Your Workforce Should Reflect Your Customer Base

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Imagine a world in the not-too-distant future where a strong and vibrant financial services industry is doing what it does best: playing its part in supporting business growth, job creation and economic prosperity.

It's a world where our financial institutions are aligned with the communities they serve, reflecting confidence, diversity and unlimited potential.

And it's a world where the term "women in banking" no longer exists.

Sound far-fetched? Well, not really.

Plenty has been written about how gender equality in banking is a boost to the bottom line. But the industry's mantra about reaching that goal tends to be: "We're making progress, but we still have work to do."

I envision a day in our industry when there will be no more ceilings to smash, our talent strategies no longer require evolution, and it is simply par for the course that a bank has an innovative approach to recruiting, developing, retaining and advancing all employees.

I'm optimistic that day is coming. Why? Because banks require a diverse and inclusive workforce to serve the needs of customers and to understand the challenges and opportunities that business leaders – women and men – face.

Banks without a workforce that reflects their customer base are at a strategic disadvantage. Not only do they look prehistoric, but they're missing the broader perspective provided by a more diverse employee base.

Creating a diverse and inclusive culture isn't just nice to have – it's a business imperative.

To help get there, we must focus on two important priorities: Attracting a more diverse personnel base through recruiting efforts, and closing the retention gap that sees institutions lose a higher percentage of their top women leaders, compared to those who are men.

So how do we recruit a more diverse and inclusive workforce? To start with, 9-to-5 is over.

Flexibility is key.

If a talented prospective employee has two job offers, he or she is going to take the one that offers more flexibility. It doesn't matter if the applicant is a man or a woman, or whether he or she has kids. Top talent wants flexibility.

The best talent is always on. They might take an afternoon off to care for a parent or child, but they are also likely to be working on their mobile devices or laptops well into the night.

All employees have personal and professional obligations. With that in mind, we need to revisit the traditional views of how, when and where we get our work done. The most effective employees are working on their terms, their way.

The beauty is that flexibility is not expensive, and it can reap huge rewards in terms of engagement, loyalty and productivity; furthermore, it will open banks' applicant pool to more busy parents trying to juggle their families and careers.

But effective recruiting is only step one.

In the words of my former colleague Emilia DiMenco – who is now the head of the Women's Business Development Center here in Chicago – the banking industry actually does a great job of recruiting women, we just don't always do a good job at developing and retaining women once we get them in the door.

I agree wholeheartedly. Case in point: I started my banking career in our commercial bank training program more than 30 years ago. On my first day, I recall walking in the door and seeing that close to 50% of my new colleagues were women. The same balance holds true in our training programs today.

The problem isn't recruiting. The problem is retaining. While the situation is better now (for example, 40% of the senior leaders reporting directly to me are women, compared to zero for our CEO in 1978), we're still losing some of our best and brightest.

It's not for a lack of trying. But we need to ensure that the right sponsorship and mentorship programs are in place to promote inclusion, and that the doors of opportunity are open to all.

A case in point: my colleagues at BMO Harris recently implemented a formalized mentoring program for Generation Y employees. We paired 25 of our Gen Y colleagues with 25 leaders within the company. Each pair meets on a monthly basis, in both virtual and in-person settings. The result is that mentees gain a better sense of the skills needed for success, as well as insights on how to develop those skills. Meanwhile, the mentors have increased their knowledge and awareness of the talent existing within our commercial bank. These types of programs can help promote diversity and inclusivity by targeting young bankers who represent both genders, as well as all races and ethnicity.

That's a more formal approach, but often the best mentorship program in my organization isn't a program at all. It's simply time – putting time aside to provide mentorship to the next generation of leaders, which I ask all of my senior leaders to do.

In the end, it's a challenge for banking leaders, the stewards of our industry, to be smarter. We need to think outside the box, to have a different mindset when it comes to how we recruit, retain, develop and advance our women leaders.

It's a new world. Plain and simple, leaders need to adapt to the changing needs of their employees, not vice versa. They need to ensure their organizations are inclusive to reflect their diverse customer base, and thus bring the term "women in banking" to an end.

David Casper is president and CEO of BMO Harris Bank.

Editor's note: This post is part of an ongoing series looking at gender and diversity issues in banking and finance. For more on this subject, see previous posts in this series from Mary Jo White, Sheila Bair and Ghela Boskovich, and visit American Banker's Women in Banking page.

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