Hail to the Chiefs

Does creating snappy job titles lead to a better performing or more “in touch” bank? Possibly. But we are skeptical and at this point, it is too early to ascribe empirical evidence to say “yes’ or “no.”

The proliferation of titles such as “Head of Digital Banking,” “Head of Consumer Insights and Innovation,” “Cannabis Risk Officer” and so on have signaled priorities, but have they accomplished anything? In practice, it seems some new titles are not well aligned with the new skills needed to drive strategy or promote innovation. In some — or many — instances, it might be counterproductive if a bank is parsing responsibilities even further, muddying the waters on who is responsible for executing what.

We often see this in employee development. Many first-line supervisors, and even executive management, are under the false belief that the Chief People Officer, another name for the head of human resources, is primarily responsible for employee development. As a result, we see little execution that results in well-developed employees who can move the bank forward.

A common weakness uncovered in the bank strategy sessions or process improvement engagements that our firm undertakes is bank silos. Do titles lead to more silos or to more collaboration? Your chief innovation officer is not responsible for creating an end-to-end paperless mortgage experience that can go from application to close in less than three weeks. Your head of mortgage lending is — and that is based on knowing what customers demand.

Prior to advances in technology, the industry was awash in data. With these advances, there is even more of it. This is what drives banks to enlist data scientists, a functional position we highly support — although it is perhaps an exaggerated title. In a recent banking podcast, Kim Snyder, CEO and founder of data visualization firm KlariVis, spoke eloquently about data governance and integrity. How do we pull meaningful data out of our systems if we lack discipline in what we put in them?

How to use the data, how to make sure the data is well aligned across the organization and determining  who is responsible is the conundrum all banks face. Commercial lenders might belly ache about being held accountable for a client’s total relationship, which may affect compensation or how employees or how a bank markets their services. But this makes the lender keenly interested in viewing the total relationship across loans and deposits, wealth and other third-party systems that impacts many organizational silos.

Why would banks want to create even more silos with these newfangled chiefs? Convincing executive management teams that they are responsible for the entire bank, not solely their functional positions, has been a struggle. Would we exacerbate that struggle by creating positions that tell the head of commercial lending they are no longer responsible for their employees’ development or the department’s diversity since the bank now has a chief diversity officer? When many are responsible, nobody is accountable.

When executing a mission in the military, the senior officer of the operation issues something called a “Commander’s Intent.” This communicates to each unit what the commander deems success, such as “It is the Commander’s Intent that this mission degrades the enemy’s surface to air missile capability by 75%.” Each unit commander plays a role in executing the Commander’s Intent, with appropriate coordination. Could banking use such cultural discipline to achieve executives or the boards’ intent, without developing creative job titles or dispersing responsibilities to chief this or chief that?

We at The Kafafian Group think so. Keep your organization simple. Define roles and accountabilities. Issue your Commander’s Intent for missions that you currently use chiefs to define. Coordinate accountabilities and focus on execution and organizational learning. Success will be evident; one day, your bank will be called a “Top Performer” or an “Innovator” — a title that any executive management team can get behind.

How Bankers Can Use Relativity to Power Tech Decisioning

“A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week.” – Gen. George Patton Jr.

Banking has been around for thousands of years, but digitization of the industry is new and moving fast. The changes have left some bankers feeling stuck, overwhelmed with the sheer number of technology choices, and envious of competitors rocketing into the future.

Back in the boardroom, directors are insisting the team design its own rocket, built for speed and safety, and get it to the launch pad ASAP. The gravity of this charge, plus the myriad other strategic initiatives, means that the bank is assessing its tech choices and outlook with the same exhaustive analytical vigor as other issues the bank is facing, and at the same speed. This is a subtle, but significant, error.

Based on experience leading both financial institutions and fintechs, I’ve seen how a few firms escaped this trap and outperformed their competitors. The secret is that they approach tech decisions on a different timescale, operationalizing a core principle of Albert Einstein’s theory of special relativity known as time dilation: that, put very simply, time slows down as velocity increases.

How can executives apply relativity to banking?
Our industry exercises its colossal analytical muscles every day, but this strength becomes a weakness when we overanalyze. Early in my career, I reported to a credit officer who routinely agonized over every small business loan. Each one seemed unique and worthy of lengthy discussion. He would only issue a decline after investing many hours of the team’s time analyzing together; the team lost money on loans the bank never made.

The same mistake can occur when banks assess their fintech options. Afraid of missing a risk factor and anxious to please the board, executives fall into the trap of overanalyzing. There’s good reason to justify this approach; major projects like a core conversion are truly worthy of great care and deliberation.

But most tech decisions are not as risky and irreversible as a new core. Just as we can download apps to a phone and later remove them, the industry has embraced the concept popularized by Amazon’s former CEO Jeff Bezos of a “two-way door” to deliver turnkey solutions that are fully configured and ready to use in a matter of hours. Developers are writing new code and deploying to the cloud continuously, with no downtime. A few companies, including Cirrus, even offer money-back guarantees, to eliminate a bank’s perceived risk from the decision.

Tech moves fast. What can happen when a bank accepts this challenge and invests in rapid tech decisioning? There are three important aspects of time dilation to consider:

1. Even at only a slightly higher velocity, it has been empirically proven that time marginally slows down. The rate of change in time increases parabolically as velocity increases.
This means that increasing the speed with which your bank makes decisions, even a tiny bit, pays off immediately, and the learning curve will magnify payoffs as the bank improves its decision-making process. There’s a significant compounding effect to this discipline.

2. When traveling at faster speeds, time appears to be passing no differently; to an outside observer, your clock is ticking slower.
Once the team is accustomed to making good tech decisions rapidly, its normative behaviors may seem odd to outsiders. Your colleagues in other internal departments who have become jaded by previous approval cycles may not be able to believe how rapidly your bank is now able to stand up new solutions. Your firm will accomplish much more than before.

