Mind-Sets that Hold Banks Back

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A few end-of-year requests for predictions about what 2014 holds and for advice I'd give to bankers prompted me to reflect on one of my favorite quotes. Author Douglas Adams once said, "I refuse to answer that question on the grounds that I don't know the answer."

I have that particular quote on a slide I've included at the beginning of several presentations to management groups. I use it as a personal (and public) reminder that just because you're the person getting to pontificate at the moment doesn't mean you've suddenly become omniscient.

That said, one piece of management advice that I've been only half-jokingly giving to bankers recently is that these challenging times call for us to eliminate certain roles from our organizations. But these aren't the official roles that may come to mind.

As we try to navigate the rapids that the financial services industry is becoming, it's time to rein in the "Snipers," "Historians" and "Jetsons" in our organizations.

Snipers are the folks whose main contributions seem to be shooting down others' ideas. Many are quite expert at taking aim at the weakest element of an otherwise intriguing proposal and placing everyone's focus on what could possibly go wrong instead of what may be accomplished.

Snipers are frequently our resident cynics, and they can even be quite entertaining. Heck, snarky folks can be downright giggles-inducing.

Unfortunately, there is a tendency to confuse cynicism for intelligence … despite the fact that they are not linked. I'm not suggesting a cynic cannot, indeed, be smart, only that the perpetually cynical rarely create things or solve problems. Put an experienced Sniper in a meeting and you're practically assured no new or novel idea will survive it.

The Snipers' partners in crime are often the Historians. These are the people who defend the status quo to the end. They are bound and determined that the strategies and practices that got the organization to where it is are not to be altered.

One of their talents is comparing any new proposal to an idea or suggestion that was tried and failed anytime during the past, oh, several decades. Historians are also often fond of talking about how great things used to be when [insert past executive or manager] was there.

The fact that the industry we find ourselves operating in today is starkly different from the one we worked in just a decade or so ago is ignored. Many Historians also forget that the "good old days" weren't always good. Stress and crises existed then, too. But having survived it, they tend to romanticize the past.

The polar opposites of Historians are the folks I jokingly call Jetsons. (I like referencing The Jetsons cartoon because many of their super-cool gadgets tended to malfunction.) Jetsons are those among us who are convinced that the very existence of the bank rides on the newest technology, social media platform, etc. that they read about last week.

Whether or not there is the semblance of a business case to support spending the financial and human resources necessary to take on their new favorite bell or whistle is irrelevant. Whatever they hear the competition is doing (or talking about doing) becomes what their bank should be doing as well.

And Jetsons are convinced that their bank's facilities, technologies and procedures are outdated because they're a little older than, oh, Instagram.

I've had many bankers laugh and animatedly tell stories of folks they've worked with who fit these caricatures.  When they do, I suggest that we really don't want to get rid of these folks ... just change their outlooks a bit. But I also ask them if any of their co-workers might ever accuse them of fitting one of those descriptions every now and then, as well.

Truth be told, we all have some of these traits in us from time to time. And that's not always bad.

Appropriate cynicism guards against gullibility. Recalling past mistakes may keep us from repeating them. And there's little doubt that the facilities and technologies of tomorrow's banks will look different than they do today.

Banks may be similar but none are identical. The strategies each choose, and the individual investments and divestments they make to get to where they want to be, will assuredly vary.

But change is coming to our organizations. It will seem too much, too soon for some of our team members and not enough or fast enough for others.

We need our more change-averse team members to realize that to stand still is to fall behind. Conversely, our more impatient peers need to remember that building our future bank shouldn't inadvertently damage our current one. And successful operations have far more to protect than newer and/or more desperate competitors.       

Teams that understand what changes their companies are – and are not – making along with why those choices are being made tend to better embrace and execute those changes. Make sure your team is one of them.

Dave Martin is an executive vice president and chief development officer at Financial Supermarkets Inc., a Market Contractors subsidiary that offers design, construction, consulting and training services for retail banking programs. He can be reached at

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