Georgann Berger McKenna, Chief Human Resources Officer at Penn Community Bank, recently sat down with VISTA Today to discuss her role at the bank and career path from high school teacher to the C-Suite at the region’s largest mutual bank.
In our conversation, McKenna talks about the lessons she learned working on a blueberry farm during her childhood, how volunteering for a class project sparked her interest in banking, and how not sweating the small stuff has helped her at work and at home.
Where were you born and where did you grow up?
I was born the middle child of three children in Philadelphia, and grew up in Hammonton, New Jersey. Hammonton is exactly halfway between Philadelphia and Atlantic City. When I was born, you went to Philadelphia for all your medical needs, so my parents went there for the kids to be born and then back to where I grew up.
What did your parents do?
My father drove a tractor-trailer for a propane gas company. My mother worked at Sears and Roebuck, the catalog store, and then in an appliance store when the catalog went online.
What memories of growing up in Hammonton stay with you?
It was the proverbial small-town USA. We rode our bikes or walked everywhere. There was a little strip downtown, and we couldn’t wait to get our chores done on Saturday so we could go to the soda shop and share a cherry Coke and french fries. I know it sounds clichéd, but it was very typical.
Did you play any sports?
I was a cheerleader starting in sixth grade, all the way through high school and college. I liked cheering people on. It was a team sport and it was somewhat athletic – part gymnastics, part dance, and part having a good time.
Is there a specific game or experience you had as a cheerleader that you remember?
When I was in high school our football team was very competitive – including years that we won the championship, which were great. We had so much fun, marching through town and celebrating. And then the next year, we’d lose the championship, and it was the worst thing that could ever happen. The “Joy of Victory and the Agony of Defeat”, is a real thing.
What jobs did you have growing up?
I got working papers when I was 12 because I was in an agricultural town. I was a farm laborer in the summers, packing blueberries, from when I was 12 years old until I was in college.
What lessons did you take from that experience that still influence how you work today?
We learned early on that you have to work until the job is done. When you’re working with a product that has a limited harvest season and a limited shelf life, you can’t say, “Well, I’ve worked eight hours today, I’m done.”
We were paid piecemeal. We got 10 cents for every crate we packed, and there were 12 pints in a crate. We would set goals each day to challenge each other and see how much money we could make in a day. Everybody wanted to be at the top of the leaderboard, and I wasn’t any different.
It made me see the value of being goal-oriented. We set a goal each day for ourselves – it wasn’t like our employer set it for us. Sometimes we made it and sometimes we didn’t, but we came back the next day and tried it again.
What about music? What music floated your boat in high school and college?
Where did you end up going to college?
I was the first in my family to go to college, so I went to Montclair State University in Montclair, New Jersey. I stayed in state because it was more affordable. I looked at other state schools, but I felt Montclair State fit me. I had an interest in business and education, and Montclair State had a business education program.
It was far enough away from home, three hours. It was close to New York City, but it wasn’t in the city. As students, we to advantage of our proximity to NYC.
Looking back on your decision to go to Montclair, was it the right choice for you?
Absolutely. I don’t have any regrets.
And looking back over your career, over the last 20 or 25 years, who were the people who saw promise in you and opened up doors?
I think some of my professors saw that I had something to give as an educator. When I graduated in the late ‘70s, there was not a lot of hiring in education in New Jersey. So, since I had some business training, I took a job in industry as an administrative assistant. I started out where most women at the time started – taking shorthand, transcribing, keeping the books, making appointments.
I remember one professor kept calling me and sending me on interviews for teaching jobs. He said, “I don’t want you to give up.” And an opportunity came up. A teacher was going out on leave to have a baby and they needed a substitute. Even though it wasn’t a permanent job, he said I should take it. Lo and behold, she decided not to come back. That was my big break in education.
I taught 12th-grade business education in Hackensack, New Jersey, outside of New York City. I was 21 and I had students who were 18 and 19. Administrators would come in and say, “Where’s your teacher?” And I would say, “I’m here! I’m a teacher!”
What did you do after teaching?
I taught for three years, and the last year I had an opportunity to cover for one of our teachers who took sabbatical. I coordinated the internships and work-study programs. It allowed me to teach some classes, but I was also out in industry placing students, reviewing students, getting to know their mentors in business and industry. I became very interested in innovation and growing a business and how to make it run efficiently.
So, I took a sabbatical and went to school for my master’s. I was trying to figure out how to combine teaching, which I loved, but I really wanted to be in industry. I pursued a master’s degree in business education, but it was training in business and industry. I thought I could transition out of public education and teach and help folks in whatever business I ended up in, which happened to be financial services.
When I was working on my master’s at Oklahoma State University, the president of a bank came to the university and met with the dean of the business college. He wanted to know if any students were interested in coming into his bank on a project and changing how they trained their tellers. I volunteered to be on the project and ended up leading it. When we made our presentation, the executives at the bank asked if I’d be interested in going to work for them – joining their management trainee program but also building some of their education programs.
