Why Attracting and Retaining Talent is No Longer Good Enough

Every year, Cornerstone Advisors conducts a survey of community-based financial institution CEOs that asks what their top concerns are. The 2022 survey produced the biggest one-year change we have ever seen. A full 63% of executives identified the ability to attract qualified talent as a key concern, up from just 19% the year before.

No doubt this focus on talent is at least partially the result of the sheer number of new topics requiring industry expertise. Think digital currencies. Embedded finance. BaaS. Buy now pay later. Gen 3 core systems. Artificial intelligence and machine learning. How many of those topics would have been on any FI’s training curriculum two years ago? Yet boards now ask about every one of those topics in terms of the financial institution’s strategy.

However, attracting qualified talent won’t be enough. Every financial institution has knowledge and expertise that can only be developed internally, simply because the knowledge build is so unique to the industry, including:

  • Processes unique to a line of business: There is no school or degree for bank processes, front or back office. And they vary by financial institution.
  • Regulations: The practical application of regulations to specific situations at the institution requires deep “inside” knowledge.
  • Vendors and systems: The vendor stack and roadmaps, and the institution’s databases, make its knowledge requirements unique.

In short, there is no university diploma that can be obtained for many areas of the bank – and, in my opinion, the further you get into the back office, the truer this is.

At Cornerstone Advisors, we’re observing that banks need to focus on “build or buy” of key skills and knowledge for the next generation of leaders and managers. Some thoughts about what we see working:

1. Have a clear list of jobs, skills, and knowledge that will need to be developed versus hired. Everybody will have a different list, of course, but four areas where we consistently see the biggest “build” need are:

    • Payments: While there are certainly people that can come to a bank or credit union with a great deal of understanding about payments, there is the entire back-office component – disputes, fraud, reconciliation, vendor configuration options, et al. – that can be learned only on the job.
    • Commercial credit: An institution’s required credit expertise will depend on its business and niches. For example, knowledge of national environmental lending will be unique from that of import/export letter of credit. Unfortunately, peers and competitors don’t have a deep bench to abscond with.
    • Digital marketing: This is simply too new an area for there to be loads of potential applicants with loads of expertise and experience. Even if execs can find candidates with broad digital marketing experience (they’re out there), they will need to understand the nuances of banking and what will constitute meaningful marketing opportunities in particular client segments.
    • Data analytics: There are a growing number of available people with very strong data skills, but even if hired they will need to come to grips with the complexity of the institution’s data structure.

2. Don’t ignore the importance of the apprenticeship model when building talent. Most leaders at FIs can point to on-the-job training they received early in their careers that has been the basis of their success. The apprenticeship model has worked for centuries and still works well at the modern bank.

3. Balance the in-person need for apprenticeship training with the new realities of remote work demands. In a recent Accenture study, over 60% of employees surveyed felt their productivity had increased due to working at home, and only 13% felt it hadn’t. Whether it is a new hire or re-skilling of an existing employee, the message of “five days in the office” won’t sell. Getting the right amount of face time for development while giving the new generation of stars an appealing work-life balance will be a key challenge for HR groups.

A clear, disciplined, focused plan for development of the next generation of talent is more crucial than ever. There are times when buying talent from elsewhere just won’t be an option due to cost, availability, or the risk of retaining those same people. The good news? Some of the best opportunities might be right in front of you in your existing workforce.

How to Protect Against the Downside, Prepare for the Upside

“If you’re left in a situation where you’re defending, where you’re shrinking your balance sheet, where you’re worried about your capital, where you’re continually cajoling shareholders, or clients to stick with you — you’re not focused on growing.”

Those are wise words from William Demchak, chief executive officer of PNC Financial Services Group. PNC is one of the largest banks in the U.S. and an OakNorth customer.

He said this in an interview with the Financial Times in May 2020 — a couple of months after the country had gone into lockdown under full force of the coronavirus pandemic. At the time, he was discussing PNC’s rationale for selling its stake in asset manager BlackRock, which was prompted in part by increasing concerns about the U.S. economy as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

But fast forward the clock two and a half years, and he could just as easily be speaking about the economic situation in the U.S. today. Increasing economic uncertainty and interest rates at their highest point since 2008, many commercial bankers are focused on protecting their downside risk. As a result, many are likely missing the upside opportunity.

