M&T Bank liked what it saw in Rene F. Jones and Richard S. Gold when the bank hired them years ago. Little did the two of them know where that opportunity would take them.
Both Jones and Gold were recruited through M&T's Executive Associate program, which hires and develops MBAs who have some work experience. Gold started with M&T 1989, and Jones in 1992, and they went on to build their careers at the bank.
After Robert G. Wilmers died last December, Jones was elevated to chairman and CEO, and Gold was named president and chief operating officer. If the Executive Associate program still needed proof of its impact on cultivating leaders at M&T, their promotions to the very top were surely it.
M&T launched the program under Wilmers in the mid-1980s. Each year around this time, M&T welcomes a new wave of 20 to 30 EAs, as they are known within the bank. Over the following year, they get a wide-ranging view of what makes M&T tick, but are expected to make a quick impact.
Not all high-ranking people at M&T started as EAs. But there are enough EAs in the upper ranks to make it clear the program is an awfully good start up the bank's ladder.
"They're all over and they've ascended to positions of extraordinary influence in the organization," Gold said. About 200 graduates of the EA program are still working at M&T, including 57 in senior leadership positions.
This year's group was the first EA class to finish since Wilmers died. But there is no sign the bank is letting up on the program. Gold said Wilmers was a staunch advocate of recruiting, whether for the bank itself or for leaders of the local institutions he supported, such as the Buffalo Zoo and Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.
"He's always been a fundamental believer that if you get the right talent in the right place, everything else is going to take care of itself," Gold said.
Gold recently stood before the EA class members who were wrapping up their year of training. He was at ease with them, propped against the back of a chair instead of standing behind the lectern at the front of the room.
"After this, you're like a bunch of big bass, getting released into the wild," he joked.
A class of 21 employees — men and women of different races and ethnicities — began meeting as an EA class in August 2017. Twenty of them finished in July. (Some attrition each year is typical.)
One of the 20 employees was Peter Goodman, a 34-year-old Naval Academy graduate who earned his MBA at Harvard University. He joined M&T in 2017 and works in enterprise security. Over the past year, Goodman and his classmates met monthly with top M&T managers, attended training classes, collaborated on projects and volunteered together.
"It's been a great experience from start to finish," Goodman said. "It's getting us to think on a monthly basis, what are the leaders of the bank thinking about? What are the opportunities to build upon the training we've done this year?"
Goodman is from Texas, but he was familiar with the Buffalo area, since his wife is from Erie, Pa. He had worked at Corning Inc. before studying for his MBA. Like many EAs, he considered other job offers before accepting M&T's.
Goodman said he enjoyed the camaraderie he found with his class. "The group is large enough to bring in a lot of diverse backgrounds but small enough to get to know each other," he said. "It really lended itself to us having opportunities like volunteering or networking with program alums. I think everyone knew they could learn about all elements of the bank."
It was an eventful year for Goodman. He got familiar with Buffalo, and he and his wife welcomed their first child. And the recruit turned recruiter. Goodman was eager to get out and meet job candidates, including on campus at Harvard. "I love talking about my experience at the bank," he said.
One of Goodman's favorite EA experiences was when the class members gathered in Baltimore, where they saw the hub Buffalo-based M&T has built in the mid-Atlantic. (Less than half of the EA class members' jobs were based in Buffalo, a sign of how far-reaching the bank's operations are.)
The EA class members were divided up to work on three different projects, which were requested by the bank's senior leaders. The results were presented at the end of the program. The projects dealt with artificial intelligence, wealth management research and a new product line on the retail side of the bank.
"The point is to really get them to be making an impact immediately at the organization," said Anne Murphy, the learning and development senior manager in charge of the EA program. "We're hiring these individuals at top schools across the nation."
While Goodman's formal year in the program is over, his EA connection is not. In fact, M&T encourages EAs to stay in contact with their classmates and to connect with other EAs throughout the bank, for advice and help.
"We're not leaving the EA world," Goodman said. "We're just leaving the initial training program. I think everyone is leaving with a sense of accomplishment."
Networking is clearly a vital part of the experience. "This is an organization where, if they reach out to a Rich Gold or Rene Jones and say, 'Hey, I'm a newly graduated EA, I'd want to talk to you about this,' chances are, they'll get on their calendar," Murphy said. "It's a really great benefit of the program."
As members of one EA class move on the next step in their careers, another class is arriving. This time, there are 30 members. It's a competitive market to attract new hires, amid a low unemployment rate. The candidates M&T tries to attract are often considering job offers from other industries, not just banks. M&T is already laying the groundwork to form its 2019 class, by meeting prospects at conferences and on campuses, Murphy said.
Now there is this selling point to add to the pitch: two program graduates just ascended to the top of M&T's hierarchy. In fact, the most recent EA class met with Jones just a couple of months after he was named CEO, Murphy said.
When Gold joined M&T, the bank was a much smaller institution, with 2,500 employees. M&T was just embarking on a series of acquisitions that would transform the bank — an ideal time for a rising employee like Gold. Even though the bank is now vastly larger, with 17,000 employees, Gold said EAs can still make their mark.
"Having that Executive Associate title underneath your name, even at the size and complexity of the bank today, it's going to open up doors for them and it's going to give them opportunities they are going to seize and take it wherever it goes," Gold said.
At the same time, Gold said, "we have to be good at identifying talent that didn't come in through the [EA] program and provide them opportunity, as well."
Gold encouraged the EAs to embrace everything that comes with their designation. Meet with people from all around the bank. Volunteer to help with tasks beyond the boundaries of your job description. Don't be afraid to switch jobs, particularly if you want to stay on a career trajectory and feel as though you've "maxed out" in your current position.
Gold also urged the EAs to speak up with ideas about how to make the bank more competitive and a better place to work.
"You're the foundation of what's to come," Gold said, "and you should feel that."