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While attending a large banking conference recently, a bank management friend summed up a common concern to me. He looked at the speaker lineup and said, “I’m looking at some of the banks on the agenda. Do I really want their advice for the future? They aren’t exactly crushing the present.”

After one particular speaker finished, I quipped, “I’ll bet that half of what that speaker said they’re doing today would come as news to most of that bank’s employees.”

I had a strong suspicion that this leader may not have had the clearest picture of the realities happening in the field. He seemed to have a compelling vision for the future, but his grasp of their present operations left me wondering.

I’ve long argued that the most successful industry leaders of the future are not terribly hard to predict: Put your money on leaders who are running solid businesses and producing results today.

These leaders aren’t successful because they are always on the cutting edge of technology or design. Sure, some have been more aggressive at reshaping their companies than others, while some are content with being second-movers on many things.

That’s because today’s effective leaders understand that they do not lead technology and they do not lead strategy. They lead people.

Today’s best leaders establish standards. They develop, promote and protect their companies’ cultures. They strive in word and action to ensure that their teams up and down the organizational chart are on the same page with each other.

Whether they are shaking things up or are reinforcing existing strategies and tactics, they are constantly communicating with their teams. They solicit feedback from people tasked with delivering on their companies’ promises and actually listen to that feedback.
They may not always act upon it, but they don’t ignore it.

Just as successful business models are not identical, neither are our best leaders.

Some of the most successful banking leaders I’ve had the opportunity of getting to know over the years are very charismatic. Their personalities and presentation skills win people to their side.

Others have seemed to be more comfortable remaining a little behind the scenes. While they are very informed and involved in their businesses, they allow others to play the more visible roles with their teams and customers.

What they all grasp, however, is that the success or failure of strategies, business models and campaigns hinges on the quality of the people they employ and the engagement levels of those employees.

They know that informed and engaged team members will do what it takes to make things work for customers.

Beyond that, they are obsessed with keeping customers happy today. Improving customer satisfaction isn’t buried on a to-do list. It is not something they’ll be able to do once the next new strategy kicks in. They seek honest feedback from customers and employees and work on eliminating pain points for both right now.

The best leaders have an eye on the future and possible changes to customer preferences to come. However, they realize that the surest way to be given the opportunity to meet customers’ future expectations is by remaining closely connected and meeting and exceeding them today.

The strategies these leaders set for their organizations may mirror some of their successful competitors. Then again, sometimes they will not. This should not be as surprising as it appears to be to some pundits.

There is a tendency to look at the largest operators in an industry when judging which moves and strategy shifts are wise. If larger banks in a market are closing branches or reducing staff, that must be what the smart folks are doing. And maybe it is. But then again, maybe larger banks have more physical locations and employees in some markets than is now optimal. That does not signal that all banks in a market have more branches or people than they need.

This may seem obvious, yet we still have too many in our industry who seem to trust their competitors’ strategies more than they trust their own. They are also more likely to know what a competitor or a national survey company has to say about what customers desire than what their own employees and customers have to say.

It’s hard to get where you want to be in the future without a clear vision of who you are and where you stand now. Put industry surveys down for just a minute. Some incredibly informed “consultants” are available to us right now. They are our employees and customers. Let’s consult with them more often.

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