Protecting Against Downside Risk

1. Granular data. Most banks tend to lump their borrowers into one of a dozen or so broad sectors: all restaurants, bars, hotels, golf clubs and spas, for example, will be classified as “hospitality and leisure.” This classification approach misses the fundamental differences between how these businesses operate and how their capital and operational expenditures may be impacted by changes in the economy. In order to quickly identify where the most vulnerable credits lie in their portfolio, banks need to get to much more granular industry view — even going as far down as 6-digit NAICS codes — in their analysis.

2. Forward-looking scenario analysis. Banks need to be able to run multiple macroeconomic scenarios on their loan book using forward-looking scenarios to explore how a borrower would perform at different financial and credit metric level. This gives them the ability to plan ahead for market changes such as rate rises and house price fluctuation by formulating targeted risk mitigation strategies that can reduce defaults and charge-offs and better manage capital requirements.

3. Proactive monitoring. Banks need to be able to identify potential credit issues faster and earlier, so they can take proactive steps to reduce the chances of negative outcomes during a downturn.

Effectively Navigating Upside Opportunities

1. Granular data. in an economic downturn, there are always winners and losers that emerge; more often than not, it’s specific businesses or sub-sectors rather than entire industries. As consumer confidence wanes and inflation tightens purse strings, it’s likely that budget retailers and discount stores will see increased demand while their high-end alternatives experience the opposite. Both are classified as “retail” but will have dramatically different experiences in an economic downturn. Banks need the right data and tools to identify businesses that may need additional capital to make it through the economic cycle from the businesses that need additional investment capital to pursue potential growth opportunities arising in it.

2. Forward-looking scenario analysis. Banks need to be able to create configurable scenarios that reflect their internal economic outlook by adjusting macroeconomic variables, such as interest rates and inflation, among others. This means they can make more informed decisions about high risk, high opportunity industries and borrowers in their loan book and adjust their activities accordingly.

3. Proactive monitoring. In times of turmoil, most banks tend to segment their portfolio from highest to lowest exposure, starting with their largest and working their way down. Not only is this approach incredibly time consuming, it also means a lot of team time is spent running analysis on credits that don’t end up presenting a credit issue. Banks need to be able to segment credits on a high to low risk spectrum within a matter of hours, so they can identify the credits that require intensive versus light touch reviews, freeing up resources to pursue new loan origination.

Focusing on 4 Key Trends for 2023

The current market presents unique challenges for financial institutions.

As we navigate a complex environment during a time of significant industry change, recessionary pressure and geopolitical uncertainty, it’s crucial that banks focus on a realistic number of strategic priorities. Entering the first quarter of 2023, I see four key trends impacting the financial services industry that boards and executives need to focus on to survive and thrive amid economic uncertainty.

Talent
Having the best bankers, treasury management officers, middle office talent and banking center managers is always critical. But it’s also vitally important to have those unique individuals who can take an innovative idea and turn it into reality.

Your bank needs people who can work well with your partners and vendors to make sure you’re delivering the right kinds of capabilities to customers, and leaders who can see around the corner and anticipate the capabilities you’ll need in the future. That talent can be hard to come by; the turbulent labor market presents some challenges, but also opportunities.

There have already been some significant layoffs at large tech companies, but they aren’t the only ones. Smaller tech companies have also had to cut back — and that could be a chance to hire talent that has historically been out of reach or acquire a superstar that left for an early-stage company and is ready to come back. Lastly, banks should look for high-performing people at lower-performing companies and see if they might be ready for a change. Successful talent strategies will have an outsized impact on future performance.

Strategic Clarity
Reaching strategic clarity with all of your stakeholders will be crucial. Scarce resources and changing investment environments means financial institutions must make clear and deliberate decisions when it comes to their strategies.

Not only is it important to know your customers, your market and how you will differentiate and win, but it’s imperative to guard against strategic drift or succumbing to the temptation to be all things to all customers.

