Gary Fernandes, Sandy Spring Bank – Organizational Culture & Career Search Strategies

Table of Contents

  1. Intro [0:00]

  2. HR and Banking [3:03]

  3. Leadership and Values [6:39]

  4. Choosing Candidates [9:07]

  5. Interviewing [12:51]

  6. Salary [15:32]

  7. Candidate Success [17:15]

  8. Future of Banking [20:02]

  9. Work/Life Balance [23:02]

  10. Sandy Spring’s Values [24:40]

  11. Final Thoughts [27:41]

Intro [0:00]

Michael Akbar:

Well, welcome to a very special opportunity in our series of conversations with CEOs, executives, and HR leaders. Gary Fernandes, our guest today, is the Senior Vice-President Division Executive for Human Resources at Sandy Spring Bank. He's been with the bank since 2015 and he has the overall oversight of employment-employee relations, benefits, salary administration, payroll, and basically anything about HR. With that, I am going to thank you, Gary, for setting aside time for us to be here today. If you don't mind, I was going to ask if you could share with us a little bit about your personal journey before getting into banking and all that.

Gary Fernandes:

Sure, you may. Thank you, Michael. I do appreciate the opportunity to spend some time with you today. My journey, my family immigrated here and I was first-generation American. For me, that's important because there were a number of milestones that I was able to reach, such as the first person in my family to go to college. English not being our first language, certainly you may not know that, I don't have an accent, at the same time. I have an appreciation for the journey of coming someplace new, learning different things, and I think that it's something that shapes my approach to not just my professional life, but I think my personal life as well.

Michael Akbar:

Absolutely.

Gary Fernandes:

I'm local. I grew up in the Washington D.C. area, went to the University of Maryland and I've spent most of my life here, although I did spend part of my professional career relocating around the country.

Michael Akbar:

Wonderful. Well, thank you for sharing that with us. How did you end up in your current field?

Gary Fernandes:

Mostly by accident, which you're going to hear from a lot of HR professionals. Most folks, at least not way back in the day, did not grow up and say, "I want to be in human resources one day." Back then it was called Personnel, but I had been in operations for a number of years and had been approached by my employer. At that time, they were looking to bring folks with operational background into the human resources function, and it was an opportunity to do something different. I took on the opportunity and really enjoyed the work, really felt like I had an opportunity to make an impact both personally and professionally and so I made a commitment to the field. I went back to school, got my master's degree. That was back in 1995. I haven't left the function since.

Michael Akbar:

Oh, wow. You've been in this field for a very long time. You must be enjoying it.

Gary Fernandes:

I do. I find it very personally gratifying. It's the kind of work where you can bring yourself to the role and really help make a difference in people's lives. Then, when you can do that and benefit the organization you work for at the same time, it's a wonderful combination.

HR and Banking [3:03]

Michael Akbar:

Exactly. Looking back, how things have changed since you first started in HR?

Gary Fernandes:

That's a great question. As I mentioned, it used to be referred to as Personnel and back then it was much more tactical. You were doing more of planning activities, maybe you hire, certainly paying people on time. Obviously when people have to leave the organization, HR was involved. We didn't have a strategic role in terms of planning. How are we going to impact the success of the organization moving forward? Today, we're no different than any other function. We are planning on how we're going to impact the organization as a whole, how we can assist to help the organization achieve its strategic objectives. We have financial goals, we have personal goals at the same time. It really is a combination of the most important aspects of the business all bound into one.

Michael Akbar:

Yeah, absolutely. That makes sense. From whatever I study about organizations, what comes up again and again is hiring the right people and making sure they have the resources to accomplish what you would like them to do this. And all of that comes back to HR. That's very much an HR mission, so to speak. What are some of the important things ahead as you're looking to the future, what are some of the important things that you would see and would like to accomplish for the bank?

Gary Fernandes:

Well, the bank has grown significantly since my arrival back in 2015 and we have goals and aspirations to grow even further. When you think about sort of what we want to accomplish, it's really around, do we have the infrastructure in place to support a larger organization? That means having more technology to support our human resources, making sure that we have the right people in place to your point, to do the jobs that we need them to do, and also having a robust brand that people want to come and work for your organization. That's probably one of the most critical things when you're looking for an employee is how do they fit with what you want to do as an organization. That's probably one of the biggest challenges. The other is, do we have the ability to develop our people from within? We cannot simply rely on the market to meet all of our goals. It's a combination of both external and internal processes to help us get the types of people that we need to be successful.

