As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Candace Wolfshohl.
Candace Wolfshohl is Group Executive Vice President of Culture and People Development with Frost Bank, overseeing employee development and training, as well as Frost’s corporate culture. She joined Frost in 1983 as a secretary and rapidly moved up through the organization, holding positions including personal banker, corporate trainer, retail administrator, call center manager, technology manager and leadership development program manager. Candace believes all Frost employees are responsible for creating an exceptional culture, and in a culture driven by Integrity, Caring and Excellence, she works to translate Frost’s value proposition to employees in addition to customers.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I graduated from Texas A&M University in 1982 with a Bachelor of Science in Sociology and minor in General Business, and then strayed into a position at Frost Bank in 1983 by pure luck. My first husband referred me to the bank, where I was hired into the Management Trainee Program, which only lasted two weeks. After that, I became a secretary and continued on my Frost journey, holding 10 different positions along the way.
Since the beginning, Frost’s people-first approach to business stood out to me. It’s clear that the people at Frost are our greatest asset, and I believe all employees are responsible for creating an exceptional culture. Now, in my role as group executive vice president of culture and people development, I work to uphold Frost’s corporate culture, which is driven by Integrity, Caring and Excellence, and translate those values to employees and customers alike.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
After two whole weeks in the Manager Trainee Program, I was asked to assume the role of secretary to the Vice Chairman of the Board. I casually declined the offer because, after all, I was in a “management” trainee program, which obviously meant that I would soon be a manager. Well, taking on that first role was the best thing I ever did. I was exposed to lending, bankers at all levels in our company and a great boss who saw something in me that I didn’t see. When I left a year later to have my daughter, Mr. Crews told me that I would not return as his secretary. “Sweetie, you need to go to the lobby and learn about banking.” That was the second best thing that happened in my career. The takeaway was that I needed to trust those who knew best, which was not me!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I am particularly grateful for my former colleague and mentor, Sherry Castillo. Throughout our time working together, she constantly pushed, challenged and empowered me to do things I had never done before. She saw something in me early on and stepped into the role of a mentor, which was incredibly valuable to me then and now.
An example that comes to mind was when we were converting our main frame systems to a new platform, which required training all bankers accordingly. We conducted the first training in a very traditional format, which was delivered lecture style with lights off and an acetate on an overhead projector. Sherry asked us afterward if our colleagues learned anything — we had no idea. She suggested that we call a few trainees to find out. After numerous heartbreaking conversations, we concluded that no one had retained much, if anything. Then, Sherry told us to come to work the next day to watch a movie. We all showed up to popcorn and sodas and watched Dead Poets Society, which she used to teach us that our training and education should be creative and interactive. This was a game changer. We completely reinvented the training, and it was a huge win. In fact, our vendor partner approached us and asked to purchase it, as they had never before seen this delivery style.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Since opening our doors in 1868, Frost’s vision has focused on making people’s lives better through Integrity, Caring, and Excellence. We’re committed to being a force for good in everyday life and have built a culture around treating our employees and customers with the highest level of honesty, dignity and respect. We treat everyone as a pivotal part of our company culture and have always said that our internal culture is a key part of our external service. We strive for the employee experience to be as excellent as the customer experience, and we encourage success and intrinsic satisfaction by lifting employees up across all levels. At Frost, each employee knows they play a key role in fulfilling our commitment to make people’s lives better.
Once I began to understand the culture at Frost, my vision shifted to become a culture warrior. I realized that we had something significantly different than other banks, and truly other corporations, which I embraced and wanted to represent in everything I did and encouraged others to do.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
As the world tried to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic, our entire employee community really stepped up. Everyone jumped in to do their part and more — from tech and equipment to communications and leadership. We embed culture in everything we do at Frost, and we saw our culture in action as people rallied together to navigate the challenges of the pandemic. As we transitioned to work from home, the shift was larger than just a few individuals, and all branches and divisions played a part. We also pivoted our focus to helping our customers, and later some prospects, secure a Payment Protection Program (PPP) loan. In addition to the bankers who would normally be involved, we rallied over 500 other employees from all areas in our company to jump in and help. We’re very proud of how many businesses we were able to serve.
In my role specifically, I am always concerned about losing our culture. In my 37 years at Frost, I have never seen so much significant change at one time as we’re now experiencing. And, I don’t anticipate that changing much any time soon. The good news is that we get stronger when faced with challenges. Our CEO, Phil Green, often reminds us that we need to be careful of what we ask of a Frost Banker because they’ll do whatever it takes with Integrity, Caring and Excellence to get it done. We’re now focusing more on work-life balance. As a virtual worker, we need to find ways to separate from the work, spend quality time with those we love and take care of ourselves so we can better serve others.
Lastly, as a leader, I’ve worked to focus more attention and become more widely available to anyone who needs me, to whatever degree. In a leadership role, it’s also incredibly important to look for signs suggesting that one of your colleagues might need support. This was much easier when we were in person, of course, which is why I try to stay in constant communication with everyone, so I can tell when someone needs me to listen.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Well, I never considered not working because I have always needed and wanted to work; however, I’ve had my ups and downs around understanding and accepting the importance of my contribution. In a recent conversation with Sherry, she reminded me of some of the crazy things I did so many years ago when I really thought I knew so much. As the years have gone on, I’ve realized more with every role that I don’t know that much. That I have so much to learn from those around me. I get energy from people. My hardest days are when I’m totally alone and don’t have a decent amount of personal contact with coworkers. I’m blessed to truly enjoy the people I work with. I really like them and thrive on seeing my team members achieve success and satisfaction in their personal and professional lives. I’ve marked my major life events during my time at Frost, such as meeting my forever husband, my best friend and my role model for mentorship and leadership. My personal and work life have melded together over the years. In short, I’ve lived my life here, so I think that’s what keeps me going, on top of working with the amazing people who motivate me every day.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Be a culture warrior. You cannot talk about your culture too much. It should be a part of every conversation and all that you and your people do. Hold each other accountable for demonstrating it. Lift each other up. Culture is not about the posters or the pamphlets, it’s about what is happening in your company every day by everyone. No culture is perfect because we are all imperfect humans who are living it.