Pressure to Innovate, Simplify
The marketplace has been noisy. The substantial amount of funds invested in new financial technology firms over the past five years has made it feel like there are endless opportunities to innovate. Stakeholders in all directions may be making suggestions and recommendations. This has helped move the banking industry forward in important ways and helped power some of the digital leaps we experienced during the pandemic.

However, bankers seem to gravitate toward complexity. Now is the right time to take a step back, take stock of your organization’s investments and determine whether they have helped you simplify your business and operations.

Could you rethink entire lines of business based on the digital capabilities that you now have? Where can your institution make incremental, but important, moves toward simplification? What are the bank’s most important innovation priorities that need to move forward regardless, or because of, the turbulent macroeconomic environment? These are critical questions that every management team should be addressing.

Deposit Strategy
Not too long ago, it seemed every bank was flush with deposits. Today, even financial institutions with favorable loan-to-deposit ratios are figuring out how their deposit base is changing, what effect higher and rising rates are having, where they’re experiencing attrition and churn within their customer base, and what parts of their funding strategy need to be reworked.

It will be critical to develop a long-term sustainable deposit strategy and identify advantages specific to your institution. For example, in which industries does your bank have lending expertise? Use that experience to develop working capital solutions for those same customers. If your bank has developed your digital banking capabilities, explore where you have untapped potential in the existing customer base with targeted campaigns and marketing messages. Haven’t revisited your compensation strategy? Now is the right time to be addressing incentives for developing a commercial deposits business. Actions that a bank takes today will have a lasting positive impact.

It’s easy for directors and executives to become overwhelmed in such a fluctuating environment but the financial institutions focused on strengthening talent, clarifying critical priorities, accelerating innovation and maximizing their deposit strategies will be ready to take advantage of growth opportunities in this new year.

Commit to Process and Framework in the New Year

The challenging last three years have done nothing but reinforce our belief that the best-performing community banks, over the long run, anchor their balance sheet management in a set of principles — not in divining the future.

They organize their principles into a coherent decision-making methodology that evaluates all capital allocation alternatives across multiple scenarios, over time, on a level playing field. Unfortunately, however, far too many community bankers rely on forecasts of interest rates and economic conditions, which are then engraved into budgets, compensation programs and guidance provided to stock analysts and asset-liability providers.

If we’ve learned anything recently, it’s that nobody can predict rates — not even the members of the Federal Open Market Committee. A year ago, its median forecast for fed funds today was approximately 0.80%; the reality of 4.50% is 370 basis points above this “prediction.”

Even slight differences between predicted and actual rates can result in significant variances from a bank’s budget, which can pressure management towards reactive strategies based on near-term accounting income, liquidity or capital. We’ve long argued that this approach will usually accumulate less reward, and more risk, than proponents ever expect.

Community banking is challenging, but it needn’t be bewildering. The following decision-making principles can clarify your path and energize your execution:

Know where you are.
Net interest income and economic value simulations in isolation present incomplete and often conflicting portrayals of a bank’s risk and reward profile. To know where your bank is, hold yourself accountable to all cash flows across multiple rate scenarios over time, incorporating both dividends paid to a horizon and the economic value of the bank at that horizon. This framework produces a multi-scenario view of returns to shareholders , across a range of possible futures. Making capital allocation decisions in the context of this profile is everything; developing and consulting it is far more inspiring and leverageable than a mere asset-liability exercise.

Refuse to speculate on rates.
Plenty of wealth has been lost looking through the wrong end of the kaleidoscope. Nobody can predict rates with any utility — not economists, not even the FOMC. Make each marginal capital allocation in the context of your shareholder return profile, avoiding unacceptable risk in any scenario while seeking asymmetric reward in others. The idea is to stack the deck in the bank’s favor, not to guess the next card.

For example, imagine your institution is poised to create more shareholder wealth in rates down scenarios than up, a common reality in the current environment. Should you consider trading some of this for outsized benefits in the opposite direction, or not? Assess potential approaches across multiple scenarios: compare short assets versus long liabilities, test combinations or turn the dial through simple derivative strategies to asymmetrically adjust returns or create functional liquidity.

