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Climbing the ladder M&T management program “graduates” embrace opportunities

Laura Savattieri joined M&T Bank Corp. only a year ago, but has already worked in about a half dozen branches.

She also attended an employee retreat, worked with a team that pitched ideas to senior managers and has made contacts across M&T.

For Savattieri, it was a whirlwind year. For M&T, it was exactly the experience the Buffalo-based bank designs for new young hires on track for management roles.

M&T gives members of its Management Development Program – known as MDP for short – a broad perspective, so they understand how all the pieces of the bank fit together and get to meet leaders along the way. The program helps M&T attract young talent while reinforcing the corporate culture of a bank that has grown extensively in both jobs and territory.

Savattieri was part of an 80-member class – a record size – that began the program in July 2013. They finished with a “graduation” luncheon last month that included a handshake from the bank’s president, Mark J. Czarnecki. The Buffalo News last year profiled Savattieri and two of her colleagues, Christianna Denelsbeck and Taylor Hogenkamp, when they were a few months into the program, and recently checked in to see how things turned out.

Of the 80 class members who started, 68 stayed through the end, which was a typical attrition rate, said Deana Summerson, group vice president with M&T.

“You’re getting these folks as their first job and they don’t know really want they want to do,” Summerson said. Some new hires decide to leave because they are homesick, or they discover the job isn’t what they expected, or a boyfriend or girlfriend draws them elsewhere.

M&T has run the program since the early 1980s and knows to expect some departures. The bank hopes the vast majority of the class will remain and start to climb the ranks. M&T leaders gave high marks to the most recent class, Summerson said.

Management development programs are useful in multiple ways, said Prasad Balkundi, a professor in the University at Buffalo School of Management’s Department of Organization and Human Resources. New recruits are assimilated into a company more easily. Their employer benefits from ideas the new hires bring to the job. And the senior managers get to update their own skills, based on what the new recruits introduce.

The key for these companies, he said, is to allow the new hires’ creativity to flourish, rather than simply making them conform to the company’s way of doing things. He recalled the example of a newly hired engineer who years ago joined a company in India and introduced a radical new design for a gas pump that saved on labor and material costs. The design is still used today, he said.

“Companies need to learn that their young hires are a resource to tap into,” Balkundi said.

Doing real work

The current M&T class members got together about once a month for overviews of the bank’s departments. For one such meeting, the group traveled to Baltimore to see M&T’s growing mid-Atlantic presence. The trip included a visit to M&T Bank Stadium, the NFL stadium for which the bank has the naming rights.

Throughout the program, the new hires received leadership and communications training, and met with some high-ranking officials. “Just to hear how these individuals approach the business, problem solve, think about the initiatives they’re faced with, is phenomenal,” Hogenkamp said.

The bank split the members into small teams – purposely mixing together employees with different jobs – to work on projects that lasted five months. At the end, the teams pitched recommendations to senior managers. “They give us projects that the departments truly are thinking about and wanting to work on, so you’re definitely doing productive work,” Savattieri said.

Savattieri’s team worked on improving the “onboarding” experience for new and transferred employees. Some team members were based outside of Buffalo, forcing the team to get creative about using conference calls and Web conferences. “I think it really teaches us how in the real world, if you move up, you have people in M&T all over the country,” she said.

Hogenkamp’s team worked on developing a common identity for the financial literacy systems M&T uses in different markets. He works in M&T Securities and gained appreciation for what his retail colleagues went through to squeeze in conference calls while dealing with branch customers.

There were also more relaxed moments. In late September, class members attended an employee retreat at Holiday Valley in Ellicottville, a chance for them to bond outside the office. And after the winter holidays, they met up at LaserTron, which is an M&T customer.

Savattieri and Hogenkamp are local natives, so they didn’t have to get accustomed to living in Western New York over the past year. That was not the case for Denelsbeck, an Alabama native.

“It was a rough first winter, but everyone told me that this has been the worst one in a while, so I’m finally starting to believe that,” she said with good cheer.

Denelsbeck, who works in business banking, has embraced her new home, living downtown and attending Bisons, Bills and Sabres games. “I’ve tried pretty much all of the food here, I think.” She also joined a leadership group for young professionals to meet people outside of M&T.

Denelsbeck has come to view M&T as a “small bank,” despite its 16,000 employees. “It’s very rare that you walk into (1 M&T Plaza) and before you even get on the elevator, you don’t see two or three people that you know on a first- name basis. I think that’s kind of brilliant, and the ability to work together and reach out to your contacts across the bank is very common.”

While the new employees are still getting rooted at M&T, they have also learned to adapt: Hogenkamp and Denelsbeck were temporarily assigned to the bank’s compliance area. M&T is making a major push in compliance, to satisfy federal regulators as it tries to complete a long-planned acquisition of Hudson City Bancorp in New Jersey.

Recruiting begins

Meanwhile, the management development program’s cycle continues. A brand-new class – again with 80 members – is beginning. And this fall, M&T will start recruiting college seniors for the 2015 edition. Across all campuses where M&T makes visits, the bank typically talks to more than 600 students, then invites good prospects for interviews to begin narrowing the field.

The University at Buffalo is among the schools where M&T draws candidates. Gwen Applebaum, director of the UB School of Management’s Frank L. Ciminelli Family Career Resource Center, said companies with management development programs, including M&T, tend to use a student’s grade point average as “a threshold” when they are making selections. On top of a strong GPA, she said, employers look for students who have had internships, participated in activities, and took on leadership roles.

Management development programs tend to help students feel invested in their new employer, she said. “It helps them envision what their role may be.”

When one of M&T’s management development classes wraps up, there is a carryover effect. Some members continue to get together outside of work. And some are active in the program’s alumni network and serve mentors to new class members. “There’s a nice opportunity for those that really felt like they had that solid connection to the program to stay involved,” said Jillian Titus, assistant vice president and manager of the college development program.

The bank keeps tabs on past class members’ careers. “They know that when they come in here that they are on a fast track to move up in getting different experiences,” Summerson said. If a past MDP member has been in the same job for two or three years, the bank will evaluate whether it is time to move that person into a new position. Some of the young employees decide on their own to pursue different jobs within M&T, an interest that might have been sparked during the overviews in the development program.

Hogenkamp said he built valuable connections with class members and alumni, as well as M&T managers. In that way, he said, the program endures. “I don’t know if it ever completely ever ends.”