Michael Akbar:

That makes sense. I hear that some organizations have a strong emphasis from growing from within. Some others are more open to have a balanced approach. Not that the other one is ... What are your thoughts? What's the right approach there, so to speak?

Gary Fernandes:

I think we do take a balanced approach. In the past, we relied very heavily on the external market. As we've grown and our needs have grown, we simply can't sustain ourselves by only going to the outside. We do a wonderful job of bringing people into the organization. One of our value propositions is that people can grow with us and can learn different things and expand themselves in their careers. Having a commitment to internal mobility, giving people an opportunity within the organization to grow, is certainly something that's part of our overall strategy, and we think a balanced approach will allow us to have the best of both worlds.

Leadership and Values [6:39]

Michael Akbar:

That makes perfect sense. As I'm listening to you, the immediate things that comes to my mind is that as you give an opportunity to people from within, they are retaining their institutional knowledge so that's really important for the bank. At the same time, I'm guessing there are new skills or needs that are not in the organization, in which case it makes sense to bring them from outside. On a different note, how would you characterize your leadership style in working with your organization and what kind of impact has it had on data stakeholders that you work with?

Gary Fernandes:

Well, I'd like to think of my leadership style as participative in nature. I think it's very important to surround yourself with the best people and then get out of their way. Free them to be the best that they can be. That means empowering people to make good decisions, being there to support them, give them the resources and the opportunities that they need, but I don't need to have, wait into every decision. When you trust the people that you have, they're going to continually surprise you. We do make it a point to find talented individuals who would want to come in and be part of something bigger. I think once that's the case, then you just have to make sure that you're giving them the right environment that nurtures their strengths and help them work on their opportunities.

Michael Akbar:

That makes perfect sense. What would you say are some of the values that are guiding lights for you and the bank?

Gary Fernandes:

I think having a commitment to service, being a person that is willing to serve. That's more than just about yourself. That means you're going to be willing to serve the people you work with, the clients that you have. Having a commitment to being able to provide that level of service. That means you have to be empathetic. You have to be willing to listen to what the other person is telling you that they need to be successful. Those elements, when we look for candidates like empathy, a commitment to service, an understanding that they are going to come and be part of something bigger than themselves. We want you to be a member of the team. We're not interested in simply personal accolades because we know that if we work collectively together, the organization is going to succeed and we're going to do our job in terms of taking care of our clients.

Choosing Candidates [9:07]

Michael Akbar:

That makes perfect sense. Well, you're describing an awesome organization to work for with those guys. That makes perfect sense. On tactical side, when reviewing candidate's resume or their LinkedIn profile, what makes you decide to interview someone? As a general criteria, I know of course, skills and a specific experience comes into the picture as well, but on a more global perspective, what makes you decide to interview someone as opposed to not to, as you look at their resume or LinkedIn profile?

Gary Fernandes:

That's a great question. To your point, there's a certain amount of specific skill set that you're looking for. If we say we're looking for experience with a certain software platform or experience with a typical type of role, that's certainly important. But we also want to see folks that have had a diverse background. Have they been in multiple places where they've had opportunity to show success? Do they have a commitment to the community? It's a well-rounded individual. Education is important. It's not a requirement, but it's certainly something we look for. We don't get caught up in where you went to school necessarily, but the fact that you have completed some programs is important.

Then, we try to get a sense for how they're going to fit with our organization because that's also critically important. The biggest part in resumes are hard because they don't get to tell the story. The individual can't really always communicate so we'll look for a couple of elements. Is it ranges of experience, have they done positions similar in the past? Then, the critical part is getting them an opportunity to tell us their story and how they might fit with our organization.

Michael Akbar:

That makes sense. I appreciate that. Your comments about the resume kind of reminded me a question that a lot of our clients sometimes have concerns about so I thought this would be a golden opportunity to bring it up. Sometimes, for a variety of reasons, people's tenure with organization is shorter than when I used to work for larger organizations. Sometimes you see someone working for maybe a year or even less, but it's not always their choice. They could be really good reasons for that shorter period of time. How would you be looking at that? Is that a showstopper or would you want to ...?

