The fresh ideas that inspired Bank of the West's digital makeover

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When Hisham Salama held his first all-hands meeting after he joined Bank of the West as head of digital channels in the middle of 2018, he encountered silence.

“I didn’t get one question, which I thought was very weird,” said Salama, who is known as "Hish" to his colleagues. He sensed that morale was low and people weren’t engaged.

Although there were other things he wanted to change — including a waterfall-oriented approach (the traditional approach to software development, where one component must be completed before the next one begins) and a high dependence on third-party providers and resources — he felt that improving morale and engineering a shift in the culture was most pressing in his quest to increase digital adoption and improve customer satisfaction.

So before introducing new development methods, he began making several adjustments to culture — including free snacks on his floor to get people talking.

Fast-forward two years, and much has changed. At the beginning of 2019, Salama’s team became the first at Bank of the West to go fully agile. The team also redesigned Bank of the West’s mobile app, which jumped 47 points in J.D. Power’s ratings in 2019, and pushed out 10 releases for mobile and online in 2019, compared with four the year before.

Hisham Salama, executive vice-president, chief digital officer, Bank of the West
The floor in Bank of the West’s headquarters building belonging to Salama and his team looks more like the office of a tech start-up than a bank. "You see people standing up on dual Mac monitors, designing things we’ve never seen in banking before and asking ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if our customers have this?’” said Salama.

These achievements are the result of a team culture Salama has created in which employees are encouraged to ask questions, collaborate and speak up if something isn’t working.

In recognition of these and other signs of progress, Salama, whose title is now chief digital officer after a promotion in February, is being recognized as one of American Banker’s Digital Banker of the Year finalists.

“His is one of the most energetic and passionate teams that wants to make change,” said Ryan Bailey, head of the retail banking group at the $92.9 billion-asset San Francisco bank. “The new team figures out what customer problems we need to solve, not just from a sales standpoint but a service standpoint. Customer input is paramount in making decisions about design.”

New ways of thinking

Salama’s interest in technology traces back to the seventh grade, when he broke his hand and couldn’t attend summer sports camp in Chapel Hill, N.C. Instead, he spent his summer on his parents’ newly purchased computer.

After graduating from NC State University, he spent several years at both Bank of America and TD Bank. At TD Bank, much of his efforts centered on digital payments. That’s also where he first worked with Bailey, who told him about the opening at Bank of the West.

When Salama arrived there in April 2018, he found an environment that was “highly dependent on third parties, more than I’d ever seen before,” he said. “But the bigger thing I noticed was the state of the culture.” For instance, the silence he encountered during meetings seemed odd.

“I am by nature extremely extroverted,” said Salama. “I love to communicate and I want people to feel engaged. It won’t do any good if I’m setting forth strategy that the team doesn’t believe in.”

Early on, he stressed the importance of communication. One thing he learned from employee feedback was that different teams weren’t used to working in a collaborative environment, so he introduced tools such as InVision, Dropbox and Slack to keep communication flowing between the designers, product managers and developers. In his “Dish With Hish” Slack channel, he hosts Ask-Me-Anything sessions and shares the music he is currently listening to.

“Hish creates a culture of inclusion,” said Marlene Tofan, senior vice president and head of digital business intelligence and analytics. “He always asks, ‘What can I do to help you; what do you need from me?’ ”

Read about our other 2020 Digital Banker of the Year honorees:

At the same time, he became more intentional about the type of employees he was hiring. To encourage diversity, Salama searched the Bay Area for people with different types of work experience — including some with backgrounds in fintech, e-commerce and entertainment.

“We have plenty of expertise in banking across the Bank of the West footprint, but we were trying to bring in that different level of thinking,” he said.

He rewrote job descriptions to sound less dry, looked over every resume that came in for each position, and pitched Bank of the West to prospective employees as a place where they could be part of a change and take ownership of a product or design. He also tells potential hires that he wants them to have fun.

“My rationale is, you’re away for eight to 10 hours a day,” he said. “I don’t want you to come into an environment where you’re not comfortable or don’t feel empowered.”

Pre-pandemic, he regularly showed up to work in a Grateful Dead T-shirt and jeans, to hammer home another mantra he tells candidates in job interviews: that all employees should bring their authentic selves to work.

One of his hires, Avery Oldt, said he never expected to work for a bank. Most of his career in design, product, and technology has been in entertainment and e-commerce industries, and his last role before joining Bank of the West as head of design was at a digital mortgage startup.

“From our first meeting, I knew working with Hish would change my expectations of banking,” said Oldt. “We immediately aligned on how to lead teams and empower individuals. We also spent a good deal of time talking about Beastie Boys, Grateful Dead and Phish. It was clear that Hish was not the typical banker.”

The floor in Bank of the West’s headquarters building where Salama and his team based themselves before the pandemic began looks more like the office of a tech startup than a bank, with a ping pong table, all-glass conference rooms and a lack of private offices.

“You see people standing up on dual Mac monitors, designing things we’ve never seen in banking before and asking, wouldn’t it be cool if our customers have this?” said Salama.

Mobile app gets payments focus

When it came to redesigning Bank of the West’s app, Salama was adamant that decisions had to be based on data showing how customers use the app, rather than a gut feeling or a third party dictating a solution.

His team concluded that payment tools had to be front and center of the redesign.

“We’ve spent an enormous amount of time on making all interactions with every payment capability on our digital platform seamless,” he said. “The average consumer is logging in a handful of times a month and looking at their balance — that behavior is never going to change. But what they are doing inside the account is mostly driven towards payments,” whether that means paying bills, sending money over Zelle or transferring funds internally.

At Bank of the West’s annual leadership conference in March of 2019, Salama and his head of design presented their prototype for the new app, which wowed the hundreds of other leaders in attendance. “The feedback was, 'Is this real? Are you guys going to build this?' ” said Salama. “Our answer was, we are building it right now.”

The improvements are also evident in its rising score through J.D. Power. Between 2018 and 2019, Bank of the West’s mobile banking satisfaction score increased 47 points, to 869 — a significant jump, according to Joe Wheeler, senior director of bank practice at J.D. Power. Wheeler credits the app’s visual design and usability as major factors in its rise.

“In verbatim comments from customers, we picked up words like ‘more pleasant to look at,’ ‘easier to navigate’ and ‘more informative,’ " Wheeler said.

Now, with his employees scattered due to the coronavirus pandemic and shelter-in-place measures, Salama has adapted his team-building efforts for a new era.

“We had to get very creative on how we kept the engagement with the team,” he said. “It’s my No. 1 concern right now.”

He checks in individually with his employees over FaceTime, and has traded team workouts and hikes for virtual events, such as a lunch where everyone ate their favorite canned food — out of the can — and raised money for a food bank.

“One of my designers said you will ultimately regret this idea of eating a can of food on a Zoom meeting, but if it makes people laugh, I will gladly eat out of a can,” he said.

After all, Salama credits the shift in mindset for the technological progress that followed at Bank of the West.

“Culture has always been the denominator,” he said. “If we don’t get that right, it will be hard to motivate the team and have them firing on all cylinders.”

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