018: Andrew Silsby: Secrets to Employee Wellness Engagement

Andrew Silsby shares the secret to engagement for wellness and business.  It involves a tractor, a “dreadmill” and other key ingredients for an award-winning wellness plan. 

Andrew E. Silsby is President and CEO of Kennebec Savings Bank, a $900 million mutual banking organization headquartered in Augusta Maine.  Silsby started his career in banking as a summer teller in 1986 and joined Kennebec Savings Bank in 1993 where he steadily climbed the ranks to begin leading the organization as President in 2014.  The organization embarked on an effort to increase employee wellness by creating a multifaceted program to foster and encourage healthier living with its 121 employees.  Andrew sits down to discuss some of the lessons the organization learned over the past two years in making employee wellness a priority at Kennebec Savings Bank. https://www.kennebecsavings.bank

Edited Transcription:

ERH: Today I welcome Andrew Silsby, who is President and CEO of Kennebec Savings Bank. One of Andrew’s mottoes is: “Any day that I can spend on my tractor is a good day.”  I love that!

Andrew Silsby:  Thank you, Elizabeth. I am very happy to be here.

ERH:  Andrew, I learned about you through a friend and then by reading a recent article in Mainebiz about your wellness program. Your team completed 18 million miles of walking in a single to learn from you and about how you’ve engaged your team.

Andrew Silsby:  Well, thank you. We are proud of the activities that we’re doing here at Kennebec Savings Bank. I don’t think we’re all that different than other companies in some form or fashion, in terms of offering Fitbits and [organizing activities], but it’s the organization behind that. The bank’s been involved in wellness programs for 10 or 12 years. We used to pay people to exercise.

What I’ve found over the years is exercise, particularly encouraging employees to exercise, is something that requires us to be ever vigilant. You have to keep changing and modifying because we all get a little bit complacent. We have learned that really happy employees make for happy customers. At the root of it all is if we take good care of our employees, the smile that’s on their face comes through in their voice. It’s on the phone. It’s at the teller line, for example.

ERH:  Absolutely.

Andrew Silsby:  You can take that one step further, that healthy employees also make for happy employees. We’ve had a number of folks who have lost a significant amount of weight over the years, and it’s like a new lease on life. In a lot of ways, I think if we can keep employees healthy, in the end we’ll do more business, and people will be happier to be customers here.

Wellness programs, years ago, used to just pay people. A couple of years ago we said, “We really need to jump back in this game and reinvigorate this.” We offered a program to allow people to join a gym and the bank pays $250 of their gym membership in reimbursement.

And because we’re Harvard Pilgrim customers they provide an additional $150 reimbursement. If we can underwrite that investment, it helps encourage people. A lot of places [have introduced] Fitbits, and I don’t mean to necessarily say Fitbit. It’s any exercise or step tracker. We found success when we put together a program, and that’s the article that I wrote about.

We learned that you can’t just give the Fitbit to an employee and expect an overnight fix. [Our program pays] the first $50 of somebody’s Fitbit, so they can choose the model they want. They can pick a $50 model or the $150 model. As long as people have skin in the game, that’s my word, then they’re vested in it. If they just get it in a box, they’re not necessarily going to take to it.

One of the reasons I happen to like Fitbit is they have a website that allows you to create a community. The community for us is the ability for all the employees to join. Then we can all see each other’s steps.

ERH:  Oh, you can? I was wondering how that all came about in the article.

Andrew Silsby:  Now, you can set privacy settings. You can also share your weight. Not a lot of people want to do that.

ERH:  No thanks.

Andrew Silsby: That’s fine, what we concentrated on was the step piece. Then we ran a month just as a baseline. How many steps do we all get in a single day? For me, this was really powerful, because I’ve been a classic person, who is sort of a weekend warrior, doing a lot of things, but during the work week getting it into the habit was really hard. You try lots of New Year’s Resolutions, but you can’t get it into your actual routine. The statistics say if you can get people to three weeks, it becomes a habit or a routine, [but truly getting folks there] has been a difficult task.

We did a number of different things. First, we set a baseline. We’re in a conference room, here at Kennebec Savings Bank, and on many days I will spend the bulk of my day in this room, changing seats. For a month I didn’t change any routine, and I would be somewhere around 1,500 steps to 2,500 steps in an entire day.

ERH:  Yes. That’s pretty normal.

Andrew Silsby:  What I find about fitness trackers is that you have to be accountable to yourself.  It’s really easy in your mind to say, “Well, I walked up a couple flights of stairs today. I didn’t take the elevator.” You know, you’re doing all that, but your mind sort of justifies that activity, and then you see it on your wrist and you realize, “Wow. That’s not really a lot.” 10,000 steps is a typical daily goal, which is around 5 miles. Many of us set goals to try to make sure that we got from our 1,200 or 2,500 steps all the way up to 10,000.

ERH:  It’s not easy, right?

Andrew Silsby:  It’s not easy. For me, I’m kind of a treadmill guy. Some people think that’s the “dreadmill”.