3. The faster your velocity, the more mass you accrue.
Making decisions quickly frees up time for more decisions. Decision-making is a force multiplier. It’s not just your clients who will appreciate the upgrade — your vendors will be energized as well, and far more likely to treat you as a valued partner than a counterparty.

Intrinsically, banking exists to solve problems, but to solve problems, we must make decisions. Decision-making is a core competency of good banking. The bankers who are winning — and, candidly, having a lot more fun these days — approach their tech decision process with the same care and weight as their credit decision process. They no longer make tech decisions on a banking timetable; instead, they are creating time by moving faster.

Building Optimism in Times of Uncertainty

It is no secret that the past few years have lacked certainty or stability. It only takes a few seconds of searching the internet, watching the news or looking at social media to be reminded of some aspect of doom and gloom going on in the world. It can be easy for us to get focused on the negative, and it certainly does not help when headlines highlight this angle.

As a manager or leader within your organization, it has become increasingly important to home in on your abilities to find and bring optimism to your culture and team. Optimism is hopefulness and confidence about the future or the successful outcome of something.

For some people, this outlook may come more naturally; for many of us, this will take active effort.

“Some people are optimistic by nature, but many of us learn optimism as well. Anyone can learn to be optimistic. The trick is to find purpose in work and life,” says Dr. Leah Weiss, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business who specializing in mindfulness in the workplace and was quoted in an NBC News article about optimism.

With the New Year upon us, here are seven steps that bank executives and directors can take to proactively move to a more-optimistic orientation in 2022.

  1. Reflect on 2021 and write down some things that you are grateful for. Try not to let your immediate thoughts or mood of the day drive your reflections.
  2. Evaluate who you spend your time with. Plan to spend more time around people that you consider positive.
  3. Communicate goals and what success looks like for your organization this year.
  4. Create a plan to celebrate the small wins that you will encounter in the year ahead. It will be easier to celebrate personally and with your team if you have a tentative plan ahead of time.
  5. Take time to acknowledge small things you appreciate about your employees and coworkers. If you are in a remote environment this may just be a quick text, team’s message or email.
  6. Everyone had their own version of 2021, and giving them an opportunity and outlet to express their experience and decompress could create more space for being optimistic about the future.
  7. Watch less news and read fewer headlines.

We may not know what this next year will bring exactly but certainly there will be a mix of good and bad to come. “Positive thinking does not mean that you ignore life’s stressors. You just approach hardship in a more productive way,” says Kimberly Hershenson, a licensed master social worker, in the same article.

With some small steps of proactiveness, hopefully we can help shift our own mindset and those around us to identify, appreciate and rally around the positive. If we can do this, we can inspire more unity and alignment within our organizations, drive more loyalty from our teams and in turn produce more positive results for our organizations.

How Lead Independent Directors Drive Effective Boards

Want to make your board more effective? Look for a lead independent director with the fortitude and skillset to constructively navigate the relationship with bank management.

While the role is still evolving, bankers have identified some attributes of successful, effective and productive lead directors. These include undisputable independence, forthrightness and an ability to facilitate productive conversations, both in and outside the board room.

As the board’s representative with management, undisputable independence is crucial to a lead director’s ability to be an effective counterweight. It can empower the lead director to act as a conduit of constructive conversations for management and have direct, and sometimes uncomfortable, conversations on behalf of fellow board members.

When speaking with management, lead directors should include an accurate and timely summary of what is discussed in any executive sessions. These sessions allow directors to express concerns and articulate expectations for management in a transparent manner — something they may not be comfortable discussing directly with the CEO. An effective lead independent director can transform these discussions into palatable and productive feedback for executives.

During board meetings, directors — not management — should guide the conversation and focus on key issues. Lead directors can help facilitate consensus and alignment between the board and management, enabling both groups to have candid conversations and ultimately share the same strategic focus.

Building consensus also includes working to making board meetings more effective. A concise, timely meeting agenda representing key board matters can lead to strategic discussions and allow directors to thoughtfully prepare for a productive meeting. Start by surveying fellow directors about matters of importance and sharing discussion points and summaries with management. This can give the board time and space to focus on critical matters during a meeting and help avoid rushing through important topics.

A board of directors is filled with a variety of personalities, so a lead independent director’s demeanor and communication style can impact its success. Effective lead independent directors must be comfortable addressing awkward or sensitive topics and have the ability to lead discussions without becoming a dominant presence in the board room. Facilitating and eliciting perspectives from other directors can coalesce key information, so all the directors feel they have been heard and management understands what is expected of them.

The specificities of the role — and the tasks the lead independent director governs — caution against frequent rotation of this role, which could be viewed as lack of strength on the board, ineffective leadership, or even a lack of commitment to governance. Rotating this role too frequently could also lead to a reduction in the board’s overall productivity.

Assess current and potential board members for candidates who could effectively serve as lead independent director, and weigh the possibility of bringing in a new board member to provide the necessary skills.

For more information on the role of lead independent director, contact Susan Sabo at susan.sabo@CLAconnect.com or 704-816-8452 or Todd Sprang at todd.sprang@CLAconnect.com or 630-954-8175.

The information contained herein is general in nature and is not intended, and should not be construed, as legal, accounting, investment, or tax advice or opinion provided by CliftonLarsonAllen LLP (CliftonLarsonAllen) to the reader. For more information, visit CLAconnect.com.

CLA exists to create opportunities for our clients, our people, and our communities through our industry-focused wealth advisory, outsourcing, audit, tax, and consulting services. Investment advisory services are offered through CliftonLarsonAllen Wealth Advisors, LLC, an SEC-registered investment advisor.

Top 25 Bank Boards for Women

In early December, Nasdaq filed a proposal with the Securities and Exchange Commission that would require its listed companies to disclose diversity statistics about their board’s composition. Boards must include at least one female and, at minimum, one minority or LGBTQ board member. While the exchange recently made some changes to the proposal - to address the concerns of small boards with five or fewer members, for instance — there’s no denying that pressure has been mounting when it comes to improving diversity on corporate boards.

