Riding shotgun Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2010

Most CEOs talk about bringing their employees on board or getting them on the bus. But if you listen to Lisa J. Stevens, her lingo is more suited to the company she’s called home for 20 years.

Her goal is getting everyone on the stagecoach — which is appropriate, considering she’s talking about Wells Fargo & Co. and its acquisition of Wachovia Corp. The merger, which was finalized Dec. 31, 2008, makes the country’s most extensive financial services distribution, with 10,400 stores and 12,000 ATMs.

As executive vice president and president of the California community bank, Stevens is in charge of the state’s more than 1,000 banking stores, 3,200 ATMs and 21,000 team members — the company’s largest retail banking market and the state’s largest retail banking network.

On that scale, getting each piece pointed in the same direction wasn’t easy. But Wells Fargo’s vision — helping customers succeed financially by providing great service — guided her.

“When you wake up in the morning and you know exactly what your vision is and what you need to accomplish, it makes it a lot easier to communicate with team members how we’re going to get there and what we need to do,” she says.

She also had the benefit of melding two culturally similar companies.

“We’re very focused on helping our communities to be successful,” says Stevens, who chaired Wells Fargo’s Bay Area Community Support Campaign in 2008, which raised a record-setting $6.6 million to benefit local nonprofits. “And all of a sudden, Wachovia came into the picture and into some of the markets. We were starting to see their bankers showing up at events, their bankers interacting with community leaders and their people out volunteering. It was a mutual respect — yes, a competitor, but a competitor that you respect.”

With that common ground, she could focus on optimizing horsepower to propel her region smoothly through the merger — which will include consolidating about 122 stores in California. She relied on constant communication and employee engagement to drive through the change and come out stronger on the other side.

“Diversity of opinion, of perspective is so powerful,” Stevens says. “It’s an injection, for the Wells Fargo team members, of new ideas, and it’s a platform for the Wachovia team members to know that they can succeed because the cultures are so similar.

“One of the strengths we have is that we know that the diversity of opinion is a huge advantage for us. The fact that we’ve got a bunch of people that may have been doing something differently just creates opportunities for us to continue to get better.”

Stay focused

Change is always difficult, and when you’re talking about one of the biggest bank acquisitions in history, that difficulty is magnified. So Stevens definitely knows how easy it is to get carried away with the change.

But don’t.

“You could end up having a full two-, three-, four-, five-hour meeting that was all focused on conversion and the things that need to happen,” Stevens says. “You have to be very disciplined in making sure that you spend a percentage of time just talking about the regular day-to-day business of running the organization.”

So while she updated employees on changes, she kept emphasizing the focus on the customers and that team members are the key to delivering service. It’s like looking at everything through a pair of glasses with one lens zoomed in on the merger and the other focused on your vision. That balance should manifest in every conversation you have.

“Quite frankly, things change all the time in terms of the environment and different things we have to focus on,” Stevens says. “Part of the job is being able to multitask and not get stuck on one area but really be able to look at the broad picture of what’s going on out in the field: What are we doing? What am I doing to support my team to help them be successful?”

It takes consistent communication to remind employees what you’re trying to accomplish as well as constant curiosity to learn how they’re doing.

“When you’re a senior executive, a couple of days of not communicating may seem like a short time, but if you’re the team member that’s going through the merger, it can seem like a lifetime,” Stevens says. “In the absence of communication, people will assume things and often think the worst because of uncertainty.”

Because you’re trying to align everyone, that message must be inclusive — whether you’re bringing together two companies or two departments.

That means you can’t make assumptions about what employees know. For example, when the media started reporting the Wells Fargo-Wachovia merger, it painted Wells Fargo as the cross-selling force and pegged Wachovia as the strong service provider. But that didn’t mean the acquired employees weren’t good at cross selling, so Stevens had to avoid that stereotype when she spoke.

Similarly, stop yourself from using lingo or acronyms that may be familiar to some employees but confusing — and therefore divisive — for others.

That consistent, inclusive communication will reinforce your goal and keep employees committed to it.

“Every time I go into a conversation with team members, we always start with talking about our vision,” Stevens says. “That’s where you start. If you can start there, it’s really easy to make sure that you can get the commitment out of people. Anyone will commit to something when they feel like they’re part of something that’s greater than themselves, when they feel like they’re contributing.”

Share best practices

While your job is to keep everyone rallied around the same end result, the way you’re going to get there might change. Through involvement in four major Wells Fargo acquisitions, Stevens found the best way to stay on the right path through all the twists and turns.

She lets employees take the reins.

“You have to have healthy debate, and you create it by everyone walking in the room trusting each other, knowing that you all want the same thing,” Stevens says. “You have to start with a platform of everyone believing in the same thing that you’re trying to accomplish. And if you’ve done that, then it makes it a safe environment to be able to debate.”

