Leading a bank can be rewarding, both monetarily and through the many relationships bank chiefs build over time. But it can also be excruciatingly trying.
Just a couple years ago, bankers were fighting to survive the Great Recession. Now they face a new battle to keep up with swiftly developing technology, evolving consumer needs, and a business model that has been completely overhauled in the midst of a slow-growth economy. On top of meeting change demands, management must ensure the bank is performing at increasing levels of profitability, growth, compliance and customer service. Its a tough job.
Leading in general, not to mention leading a community bank, isnt for everyone. Its even harder to reach the status of a truly memorable leader. However, even those without natural leadership abilities can stand out by growing share and franchise value. The secret to this goal is succinctly summarized in the words of political commentator Walter Lippman: "When all think alike, no one is thinking." Thinking differently, and leading differently, separates the average from the memorable.
Looking back throughout the years, there are three bank CEOs who have struck me as being different. There was something unique about these three that set them apart from the hundreds of others who have crossed my path. I personally learned things from all three people that I actively apply to my business, and I believe their stories are worthy of passing on. After all, if you want to be the best, its wise to take notes from those who have achieved excellence.
The first bank CEO, whom I will refer to as "The Motivating Sales Leader," led a community bank in New England. He was a spectacular leader because he could excite his staff about basic banking products like none other. His magnetic excitement and intrinsic ability to motivate fostered high-achieving sales teams. Instead of focusing on numbers and deadlines and goals, this motivator inspired his people to wholly, evangelistically believe in the product. Everything else fell into place in this unique organization.
The second CEO, a great leader I met in Florida and fondly call "The Hiring Leader," once explained to me that he only recruited highly customer-service-oriented individuals with a "servants heart." He strongly believed in placing the highest value on a service attitude rather than background or education. This approach worked well, because he created a team that understood customer service at a profound level. His bank was well-stocked with top-shelf employees, and recruiting them didnt require extensive personality testing or over-interviewing. You have to love a leader like this.
The third and final CEO, "The Always Getting Better Leader," was a Southwest banker I worked with in the late 1990s. He was an exceptionally forward-looking thinker when it came to operational improvement, as he understood that backroom service had to be as strong as the front-end. While others may consider change as an initiative, this leader based his decisions on the idea that change was never-ending. Because of this, he was never in catch-up mode. Instead, he led the pack in best practices as he facilitated tremendous growth.
These leaders exhibited three of the many qualities that may define a great commander or coach. But just as there are traits that can make a leader exceptional, there are also characteristics that stifle leaders and ultimately stifle their banks. Theres one characteristic in particular that is a huge culprit in community banking troubles: Leading by consensus.
The chief absolutely cannot do his or her job if he or she let others have veto power over final decisions. While staff should always be welcomed to share ideas, ultimate judgment must always be made at the hands of the leader. Letting politics get in the way of running a bank or giving up authority in order to avoid making waves is a dangerous path that defies the long-term interests of shareholders, customers, regulators, managers and staff. Leaders must keep in mind that they were put in their positions to make the hard decisions, even when others are pushing for a different course of action.
There are other nasty potholes that leaders must avoid on their journey as well. Failing to hold their staff or themselves accountable and failing to be transparent regarding the current performance and future state of the bank are two potential pitfalls. So are neglecting to foster a culture of continuous improvement and ignoring the need to create a sense of urgency when it comes to change initiatives.
Thinking differently is necessary for survival and success today. Because of this, bank chiefs who fall into the categories of "Motivating Sales Leaders," "Hiring Leaders" and "Always Getting Better Leaders" will be far more visible and abundant in our industry as community banking continues to evolve. Banks would be well served to evaluate the practices of all leaders executives, managers, and supervisors and consider how a change of thinking could dramatically benefit their organizations.
L. T. "Tom" Hall is president and CEO of Resurgent Performance, a bank performance advisory firm.