Working together, winning together: Creating a culture of accountability at Fulton Financial
Organizational Culture

Working together, winning together: Creating a culture of accountability at Fulton Financial

In this podcast, Philip Wenger, chairman and CEO at Fulton Financial, discusses the company’s cultural transformation journey and how its culture is helping it continue to serve its employees and customers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
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In this podcast, Heidrick & Struggles’ Dennis Alimena speaks with Philip Wenger, chairman and CEO at Fulton Financial Corporation, a US financial holding company. Wenger discusses the cultural transformation journey Fulton embarked on five years ago to create a culture of greater accountability throughout the organization, one where everyone is responsible for driving results. He also shares how the company’s cultural values have helped it navigate the current challenging environment, with a continued focus on working together to help serve its employees, customers, and communities.

Some questions answered in this episode include the following:

  • (1:05) How and why did Fulton start on a cultural transformation journey five years ago?
  • (2:23) How does a company set its cultural transformation goals, and how does it ensure they align with the strategy?
  • (3:49) How did you and your team demonstrate accountability before the cultural transformation, and what has changed today?
  • (6:54) What are the cultural values that are helping Fulton through the current challenging environment?
  • (13:56) What advice do you have for other leaders as they think about how diversity and inclusion, which is certainly front and center today, adds value to the business?

Below is a full transcript of the episode, which has been edited for clarity.

Welcome to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast, the premier provider of leadership consulting, culture shaping, and senior-level executive search services. Every day, we’re privileged to talk with fascinating people who are shaping the future through their leadership and vision. In each episode, you’ll hear a different perspective from thought leaders and innovators. Thanks for listening to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast.

Dennis Alimena: Hi, I’m Dennis Alimena, principal at Heidrick & Struggles and a member of Heidrick Consulting. In today’s podcast, I’m speaking with Philip Wenger, chairman and chief executive officer at Fulton Financial Corporation, a US financial holding company. Phil started his career at Fulton and held several senior roles before being appointed chairman and CEO in 2013. He is a member of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Commerce board and also the global board of advisors for Operation HOPE, a financial dignity and economic empowerment non-profit. Phil, welcome, and thank you for taking the time to speak with us today.

Philip Wenger: Thank you, Dennis.

Dennis Alimena: Phil, it’s been over five years now that you and your leadership team deployed The Fulton Experience, [the name for Fulton’s] cultural transformation. Could you tell us how and why this journey started?

Philip Wenger: Fulton, as an organization, always had a strong culture, but we went through a difficult time period with the Great Recession in 2009, 2010, and 2011, and then we ran into some regulatory issues. As I was traveling around the company talking to our employees and leaders, I noticed that we had developed what I would call a victim mindset and blamed a lot of our issues on outside forces that we had no control over. I didn’t feel like we were holding ourselves as an organization accountable, nor were individuals holding themselves accountable, and we really were in what I called the blame game. We still had that strong culture, but we felt like we really needed to tweak it in some positive ways and improve it or we probably wouldn’t survive.

Dennis Alimena: So how does a company set its cultural transformation goals, and how does it ensure they align with the strategy?

Philip Wenger: First off, our strategy has always been about growing our company by focusing on our customers, our communities, and our employees, and I think historically our culture did support that strategy, but we started to lose that accountability part, and we needed to get back to that. So we’ve tried to drive the idea that we all own our results, and that’s really been beneficial. And we still talk about our customers, our communities, and our employees, but we have people who understand what they need to do and own those results.

Another thing that was really important for us was to start talking about innovation and openness to change. As the world has evolved with technology and digital progress and analyzing data, we had to include in our culture the fact that we needed to change and we needed to focus on innovation.

Dennis Alimena: So you mentioned Fulton’s focus on accountability. How did you and your team demonstrate accountability before, and what has changed today?

Philip Wenger: Our operating model was highly decentralized. At one time, we had as many as 15 different charters under the holding company, and we had cut it to 6, but we still had 6. And then once we ran into some difficulties, it was really easy for people to point a finger at other folks, and I do think we had a lot of finger-pointing when it came to accountability. We changed our organizational structure, which I think really has made the whole accountability thing easier; we operate with just one bank now. But we’re also very intentional when new projects come on, just ongoing results. We’re very intentional about identifying sponsors for projects and initiatives, identifying who owns those. And that’s really been beneficial for us. So someone is ultimately accountable for success or failure now on everything that we do.

But even more important, I think, is that when we started this change, I would say the word “accountability” had a negative connotation within the organization. We worked hard to change that and to make people understand that accountability is really a good thing. It helps you get recognized when you execute well. It also, from a management standpoint, brings a lot of clarity to who’s doing a good job and who isn’t. So historically in our organization, you could not do a good job and hide for years, and I don’t think that’s the case anymore.

Dennis Alimena: Our listeners might not understand what 15 different charters means. Could you give us a brief sketch of what that means and where you are today?

