Sending a message Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2008

Nancy Huber has the perfect presence for public speaking: She has a personable smile, a genuine laugh and a quick wit. But she doesn’t do all of her communicating at Fifth Third Bancorp from the podium.

That’s because Huber, market president Fifth Third Bank, Northeastern Ohio, has learned that no one method of communication is the right way to get through to the nearly 1,000 employees in her market at the financial services company. Instead, she takes her leadership message to every forum she can — from writing for the monthly publication in her market to visiting sales meetings — because she can never be sure where and when the Fifth Third message will get through.

As she tries different vehicles for communication, she focuses on staying consistent so that wherever her employees turn, they find the same message to keep pushing them forward.

Smart Business spoke with Huber about how no one form of communication is enough and why you have to empathize with new employees.

Use every communication vehicle available. Good communication skills are essential to a good leader, and that’s written, it’s verbal, it’s repetitious, it’s redundant, it’s consistent — it’s all of those things. Just because you say it one day does not mean that the next day people will remember it because priorities shift and change.

I have a senior management team here, and we’ve gone down to the next level in our organization, which is the next 30 leaders — these tend to be team leaders or regional managers, people who lead five to 15 associates — and I meet with those people every month. It gives me an opportunity to repeat what I have told their managers so that they hear it directly from me, because when you talk about cascading, they really get out into the organization.

Each line of business also has a monthly meeting, and I attend as many of those as I can. I’m taking the same message to a different slice. We have a monthly publication here that I write something for, and I speak in terms that are appropriate for everybody.

The message doesn’t change, but the vehicle might. If one person doesn’t hear the message, then the message didn’t get through. There is no singular way to communicate; you just have to take advantage of as many opportunities as possible.

Help new employees assimilate. I absolutely anticipate when we have a new hire, there’s a learning curve; everybody goes through it.

I know with all the different changes I’ve had in my career that I have a period of time where I have to assimilate, and it sort of gives you enough times to go through things that you haven’t experienced before.

I’m pretty realistic about that. I know it’s not going to be perfect in the beginning, but I give people enough latitude to do what they feel they need to do to assimilate, try to help them assimilate, introduce them to people that can be helpful to them, and share with them experiences in the bank. Over time, they learn to trust one another, to trust the bank, and it’s not an overnight event.

Create avenues for work-life balance. It’s an expectation that everyone down in the organization actively participates in our communities, and it’s not onesize-fits-all. What I care most about is people are genuine in their participation and that they are part of an organization that is meaningful to them.

We talk about it openly, and we give the opportunity to participate in charitable events and donate money. We try to be consistent and support organizations that are meaningful to the city.

I personally believe that people are much more engaged and truly better participants in business when they have a full life, when they have families and churches and schools and things that engage them. Certainly, we all want to do a good job for the bank, but we’re part of a larger world, and it’s important that we participate in it.

It’s also how we know our customers. We’re out in the community. We go to church and go to school and play basketball and go to plays with people who are ultimately our customers, so it’s so important for us to be engaged in the community.

Blend trust and accountability. Accountability tends to have a cold, hard feel to it, but I really believe people like accountability; they want to know what’s expected. And in addition to getting results, people really like the clarity, so I want to make sure people understand what my expectations are.

Then your No. 1 priority is earning trust both ways, from me to them and them to me. People want to do business with and spend time with people they like, and they have to trust one another to have those feelings.

My lines of business have that accountability structure, but they also have a lot of opportunity to put their own touch on their business. I want to understand what’s happening in their business always; I ask what’s happening with their largest customers, I want to understand what their issues and concerns are. Then I trust they’ll make the best decisions for their line of business.

I hope they use me as a sounding board and they value my insight and my broader view since I see all the lines of business. So I support them, give them feedback and am candid about my thoughts.

HOW TO REACH: Fifth Third Bancorp, (800) 972-3030 or www.53.com