Price options appropriately.
Banks sell options continually, but seldom consider their compensation. They often price loans to win the business, rather than in comparison to wholesale alternatives, and they often forgo enforceable prepayment penalties. Less forgivably, many banks sell options too cheaply in their securities portfolios, in obtaining wholesale funding or in setting servicing rates. Know who owns each option the bank is short, and determine whether it is priced appropriately by comparing it to possible alternatives and measuring the impact on the bank’s forward-looking return profile.

Evaluate risk and regulatory positions.
To make capital allocation decisions prospectively, principle-based decision-makers assess their risk and regulatory positions prospectively as well. The bank’s enterprise risk management platform should offer an objective assessment of its current capital, asset quality, liquidity and sensitivity to market risk positions, and simulate these on a prospective basis also. The only way to determine if a strategy aligns with management’s specific risk tolerance is to have clarity and confidence in its pro forma impact on risk and regulatory positions. For many, establishing secured borrowing lines and reviewing contingency funding plans in 2023 will be prudent steps.

These principles are timeless — only the conclusions they lead to will vary over time. Those institutions that have already woven them into their organizational fabric are facing 2023 and beyond with confidence; those adopting them now for the first time can soon experience the same.

Evaluating Digital Banking In 2023

Platforms that offer future flexibility, as opposed to products with a fixed shelf life, should be part of any bank’s digital transformation strategy for 2023, says Stephen Bohanon, co-founder and chief strategy and product officer at Alkami Technology. Chatbots and artificial intelligence can deflect many simple, time-consuming customer queries — saving time and costs — but digital channels can go further to drive revenue for the organization. To do that, bankers need to invest in data-based marketing and account opening capabilities.

Topics include:

  • Platforms Vs. Products
  • Sales Via Digital Channels
  • Advantages of Live Service

As Economic Uncertainty Looms, Control What You Can Control

With an economic downturn taking shape on the horizon, financial institutions must look inward to maintain margins and the health of their banks. In doing so, they will be able to serve customers better.

Astute executives I meet with realize the intrinsic value of “controlling what they can control.”
Banks can help customers optimize their cash and working capital. But to be able to serve customers with the best services at the most competitive prices, banks must first focus on the efficiency of their own organizations.

Invest in RPA, ITM Automation
Prudent investments in high-return technology can offer immediate benefits to bank efficiency. One such high-impact technology is robotic process automation, or RPA. RPA has evolved from a futuristic discussion at trade shows to a robust, enabling technology that can lower operating expenses raise productivity and reduce errors.

Automating labor-intensive processes enables banks to save time, leverage scarce resources and focus on creating unique customer experiences, while eliminating redundant work and tedious tasks. Getting started in RPA has become easier. A technical partner should offer pre-bots that are pre-designed, pre-built and developed from common industry-driven use cases. Pre-bots offer financial institutions an immediate, low-risk entry into RPA. These ready-to-run bots can offer a bridgehead and potential early success into RPA, along with providing an easier avenue toward more comprehensive automation.

Another high- and immediate-impact technology progressive banks are taking advantage of is integrated teller machines, or ITMs. ITMs provide an in-branch banking experience without customers ever having to leave their car. Consumers can interact with tellers via live video to make deposits, cash checks, make loan and credit card payments, withdraw funds and transfer funds. Exact change is available for check cashing.

Video teller technology gives customers the ability to interact with a live video teller from a centralized location, extending the reach of a bank’s most capable client-facing staff. This can help banks efficiently expand into new, alternative markets.

Determine, Execute Your Strategy
Highly efficient banks identify their strategy and then execute the supporting tactics with a single-minded purpose. Smart bankers don’t try to be all things to all customers; instead, their focus is on one or two overriding objectives, such as becoming a low-cost provider, an exceptional service organization or a leader in innovation. While these goals are not mutually exclusive, in practice, few banks can progress them all in parallel.

The best bank leaders, choose their primary objectives wisely, then seek outside expertise in areas that help them accelerate strategic objectives and plans. They actively network with peers in industry events and conferences, they learn from best-in-class partners and they seek the advice of experienced banking experts. They never stop the learning process and apply a wide range of experiences to their own plans.

Continuously Improve Business Processes
Well defined, repeatable business processes provide the foundation for how work gets done within a financial institution. This allows for tasks, technology and tools supporting a process to be redefined or implement an entirely new process based on automation.

