Bank of America seems to be appropriately named: The company financed movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Gone With the Wind,” lent the money to build Disneyland and funded construction of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. In addition to these cultural contributions, the firm is currently the official bank of Major League Baseball, as well as the nation’s number-one lender to small businesses.
To ensure the company maintains and expands its tradition of high-quality service, Bank of America develops and delivers educational programs to its more than 176,000 associates via a council that includes learning leaders from major business units. “From a learning standpoint, we touch literally every single associate,” said Jim Shanley, staffing, learning and leadership development executive at Bank of America. “Our mission is to become the world’s most admired company by serving our clients and customers throughout the world. Learning and development is charged with ensuring our associates and each of our businesses have the organizational and people capabilities to execute our strategy and delight our customers. It’s a huge learning and leadership development organization. Our collective budget is upwards of $180 million. We have upwards of 900 associates within learning and leadership development in the company.”
Bank of America’s learning organization is arranged according to four principles, Shanley said. First, the company leverages a decentralized model to ensure that learning is fully integrated in the business and aligned to the objectives of each division. Secondly, the firm centralizes learning and development selectively where there are commonalities across the enterprise, as well as when significant cost efficiencies in productivity can be gained. Third, the learning council drives a centralized agenda and works as a partnership group for educational leaders in the organization. Finally, it seeks to build the capability within each line of business to execute the required learning and performance support initiatives.
The learning council has been an effective educational organ for the business partly because of support from the very top of the organization. “Compared to other places I’ve been, I think our CEO Ken Lewis is a very active sponsor of what this function can do,” said Eryn O’Brien, staffing, learning and organizational effectiveness executive for the company’s global capital markets and investment banking division. “As I think about our company’s vision and mission, he really supports our learning organization and challenges all of us to make sure that we not only equip our people to do their jobs, but also pursue our brand’s ambition of higher standards in everything that we do.”
Another factor behind the learning council’s success is its members. “What we’ve done is ensured that the line-of-business learning executives are ‘A players’: absolutely bulletproof, with the technical and leadership capabilities and business acumen to be at the table for each of our lines of business,” Shanley said. “One of the unique parts of Bank of America is just our scale. Each of our lines of business is a Fortune 100 company in itself. For example, the investment banking side is as big or bigger than any of the investment banks in New York.
“Each of us, as learning and leadership development executives, work for both the enterprise and the lines of business,” he explained. “For example, Brian Fishel, who heads up learning and organizational effectiveness for a 50,000-person technology, service and fulfillment organization, has accountabilities to Ken Lewis and the learning council to drive what we’ve decided needs to be the common learning culture across the company. At the same time, he is the chief learning officer, the person who works with the (technology) executive team, to drive out what that business needs. We get the best of a centralized model without the silliness and bureaucracy that goes with a centralized model, and the nimbleness of a decentralized model.”
Because of the company’s structure, a confederated approach in terms of both modalities and content is often beneficial. “When we talk about corporate, this is where we really drive in our decentralized model,” Shanley said. “We are going to be close to our lines of business because of the scale of the company. It really does vary. It’s based on what makes sense for that line of business. A banking center environment is going to be very different from an investment banking environment.”
Although the bank has a design and development council that promotes particular standards in the processes and tools used to build courses, the various business units utilize an assortment of learning methodologies. “Our content is going to run the gamut within our lines of business based on what those business drivers are,” said Shelia Pierfelice, the learning executive for Bank of America’s risk team. “In the risk business, the majority of our training is online, but we’re actually ramping up our classroom training that integrates into what the lines of business are doing.”
“It varies based on the audience itself,” said Steve Courington, leadership development and learning executive in Bank of America’s global wealth and investment management. “In our environment in the (global) wealth space, we have a lot of sales and brokerage people, so a lot of times we’ll use the e-learning component to deliver the tacit knowledge and even have them complete some self-assessments to figure out what they know so they don’t have to repeat that. That takes time out of that process. Then we can bring them back into the classroom, or use simulations where they can actually apply it afterwards.”
However, there are certain times when the company is able to find synergies and collaborate across business units. “In the commercial banking space, we’ve got some operations work that we partner with (other organizations on) to really play across, so that we don’t have to reinvent content and approaches where similar needs exist,” said Lou Sanchez, leadership development and learning executive for Bank of America’s global business and financial services group. “We figure out ways to share that content and programs, and get a lot more out of the individual efforts.”
Additionally, there are learning initiatives, such as leadership development, that span the entire enterprise, Shanley said. “Our CEO has set a vision for us: We want to become the world’s most admired company. As part of that, there’s a lot of emphasis at all levels of the organization on leadership development and training. Ken has invested heavily in that. We’re doing some best-in-class leadership training that’s also integrated with all of our leadership development processes.”
“It starts with a common set of leadership principles about how we think about development and the role of education and training,” Fishel said of Bank of America’s leadership development initiatives. “Those drive and help us build out the common framework to get the right leaders with the right skills in the right role at the right time. It’s driven straight from Ken and his leadership team’s philosophy around leadership. There are specific programs embedded in there that are driven enterprise-wide. There are also common programs that have specific tools, templates and approaches that each of us as learning executives implement and slightly—if necessary—customize to our businesses based on operational objectives within that unit.”
Another example of an organization-wide learning program is the ‘Bank of America Spirit,’ which addresses associates’ relationships to each other and their customers, said Johnni Beckel, the consumer skill-building executive of the banking center and consumer products business line. “Ken really embarked on organic growth and deepening our relationship with our customers. One of the key strategies in that is what we call the ‘emotional connection’ with our customers and each other, which really builds the customer culture within Bank of America.”
To gauge the effectiveness of its learning efforts, Bank of America’s lines of business employ typical metrics like cost per training hour and quality of learning programs based on Kirkpatrick’s four levels. However, this is where the similarities end for the most part. For example, within the banking center and consumer products division, a key measurement is how many associates can capably handle the mortgage process. “The key strategy of our line of business in the banking center channel is offering the dream of home ownership to our customers,” Beckel said. “We’ve got a distribution center in the banking channel that’s pretty unique in the mortgage industry. We’re enabling our associates in the 5,800 banking centers all over the country to actually take a purchase application and fulfill a home purchase for our customers. We’re currently building associates’ skills around the capability to effectively do that for more of our customers.
“We actually take them through an online knowledge assessment around mortgage basics. Based on their gaps, they would do an e-learning component until they got to a passing score. They would then go to a classroom skill practice session to understand the end-to-end process, from customer inquiry to putting the keys of the home in their hand. We measure their attendance, knowledge and satisfaction with the process. Once they go back to the bank, their manager observes them applying the skills with the customer and coaches them to proficiency. Finally, the business metric is the percentage of associates that are able to sell and fulfill the mortgage for the customer.”
–Brian Summerfield, email@example.com
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