Gary Fernandes:

That's a great question. I would not say it's a showstopper. I think that we will look at the resume in totality. If you've had three jobs and you stay on an average of, say, three years or more at two of the jobs and then had one job where maybe it didn't last as long, we're going to look at that overall picture. We're going to ask what happened in this environment that might not have been the right fit. The fact of the matter is that candidates have been told for years and years now that staying in one place for too long is a detriment. Organizations have to understand that people are looking to improve themselves and so moving between jobs maybe the way to do that. I wouldn't say it's a showstopper by any stretch, it will provoke questions. I think having an articulated answer for why it happened and showing that this is the one area maybe I didn't stay as long, but I had longer stints at other organizations, tells a bigger picture than just the one-off job.

Interviewing [12:51]

Michael Akbar:

Great. I'm sure a lot of people are very grateful to hear your thoughts on that. Similarly, when you interview someone, when the company is interviewing someone again, what are some of the general things that irrespective of skills or experience you would like to see or hear or are important during the interview?

Gary Fernandes:

A couple of things. I think most employment managers want to know that you did your homework. What can you tell them about the organization that you're applying for. Too often, a candidate will come forward and apply, but maybe not know enough about the organization. We want you to pick us and you want us to pick you and we want you to pick us. Having an interest in saying, "Oh, I read about your organization. It really impressed me that you were recognized here" or "Your latest news around this product was really exciting," shows that you took a little extra effort to learn about the company as a whole. The more you're interested in the company, the more I know that just, you've taken the time to see whether you see yourself in the organization. So I think that's important.

Michael Akbar:

That's a great point. I appreciate that. Important interview preparation tip there for everyone. How about how much of a difference we would make in the hiring decision if the person is introduced by other employees and other employees can vouch for them so to speak?

Gary Fernandes:

Sure. The referral in our organization is one of our primary resources. Again, you want to have someone that knows you, may be able to vouch for you, or maybe able to speak to your experience. More importantly, the referral has told the prospective employee about the organization. You're coming in and you may already know more about it and that's attracted you to our company and so I think, that again is a two way street. It's not necessarily about who you know, but now someone else has given you a chance to learn about our organization and you're still interested in applying. That tells us that they're further along. There's not as much of a learning about one another as you would find otherwise. We do rely on it. We also want you to come and feel welcomed in our organization. That's why we are committed to having a diverse workforce because we want folks to come in and be part of something larger, but we also want them to feel welcome at the same time and so referrals help with that at times.

Salary [15:32]

Michael Akbar:

That's wonderful. That's an insight I hadn't thought about it from that angle so I really appreciate your sharing that with me. Another questions of related to employment, a lot of candidates, at least when we work with them, they have a lot of concern about this question about salary expectation. They are very concerned that when they are confronted with that question, what is behind it, am I going to be leaving money on the table or how should I be answering that. From the employee's perspective, what are some of your advice for that question?

Gary Fernandes:

It's an always an interesting topic when you start to get into salary. I will tell you, our philosophy at Sandy Spring Bank, we want to put our best foot forward. We will do our research in advance in what we think we can pay for a particular role. The question we ask around salary expectations is very similar to fit. If the salary point is A, but the other person is much further along, we're worried that they're going to say, "Sure, I'll be happy to take the job," but really not be a good fit because they probably had a much higher salary expectation.

It's generally very rarely designed to determine how we can get a candidate for the least amount of money. Because if you're going to be an employer of choice, you want to make sure you have a competitive environment and you don't want to get beat out for a couple thousand dollars here or there. Typically, we try to do put our best foot forward and that's based on the research we do for a particular role. We are not interested in what a person made before they came here, but we are interested in knowing sort of what it would take for them to join our organization.

Candidate Success [17:15]

Michael Akbar:

That makes sense. Thank you so much for ... you cannot believe how many, how often this issue comes up. "Should I tell? Should I share what's my salary expectation?" I tell people that you just mention that you've done your research, you're trying to be very competitive and this is not something that you're trying to trick people or whatever. On a different note, when a candidate joins the organization, especially at mid-level, what is some of your advice about how they should go about performing their duties, not only to be helpful to the organization, but can potentially even expedite and accelerate their own career growth and potentials?

Gary Fernandes:

That's a good question. One of the things we do is we do an onboarding checklist. Those are the factors that we believe contribute to the new candidate success. If I was counseling a new candidate, one of the things I would want to know first and foremost are who are the people that I am going to have to interact with the most? How do I get in touch with those individuals and get to know them? Because the sooner I'm able to build a rapport and a relationship with those individuals, the quicker I'm going to be successful, the easier it's going to be to learn how things are done within the organization.