Business process improvement (BPI) actions, undertaken by subject matter experts, deliver the insight required to execute more efficiently, create value for customers or enhance revenue for the institution — or provide all three. Tactics for growing bonds that crossover business lines with BPI include:

• Establish cross-functional teams to participate in collaborative facilitated sessions to identify and help institute process changes.
• Have leaders “walk- he walk” by inviting peers from other business units to participate regularly in staff meetings.
• Distribute regular internal communications as widely as possible within an organization.
• Create centers of excellence for sharing and knowledge transfer.
• Reward collaborative efforts that produce tangible results.

BPI helps financial institutions uncover opportunities to eliminate non-value manual tasks while digitizing and removing paper from manual processes.

Align Skills With Strategy, Needs
The culture and people of today’s banks are critical in executing an organization’s strategy and tactics. As automation replaces mundane tasks, bankers must become universal relationship managers and problem solvers. Continuous training, like continuous process improvement, is the norm for well-functioning financial institutions.

Technology partners with robust training methodologies — which are also familiar with the newest business processes — can help bank personnel ensure they’re using procedures, workflows and technology that best meet their clients’ needs with the greatest efficiency.

Even in uncertain economic times, savvy bankers who invest in automation, determine and execute a well-defined strategy, continuously improve their business processes and ensure their staff have the correct skills will develop the framework that characterizes high-efficiency financial institutions. Those efficiencies will, in turn, empower banks to serve customers better and at lower cost.

RankingBanking: Fueling Successful Strategies

Bank Director’s recent RankingBanking study, sponsored by Crowe LLP, identified the best public banks in the U.S. While their strategies may vary, these banks share a few common traits that enable their success. These include a consistent strategy and a laser focus on customer experience, says Kara Baldwin, a partner and financial services audit leader at Crowe. Training and organizational efficiency also allow these bankers to retain that customer focus through challenging times. In the year ahead, banks will need to manage through myriad issues, including credit quality, net interest margin management and new regulatory concerns. 

Topics include: 

  • Cultural Consistency 
  • Organizational Efficiencies 
  • Customer Centricity  

Click here to read the complete RankingBanking study.

Fighting Disaster Through Business Continuity Planning

As Hurricane Ian began to coalesce in the Caribbean in late September, all of Florida hunkered down. This included Climate First Bancorp, the holding company for $250 million Climate First Bank, which serves primarily commercial organizations. The storm was initially expected to make landfall in the U.S. by hitting St. Petersburg, Florida, Climate First’s headquarters. The bank’s leaders knew that they had to begin preparations, so they turned to their business continuity plan. 

The two-year-old bank is also in the middle of shifting its data storage to a third-party, so servers aren’t hosted at individual branches. As the storm rolled forward, though, the bank had to undergo a temporary shift of the data and operations from the St. Pete location to one in Winter Park, near Orlando. This gave the organization protection in case St. Petersburg saw significant damage. 

It served them well. As the state suffered flooding and destruction that reports have estimated between $50 billion and $65 billion, St. Petersburg and Orlando avoided the worst of the storm. Still, customers saw little disruption and the experience further prepared Climate First Bank for another hurricane that would hit weeks later. “We’re a climate focused bank, and this is supposed to be more than a 100-year flood,” says Lex Ford, president at Climate First Bank. “How many years in a row have we had a 100-year flood?”

Business continuity planning isn’t just a nice-to-have, but a requirement by regulators. How robust the continuity plan is, however, will determine how ready the organization can react when unexpected disturbances or upheavals in the normal course of business occurs. With the rate of natural disasters rising, so does the possibility that banks will have to lean on continuity preparation. Boards have a responsibility to ensure that such plans have robust strategies in place, but many organizations lack certain coverage.

Business continuity planning within institutions shifted in response to Covid-19. With more than 80% of executives and directors reporting that their organizations have remote workers, 44% saw a gap in their bank’s business continuity plan with regards to remote work procedures and policies, according to Bank Director’s 2022 Risk Survey, conducted in January 2022. That rate is down from 77% admitting such a gap in 2021. 