Philip Wenger: Fulton Bank was formed in 1882 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania’s banking laws were kind of antiquated, and we could not expand outside of counties in Pennsylvania that were contiguous to our home office. That changed finally in, I think, 1982. We formed a holding company, and between 1985 and 2005, we purchased 22 banks across our current five-state footprint, and 15 of those banks continued to operate as a separate entity. Today, they’re all one organization. In the past, our model was all around geographies, and today it’s around products.

Dennis Alimena: So what are the cultural values that are helping Fulton through the current challenging environment?

Philip Wenger: Two values that we have and that we’ve always had really help us through these times. The first is what we call our collaborative value, which is another word for teamwork. We like to say we work together and we win together. So we do whatever it takes to help our customers.

For example, recently the whole PPP [paycheck protection program] loan process was quite a burden. The first day that opened up we had 6,000 applications for loans. Our customers were very concerned about the money running out, and we were very concerned that we had the ability to help all our customers. So we moved 400 people from their existing jobs into processing PPP loans, and we were able to get it accomplished. If you look at the percent of PPP loans we did as a percent of our total portfolio, we did really well.

Also since this all happened, our direct banking center has been swamped, and we’ve redeployed probably another 100 people to the direct banking and e-commerce areas. That’s the kind of teamwork we’re talking about. People were willing to work long days to get accomplished what we needed to get accomplished and felt really good about it.

The other value we have, which we’ve always had and I think is really important in this time, is our customer value: we care, listen, understand, and deliver. And again, during the PPP process, it was all about caring about our customers, listening to them, and delivering for them. That’s true for so many things right now, because we have a lot of customers who have a lot of concerns about their future and how they can continue, and we’re trying to listen to them. So we’re waiving fees when it’s appropriate, we’ve allowed deferrals on loan payments, and we’re trying to continue to listen to them, to make sure as many people can get through this whole thing as possible.

Dennis Alimena: What other challenges is your team really dealing with right now?

Philip Wenger: The first thing is to make sure that our employees are safe and our customers are safe. So we had to redesign how we deliver our products and how we do our jobs.

Close to half of our employees are working remotely, and for those that aren’t, we have certainly social distanced and followed guidelines. It was a challenge for us to be able to do that in the beginning—we ran into some real issues in the first couple of days, but we’ve worked through them.

At our branches, we closed the lobbies and [allowed in-person meetings] by appointment only. Our customers have mostly used our direct banking center and our drive-in facilities.

Our employees in the branches had a lot of concerns about meeting with people. We’ve had 22 employees test positive for the virus, and fortunately none of them have been very sick, but it’s a concern. We had a branch in New Jersey that was having some work done on it, and the folks that came in to do the work were not following the guidelines at all, and we quickly got some complaints [from our employees]. We got in touch with [the contractors] and changed those conditions. Keeping people safe is a challenge, and I think our culture has helped us navigate through that.

Another part of the culture that’s changed is the level of communication that we have with our employees. We’ve been incredibly diligent in communicating with them, and that’s really helped us through this also. And we’re also communicating with our directors. I think they’re pleased with how well our customers and employees feel. And we’ve tried to communicate with every one of our customers, through either email or telephone calls. I can’t say we’ve been successful [in communicating with every single one of them], but we have talked to an incredible number of customers, and that really makes them feel good also.

Dennis Alimena: A key concept in cultural transformation is the shadow of the leader, the idea that leaders’ personalities and actions influence their organizations, for better or for worse. Tell us a little bit about the shadow you’d like to cast and your leadership team to cast on the organization.

Philip Wenger: I think there are really three things that we as a leadership team are focused on, and the first is obviously accountability. We’ve talked a lot about that, and we continue, at a high level, to be accountable for the results of the company, whether they’re positive or negative. And in conjunction with that, I would say transparency is really important, again both the positive and the negative. And then that ties into communication. We’ve increased our communication, but at the same time our communication is about transparency and it’s about accountability. So you put the three together, and I think that casts a shadow that most of our employees appreciate and understand and try to emulate.

At the same time, we try to stress to our leaders, not just those at the top but throughout the organization, that all our stakeholders—whether it’s our customers, our employees, or our communities—are watching all the time. And you have to remember that, you have to be transparent, and you have to be authentic.

Dennis Alimena: What advice do you have for other leaders as they think about how diversity and inclusion, which is certainly front and center today, adds value to the business?

Philip Wenger: Being diverse is not just some action you want to take for the heck of it or because people think you should; you do it because it adds value. I think a lot of people lose that concept. The value of diversity needs to be felt by everyone; everyone needs to see themselves as providing that value. Any way that we all can be different from one another, the more thoughts and ideas that you can have and listen to and act upon, the better that you’re going to be. And I’d say that, for probably a long time, our industry wasn’t real good at understanding that, the value that is created by diversity, by diverse people, by diverse thoughts. Again, it’s something that you need to be very diligent about and be transparent, communicate, and live.

Dennis Alimena: Thanks, Phil, for taking some time to speak with us today.

Philip Wenger: Thank you.

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