Just look at 2020 alone: Institutional Shareholder Services reiterated that it would vote against the nominating chair of Russell 3000 and S&P 1500 companies that lack female representation. Goldman Sachs Group announced that it will only take companies public if they have at least one diverse board member. And California and Washington both had gender diversity requirements in place for companies headquartered there.

“Diversity of thought forces [boards] to look at solutions in a different way, to look at problems in a different way,” says Kara Baldwin, a partner at Crowe LLP. “It’s simply good business to make sure you have those differing viewpoints.”

But corporate boards often do the bare minimum when it comes to adding women: An analysis of Russell 3000 boards by 50/50 Women on Boards finds that only 5% are gender-balanced, meaning women hold roughly half of board seats.

In a new analysis using its proprietary database of the nation’s 5,000 public, private and mutual bank boards, Bank Director identified the 25 bank boards with the highest representation of women. We focused on banks above $300 million in assets, given the lack of data on very small, private institutions. Only 11 of the banks we examined would meet the goal set by 50/50 Women on Boards.

Women, it should be noted, comprise 51% of the population and 58% of the workforce, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Both big and small banks, public and private, topped our list, showing that diversity is not exclusively a big bank issue. Webster Financial Corp. of Waterbury, Connecticut, with $32.6 billion in assets, and The Falls City National Bank, with $456 million in assets out of Falls City, Texas, top our list. Both boast boards with a membership that’s 56% female — well above the normal balance typically found on corporate boards. Rounding out the list are $1.9 billion First Bank of Highland Park, in Highland Park, Illinois, and Principal Financial Group, the holding company for $4.5 billion asset Principal Bank in Des Moines, Iowa. Both 12-person boards include five women, comprising 42% of membership. Last year, 50/50 Women on Boards found that women held 23% of board seats at Russell 3000 companies.

About six years ago, First United Corp., which has $1.7 billion in assets, started to intentionally focus on its composition, both in terms of skills and backgrounds. “We want to be more relevant to our customers and to our communities, for our shareholders, looking at that whole stakeholder group [including] employees,” says Carissa Rodeheaver, the Oakland, Maryland-based bank’s chair and chief executive. That includes representing diverse backgrounds, in terms of gender, race and ethnicity, and age.

This year, First United will begin using a skills matrix — a practice that helps boards map their directors’ expertise and backgrounds to identify gaps. A diversity and inclusion policy, put in place by the nominating and governance committee, will ensure the board considers a diverse slate of director candidates. “The pool has to be diverse, and that will continue to naturally lend itself to keeping that diversity of thought on the board,” says Rodeheaver. “It’s a great formula that leads to a well-rounded board.”

First United brought on three new directors in the past year — all women, it turns out, who are skilled in regulatory compliance, finance and project management, says Rodeheaver.

Lisa Oliver, the chair and CEO at The Cooperative Bank of Cape Cod, a $1.2 billion mutual bank headquartered in Hyannis, Massachusetts, places a high value on the “lived experiences” often uncovered when building diverse boards.

While the traditional executives and professionals often found on corporate boards — current and former CEOs, accountants, regulators and attorneys — still provide valuable insights, banks “have to think about the new needs of banking, and how that aligns with a whole different genre of people and the pipeline we need to cultivate,” says Oliver. For example, boards often seek technology and cybersecurity expertise; these skills aren’t often found at the top of an organization. Or a board might look for someone who can represent an industry that’s important to their bank, like healthcare.

C-suites are still predominantly male and predominantly white: Looking further down an organization chart might serve up an experienced candidate who also brings a diverse perspective to the table.

“You have to work harder; you have to expand that group of who you know,” says Baldwin. “You must be intentional — that’s really important.”

Oliver also wants to attract and retain younger directors to the board at “The Coop,” as the bank is called locally, but has struggled to retain young women as board members and corporators during the pandemic. (Corporators elect board members, but the position can also serve as a training ground of sorts for board candidates.)

“The pandemic has created great stress for young people to [serve] on the board,” says Oliver. One director, a business owner and single mother with a child at home, had to resign, she says. Oliver believes boards should consider how they can structure meetings to make the role more manageable for younger board members who are building their careers and businesses. “Not death by committee meeting, but what are the critical four committees we need to have?” she says. “There’s an art and a science to creating the agenda within that and providing the data to analyze risk, make it manageable.” A 400-page board packet can be difficult to fit into anyone’s schedule, much less that of a Gen X or millennial professional balancing family and career.

Oliver wonders if today’s more remote environment — with boards meeting virtually — could help them attract candidates from nearby Boston — a technology hub boasting a highly educated workforce.

Boards should consider looking outside their local community to find diverse, qualified board members, says Baldwin. Nearby cities, as Oliver posits, could be a valuable well of talent.

Both First United and The Coop are putting practices in place to help make room for new views: First United will declassify its board this year, and Oliver says her bank is putting term limits in place.

And both CEOs tell me that building the board their bank needs is a continuous process. “We need to constantly be looking and identifying individuals that make sense [for our board] and backfill that pipeline,” says Rodeheaver.

“We have to reflect the community around us, or else we’re not able to hit on some of the challenges that we face,” Oliver adds. “It takes effort, and it takes time, and it has to be a constant process.”