Meanwhile, despite the increase in intensity of hurricanes and other tropical storms since 1995, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, only 16% of respondents said their board has discussed the impact of climate change on the organization at least annually, according to the 2022 Risk Survey. Six out of 10 respondents said their board and senior leadership team understood the physical risks the bank faced due to climate change.

But when it comes to continuity preparations, “you’re not just planning for things that are obvious,” says Julie Stackhouse, a director at $27 billion Simmons First National Corp., headquartered in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Stackhouse also served at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis in 2001, and was at a meeting in the New York Federal Reserve during 9/11. She witnessed first-hand the response of financial institutions. This experience of seeing banks react to the sudden attack crystalized the importance of continuity planning for Stackhouse.

When a disaster hits, “human beings have an emotional response,” says Stackhouse. Employees will worry about family and friends, not just the bank. During these moments, “you need to think about the practicality of personality,” Stackhouse adds.

How will employees respond under the pressure of an attack or a storm that destroys nearby homes, or a ransomware that could threaten their jobs? Considering those emotions during moments of clarity — and planning for an expectation that some employees won’t be available — is vital to the success of any continuity plan. For boards, ensure that management has considered the employees’ emotional response to such situations, or else the best plan may prove worthless when pressure rises. 

Climate First’s plan deals with the human side by spreading employees across the state. Even with two branches, the majority of its employees work from home. This served them well during Ian. But the bank took its experience with Ian and began to expand the states that it would hire from to ensure an interruption in Florida wouldn’t impact every employee of the bank. Some employees work permanently outside the state, and others occasionally do. “Many [new hires] live three, four, five states away,” Ford says. 

It’s one strategy the bank has used to counter the threat of any one incident shutting the organization down. But it’s a solution unique to the institution itself. For directors, it’s vital to review the continuity plan, seeking insight into key issues for the individual bank. 

“The first question” for boards, says Stackhouse, “is have you seen the business continuity plan? Do you know how often it’s updated? Do you know if the key expectations are laid out in the plan?” 

Stackhouse says that it’s surprising how many directors have failed to even inquire about the plan on this basic level. Once you have looked at the plan, though, you need to go further, asking about how communication will occur if a disturbance to the organization’s infrastructure takes place, Stackhouse says. How will leaders communicate with employees and each other? Banks should have tactics in place for such communication and expect different layers of disruption. You may not know what unexpected disaster could eventually impact the organization, but you can lean on other scenarios — in the news or experienced directly by the bank — to prepare in case communication is disrupted in an unexpected way.

Another key question: Does the bank have business continuity staff? As a director, know what their roles are, what they do and how they handle key issues within the continuity strategy. Having ownership over the continuity plan will prevent it from becoming a secondary concern. “It is never a good answer if it’s everybody’s responsibility,” adds Stackhouse. 

One of the best ways to pressure test your institution’s continuity plan is to have practice runs with scenarios that could prevent the bank from operating. Discussing these scenarios will allow the organization to see what works, what doesn’t and what should be tweaked. Directors should take part in many of those tests, since they will likely be a key resource if a large enough event takes place. Not to mention, in such scenarios, management may lean on boards of directors for guidance.

For community banks, where resources may be more limited, focus on events that are more likely to occur. This will depend on the organization but could be a hurricane or extended power outage or cyberattack. Having run-throughs while leaning on the continuity plan will test what the C-suite has put together. Did communication hold? What additional resources do employees need to do their job? How did they react? Seeing this under a guided test-run will ease nerves if the real event occurs. 

Larger banks may have a team that can run specialized tests to simulate very specific scenarios, like, say, a war or unexpected attack on the nation. While you may not know what scenario will occur, having these test-runs will allow the bank to have case studies on hand, in the event a similar disruption happens.

For Climate First, the plan they put in place served them through the hurricane season this year. They will incorporate their experience into continuity planning for the future. The goal? To ensure customers never realize a disruption occurred. 

With the most distant client living in Hawaii, that person “probably didn’t even know we were going through a storm,” says Ford. 

“And I hope they couldn’t tell.” 