Whether it's decision-makers, peers, process folks, we want to make sure that you have a good view of how you fit into that infrastructure. The more people you can meet early on, introduce yourself, and build a rapport with, that's probably my strongest piece of advice, because they will be able to help point you in, "Hey, you know who someone is important? Michael’s someone who's really important that you should talk to because they're going to be the person that's going to do X, Y, or Z." Now I'm learning those things that I wouldn't know until I start the process itself.

Michael Akbar:

Great. From what I hear from you is that in addition to that being great advice to go about and get to know the people that you should learn, that as a part of your onboarding process, you have kind of systemized that to some degree so that it's not left to just individuals initiative, but you're helping them do that anyway. That's wonderful.

Gary Fernandes:

That's right. And we try to be formulaic because we want to have a consistent experience for our employees. We provide those tools to managers. Whether you're in human resources, you're in sales, you're in technology, the results should be the same. The manager also has some consistent approach to be able to make sure that the new candidate feels welcomed and hits the ground running as quickly as possible.

Future of Banking [20:02]

Michael Akbar:

That's wonderful. Thank you so much for sharing that. On a totally different topic, for people who are interested to look at the industry, banking, finance, what are some of the hot topics that they should get themselves acquainted with and educate themselves on?

Gary Fernandes:

One of the first things I would say is banking offers careers in every field. I think a lot of people think about, "Well, I'm not a sales person. I don't know a lot about finance specifically." But I would tell you, to think about, whatever your role is, I'm in human resources, if you are in technology, marketing, communications, banks as they grow, they need all of those individuals. I think understanding where the growth areas are within the bank are important. But also thinking about banking as a career beyond just the financial component of it is important. Because a lot of times, we compete in a very busy market, very competitive employment market. Getting our brand to the top when people don't really think of us as a technology company, maybe first and foremost, they may not think of us as a marketing organization first and foremost, but we have those opportunities.

I just think learning more about the bank and what its needs are, is probably important. Then of course, pure banking, core banking, sales is critically important. Elements of customer service, how committed are you and willing to really put in the effort to provide excellent service, that's what banks are looking for. People that get it and that want to be committed and are interested in helping clients be successful.

Michael Akbar:

Great. On that related note, at this moment in time, are there specific roles or function that are more in demand that companies are looking for?

Gary Fernandes:

Sure. Well, in banking, as I mentioned, sales is always in play, so you're always going to need great salespeople. But I will tell you, project management is a big field for us today. We're currently have active searches going on for project managers. Folks involved in technology, whether that's in the digital space, looking at platforms, different software, because we are implementing all of these different technologies, whether it's for our customer service center or it's our customer relationship management system, human resources management systems. Technology is also an important part. Especially as we grow, that's an area where we're continuing to add more resources.

Michael Akbar:

That's wonderful. You're just opening up a window to me that I had never thought about. It looks like banks are such a technologically advanced environment that there's really a lot of demand for technical information technology, as you said, project management and other requirements as well, so that's great.

Gary Fernandes:

Definitely.

Work/Life Balance [23:02]

Michael Akbar:

For earlier stage employees, the younger professionals that are joining the bank, do you have any advice about how they should go about to keep the right balance between doing the best they can to show themselves, at the same time you keep a balanced life? Any thoughts on that?

Gary Fernandes:

A couple, I think there's the professional component and then there's the personal component. From a professional standpoint, have a path in mind of where you want to get to, but don't let what's available to you today get in the way of that. In some cases, I would encourage someone who's new to the field, "Take the role that's in front of you. Get inside the organization and grow from within." That's important. Once you're inside, share your aspirations, talk about where you'd like to go, have those kinds of conversations with your leadership team on what you want to do as you advance.

From a personal perspective, balance is critical. You hear work-life balance all the time. The key to that is having boundaries. Finding a right balance between doing your job and being a good person at home. That could mean being involved in your community. That could mean continuing your studies. That could mean taking care of a family. It could mean any number of things. But an employee who feels like they have balance is going to be as successful at work as they are at home. Sacrificing one for the other, when one is suffering, you're not bringing your best self to work. Again, it's not easy because new employees, they want to show how productive they are, they want to show that they're committed. I think there's opportunities to do that, but being on all the time isn't necessarily the way to go about that.