Top 25 Bank Boards For Women

Bank Name (Ticker) State Total # Directors % Women on the Board
Webster Financial Corp. (WBS) CT 9 56%
The Falls City National Bank TX 9 56%
Lead Financial Group MO 9 55%
First United Corp. (FUNC) MD 12 50%
The Cooperative Bank of Cape Cod MA 14 50%
First National Bank Alaska (FBAK) AK 8 50%
Boston Private Financial Holdings (BPFH) MA 8 50%
New Triplo Bancorp PA 6 50%
Andrew Johnson Bancshares TN 8 50%
Johnson Financial Group WI 10 50%
Minnwest Corp. MN 16 50%
GSB, MHC MA 15 47%
Cambridge Bancorp (CATC) MA 17 47%
First Capital (FCAP) IN 13 46%
Mascoma Bank VT 13 46%
Ledyard Financial Group (LFGP) VT 11 45%
First Seacoast Bancorp (FSEA) NH 9 44%
Orbisonia Community Bancorp PA 7 43%
Stearns Financial Services MN 7 43%
Lockhart Bankshares TX 7 43%
National Cooperative Bank OH 14 43%
MidFirst Bank OK 7 43%
Olympia Federal Savings and Loan Assn. WA 7 43%
Principal Financial Group (PFG) IA 12 42%
First Bank of Highland Park* IL 12 42%

Source: Bank Director internal data, plus bank websites and public filings, as of February 2020. Banks under $300 million in assets weren’t examined given the scarcity of data about these institutions.
*First Bank of Highland Park was left off this ranking when it first published. Bank Director regrets the omission.

What is Your Bank Measuring?

Recent comments around diversity from Wells Fargo & Co.’s CEO brought renewed attention and focus on a problem that continues to plague corporations, including banks.

In a video call with staff over the summer, Charles Scharf pointed to a “limited pool of Black talent” as the reason why the bank missed its diversity and inclusion (D&I) targets. 

Scharf has since walked back those comments. “There are many talented diverse individuals working at Wells Fargo and throughout the financial services industry, and I never meant to imply otherwise,” he told employees. “I’ve worked in the financial services industry for many years, and it’s clear to me that, across the industry, we have not done enough to improve diversity, especially at senior leadership levels.” 

Wells Fargo, it should be noted, has established clear D&I goals. It expands on these in a recent press release: Diverse candidates must be considered for key roles, and the bank plans to integrate D&I into business plans and reviews. An anti-racism training course is under development. And the achievement of D&I goals will directly impact executive compensation decisions.

Most banks lack that level of commitment: 42% don’t have a formal D&I program, according to Bank Director’s 2020 Compensation Survey.

Rockland, Massachusetts-based Independent Bank Corp. details its “Inclusion Journey” for 2020 through a nine-page document that’s posted on its website. For the $13 billion holding company, which operates Rockland Trust Co., this includes conducting an assessment to identify strengths and weaknesses throughout the organization, and establishing a D&I council co-chaired by senior vice president and Director of Human Resources Maria Harris.  

“We have a responsibility to create an environment where respect, understanding and innovation are at our core,” says Harris. “Every colleague is critical to our growth as a company, and we are committed to a culture of teamwork, inclusion and employee engagement.”

Resource groups build awareness and address the needs of female and LGBTQ employees. In response to current events, the bank has offered webinars on self-care during the Covid-19 pandemic and conducting open discussions on racism. “These have been very beneficial for folks to better understand systemic racism and how to become an ally,” explains Harris. All new employees receive D&I training, which focuses on unconscious bias and related behaviors. 

Just 22% of survey respondents say their bank tracks participation in D&I focused training; even fewer — 10% — measure employee resource group participation and formation.  

Rockland Trust tracks applicants, hires, transfers, promotions and terminations, says Harris. It also measures employee tenure, participation in professional development programs and conducts exit interviews. All of this data informs the bank’s D&I goals. 

“Our current initiative to advance front-line professionals of color was created to address findings from our data, which demonstrated that although minorities were participating in our internal career pathing program, they were not advancing at the same rate,” she explains. “We wanted to proactively change that within our organization.”

For many companies, focusing on D&I helps strengthen the culture, while attracting talented employees who will ensure its success. 

That requires leadership.

 “Trying to lead an organization without taking measurements is like trying to coach a football game without yard markers,” wrote Ritz-Carlton founder Horst Schulze in his book “Excellence Wins: A No-Nonsense Guide to Becoming the Best in a World of Compromise.” 

Bank Director’s 2020 Governance Best Practices Survey reveals that too many directors — 48% — don’t fully buy into the idea that diversity on the board has a positive effect on corporate performance. Connecting the dots, one can assume that they don’t place a lot of value on building an effective D&I program within their bank, either.

Conversing with Chief Cultural Officers

Bankers talk about the importance of culture all the time, and a few have created a specific executive-level position to oversee it.

Chief culture officer is an unusual title, even in an industry that promotes culture as essential to performance and customer service. The title was included in a 2016 Bank Director piece by Susan O’Donnell, a partner with Meridian Compensation Partners, as an emerging new title, citing the fact that personnel remain a critical asset for banks.

“As more millennials enter the workforce, traditional banking environments may need to change,” she wrote. “Talent development, succession planning and even culture will be differentiators and expand the traditional role of human resources.”

Yet a recent unscientific internet search of banks with chief culture officers yielded less than a dozen executives who carry the title, concentrated mostly at community banks.

One bank with a chief culture officer is Adams Community Bank, which has $618 million in assets and is based in Adams, Massachusetts. Head of Retail Amy Giroux was awarded the title because of her work in shifting the retail branches and staff from transaction-based to relationship-oriented banking, which began in 2005. Before the shift, each branch tended to operate as its own bank, with the manager overseeing the workplace environment and culture. That contributed to stagnation in financial performance and growth.

“We decided that we wanted to grow but to do that, we really needed to invest in our workplace culture,” she says. “When you think of a bank’s assets and liabilities, which represents net worth and capital, cultural capital becomes equally important.”

The bank’s reinvention was led by senior leadership and leveraged a training program from transformation consultancy The Emmerich Group to retrain and reorient employees. The program incorporated Adams’ vision and core values, as well as accountability through measurable metrics. Branch staff moved away from acting as “order-takers” for customers and are now trained to build and foster relationships.

“It’s worked for us,” says CEO Charles O’Brien. “We’re the go-to community bank for our customers, and they rave about how different we are. We’ve grown significantly over the last five years.”

