as people.”

When you let people make decisions themselves, though, they won’t always make them the way you’d like or, for that matter, correctly.

“You have to recognize that people are fallible,” he says. “We’re just people. We make mistakes.”

When people make mistakes, help them better understand what happened and what they could do better.

“You don’t encourage them to make mistakes, but you encourage them to make decisions and learn from the decisions,” Clark says. “When you talk about creating teams that lead an organization through change, learning is a huge part of that and just recognizing that you’re getting better.”

Don’t call someone out in a group setting when the person makes a mistake.

“Do it in a one-on-one setting where you can be candid — where you don’t shed light on the person who made the mistake,” he says. “If you can, do it in a quiet setting and just ask questions and learn.”

And don’t lecture the person — instead have a dialogue.

“It’s just asking, ‘What could I have done better? What could I have done differently? What did I miss? What information should I have had that I didn’t? What information should I have valued more highly that would have gotten me to a different answer?’”

Clark once knew someone who started a new job a few years ago, and when he started that new job, he asked his manager what success would look like if he had a good year.

“All his manager said was, ‘If you make 1,000 decisions and you get 501 of them right, that’s going to be success,’” Clark says. “You have to learn, so you have to set up an environment where people can learn.”

How to reach: The PNC Financial Services Group Inc., (216) 222-2000 or