* * *  

For more information about other aspects of business continuity planning, consider reading “Getting Proactive About Third-Party Cyber Risk,” or  “The Topic That’s Missing From Strategic Discussions.” 

Bank Director’s 2022 Risk Survey, sponsored by Moss Adams LLP, surveyed 222 independent directors, CEOs, chief risk officers and other senior executives of U.S. banks below $100 billion in assets to gauge their concerns and explore several key risk areas. The survey was conducted in January 2022.

Getting Everyone on Board the Digital Transformation Journey

Digital transformation isn’t a “one and done” scenario but a perpetual program that evolves with the ever-changing terrain of the banking industry. Competition is everywhere; to stay in the game, bank executives need to develop a strategy that is based, in large part, on what everyone else is doing.

According to a What’s Going On In Banking 2022 study by Cornerstone Advisors, credit unions got a digital transformation head start on banks: 16% launched a strategy in 2018 or earlier, versus just 9% of banks that had launched a strategy the same year. But it’s not only credit unions and traditional big banks that community financial institutions need to be watching. Disruptors like Apple and Amazon.com pose a threat as they roll out new innovations. Fintech players like PayPal Holding’s Venmo and Chime are setting the pace for convenient customer payments. And equally menacing are mortgage lenders like Quicken’s Rocket Mortgage and AmeriSave, which approve home loans in a snap.

An essential consideration in a successful digital transformation is having key policy and decision-makers on the same page about the bank’s technology platforms. If it’s in the bank’s best interest to scrap outdated legacy systems that no longer contribute to its long-term business goals, the CEO, board of directors and top executives need to unanimously embrace this position in support of the bank’s strategy.

Digital transformation is forcing a core system decision at many institutions. Bank executives are asking: Should we double down on digital with our existing core vendor or go with a new, digital platform? Increasingly, financial institutions are choosing to go with digital platforms because they believe the core vendors can’t keep up with best-in-class innovation, user experience and integration. Many are now opting for next-generation, digital-first cores to run their digital platform, with an eye towards eventually converting their legacy bank over to these next-gen cores.

Digital transformation touches every aspect of the business, from front line workers to back-end systems, and it’s important to determine how to separate what’s vital from what’s not. Where should banks begin their digital transformation journey? With a coordinated effort and a clear path to achieving measurable short- and long-term goals.

Here are some organization-wide initiatives for banks to consider as they dive into new digital transformation initiatives or enhance their current ones.

1. Set measurable, achievable transformation goals. This can include aspirations like improving customer acquisition and retention by upgrading customer digital touchpoints like the website or mobile app.
2. Prioritize systems that can produce immediate returns. Systems that automate repetitive tasks or flag incomplete applications create cost-efficient and optimal outcomes for institutions.
3. Invest in a discipline to instill a changed mindset. A bank that upgrades a system but doesn’t alter its people’s way of thinking about everything from customer interaction to internal processes will not experience the true transformational benefit of the change.
4. Conduct a thorough evaluation of all sales and service channels. This will enable the bank to determine not only how to impact the maximum number of customers, but also impart the greatest value to them through product assessment and innovation.
5. Get employees on board with “digital” readiness. Form small training groups that build on employees’ specialized knowledge and skills, rather than adopting a one-size-fits-all model. Employees that are well-trained in systems, processes and technology are invaluable assets in your institution’s digital transformation journey.

Banks must foster their unique cultures and hard-earned reputations to remain competitive in this ever-changing financial services landscape. As they build out digital strategies, they must continue fine-tuning the problem-solving skills that will keep them relevant in the face of evolving customers, markets and opportunities. Most importantly, banks must embrace a lasting commitment to an ongoing transformation strategy, across the organization and in all their day-to-day activities. For this long-term initiative, it’s as much about the journey as it is the destination.

Digital Transformation Starts With the Customer

Digital transformation isn’t an end unto itself; the goal should ultimately be to make your customers’ financial lives easier. Without figuring out what customers need help with, a bank’s digital journey lacks strategic focus, and risks throwing good money after bad. In this video, Devin Smith, experience principal at Active Digital, walks through the key questions executives should ask when investing in digital transformation.

  • Customer Centricity
  • Creating a Cohesive Experience
  • Build versus Buy