As CCO, Giroux works closely with the bank’s human relations team on fulfilling the bank’s strategic initiatives, aligning operations with its vision and goals, creating a framework of visibility and deliverability for goals and holding employees accountable for performance. She reports to O’Brien, but says her efforts are supported by the whole executive team.

“A lot of times, people think that culture is invisible. They’ll sometimes say, ‘Well, how do I do these things on top of my job?’” she says. “Culture isn’t something you’re doing on top of your job. It’s how you do your job.”

At Fargo, North Dakota-based Bell Bank, the chief culture position is held by Julie Peterson Klein and is nestled within the human resources group, where about 20 employees are split between HR and culture. She says she has a “people first, workload second” orientation and has focused on culture within HR throughout her career; like Giroux, the title came as recognition for work she was already doing.

She says her job is really about empowering employees at the State Bankshares’ unit to see themselves as chief culture officers. Bell’s culture team supports employees by engaging the $5.7 billion bank’s 200 leaders in engagement and training, and works with HR to handle onboarding, transfers, promotion and exits. The group also leads events celebrating employees or giving back to the community, using storytelling as a way to keep the bank’s culture in front of employees.

“We focus on creating culture first, and we hire for that on the HR side,” she says.

Culture is important for any organization, but Giroux sees special significance for banks because of the large role they play in customers’ financial wellness. Focusing on culture has helped demonstrate Adams’ commitment of giving customers “extraordinary service.”

“Prior to having the collaboration and the infrastructure for culture, everybody kind of did their own thing,” Giroux says. “This really solidifies the vision and the mission. And it really is, I believe, the glue that holds us together.”

Why Some Banks Purposefully Shun the Spotlight


strategy-8-9-19.pngFor as many banks that would love to be acquired, even more prefer to remain independent. Some within the second group have even taken steps to reduce their allure as acquisition targets.

I was reminded of this recently when I met with an executive at a mid-sized privately held community bank. We talked for a couple hours and then had lunch.

Ordinarily, I would go home after a conversation like that and write about the bank. In fact, that’s the expectation of most bank executives: If they’re going to give someone like me so much of their time, they expect something in return.

Most bank executives would welcome this type of attention as free advertising. It’s also a way to showcase a bank’s accomplishments to peers throughout the industry.

In this particular case, there was a lot to highlight. This is a well-run bank with talented executives, a unique culture, a growing balance sheet and a history of sound risk management.

But the executive specifically asked me not to write anything that could be used to identify the bank. The CEO and board believe that media attention — even if it’s laudatory — would serve as an invitation for unwanted offers to acquire the bank.

This bank in particular has a loan-to-deposit ratio that’s well below the average for its peer group. An acquiring bank could see that as a gold mine of liquidity that could be more profitably employed.

Because the board of this bank has no interest in selling, it also has no interest in fielding sufficiently lucrative offers that would make it hard for them to say “no.” This is why they avoid any unnecessary media exposure — thus the vague description.

This has come up for me on more than one occasion in the past few months. In each case, the bank executives aren’t worried about negative attention; it’s positive attention that worries them most.

The concern seems to stem from deeper, philosophical thoughts on banking.

In the case of the bank I recently visited, its executives and directors prioritize the bank’s customers over the other constituencies it serves. After that comes the bank’s communities, employees and regulators. Its shareholders, the biggest of which sit on the board, come last.

This is reflected in the bank’s loan-to-deposit ratio. If the bank focused on maximizing profits, it would lend out a larger share of deposits. But it wants to have liquidity when its customers and communities need it most – in times when credit is scarce.

Reading between the lines reveals an interesting way to gauge how a bank prioritizes between its customers and shareholders. One prioritization isn’t necessarily better than the other, as both constituencies must be appeased, but it’s indicative of an executive team’s philosophical approach to banking.

There are, of course, other ways to fend off unwanted acquisition attempts.

One is to run a highly efficient operation. That’s what Washington Federal does, as I wrote about in the latest issue of Bank Director magazine. In the two decades leading up to the financial crisis, it spent less than 20% of its revenue on expenses.

This may seem like it would make Washington Federal an attractive partner, given that efficiency tends to translate into profitability. From the perspective of a savvy acquirer, however, it means there are fewer cost saves that can be taken out to earn back any dilution.

Another way is to simply maintain a high concentration of ownership within the hands of a few shareholders. If a bank is closely held, the only way for it to sell is if its leading shareholders agree to do so. Widely dispersed ownership, on the other hand, can invite activists and proxy battles, bringing pressure to bear on the bank’s board of directors.

Other strategies are contractual in nature. “Poison pills” were in vogue during the hostile takeover frenzy of the 1980s. Change-of-control agreements for executives are another common approach. But neither of these are particularly savory ways to defend against unwanted acquisition offers. They’re a last line of defense; a shortcut in the face of a fait accompli.

Consequently, keeping a low media profile is one way that some top-performing banks choose to fend unwanted acquisition offers off at the proverbial pass.

While being acquired is certainly an attractive exit strategy for many banks, it isn’t for everyone. And for those banks that have earned their independence, there are things they can do to help sustain it.

Exclusive: How KeyCorp Keeps Diversity & Inclusion in Focus

Banks large and small are focusing more sharply on diversity and inclusion as a way to attract and retain the best talent, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation.

One bank demonstrating a robust D&I program is $141.5 billion asset KeyCorp, headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio. It’s perhaps no coincidence that it’s the largest bank led by a woman: CEO Beth Mooney, who took the reins at the superregional bank in 2011 to become the first female CEO of a major U.S. financial institution.

Heading KeyCorp’s D&I efforts since 2018 is Kim Manigault, who joined Key in 2012. She previously served as the chief financial officer in the bank’s technology and operations groups; before that, she spent 12 years at Bank of America Corp. in similar roles.

“I’ve had lots of different opportunities at different organizations, but I’ll say in coming to Key, what I realized here is a really firm and demonstrated commitment to creating opportunities for women as well [as men] in our senior ranks,” Manigault told Bank Director Vice President of Research Emily McCormick, who interviewed her as part of the cover story for the 2nd quarter 2019 issue of Bank Director magazine. (You can read the story, “A Woman’s Place is in the C-Suite,” by clicking here.)

