Ira Brown has a couple of degrees and runs a string of banks that serve the Philadelphia area. He's a player in some big real estate deals in two states and every day works with hundreds of thousands of dollars. So why was the regional president of M&T Bank having lunch with a former cashier from Dollar General?

Because in a year she went from being a cashier at Dollar General to a head teller at one of his banks. Brown says it's his New Year's resolution to get together with people, one-on-one, at all levels of the organization. His resolution doesn't surprise me. Many of the CEOs I meet worry about losing touch with frontline workers and, by losing touch with them, losing touch with customers.

How often do you have lunch with your workers?

Not as often as I should, but I will do it more often.


I realize that it's very helpful to do that, just to stay in touch with what's going on in the region and with our folks.  It's very easy to take that for granted.  Because each market in Philadelphia and South Jersey is so different.

To me it's intriguing that someone can advance so quickly. What's her background?

Part of her experience at Dollar General was running the whole front end.  So, with the handling of cash and the security compliance, what you look for, what you should be concerned about, she's got that.

She’s a natural.

Right, she's got that.  So, to teach her how to work the machine is not the hardest part. We could teach her banking. From a selling and interaction standpoint, when somebody approaches you at the window and they want to do a certain transaction, that ability to interact and have a conversation is what allows you to uncover what your customers' needs or wants might be. So she has that skill set.

Did you learn anything at lunch?

Absolutely, mainly because she talked about several things that I would consider problems, challenges that I never would have thought of.

Like what?

Well, for an organization our size I think we do a good job of making job postings, for example, available.  So, if you work in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, but have a desire to relocate to Albany because your children moved there, we make those things available.  However, she didn't feel she had adequate access to that system.  Now, it sounds basic, but that led to a conversation: As banks get bigger, things that I take for granted because I've been working here 17 years are not automatically apparent to someone who is just new to the organization.  So, how do we get people better onboarded?  How do we allow those kind of questions to rise up through the management team as somethings we have to think about?

What's the next step? 

Well, I'm going to do a couple of things.  Once a quarter we onboard new employees. When you join with the bank, you get the basic blocking and tackling.  Where do you go to learn about benefits?  It's a lot of reference to websites.  What we do in those onboarding sessions is bring our management team from the wealth side, from retail, from private banking, from each line of business.  So, it's a learning process.  So, I walked away from lunch understanding that we need to do more day one to get folks comfortable.

Next: How a mentor shaped his career.