There comes a point in the process of mastering a subject (in this case, banking) when reading books or articles, or studying data, begins to offer diminishing returns.
After reaching that point, the best way to maintain a steep learning curve is to speak directly with authorities on the topic.
There are lots of authorities on banking—academics, consultants and lawyers, to name a few—but the ones who know the most are seasoned executives sitting atop high-performing banks.
I had many conversations with top-performing bankers in 2018. Here are four of the most valuable insights I picked up along the way.
1. The benefit of skin in the game
People in business talk all the time about the importance of a long-term mindset. Thinking long-term is especially critical in banking, given the leverage used by banks and the severe cycles that afflict the industry.
Unfortunately, in a world geared toward quarterly performance, maintaining a long-term mindset is easier said than done. When times are good and there are no signs of economic trouble, it’s only natural to relax lending standards to maintain market share.
Steering clear of this requires discipline. And one way to impose discipline is through skin in the game. If executives own large stakes in the institutions they run, they’re less likely to take imprudent risks.
This was one of the takeaways from my conversation with Joe Turner, CEO of Great Southern Bancorp, one of the industry’s top-performing banks over the past four decades.
“There are always going to be cycles in banking, and we think the down cycles give us an opportunity to propel ourselves forward,” he said. “Having a big investment in the company plays into this. It gives you credibility with institutional investors. When we tell them we’re thinking long-term, they believe us. We never meet with an investor that our family doesn’t own at least twice as much stock in the bank as they do.”
2. The pace of innovation in banking
It’s tempting to think the pace of innovation in the banking industry has accelerated over the past few years.
Even most millennials can probably remember when they had to visit a branch to make a deposit or check their account balance. Today, by contrast, three-quarters of deposits at Bank of America Corp., the nation’s second biggest bank by assets, are completed through its digital channels.
But this doesn’t mean bankers are strangers to change, because they aren’t. The industry has been in an acute state of evolution since the 1970s, when laws against branch and interstate banking started to come down.
Furthermore, while change is indeed happening, perhaps even accelerating, one benefit associated with operating in a heavily regulated industry is it won’t change overnight.
This was one of the takeaways from my conversation with John B. McCoy, CEO from 1984-99 of the notoriously innovative Bank One, which is now a part of JPMorgan Chase & Co.
“The digital thing is happening—it’s changing things—but it’s not going at warp speed or anything,” said McCoy “Maybe one of the reasons is that banks are still highly regulated, so it’s hard for an outsider to come in and disrupt the whole system. … But absolutely it’s going to make a difference, and in 10 years things will look totally different than they look today. But I don’t see any one thing that will change things overnight.”
3. Continuous self-improvement
In 2015, Phil Tetlock, a Wharton Business School professor, published his book, Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction.
Don’t let the corny title fool you. Tetlock is a leading authority on the accuracy of predictions. The book walks readers through an experiment he conducted to determine whether some people can forecast more accurately than others.
Not only did Tetlock find some people were in fact better at forecasting than others—the so-called superforecasters—he also found those people shared certain traits.
Foremost among those traits is perpetual beta, “the degree to which one is committed to belief updating and self-improvement.” According to Tetlock, perpetual beta was nearly three times as powerful a predictor as its closest rival, intelligence.
It should be no surprise then that many top executives at top-performing banks share a similar trait, dedicating large amounts of time to learning and self-improvement.
Here’s how Brian Moynihan, chairman and CEO of Bank of America, answered my question about what he reads:
“It’s an eclectic mix, but basically newspapers, periodicals and I get a lot of books sent to me. It’s mainly just a lot of articles. The world has changed. It used to be when I delivered papers in college that I’d read The Boston Globe, The New York Times and The Providence Journal because I delivered them every morning. I still read them, but where I pick up most stuff now is from the article flow on a given day coming through all the feeds.”
He went on:
“Reading is a bit of a short hand for a broader type of curiosity. The reason I attend conferences is to listen to other people, to pick up what they’re thinking and talking about. So it’s broader than reading. It’s about being willing to listen to people and think about what they say. It’s about being curious and trying to learn. That’s what we try to instill in our people. The minute you quit being educated formally your brain power starts to shrink unless you educate yourself informally.”
4. Continuity of leadership
Some sort of panic, crash or credit crisis has struck the banking industry an average of once every decade going back to the Civil War. Yet, every time a crisis strikes, it catches bankers by surprise and leads to legions of bank failures.
The problem is that each new generation of banker has to re-learn the lessons of history. And these lessons are often learned the hard way.
This is why it’s important for banks to maintain institutional consciousness, passing lessons learned from the older generation of bankers down to the younger generation.
One bank that’s done this particularly well is First Financial Bankshares, the dominant locally owned bank in West Texas and one of the top-performing regional banks in the country over the past two decades.
There are a number of explanations for First Financial’s success during this time, which encompasses the financial crisis, but one is that its current chairman and CEO Scott Dueser lived through an acute banking crisis in Texas in the 1980s and is determined to avoid doing so again.
“The 1980s was this super education,” said Dueser. “I learned what not to do. And I learned how to get out of problem loans. I’m so glad I went through it because I remember it today and am not ever going to go through it again. And that’s why in the 90’s [and through the financial crisis] we did so well. That’s the value of having somebody like me in a bank that remembers. All these young guys, they don’t remember that. So how do you teach them? Well, you just tell them this is what happens when you do that.”