A strong D&I strategy isn’t solely the domain of big banks. In this transcript—available exclusively to members of our Bank Services program—Manigault delves into KeyCorp’s intentional and deliberate focus on diversity and inclusion, and shares the tactics that work within the organization.

She also discusses:

  • Components of KeyCorp’s D&I program
  • Measuring Success
  • Creating a Culture of Inclusion

The interview has been edited for brevity, clarity and flow.

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 Download transcript for the full exclusive interview

A Woman’s Place is in the C-Suite

As a young girl in Arkansas, Natalie Bartholomew always knew she wanted to be a banker. She collected credit card applications at department stores and deposit tickets from her grandfather, a banker, so she could “play bank” at home. She joined a junior bank board in high school and was employed as a teller by her senior year.

Today, Bartholomew is the chief administrative officer at Grand Savings Bank, a $455 million asset community bank based in Grove, Oklahoma. But as she was promoted through the ranks at a succession of Arkansas-based community banks, and began attending industry networking groups and conventions, she noticed something. “It was just a boys’ club,” she says. This isn’t an anecdote from banking’s yesteryears: Bartholomew is in her 30s. “Oh my gosh: This is the industry I’m in,” she thought at the time. “There are no other young females, and no wonder they don’t want to be here, because this is the road you have to go down, this is the hill to climb … these guys have ruled the roost for so long, then why would a young woman want to even attempt to conquer this industry?”

Women are ready, willing and able to lead in today’s C-suites and boardrooms: Forty-five percent of working women aspire to hold an executive role, according to Gallup’s research on women and the workplace. Yet, corporate America remains dominated by men. Fewer than 5 percent of S&P 500 companies are led by a female chief executive officer, including two financial services companies—Beth Mooney of KeyCorp and Margaret Keane of Synchrony Financial. Women hold just 21 percent of senior leadership roles, according to Catalyst, a nonprofit focused on promoting gender inclusion. In fact, the nonprofit claims there are fewer female leaders in the U.S. than there are men named John.

Too frequently, executives and boards assume women aren’t willing to work as hard or put in the long hours that can be required to advance through the ranks. That’s a misconception, says Teresa Tschida, a senior practice expert at Gallup. “Our research would say that, for women [who] want to move up to those senior roles, they are just as willing to work long hours.”

A gender-diverse leadership team can also strengthen strategic decisions. While individual strengths vary widely, women are generally better at relationship building, according to Gallup’s research, along with structure, routine and planning. “They do work smarter—they’re more efficient,” says Tschida.

A study examining the effect of gender diversity on profitability, published in 2016 by the Peterson Institute for International Economics, found “the correlation between women at the C-suite level and firm profitability is demonstrated repeatedly.” And the proportion of female executives and female board members is instrumental, which “underscores the importance of creating a pipeline of female managers and not getting lone women to the top.”

“Diverse teams bring different life experiences and different perspectives and function better,” says Deborah Streeter, a Cornell University professor who leads the Bank of America Institute for Women’s Entrepreneurship. Unfortunately, most companies have a “leaky pipeline” when it comes to female talent. “The pool of women, by the time you get to the C-suite level, is too small,” she says.

The gender-diverse executive team at $1.3 billion asset First United Corp., based in Oakland, Maryland, generates a positive reaction among its employees and community. Four executives on the seven-member senior management team are women, including the chief executive and chief financial officer. People “will comment to me how inspiring it is for them to see that the company provides opportunity equally,” says CEO Carissa Rodeheaver. “It’s really representative of the fact that you can do whatever you set your mind to, and it doesn’t matter what your gender is in moving through a company. It’s all about your ambition, it’s all about your skill sets, it’s all about your desire, it’s all about your passion to continue to move forward, whether you’re a man or a woman. We will recognize that—we’ll foster that, and we’ll help you to grow.”

In most cases, a leaky talent pipeline isn’t the result of outright discrimination, but rather relying on outdated approaches to leadership development and corporate culture.

Building diversity on leadership teams—in the C-suite and on the board—doesn’t happen by accident. It’s the result of intentional practices and strategies that reward women as well as men, and programs that help banks better identify and promote their best employees—regardless of gender.

“We’re not specifically aiming to have more women in our workplace. We’re aiming to be inclusive and have top talent, and we recognize that that talent comes in all shapes and sizes,” says Kim Manigault, the chief diversity and inclusion officer at Cleveland, Ohio-based KeyCorp, with $140 billion in assets. “That doesn’t happen by accident. That happens when you have a very direct and deliberate and committed focus on diversity and inclusion across all the programs and policies within your organization.”

Diversity can’t be achieved overnight. “It’s a long-term process of cultivating candidates inside the company,” says John Daniel, chief human resources officer at $41 billion asset First Horizon National Corp., based in Memphis, Tennessee.
A number of banks, including First Horizon and KeyCorp, have leadership development programs in place. “Women who get development—of any kind—actually show a greater confidence than the men who go through the same program in their ability to apply their skills, because they felt supported, and they got that development, and they worked on leadership skills,” says Stephanie Neal, a senior research consultant at the talent management firm Development Dimensions International, based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Focusing on developing female leaders is paying off at Fifth Third Bancorp, says Chief Administrative Officer Teresa Tanner. Female employees at the $146 billion asset Cincinnati, Ohio-based bank were working hard but staying under the radar. So, the bank created a program—tailored to women—to address development gaps. “We really felt that doing a gender-specific program that could really talk about those skills that women need at an executive level, creating a safe space with other women to stretch and grow, would be a great investment,” she says. One-third of the program’s graduates have already received promotions or taken on new responsibilities. “It has far exceeded my expectations,” she says.

