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VOL. 10 | NO. 46 | Saturday, November 11, 2017

First Tennessee’s Walker Leading Push To Infuse Diversity Throughout Bank


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Memphis-based First Tennessee Bank is already the biggest bank in the state and award-winning for its work atmosphere. But the company isn’t resting on its laurels, instead forging ahead with unique strategies to better reflect the communities it is serving through a top-down, baked-in approach to ensuring diversity at every level of the organization.

Lynne Walker, executive vice president and director of affinity strategy for First Tennessee Bank. (Memphis News/Houston Cofield)

They call it their Affinity Strategy, and the charge is led by Lynne Walker, an executive vice president who has been with First Tennessee 11 years and has served as the program’s director for a little more than two years.

The idea of affinity is that when you add it to diversity, you get inclusion, Walker said. It’s fine to have a diversity benchmark, but if you’re not building those relationships from individual to individual, it’s just numbers and not a real culture change, she said.

The Affinity Strategy is a 360-degree strategy, Walker said, adding First Tennessee is “not only interested in diversifying talent but a diverse connection to the markets, including customers and vendors.”

“Diversity was Memphis-centric prior to this,” she said. “We want to take it across all of our markets and get all the leaders invested.”

First Tennessee president and chief operating officer David Popwell, who helped create Walker’s new role, agrees, citing marked success among the Memphis employees the bank’s original diversity plan developed.

“We found that as people from that group went into other areas of the bank, they were very successful with diverse books of business, so we decided we needed a strategy company-wide,” he said.

Popwell said the strategy is focused on three big picture pieces throughout the company: talent, business relationships and vendor partnerships.

Walker is a good example of how the program she’s building is supposed to work. She came into the banking world with a degrees in economics and sociology, and says the first bank at which she worked placed her in a department she wasn’t expecting to join.

“They put me in corporate banking, which is nothing I would have chosen to do, but they saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself,” she said of her first employer.

She has since served in three different banks in a variety of customer-facing roles, dealing with commercial clients and leading business teams, all talents and experiences that prepared her for her latest role at First Tennessee.

Since she was successful at leading business teams, Walker tried to mimic that structure in her approach to the Affinity Strategy by getting data and building a plan based on where the company is and where it wants to go.

“I intuitively knew, being a woman and a person of color, but our executive leadership had good vision and intuition as well,” she said.

After compiling the data and establishing big-picture priorities Walker had each department create diversity staffing maps.

“From there we can figure out by team and by market where the team needs to go,” she said. “We have to decide what the priorities are in each market – you can’t go after everything.”

Next, she worked on more informal engagements connecting people on diverse teams within the bank and instigating executive lunches with small groups of highly diverse groups of employees.

“Sometimes we invite them to the executive floor for lunch, and sometimes the executive will take a group to lunch,” Walker said. “It’s an informal way for the employees and executives to get to know each other. It’s been one of the biggest successes in identifying talent within the company that we might not have known about otherwise. It’s helped people get promotions or moved to an area that better suits their talents.”

Walker believes, based on personal experience, that professional mentors and sponsors are vital to a person’s professional success, and the first step is building strategic relationships.

In the marketplace, the Affinity Strategy plays out by directly asking customers questions about their experience with the bank and what they’d like to see change.

“We don’t just want employee diversity, but product diversity and we want to broaden our customer strategies to reflect the needs of the communities,” Walker said.

One of the most unique things about the First Tennessee Affinity Strategy is the reporting structure. Walker reports directly to Popwell; typically her role would report to human resources.

“HR is a critical partner,” she explains. “However, we know to really get the attention of the leaders and their buy-in, we have to run the program like a business. So anyone who deals with customers reports to David Popwell. You won’t find that at many organizations. There is a low percentage of diversity officers reporting to a CEO or business executive.”

A company executive leads the Affinity Strategy in each market, Popwell said.

“I have tremendous respect for our HR partners … but to make this work, the business owners need to take ownership of it,” he said. “If the business owners own the process and are the ones accountable we are going to better develop people with leadership potential … and that approach will make this initiative more sustainable.”

Stanton Brown, a business banking relationship manager with First Tennessee, is another example of the company mining for transferable skills in employees that will make them an asset to the company long term. A Rhodes graduate and native Memphian, Brown was a financial adviser at Shoemaker Financial, and through some personal connections with First Tennessee employees, the company reached out to him.

“What I didn’t know and came to learn is that the bank wanted to increase the diversity in customer-facing roles,” Brown said. “They saw in me that I had transferable skills, I had sales and cold-calling experience, and I was personable and had a good ability to connect with people from multiple backgrounds. They figured I could learn the lending and credit part.”

Since joining First Tennessee, Brown has been taken through and trained on every segment of the bank. He spent three months in the front office and five months in the back office as a loan underwriter, creating relationships along the way that will help him better serve his customers no matter where he ends up within the company.

“I questioned why they would pay someone for a year who’s not producing just to learn, but it’s great that they’re in the position to do that to develop their employees,” Brown said. “I’ve had the opportunity to really take time aside with many of the executives. There’s very much an open-door policy with the management and executive teams.”

The structure allows for more flexibility and effective and efficient change, said Walker, who handpicked Brown’s mentor within the company.

“I’m blessed with a management team at First Tennessee that is one of the most approachable and accessible I’ve even worked with,” she added. “They’re serious about the business of diversity and inclusion being done well, and they’re highly supportive of me.

“I originally hesitated to take this job. I’ve never done anything like this, but Bryan Jordan (chairman, president and CEO of First Horizon National Corp. and First Tennessee Bank) told me, ‘Lynne, this can be your legacy. This has got to survive all of us in leadership now.’”

“It’s a work in progress,” she said. “I learn more and more as we go through this. I’m trying different things, and I’m loving creating this role and this journey.”

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