ERH:  Oh. That’s a good one.

Andrew Silsby:  For me, I turn the news on, I read the Wall Street Journal on my iPad, and I walk and run on the treadmill. I’m at 11,700 steps today, at 3:30 in the afternoon.

ERH:  Nice.

Andrew Silsby:  It has absolutely changed my life personally. It’s changed a whole bunch of lives internally in the bank. We’ve found that we really were able to change behavior. At the root of this is getting people to stop sitting and start moving.

ERH:  It’s the hardest thing to change behavior. Right?

Andrew Silsby:  Yeah.

ERH:  Do you find that together helps?

Andrew Silsby:  It does. The reason I wrote the article for Mainebiz was to put a few steps out there to help other organizations. I think others should try this, because you can say, “Ah. Well, everybody’s kind of doing that,” but the reality is [you need to] pull a team together. We did it on a volunteer basis. We have 121 employees, and 72 people joined. Actually, 68 signed up, and we picked up four more along the way.

ERH: That’s a great number comparatively. A lot of companies plateau at 30-40% participation.

Andrew Silsby: Yeah. Exactly. We were really pleased with participation. This is what we did; we ended up doing a baseline and then said to the entire group, “Let’s see if we can add a million steps this month.” Everybody was in it together, and it wasn’t a competition between people. It was all of us together.

We started encouraging folks. People started walking around the break room while waiting for their coffee, and they calculated that it took 17 steps to circle the table while the coffee was brewed. Then a senior officer of the bank started having his weekly meetings with some of his direct reports on the Rail Trail that is just down the road from us, so they’re doing their hour-long weekly meeting and getting their exercise in during the day. We have other groups of employees that gather together for their lunch hour and walk through the neighborhoods.

[Once people were moving, we added incentives: water bottles for achieving the team goal of adding a million steps to our month; then t-shirts. Next, we said, “Let’s do 10% more.” For several months, we built this as a community, and it’s important. You can tell on the first day of the month by 8 AM who’s already exercised, because [the tools] are keeping track, and you can see each other. Again, you’re accountable to yourself, but you’re also accountable to the rest of the community, so to speak.

We later created teams, where we competed against each other. We’re a bank. We have several different branches, and we decided to have some of the branches compete against each other.

In one example, I forgot to mention, we had a drive up teller out in Winthrop, who has since transferred to the main office, and she was so funny. We ended up checking the security camera because she was getting in an unbelievable number of steps every day. We discovered that she’s at the drive-up window stepping all day long. Almost marching.

ERH:  That’s such great idea. There is someone listening right now and probably thinking, “Well, I’m at a desk,” or, “I’m at a call center,” “How do I get steps in?”

Andrew Silsby:  Right. Exactly

Andrew Silsby:  Since then, we’ve added some stand-up workstations. Now, not all of the workstations at the bank are that way, but more than we used to have, and it’s partly because of Carrie and wanting to get her steps in. The drive-up window is a stand-up workstation in many respects.

[To continue adding variety, we mixed up the teams competing by teaming smaller branches to compete against the larger branch]. That really seemed to resonate with folks. Then people created their own teams individually.

ERH:  Those are great iterations to keep it fresh.

Andrew Silsby: Keep it fresh. Keep the incentives. We have moved away from the water bottles and the t-shirts and moved to community investment. At Kennebec Savings Bank, we dedicate about 10% of our income to go back to the community that we serve. There’s a big giving-back-to-the-community component to our culture so the winning team chooses where to send a $500 donation.

ERH:  That has a lot of value. I’ve done that over the years as well with teams, and people want to give, yet not everyone can. When they’re able to choose, like with your program, it’s very empowering.

Andrew Silsby:  Yeah. Employees love it. We used to run a monthly program where we pulled an Employee name out of a hat and donated $500 to whatever cause they wanted. It didn’t matter whether Kennebec Savings Bank was giving to that cause or not.

ERH: Right, which is another key. As companies get larger, sometimes they find that they have to narrow choices for employee giving programs. It’s nice that you allowed choice because it matters for people.

Andrew Silsby: Right. I still love that high school kid that comes in and asks for a $25 yearbook ad for whatever they’re doing. I’m not going to miss that development opportunity for those high school kids to be brave and to come in to ask for that. We’re still doing yearbook ads here.

ERH:  That’s wonderful.

Andrew Silsby:  [For our team competitions], many of them ended up picking organizations like the Kennebec Rail Trail, that are fitness-minded causes, and that helped immensely for morale purposes.

We take the summer off with our program because summer in Maine is so precious and everybody wants to do something. We let off the gas a little bit in the summer. I think everybody is a little more fitness conscious [in the summer] anyway.

ERH:  Yes, they’re probably active.

Andrew Silsby:  Where we have trouble, in my experience, personally and here at the bank, is in January, February, and March, where we all pack the pounds on a little bit. That’s when we are in high gear.

My plan usually is to rev [activities] back up in the September timeframe.

