From time to time all CEOs ask themselves, "If I'm in charge here, why am I so busy that I can't get anything done?" It is a lament that becomes increasingly relevant as the industry consolidates.
An effective executive must operate on two levels.
One is the whirlwind of customer calls, board meetings, staff meetings, report review and analysis, and so on.
But on another level, it is essential to keep a very tight focus on a few key initiatives that bring an institution's strategies to life, and guide the way the executive parcels out his time.
I have seen this reduced to two lists.
The public version contains all of the items for which the executive is responsible, and can run to many pages.
The more important "private" list always includes fewer than 10 topics, and often no more than five. These I refer to as the "short list," and every first-class executive I have seen has one (it is sometimes undocumented), uses it, and is uncompromising in following it.
The short list generally involves such things as the status of key customer accounts, specific levels of nonperforming loans, portfolio risk, total deposits, and other banking matters.
It also is important to note that the successful executives have an ability to create short lists which truly move their banks forward. Certainly market conditions, the state of the economy, actions of competitors, and monetary policy all play a role. But those are only enabling conditions. Executives must respond appropriately.
To some extent, these are well-known practices and are in the curricula of reputable business schools. I have taken the time to recall them, though, because they set the necessary context for a range of issues that I believe are central to the way a bank's stock is viewed in the market.
I would suggest that as bank executives look to the next few years, it will be essential to put some nontraditional issues on the short list. I will highlight them here as an introduction to future articles on these topics:
Telecommunications infrastructure. Less than 20 years ago only the largest banks could transmit data over telecommunications networks, and only over short distances. Today these systems stretch across the country and around the globe. These backbone networks are converging with service delivery. The simplest form is represented by telephone banking and advances in electronic data interchange.
How will this evolve, and what role will your bank play? Should it build a proprietary network or continue to rely on major carriers, which are themselves becoming limited competitors?
With barriers of time and space coming down, ownership and control of the pipeline becomes a far more critical strategic issue. And then there are a host of practical considerations like backup plans, security, and the depth of staff to support the infrastructure.
Segment marketing. The conventional wisdom now is that we are in a society of niches. This is especially true of the more affluent elements of the population, which will have to be the major profit generators for banks. Far less understood is the substantive underpinning of data bases needed to play in this targeting game.
Along with historical data, there needs to be a future orientation - looking to projected purchasing behavior of various segments and subsegments. Neural networks and state-of-the-art behavior research have to be brought to bear. To make matters more interesting, the segments are dynamic, always shifting and changing. As a result, this effort is continuous, not episodic.
Data warehousing. Exceptional efforts have been made to overcome management information problems, and some banks have made noticeable progress. Still, few banks can claim to be satisfied with existing management information systems. In an era of rapid consolidation, this issue moves from frustrating to crucial. A seamless information stream is an absolute necessity.
Fortunately, the technology in this area has progressed a great deal in the past two years. There are software packages that permit the bank to draw common information from current systems, thus creating a tailored, consistent, and cohesive flow of management-oriented data. How these capabilities are implemented will determine how the management team carries out strategies, because what executives count becomes management's priority.
Transaction automation. Is banking a risk management or an intermediation business? This is one of those "what is the meaning of life" questions. What gets in this "big picture" debate is the fact that banking is a monumentally large transaction business. Historically, this was seen as a pro bono activity to facilitate funding, risk management, or intermediation.
Accordingly, the operational side of the money transaction business has been given over to specialists. Developments in microprocessor chips, satellite communications, and merchant marketing are coming together to move these businesses to a new plateau. Banks once again have the opportunity to review the role they want to play - at just the time when steady revenue-producing products are being demanded by bank stock analysts.
Every bank executive team includes people who are knowledgeable in all these areas. For the most part, it has been reasonable for the CEO to entrust these issues to those executives. These topics have not usually made their private issue lists.
But times have changed, and some of those items now belong on the short list. Make no mistake, the value of the bank's franchise now depends to some degree on how investors see the prospects in these areas. No less an analyst than Thomas Hanley of CS First Boston has concluded that, for the remainder of this decade, a bank's stock may be judged primarily on the way the institution is seen to use technology.
Mr. Lewin, a former banker, consultant, and Bank Administration Institute executive, is a global marketing manager with Verifone Inc. in Chicago. This is one of an occasional series of articles on issues facing top bank executives.