Bank Culture Can't Be Measured in Scorecards

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In the wake of the financial crisis, there has been intensified public scrutiny — not unfounded — concerning specific problematic banking practices and the culture that permitted and even encouraged misdeeds. Indeed, a culture built on high-risk lending and short-term trading cannot be considered healthy. At the same time, such a culture was far from ubiquitous in America's banks. Many of our country's financial institutions were and still are acting in the best interest of their stakeholders. Simply put, it's my belief, based on more than four decades in the industry, that banking — and bankers — are quite generally forces for good. But given the climate of distrust in which we find ourselves, it's worth putting on the record what I view as the defining characteristics of a good, socially responsible bank culture — standards to which most of the industry holds itself.

A healthy bank culture embodies the notion that a bank can only do well when the communities it serves prosper. Bankers should come to work every day driven by the opportunity to do the right thing for their clients — often their friends and neighbors. They should act in the knowledge that doing so will benefit the communities they share. They know that when their communities succeed, they all succeed. It's why bankers actively work to make their communities better places in which to live and work, and to "give back" to the communities they serve.

The banker is often seen as a pillar in the community — indeed, as a community banker — as a concerned, involved citizen who can lend an ear, expertise or a hand while actively championing common causes.

A banker should act with a sense of intense personal responsibility — the kind that can only come with having a stake in the company and the communities in which he or she operates. A banker must act as an owner would, treating the bank's money as if it were their own — making prudent loans that drive civic progress to customers they know.

So it is that a banker must feel responsible for the long-term performance of the company. A banker understands that aligning the interests of ownership and management is critical to fostering long-term success — and short-term personal triumphs that come at the risk of the company are not triumphs at all.

Perhaps above all, a banker should be above reproach, cut from the finest cloth of character. A banker is defined by simple values — by honesty, integrity, ethics and respect. Safeguarding the hard-earned savings of their neighbors and putting deposits to work through soundly underwritten loans to families and businesses constitutes an honest day's work. A banker is wholly committed to doing the right thing the right way and, even in this changing world, the right way has no shortcut.

The qualities I've described here must be evident, but not confined to board rooms and executives suites. They are the basis of a way of doing business — a set of core operating principles that can set a company apart and permeate it at all levels — a culture.

One of the larger consulting firms believes culture can be measured with a scorecard. I believe that a company's culture cannot be judged through a moment's snapshot or mathematical formula but must be built over the span of generations. A bank's culture exists in the hearts, minds and actions of every banker in its employ. Culture is measured in the good work being done for communities and customers, employees and shareholders — in doing the right thing the right way. Culture manifests itself in a company for which you can be proud to work and with which you can be proud to do business. That's the only scorecard I need.

When its culture is healthy, banking can be not just a sound business vital to driving economic progress, but a noble profession. I'm proud to call myself a banker.

Robert G. Wilmers is chairman and chief executive of
M&T Bank Corp. and its principal subsidiary, M&T Bank.

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