ERH:  That’s when their kids are going back to school, [good idea]. 

Andrew Silsby:  Yes, It’s like, “Okay. I’ve got to start dealing with this again.” It’s almost like the second New Year’s resolution.

ERH:  Yes, and going “back to work” in the fall is part of our natural rhythm. For the first 18- 20 years of life we have summers off, even if you had a summer job, [our bodies are still feeling those rhythms as we get older].

Andrew Silsby:  I think that’s absolutely true.

ERH:  At least all through our working career. Talk to me from your experience as President and CEO. [There are other leaders out there struggling with employee health and program adoption. What do you say to them?]

Andrew Silsby: I would say definitely try it. It wasn’t a huge dollar amount of outlay. It’s some commitment on your part. I think it’s critical that the leaders at the top of any organization [to be active participants]. All employees sort of look up in some form or fashion to the leaders, whether it’s their immediate boss or the boss above that. We don’t have a lot of layers of management in our organization, but I worked for a larger institution in a prior life, where there were many layers of management. You look above.

So I would say, don’t assign this task this to subordinates. At some level, the leader of the organization, or at least the HR area, needs to be engaged.

In my case, I was at 1,500 steps, and I needed to be in the top 10 of the community. We’ve got 72 employees, and [my goal was] to be in the top seven. It was motivation for me because I wanted to set a good example for the rest of the staff. It doesn’t matter that you’re at 1,500 and that’s all you can do. What I was trying to get folks to do was go from 1,500 to 1,700. Let’s just concentrate on 10% more, 10% more. [That is really all you need to focus on.]

ERH:  Very well said. Small bites are not usually overwhelming and yet they [add up to progress and improvement].

Andrew Silsby:  We did another program that I didn’t mention earlier because we had some people on the fence about doing this. We bought 4 Fitbits and created a loaner program. What we basically said is, “We’ll loan these out for a month, and we want you to try it.”  That’s how we picked up the other 4 folks.

ERH:  They said yes.

Andrew Silsby:  They ended up buying their own, and it ended up working. [Trying to reach] the people who were worried or weren’t ready to spend the money was key.

ERH:  That’s a great idea. To honor and provide options for the different ways that people engage. [You absolutely want those people.  They are probably in roles where their job is looking at all of the angles before they commit to something; it’s a value that they bring to the organization, and so you have to meet them there on wellness too.]

Andrew Silsby:  Exactly. We are a bank and we have a fair number of analytical folks here. They want to try it before they buy it.

ERH:  For the financial minded, have you seen impact to your bottom line, employee turnover, or health costs? The things that are measurable?

Andrew Silsby:  We really haven’t on the turnover side because we have a high value for employees. We have three stakeholder groups here, which is clearly our customers, our community, and our employees. Every decision that we make at the organization runs through that filter. Employees are the key to the success of the organization.

ERH:  So, retention is already high.

Andrew Silsby:  It’s very high.

ERH:  [Impressive.]

Andrew Silsby: [As for health care], we have seen our health insurance premiums level and in a couple of years they actually dropped.

ERH:  That’s huge.

Andrew Silsby:  We’ve had a great experience with Harvard Pilgrim. There are other insurance companies, but Harvard Pilgrim really values those health initiatives. In fact, we won their Health Innovator Award last year (2016).

ERH: Yes I saw that.

Andrew Silsby: We are pretty proud of that here.

ERH: [I would be too!]

Andrew Silsby:  We have also offered nutrition classes, and an introductory yoga class in the lobby of the bank, just to expose people to other options. It’s kind of intimidating to go into a gym.

ERH: [I agree,} it is intimidating.

Andrew Silsby:   If we can just introduce options to people… We’ve got a local tennis club that’s come to talk to me about an introduction to pickleball.

ERH:  Oh, fun. That’s really growing.

Andrew Silsby:  It’s really growing, and they want to do an afternoon with our employees to expose them to pickle ball. It’s something that we will work toward. Again, trying to keep it fresh and change it up.

ERH:   Those are absolute best practices. Are there other best practices along this journey that stand out for you as having made a difference in your wellness activities with the bank?

Andrew Silsby:  The other piece of advice would be around food. We changed our philosophy here about having food at meetings. It’s kind of a simple step, but stop buying donuts and muffins, and move to yogurt and fruits at meetings. It’s sort of funny to help pay for people in wellness and then turn around and feed them foods that are counter to that effort.

ERH:  Very important.

Andrew Silsby:  It’s not hard. It’s maybe a little more expensive, but I don’t think it’s a lot.

Final words of advice would just be to try it. It’s not that hard, and be innovative, and pull a team of employees together and ask them. They’ll give you some great ideas.

ERH: Wise words. Thank you so much, Andrew. It’s just been a pleasure learning from you and hearing about all this great work that you’re doing with your people. I wish I was more local. I’d go on a walking meeting with you.

Andrew Silsby:  Awesome. Thank you very much. I appreciate your time and enjoyed meeting you.