Sandy Spring’s Values [24:40]

Michael Akbar:

That's wonderful. Again, as I'm listening to you, I can just visualize how keeping balance can actually make you even more effective at work in the long run. Yeah, that makes perfect sense. Getting on a different note, how would you see Sandy Spring setting itself apart? What does the bank want to be known for and what it's envisioning in the market place?

Gary Fernandes:

As I mentioned, we've done a lot of work around establishing ourselves as an employer of choice. Then, what does that mean? That means that people can come to Sandy Spring and feel like they're able to make a contribution, feel that they are valued by the organization, and like what they do. When you can combine those, it doesn't matter what your business is anymore. It's around how people feel when they come to work for you, how you give them the opportunities to be their best selves, and at the same time have meaning to the job that they do.

We have been a well-known secret. We have been in the market for over 150 years, and yet we've grown significantly, only really recently have we doubled in size, over the last five years. Tremendous opportunity, but a lot of people think, "Oh yeah, they're a bank. I've heard of them." But I don't think about all of that, what that means, and the opportunities that could present itself. At the same time as an organization, we are fiercely committed to our communities and we want people that are from our communities that can come in and be supportive of what we do as a community bank. And so I think you find people that really want to have meaning to the work that they do. They want to feel appreciated and they want to like the people they work with. I think those are the things that we offer as an organization. If that's important to you, Sandy Spring Bank is a great place to start.

Michael Akbar:

That makes sense. Perfect. On a personal note, how would you want to be remembered your colleagues, by people that you mentor, lead, and work with?

Gary Fernandes:

Well, as I mentioned earlier, I think it's important to surround yourself with talented people. I hope that the first thing they would say is they absolutely made the right choice in coming to Sandy Spring Bank and that they were challenged, they were given opportunities to grow, and they were able to be successful. More broadly speaking, as I mentioned, we're trying to build infrastructure for an organization that will be sustainable for another 150 years. In order to do that, we need to make sure we have an inclusive environment. One of the commitments that I have is not just growing to scale, but growing the right way, both internally and externally and having a diverse group of people that represents the communities that we serve. I think if I can get to that point, I would be able to look back on a career to say, "I did a number of good things."

Final Thoughts [27:41]

Michael Akbar:

That's wonderful, especially the point of view about diversity and inclusion is so important. A lot of people would like to work in an environment that truly respects and embraces that so I'm really glad to hear your passion and commitment to that point. We are towards the end of our interview and I was just curious if you have any other thoughts that you wanted to share with our audience who are getting into the marketplace looking for a new jobs and making a career change.

Gary Fernandes:

Sure. A couple of things that I'd mention if I was giving advice to a prospective candidate, I spoke a little bit about it earlier, learn about the organization. Maybe reach out to someone who works there now and do your interview. Interview the organization first before they interview you. That will give you an opportunity to determine whether it's the right place for you. Don't be afraid to take a lateral job today that could provide an opportunity for a larger job tomorrow. I think many times, folks, they only see their upward mobility as an option when moving laterally will provide so many more opportunities. My personal experience, had I not taken a challenge and a risk to come into human resources, I wouldn't be here today talking to you, Michael. I'd be doing something else potentially.

I think being open-minded and then making sure that the organization you choose is really where you want to be. Because I think if you're comfortable there, all the other things are going to fall in place for you. I think that starts with really assessing what you're looking for out of an organization in advance. And that's where you go back to doing your homework. If you talk to someone, it's no different than if you buy a product. You're going to talk to someone about someone who already bought that product and ask them what they think. Now, you're getting unfiltered feedback about what's good, what's not, what needs to be improved, and then you make an educated choice. I think those were probably a couple of things that I would leave you with.

Michael Akbar:

Oh, thank you so much. Those are brilliant ideas. In fact, for all our coaching clients, from now on I will require them to listen to this video. If nothing else, this last question and answer that you shared with me, because it's really so important. A lot of people come to us and want to focus on salary negotiation. I have to tell them, there's a lot more to working with an organization that just the salary. You need to be happy. You need to be passionate. You need to be prepared. It's great to hear those recommendations coming from you. So I really want to thank you. This was such an incredible and invaluable experience for our community. I am very grateful for having you here today. Gary, thank you so much.

Gary Fernandes:

I appreciate the opportunity. Nice talking to you, Michael. Thank you.

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