Personalized development plans can enhance development, especially for female employees. “It helps [leaders] to target where they put their energy and then, of course, they see greater results,” says Neal. Women, in general, tend to have specific development needs, including “building confidence, knowing how to build stronger networks, and knowing how to create greater influence in an organization, especially when the status quo works against them,” she says.

Fifth Third’s program works on building soft skills that may not be as readily developed among female talent—confidence in promoting oneself, for example, and learning how to network. “Things that we haven’t historically been so overt about teaching women how to do, and I’ve seen it pay off,” says Tanner.

Personalized development appeals to men and women—particularly to millennials. “We find this desire for the culture of coaching, and about growth and development, is coming from some of the younger generation in the workplace today,” says Tschida.

Individual development plans play a key role in developing executives at First United. “Every person in the company has an individual development plan, and it talks about areas where they feel that they are strong and want to continue to grow in, or areas where they have an opportunity to improve,” says Rodeheaver. The bank introduced a “skip-a-level” approach this year that has Rodeheaver reviewing all development plans for employees who report to her direct reports, so she can better understand where coaching is needed, which she sees as vital to succession planning.

“Succession doesn’t just happen at the executive level—it really needs to happen throughout the company,” Rodeheaver says. “This gives me the opportunity to look one layer below my direct staff to see, who do we need to continue to develop for succession in the future.”

Women are less likely to receive feedback on their performance, according to a study conducted in 2016 by McKinsey and LeanIn.org—underscoring the important role mentorship programs can play in developing female leaders.

Rodeheaver says she benefited personally when former CEO Bill Grant took her under his wing. “He opened doors for me, he introduced me to people in the industry,” she says. “If you look at our organization, we have a lot of women in leadership positions, so he was an excellent mentor for all of us and, I think, he really was a champion for women in the bank, not because he set women apart—because he didn’t set women apart.”

Unfortunately, women often don’t receive the same mentorship opportunities as men. There are a few reasons for this. First, few banks have a formal mentorship program in place. Just 15 percent of executives and directors said their bank offered a mentorship program in Bank Director’s 2018 Compensation Survey. Men hold the majority of executive positions, so informal programs tend to exclude women.

It can be difficult to naturally develop cross-gender relationships, so formalizing the process helps level the playing field between men and women to ensure the bank is developing the best employees, regardless of gender. “Leaving things to be more chance, more informal really puts those powerful mentorships for women at risk,” says Neal.

At KeyCorp, 450 employees participated in mentoring last year, says Manigault. Seventy percent of those mentor/mentee matches included a woman. “We had a significant component of those groups that were multicultural as well, meaning you can get guidance, coaching, development from somebody who doesn’t look like you, or who isn’t in the line of business you’re in or who hasn’t had the experiences you’ve had. It’s all about where you are going to get the guidance, coaching and development that’s the best for you.”

Employee resource groups, deployed at organizations like KeyCorp and First Horizon, also play an important role. “We have a population of women in our organization [who] want to come together, rise and grow through the ranks together, from junior level to executive level,” says Manigault.

Managers are particularly hesitant to provide constructive feedback to their female reports. Streeter refers to this lack of feedback as “ruinous empathy,” and despite the best intentions on the part of managers, it does more harm than good.

“Nobody can grow without feedback,” she says. Ruinous empathy cheats employees—particularly women—out of opportunities to improve and grow.

And rather than indirectly punishing talented female employees by declining to mentor them, male executives who feel nervous about interacting with women in the #MeToo era should rethink their approach. “Male leaders now say, ‘Look, I am worried, I don’t want to take a young woman to lunch at a restaurant, because I’m worried that I’ll be a target,’” she says. “If that’s true, don’t take either men or women for lunch at a restaurant, use a different method for interacting with them.” 
Reconsider other practices too, like networking on the golf course. That could be another practice that more frequently rewards men over women.

“Provide a safe structure, so people can become sponsors—it’s one of the major things that women lack in many environments is access to mentors and sponsors,” says Streeter. And executives should be responsible for developing potential successors. “Mentoring and sponsoring both women and men has to be part of the way that leaders are also evaluated by the board.”

Bartholomew found herself looking outside for mentors, and building that support system led her to create her blog, “The Girl Banker.” Women in banking are hungry for these connections—and they want advice, she says. “There [are] always a lot of questions about additional education and resources to help further them in their career,” says Bartholomew. Work/life balance is also a hot topic, and one of her most popular blog posts discusses so-called mom guilt. “Working moms, they love their children, they love their family, and they love their career, and they don’t want to be held back by either one,” she says.

Motherhood plays a big role in delaying or even derailing women’s careers, but banks can provide perks that benefit both men and women in the company, including expanded paternity/maternity leave benefits and flexible schedules.

At First United, flexibility can be as simple as giving employees—no matter their family situation—time to spend on what matters to them, whether that’s attending PTA meetings or coaching their child’s soccer team—or something else entirely, says Rodeheaver. That can mean working some hours from home as well, if the position permits it. “I don’t mind where you work, as long as the work’s getting done,” she says. “It’s very common for me to have my staff send me an email and say, ‘One of the kids is sick, I’m going to be working from home today.’ And it’s having that trust that they’re going to be able to pull that off.”

Some banks are rethinking the benefits they offer employees so they can better retain women or attract them back into the workforce. The “Career Comeback” program at the Swiss financial services company UBS Group offers permanent positions to men and women worldwide who want to reenter the workforce, along with the education and mentorship they need to make the transition.

Fifth Third has focused its efforts on retaining women through its maternity concierge program. “We were seeing women at mid-career leave the workforce at a much higher rate—it was almost double the turnover rate of a typical employee,” says Tanner. Employees who wanted to stay on to build their careers struggled to balance the demands of work and family. The solution? “We basically give someone their own personal assistant,” she says, to run errands, from getting groceries to planning a baby shower to helping buy a car seat. “They give them that extra set of hands that they need so that they can worry about work and continue in their career, but let somebody help them through this huge transitionary change in their life.” It’s had an impact on Fifth Third’s ability to retain these employees: Women who used the program were 25 percent more likely to stay on the job.