Did you like banking right away, or did it grow on you over time?
It was a bit of both. I found I had to learn about the industry so I could turn around and teach people. As I learned more about the industry, it became more and more of interest to me.
How did you get from Oklahoma to Doylestown?
I wanted to get back closer to home. I’m from a small-town Italian family, and it’s all about the family. It was a great experience being away from everyone and figuring out things for myself and making new friends, but at the end of the day, I wanted to come home.
When I came back, I worked for Philadelphia National Bank, which is now part of Wells Fargo. Then I settled on the Pennsylvania side of the border, got married, had kids and went from large commercial banks to smaller community banks, which was a better fit for me.
Why is a community bank a better fit?
Because when you work at a smaller community bank, your work represents you. I worked at Philadelphia National Bank (which is now Wells Fargo), Bank of America, PNC. It’s hard to be part of such a large organization. Sometimes you don’t even know if the work that you do registers. For me personally, I thought community banks were a better fit, and that I had enough knowledge from large corporate that I could help the smaller organizations grow.
Here we are, halfway through 2023 already. What are the challenges, opportunities, and priorities you’re focused on?
Leading human resources and talent development at Penn Community Bank, my focus is more internal than external, but we’re all influenced by what’s happening externally. We continue to deal with a tight labor market. That’s been a challenge for the last couple of years coming out of the pandemic. It might be changing a little – we see in some of the numbers that the job growth is slowing a bit.
We’ve been able to attract and hire some very talented folks last year and the year before, but it was a struggle. When inflation exceeds wage growth, it’s difficult to make people happy because there is a gap between what we’re paying them and what they need to live. We started to see inflation easing towards the end of the first quarter and, with some of the work we did to increase wages, I think people are starting to feel a little relief.
What do you think you’ve done or changed to attract high-quality talent that you couldn’t have done two years ago?
Well, some of it, let’s be honest, is wages. I have to inform management and the board what I think we need because, at the end of the day, we’re a bank. It doesn’t matter what our asset size is – we compete with all the banks. We have to be competitive on salary and benefits, total compensation.
In addition, we need to clearly understand and be able to articulate to anybody interested in working here what we’re trying to accomplish, what skills and abilities we need for them to be successful and how we can help them learn and grow. We have career pathing, training programs, succession plans, accelerated development programs. Employees want flexibility, they want to be able to work from home, they want to know what their career path is, how they can accomplish it and they want to know that we care for them.
How do you determine if there’s a cultural fit between what the candidate is bringing to the table and what you offer?
I ask about why they’re interested in coming to work here, how they go about their business, the type of environments they’ve worked in, what they’re comfortable doing, why they like doing what they’re doing and what they know about us. How they answer these questions helps us evaluate their fit from a technical and cultural perspective.
What do you do with all your free time?
I don’t have a lot of free time, and that’s fine by me. I am married and we have two grown children. My son and his family live in Colorado and we use any excuse we can to visit our granddaughter, so several trips to Colorado a year is not out of the question. Our daughter is an entrepreneur starting her own business. She’s a personal trainer, fitness instructor, and nutrition coach down in Florida, so we manage several trips to Florida a year as well.
Do you read much?
Sometimes in the summer it’s light beach reading. During the pandemic, I got interested in the reading about our presidents. I started with George Washington. I’ve only gotten through the first couple. I’m interested in what things were like back in the day, politically.
If I open a book and start it, I’ll always finish it, whether I like it or not. I may not go back to that author again, but I don’t know that I’ve ever not finished a book.
Georgann, what’s something big that you’ve changed your mind about over the last five or 10 years?
I don’t sweat the small stuff anymore. I used to fret about everything. It had to be done a certain way, to whatever specifications were asked of me or I felt I needed to do. Even in the house, everything has a place and has to be in its place. Over time, priorities change – at least mine did. It’s like, “Why did I worry about that?”
The same thing happened as I’ve become more experienced as a leader and a manager. When I gave an assignment or a project, I used to be really concerned about how my team went through the process to get to the end result. But I started teaching myself that as long as I got the result I was looking for, it doesn’t matter how they got there.
What keeps you hopeful and optimistic?
I’m an optimistic person by nature. And working with people who are younger than me keeps me optimistic. It keeps me young, it keeps me on my toes. I like being with forward-thinking people, pressing the envelope a little bit.
Finally, Georgann, what’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
It’s from my dad: He told me that if you’re going to do something, do it right the first time and complete it. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to do it again, but you can’t quit in the middle, and you have to do the best work that you can.If you don’t do it right, it’s harder to go back and fix something.
When we were in school and wanted to be on the baseball team or be a cheerleader or be in the school play, he said, “If you start something, you have to finish it. If you find out you’re not passionate about it, then you don’t have do it again, but you’re not going to quit halfway through.” It made us think about whether we were committed to something and wanted to see it through.