One of the first things Stevens did when she stepped into her position in December 2008 was bring together groups from both companies to share best practices. With the goal of leveraging strengths from both sides, she asked what they were doing that worked — and just as importantly — what didn’t.

“There has to be a certain degree of humility by the acquiring organization to be able to say, ‘We know that we can learn from the other organization,’” says Stevens, who maintained a level playing field by giving both sides equal sharing time. “Bring your curiosity to the table and make sure that when you set up the meetings that you have ground rules about, ‘We want you asking questions. We want you staying engaged with each other.’”

Consensus won’t be immediate. But to Stevens, that’s the beauty of it.

“We don’t want

to always agree. That’s when you get in trouble,” she says. “The power of us having different opinions, the power of us coming from different places, different backgrounds, different perspectives is incredible.”

The key to facilitating debate is reminding everyone you’re working toward a common goal and each opinion is an ingredient in the pot.

“Debate, disagreement — it’s all very good, but you have to master the ability to facilitate that we have to come to an outcome and we’re all on the same team,” Stevens says. “The competition is the other financial institutions; it’s not between Wells Fargo and Wachovia. How can we together be better? When you know that you’re all coming from the same intentions, it makes it really safe to have those disagreements.”

But getting employees comfortable about sharing and accepting ideas goes deeper than setting ground rules and expectations. At Wells Fargo, it’s ingrained in the culture.

“You have to foster an environment that says, ‘I will recognize you and appreciate you when you look for how to be better from other people,’” says Stevens, who gives employees plenty of opportunities to learn from each other.

Watch for those opportunities when you visit other locations and observe employees who excel or struggle. If Stevens notices a team member struggling in a certain area, she’ll set up a phone call or meeting with a colleague who’s doing well.

“When someone is struggling, they may be [too] embarrassed to ask for help,” she says. “So it’s my responsibility as a leader to reach out and say, ‘Hey, I have some ideas that might work for you.’”

On the other hand, if she notices someone getting great results, she’ll share it with the entire team. That included a two-day power-sharing session where she brought together several high-performing employees to share everything they did in certain areas, such as customer service or needs assessment. She sent the results to everyone as “the best of the best.”

To help employees explore each other’s ideas, she uses the learn-own-do process: Approach others’ ideas with curiosity to learn what they’re doing and how, figure out how to tailor it for your piece of the business, and then see it through.

“No matter how good you are and how well you’re performing, there’s always something you can learn from someone else,” Stevens says. “My mom always said you should always either be learning something or teaching something when you’re interacting with people.”

Get commitment

Some leaders head into acquisitions with the ax raised to cut subpar people, processes and programs. Stevens put the weapon down to focus on bringing those things together for better results — even announcing no jobs would be cut.

Instead of worrying which idea was best, she empowered employees to decide for themselves.

“It’s really important that there are certain guidelines and standards that we have across the entire footprint of the organization,” she says. “So you have to make sure that you have the right principles and visions and values in place. But you have to let people locally be able to run their locations.”

Maybe it makes sense to have a customer greeter at a busy store in San Francisco. But that might not work at a low-transaction location. You don’t always know, so you have to rely on feedback from people on the front line — that is, the employees who will be affected by the change.

“The ivory tower can make a lot of decisions about what they think is right,” Stevens says. “But unless you get down into the trenches and you’re with the people, you’re never really going to know what they need and they’re never going to tell you because they’re going to think you just want to hear what you want to hear versus telling you the truth.”

Only after you get affirmative feedback should you implement changes. Even then, it’s sometimes trial and error.

“You need to be able to test and learn,” Stevens says. “You need to be able to try something that you’ve never tried before and see if it works.”

She uses control groups. If Wachovia had a great method for delivering customer service, she’d try it in a small district of 20 stores to see if the process would work as successfully for Wells Fargo. During the trial, whoever suggested the idea can serve as a coach to help work out kinks.

The final step is crucial.

“You have to be able to balance diversity of opinion and great debate with, ‘OK, now we’ve got to come up with a plan and we’ve got to all commit to it,’” Stevens says.

When you engage employees throughout the process, that commitment comes fairly naturally. You just have to make sure it’s there.

“It’s a lot easier for people to commit to something when they know they’ve been part of the discussion,” she says. “So even if I don’t get my way, I know I was heard and I know I probably had some influence on what the final decision is.”

Stevens continues to hold employees accountable with constant reminders of how far they’ve come and where they’re headed next. By exalting the importance of opinion-sharing and constant communication along the way, she keeps the stagecoach rolling smoothly.

“It’s been quick for us to come together and to help each other be successful — faster than I think anyone ever expected,” she says. “I am convinced that we do not need consultants to help our organization to be more successful; we just need to look to one another, to the different things that are working throughout the organization because there’s just so many great ideas out there.”

How to reach: Wells Fargo & Co., (213) 253-7777 or www.wellsfargo.com