Women have access to the maternity concierge program until their child’s first birthday. After that, they can use the bank’s general concierge program, a similar perk offered to both men and women.

Access to expanded maternity perks and flexible scheduling can have a big impact on employees, but companies should also ensure they’ve removed any cultural stigmas around using these benefits, advises Cathleen Clerkin, a senior research faculty member at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership. If applicable, ensure that men and women are using the benefit equitably. For example, she says that women say flexibility is important to them, but research suggests men are more likely to receive this benefit. “Women might not want to ask what the options are, for fear of backlash,” she says.

Setting transparent policies around flexible scheduling and similar benefits can help combat this concern. “When there is fuzziness, that’s where you see implicit bias sneak in,” says Clerkin.

Implicit or unconscious bias—the unconscious stereotypes held by the average person—are perhaps the trickiest issue to tackle when creating an inclusive culture that rewards and advances all, rather than some, employees.

We all hold some form of unconscious bias. Most of us just don’t know it.

“For the most part, people really mean well, and they really want to support women,” says Clerkin. But leaders often make assumptions that don’t align with a talented female employee’s actual goals. It’s a pattern of behavior called protective hesitation, and results in fewer opportunities for women to grow as leaders. They may be passed up for a challenging assignment, for example, or a promotion that requires the employee to relocate. “There’s this protective hesitation around trying to do the right thing, [which] can actually prevent women from getting through the pipeline,” says Clerkin.

She recommends a simple solution. “It sounds so simple, but just asking women, ‘What do you want, how can I advocate for you, what kind of feedback do you need, what kind of positions do you want,’ instead of trying to guess what the best decisions are, I think is something that would really make a difference.”

At Fifth Third, the management committee—comprised of the bank’s top 100 leaders—recently spent two hours with a neuroleadership expert to learn more about bias and diversity. “We have to model it from the top, and we have to continue to educate and challenge the way we think about this,” says Tanner.

Streeter recommends a saying to weigh your own unconscious bias: “Detect, inspect, reject.” Detecting the bias requires being aware of the problem. From there, leaders should inspect whether a decision—who should be promoted to fill a key role, for example—is based on facts or influenced by bias. Based on that, the leader can then accept or reject a decision. 
First Horizon counteracts bias by conducting multiple panel interviews to determine who will be accepted into its leadership development program or fill senior roles. “Bias operates on individual decision making,” says Daniel. “If you’re working in a group, and you have what I would call real factors—competencies that are used as an assessment tool—the group selection process counteracts and helps offset a lot of the bias.”

Relying on personal networks tends to reward the male-dominated status quo, so a diverse slate of candidates must be considered before filling key positions. “Our search guys [are] told, ‘You will present us a diverse slate, and we will pick the best candidate,’” he says. “It’s not an accident that the last two hires that we made were both female.”

Transparency and measurement are crucial elements in a bank’s battle against unconscious bias. Relying on relationship-building over quantitative measures will ensure that a bank maintains the status quo—a primarily white, male C-suite with a couple of token diversity hires sprinkled in.

KeyCorp shares the progress it’s making on its diversity goals to anyone who visits its website. “We are very frank about our numbers,” even when those numbers make some uncomfortable, says Manigault. Monitoring and measuring helps KeyCorp understand what’s working and what’s not, and meet the diverse talent needs of business line leaders.

“Any time you can track who’s applying for positions and who’s getting them, what kind [and] how much resources people are getting—any time you can track metrics, it helps us find out where our blind spots are,” says Clerkin.

Are women advancing and developing at similar rates to men? Is there a wage gap between genders? These are the types of metrics companies can monitor, in addition to the composition of the leadership team and board, says Streeter. And set specific goals—just like you would for a line of business. “Nothing will happen if you don’t set a goal that is measurable, and then track it and work your way toward it,” she says.

And when performances are evaluated based on quantitative measures, rather than gut instinct or personal relationships, women fare better. And focus on the quality of the performance, not face time or hours spent in the office, says Tschida. “If you tell [women] what the outcome is, and you allow their more natural inclination to structure and discipline in their own right, they can be efficient, and they can hit that outcome in different ways,” she says. “Men would like that, too.”

Focusing on the employee’s outcome, rather than gut instinct, means the organization is advancing its best talent. That’s better for the bank.

Women tend to get stuck in organizations just below the C-suite. KeyCorp’s total workforce was 60 percent female in December 2017, compared to 27 percent for its executive and senior officers, and 31 percent for its board. At the end of 2016, FifthThird’s workforce looked roughly the same, with 61 percent women overall compared to 31 percent of its board, and 23 percent of its executive and senior team. At the end of 2018, First Horizon reported that 30 percent of its executive management committee was female, compared to 60 percent overall. And this is among banks that are actively working to create a more diverse workforce, rather than being content with the status quo.

All things equal, Streeter recommends hiring the diverse candidate. “When candidates are really quite equal, people will use some gut instinct—they will say something like, ‘She’s just not as good a fit as he is,’” says Streeter. “If all things are equal when you look at the qualifications of people, you’ve got to start opting in favor of diversity, if you lack diversity. That’s not giving women preferential treatment, it’s just saying, our corporation needs to have more diverse leadership, that’s one of our goals and to meet that goal, we have to start looking at environments and opportunities to diversify the leadership.”

That could also mean making the table a little bigger to include women. This enabled First Horizon to add more women to its executive management committee. “The enlargement of the committee was to make sure that we had the opportunity for lots of people to have a seat at the table when corporate decision making and policy making” occurred, says Daniel.

As for the lack of women ready to lead? Fifth Third’s Tanner calls that a cop out. “There are a lot of executive women out in the workforce … Go find them, and bring them to your company, and if they’re deeper in your organization, then develop and bring them up,” she says. “We have to quit with the excuses. If we really want to develop a workforce of tomorrow that is going to lead us into our future generations, we have to fix this, and we can’t do it at the rate we’ve been doing it.”