It’s well known that the banking industry has faced significant challenges as of late.
“My sense is anyone, unless they’ve been under a rock for the last two years, would know that the financial sector has had some very troubling times,” said Mary Slaughter, senior vice president at SunTrust Banks Inc. and chief learning officer for SunTrust University.
She described how hair-raising it was to watch the financial meltdown begin in fall 2008 and how it’s felt to work in banking since then.
“All of us every day reading the front page of the paper a year and a half ago were wondering, ‘What next?’” Slaughter said. “We have been, as an industry, swimming in a sea of ambiguity and uncertainty, unbelievable levels of public and regulatory scrutiny, and some fundamentally bad press where the image of the industry is not positive.”
According to Slaughter, this has meant fundamental shifts toward distrust in how SunTrust’s clients view the banking industry. “The impact that that has on leaders is unbelievable,” she said.
SunTrust’s response to this crisis has been a renewed push toward leadership development centered on gaining an outside perspective on the nature of such a challenging situation. “We’ll bring in analysts from Goldman Sachs to talk to us about how we are viewed [and] how our competitors are viewed, to have some financial sense of that from an analyst’s perspective,” Slaughter said. “We’ll bring large clients in to have conversations with us. We’ll bring CEOs of other companies in to talk to our leadership team about when they’ve found themselves dealing with really challenging times, where perhaps public confidence has been shaken.”
SunTrust also has reviewed its learning and development efforts where they relate to risk and credit. “The perception in the marketplace is people losing their homes, bad loans being made,” Slaughter said. “No bank wants to foreclose on a piece of property — it’s the last thing they want to do — but in the media, the phrase ‘toxic assets’ became kind of common. So now you have the public feeling like they’re the ones that are toxic, their loans are the ones that are toxic.”
According to Slaughter, SunTrust as an institution has always prided itself on being conservative relative to credit risk, managing its portfolio closely. But faced with a whole new definition of risk and how to mitigate and manage it, the bank has revisited its competency models, best practices and compensation plans on risk management processes such as evaluating creditworthiness and underwriting. “[It’s] helping people really understand [risk management] at a level that we thought we were already good at, but the market dynamics have forced us to be even better and smarter and ask ourselves what were we not doing that we should have been doing,” she said. “Underlying all of those market forces, I think you can trail your way back into skill development in the company that enables the performance in the marketplace that you want.”
Getting Into the Gray Matter
Slaughter’s life in learning began with bachelor’s degrees in psychology and chemistry from Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tenn. Following this, she acquired a master’s degree in communication and public relations from Georgia State University in Atlanta.
She began her professional career in 1982 as an account executive with AT&T, initially working on sales, marketing and public relations. “I was doing speechwriting for one of our executives organizing some large event [when] one of our regional sales VPs said, ‘Would you ever think about being a sales trainer?’” she said.
She worked as a sales instructor until 1995, when AT&T divested Lucent Technologies. Slaughter departed with Lucent, serving as its director of global sales training. In 2007, after a quarter century in the telecom sector, Slaughter was recruited by Wachovia, spending two years as the bank’s senior vice president of learning and development before being recruited by SunTrust. She started as SunTrust’s CLO in January 2009, serving the learning needs of 29,000 employees.
“I tend to gravitate toward places and assignments where I get the opportunity to learn something new,” she said. “I thrive in change and love ambiguity. How you’re going to get from point A to point B is actually very energizing to me.”
This same passion for learning is what drew Slaughter to the L&D profession in the first place. “I draw energy from other people, and so the idea that it was a line of work where you spent most of your time talking about other people and how they work and how they behave and what they do, in conversations about making people better, was interesting and intriguing to me,” she said.
This also appealed to the scientific side of Slaughter’s collegiate education. “A lot of leading people is a balance of art and science,” she said. “Having the ability to balance the left brain and the right brain, learning is like that for me. Every person is different, and how you get into their gray matter in a way that connects to them I always found challenging.”
The Sun Rises
In Slaughter’s first 100 days at SunTrust, she assessed the state of learning in the company and reported on it to the company’s president and CEO. According to Slaughter, she told them: “It’s as if someone put a pause button on learning and development in the corporation for the last eight to 10 years. If this had been 10 years ago and you had asked me to come in and assess where you are, I would tell you [that] you were going great guns. But what’s happened is the marketplace had moved on, best practices have moved on, and you have not.”
SunTrust’s senior leadership was determined to increase its L&D efforts. William H. Rogers Jr., president of SunTrust Banks Inc., confirms this.
“SunTrust has made investment in learning and development a business imperative,” Rogers said. “The past few years have brought unprecedented change to our industry, and we are positioned to take advantage of some of the most exciting and challenging opportunities that I’ve seen in my career — all of which require a focus on preparing our teammates to be better than the competition. Our teammates, our shareholders and our clients expect us to provide a learning culture that aligns with our business priorities and delivers on our obligation to help people and institutions prosper.”
So what has SunTrust done toward that end? Slaughter points to four initiatives begun during the first 18 months of her tenure. First, it has selected a new LMS supplier, with plans to roll this out next year, increasing the technology-based learning delivery choices available to SunTrust University.
Second, it has revisited its client-facing curriculum. “We’ve done it in a way that for the first time ever in the history of the company, it was actually a decision process that crossed over multiple business units,” Slaughter said, explaining that in the past, retail banking, commercial banking, and private wealth and mortgage management training within the company were handled separately. “So as a client, you might go in and experience a certain style, flavor, methodology or approach in one line of business but feel something entirely different in another. The whole sales enablement in aligning our behaviors with what we want to demonstrate in the marketplace was huge for us.”
Third, SunTrust revamped its leadership development. “All ships rise at high tide,” Slaughter said. “When you’re doing really well, you have the sense that your leadership is probably doing really well, too. We needed to stop and think about how we were enabling leaders in the company.” SunTrust did just that, quadrupling its investment in leadership development, partnering with Emory University to launch a three-week program for the top 150 leaders in the company.
Fourth, SunTrust reapproached employee engagement, in particular looking at tuition assistance as a way to accomplish this. “We had procedures and reimbursement processes so if you took classes and you wanted your money you could do that,” she said. “But when you stopped and asked the question, ‘What really is our strategy associated with tuition assistance, why do we have that, what does that mean for us, and what are we enabling?’ — we really didn’t have that. So we’re re-engineering that under the umbrella of teammate engagement.”
Slaughter said her next step will be tackling best practices within SunTrust, with a mind toward getting business leaders involved in the process. “Right now, what I find is I do a lot of that work myself and then bring things forward to people,” she said. “That’s OK, because the business is so focused on restoring itself in the marketplace, but one of the bigger issues for me is to engage the leadership in the best-practices thinking so that they can help me formulate strategies. That’s where we’re going to start having conversations about things like mobile learning or around what we want to do in terms of our approach to social networking. I would rather do things with the leadership of the company [than] to the leadership of the company. I actually want to get them further upstream in helping me define the priorities and requirements for the business in a much more strategic way.”