One set of attributes for effective bank directors, especially as community banks navigate a changing and uncertain operating environment, are curiosity and inquisitiveness.
Providing meaningful board oversight sometimes comes down to directors asking executives the right questions, according to experts speaking on Sept. 12 during Bank Director’s 2022 Bank Board Training Forum at the JW Marriott Nashville. Inquisitive directors can help challenge the bank’s strategy and prepare it for the future.
“Curiosity is a great attribute of a director,” said Jim McAlpin Jr., a partner at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner and newly appointed board member of DirectorCorps, Bank Director’s parent company. He encouraged directors to “ask basic questions” about the bank’s strategy and make sure they understand the answer or ask it again. He also provided a number of anecdotes from his long career in working with bank boards where directors should’ve asked more questions, including a $6 billion deal between community banks that wasn’t a success.
But beyond board oversight, incisive — and regular — questioning from directors helps institutions implement their strategy and orient for the future, according to Justin Norwood, vice president of product management at nCino, which creates a cloud-based bank operating platform. Norwood, who describes himself as a futurist, gave directors a set of questions they should ask executives as they formulate and execute their bank’s strategy.
1. What points of friction are we removing from the customer experience this quarter, this year and next year?
“It’s OK to be obsessive about this question,” he said, adding that this is maybe the most important question directors can ask. That’s because many technology companies, whether they’re focused on consumer financials or otherwise, ask this question “obsessively.” They are competing for wallet share and they often establish customer expectations for digital experiences.
Norwood commended banks for transforming the middle and back office for employees, along with improving the retail banking experience. But the work isn’t over: Norwood cited small business banking as the next frontier where community banks can anticipate customer needs and provide guidance over digital channels.
2. How do we define community for our bank if we’re not confined to geography?
Community banking has traditionally been defined by geography and physical branch locations, but digital delivery channels and technology have allowed banks to be creative about the customer segments and cohorts they target. Norwood cited two companies that serve customers with distinct needs well: Silicon Valley Bank, the bank unit of Santa Clara, California-based SVB Financial, which focuses on early stage venture-backed companies and Greenlight, a personal finance fintech for kids. Boards should ask executives about their definition of community, and how the institution meets those segments’ financial needs.
3. How are we leveraging artificial intelligence to capture new customers and optimize risk? Can we explain our efforts to regulators?
Norwood said that artificial intelligence has a potential annual value of $1 trillion for the global banking industry, citing a study from the McKinsey & Co. consulting group. Community banks should capture some of those benefits, without recreating the wheel. Instead of trying to hire Stanford University-educated technologists to innovate in-house, Norwood recommends that banks hire business leaders open to AI opportunities that can enhance customer relationships.
4. How are we participating in the regulatory process around decentralized finance?
Decentralized finance, or defi, is a financial technology that uses secure distributed ledgers, or blockchains, to record transactions outside of the regulated and incumbent financial services space. Some of the defi industry focused on cryptocurrency transactions has encountered financial instability and liquidity runs this summer, leading to a crisis that’s been called “crypto winter” by the media. Some banks have even been ensnared by crypto partners that have gone into bankruptcy, leading to confusion around customer deposit coverage.
Increasingly, banks have partnerships with companies that work in the digital assets space, or their customers have opened accounts at those companies. Norwood said bank directors should understand how, if at all, their institution interacts with this space, and the potential risks the crypto and blockchain world pose.