Author examines First Niagara's employee-first culture

Jul 11, 2012

While most of the area workforce slipped into the sunshine of summer's first day, some First Niagara employees were listening carefully to a best-selling author celebrate their company's worker-friendly culture.

The object of their attention is best-selling author Chester Elton, who seems to have constant eye contact with every person in the room as he rushed through a series of topics, anecdotes and jokes, a smile fixed perpetually on his face.

“I love all the euphemisms for being fired: first there was downsizing, rightsizing, now, it’s ‘we’re going to make you available to the marketplace,’” Elton cracks as his audience bursts into laughter.

The marketplace has been very good for Chester Elton. He and co-author Adrian Gostick have best-sellers like "The Carrot Principle" and "The Orange Revolution," and their latest work "All In" started with a flourish, bolting to number four on the New York Times Book Review.

“All In” celebrates corporate cultures where all employees, from the top salary to the lowest-paid frontline worker, are focused on the same goal. In other words, as Elton says, all workers are “all in.”

"How do you know (if a company has a winning culture)? I think when the receptionist gets it. When the greeter gets it. That’s when you know,” Elton offered.

“Because when leaders come in to change a culture, or enhance a culture, they get it. The trick is, are they a good enough leader to get it right down to the receptionist, the greeter.”

First Niagara apparently "gets it." Their "all in" company culture is one of many featured in the book.

It's worth disclosing that Chester Elton, and his company Culture Works, serves as a consultant for First Niagara.

Industry skeptics raise concerns about First Niagara's rapid expansion. A local banking executive points to the company's precariously high operating expense ratio and questions the impact of what could be an extended transitional phase. 

While First Niagara incorporates its new HSBC branches, it must spin off some other branches in cooperation with its Justice Department agreement.

A sagging stock price may reflect equal investor uncertainty.

That does not deter Chester Elton's enthusiasm for First Niagara.

“’Scale-ability’ is always a problem,” Elton admitted.

“That’s why I love what they (First Niagara) are doing here. They go through culture training. They embed culture ambassadors so that you’ve got someone in every location. You’re not relying on a blast e-mail, or once a quarter a rousing speech, or the year-end banquet. You’ve got people with you every day living and breathing that (positive culture), and they feed that network of evangelists.”

"Evangelists," for First Niagara that would be their “ambassadors,” employees who volunteer to spread a positive vision throughout the company. 

It's that spirit, Elton argues, that will drive First Niagara to continued success.

His book taps data that backs the assertion that "All In" corporate cultures win the all-important battle of bottom line.

It's more than just a fashionable stab at building employee satisfaction.

But it doesn't take long to witness that Chester Elton's charisma is not based on numbers.

In 30-plus minutes of observation, he makes several references to evangelists, famous preachers and congregations. At one moment, he attempts to convert of the cynic holding the microphone and recorder.

Chester Elton connects with his readers. He proclaims the truth, a sort of corporate-adapted, good news gospel that has grabbed hundreds of thousands of book-buying disciples.

At a book-signing session, Peter identifies himself as a volunteer fire chief who testifies that Chester's way has helped him lead a company of heroic, unpaid first responders.

Happy, inspired employees make for a better bottom line.

That's the Chester Elton way.

And who wouldn't want to be "all in" with that?