Be humble. Know that you really may not know. You have to get close to the people who are doing the actual work. Letting go and trusting your team is critical. It’s important to let go of constraints, continually talk, have honest conversations and convey clarity with your team. By staying close and having open communication, you can better identify when someone needs your support, especially during challenging times.
It’s also important to stay flexible and lead with your heart. You have to think about others and recognize that you’re here to help them achieve success and satisfaction. We, as leaders, need to do what it takes to ensure our colleagues are feeling and doing good.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Encourage constant, open conversations and hold each other accountable. At the end of staff meetings, I always tell my colleagues to stay the course, take a deep breath, find a balance between their work and personal life and be good to themselves. It’s important to take care of yourself so that you can be good to your coworkers and to customers.
At one point in my career at Frost, I was asked to manage the statewide call center, and I was surrounded by a team that helped me in my effort to lead. I would tell them to hire nice people who are capable of learning things. We started each day by celebrating yesterday’s accomplishments and focusing on today’s issues. Right before the phones came on each day, I screamed, “Be good to each other, be good to customers and have FUN!”
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Be honest and as open as possible. Tell them what you know and be kind as you do it. Have their best interest in mind as you relay difficult news. Sometimes leaders feel that if they don’t have a great message or answer, they shouldn’t give one at all — but that’s the worst thing you can do. In the absence of information, people will make it up. Nothing makes people more uneasy than not knowing, and that’s when their worst fears start to creep forward. It’s ok to tell your team that you don’t have an answer right now — you just need to be honest and straightforward with them.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
A leader can plan to uphold the culture, focus on the people and be adaptable. Be optimistic and realistic. Challenge people to higher levels of contribution. Have a vision for future success and satisfaction that inspires commitment. Take things day-by-day and continually host honest, open conversations with your team to plan for the future. We’re all in this together and can’t navigate today’s challenges alone.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Know who you are and stick to it. We, at Frost Bank, know who we are. We lead with Integrity, Caring and Excellence, and this guides us in everything we do. We look hard at every situation with these three values in mind, and in our world, we put people first with the goal of improving their well-being. True character comes out in unfavorable situations.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
The first most common mistake I’ve seen other businesses make during difficult times is not being values-based. If you don’t know what will guide your response during turbulent times, it can be extremely difficult to do the right thing. By identifying values that you want to base your actions on, you’re establishing a roadmap to guide the difficult times.
The second is focusing only on results and not on people. We are committed to Excellence (outstanding performance); however, we achieve this through Integrity (high ethics) and Caring (concern for others).
Lastly, the third most common mistake I’ve seen happens when leaders at the top think they know everything. They make decisions for everyone without knowing all the details and without taking others and their situations into account. My advice to those people would be to slow down and gather all of the information that you need so that you’re informed, and then move forward. It’s critical to ask questions, listen and be willing to move forward knowing that you may have to pivot.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Our culture is our guide. We treat people with dignity and respect. Our net promoter score is far above our competition’s score. We take great care of our customers. We are very happy with the influx of customers, and bankers in our high growth areas, who left a less than desirable culture to join us in ours during this very difficult time.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Continually host open, honest conversations. I mentioned this earlier but feel it’s important to say again because it’s such an important principle to leading during uncertain times. Tell your team what you know and be kind as you do it. It’s ok to not have the answer and to tell them that upfront. And then, continue to update them as you receive information and work to ease their fears. You don’t have to have a great message or answer, just be honest and straightforward. Connect with them as a person.
2. Always be available to provide support. I’ll use parenting as an example. For those who feel like they’re fine, you don’t want to be the hovering parent. You should always be available, but you should especially focus on those who need you the most. Keep your door open and make yourself available to listen to them. When we were in the office, I used to block my calendar on Friday afternoons to walk around and check in on those working on my team, as well as others. In this virtual world, I still find it important to “drop in” to check on people; it just has to be more intentional since you no longer have that face-to-face interaction.
3. Be flexible and ready to pivot at any time. The pandemic itself is an example of why this is important when leading a team. While we might not have all the answers, our entire employee community stepped up to make the transition to work from home happen.
4. Use your company’s values to guide your decisions. Frost’s values of leading with Integrity, Caring and Excellence serve as a guiding light for everything we do. If you don’t understand the values that ground you, it’s difficult to know if you’re making the right decision in turbulent times.
5. Recognize the effect you have on people’s lives. As a leader, you can make an employee’s life wonderful or miserable. Leaders need to understand that they are often the topic of conversation with people’s families and friends. While that can be scary, it’s something we need to embrace, honor and respect. We have the opportunity to change people’s lives for the better.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have two quotes to share. One comes from Ken Trapp, who gave me my first management role at Frost. I was so concerned about not being ready to lead anyone. He said, “Take care of the people, and the people will take care of the work.” I’ve used this advice in everything I do as a leader. Mutual trust is so important between leaders and their teams, and this quote always reminds me of that. The second comes from my husband, Bob. Every day he would tell our children, “Do good, don’t do bad.” So simple and so powerful. This is what we strive for every day at Frost as we are making people’s lives better.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Readers can follow our work at frostbank.com.