How America’s Newest Adults are Changing Banking

Believe it or not, Generation Z is already dipping their toes into the banking world. Are banks ready?

With the oldest Gen Z members reaching their mid-20s, America’s newest adults are starting to generate their own forms of income, graduate from college, budget for large financial decisions and even learn the basics of money management from their favorite TikTok creators. Banks must prepare for this mass generational shift in wealth and personal financing.

For years, financial institutions have adjusted their core offerings to accommodate millennials’ financial preferences and patterns in spending behavior. These 73-million-strong tech-savvy adults have become the most populous generation in U.S. history, surpassing baby boomers.

Entering the job market during the Great Recession, which forced millennials to make more risk-averse spending decisions. With the exception of outstanding student loans, many avoid debt and prioritize spending on life experiences over material possessions to avoid regretting financial decisions down the line.

Millennials are now the largest driver of net new loan demand, according to Morgan Stanley loan forecasts and historical household information. This lending “sweet spot” falls between the ages of 25 and 40, and could persist for to a decade. But seemingly unbeknownst to the majority of banks, Gen Z is nearing — and entering — their early 20s.

It is time for banks to update their reality: America’s youngest adults – Gen Z – are about to age into that lending sweet spot. Combined, millennials and Gen Z will reach the largest generational demographic in the country: 140 million adults whose loyalty to existing financial institutions is very much in flux. This wealth shift will undoubtedly be the impetus for an industry-wise reimaging of consumer banking and lending.

Reports from Morgan Stanley’s population forecasts suggest that Gen Z will comprise of the most populous American generation ever by 2034, with an estimated peak of 78 million. By that time, this generation of “kids” are expected to have increased their aggregated borrowing levels, eventually accounting for a third of all consumer debt in the U.S.

Still thinking of them as kids? It’s understandable, but they could set the tone for how the entire banking industry evolves in the coming years — including your company. When it comes to generational and demographic shifts, there is no recipe for success, especially in banking. However, the tools needed to survive are readily available for the banks that are willing to seize them.

At a bare minimum, banks will need to redesign their legacy systems and offerings by adding digital enhancements, similar to the industry-wide digitization brought on by millennials in recent years. Though the behavioral characteristics of millennials and Gen Z overlap, don’t make the mistake of thinking that they are the same teams playing the same game.

Some Gen Zers are given a smartphone before they are even the age of 10, according to The Harris Poll. Furthermore, those children are allowed to create their own social media accounts by the age of 13, oftentimes earlier. During these formative years, Gen Z kids begin to develop their own personalities, live their own lives and form digital relationships with people, communities and brands alike.

Why does this matter? Because banks have relegated themselves to the adult world, where you must be 18 or older to open your own account. They are losing out on the most influential years of America’s youngest adults — when they begin to associate with their favorite brands and subsequently spend money to engage with them.

The same digitized offerings that banks have spent years formulating for millennials are simply not going to cut it for Gen Z. Banks will need to redefine the concept of “traditional” banking and create a “neo-normal” standard if they have any hopes of engaging this massively influential generation of young Americans. Don’t simply market differently to them. It’s time to shift the strategy – design differently for them.

Gen Z isn’t just about TikTok dance challenges and viral memes. Most of them were seeking answers to their curiosities via search engines around the same age we were reading “Curious George.” This generation is the most diverse and well educated to date, and they are very keen on being treated like adults — especially when it comes to managing their personal finances. How does your bank plan to greet them?

How One Bank Chairman Created a Diverse Board

When Charles Crawford Jr. took over as chairman and CEO of Philadelphia-based Hyperion Bank in August 2017, the 11-year-old de novo’s board had shrunk from 15 directors at its inception to the statutory minimum of just five, and its future was anything but certain.

Hyperion had been formed in 2006, but never seemed to find its stride. “When you start a new bank you typically lose money for the first two years, and by year three you should have enough critical mass to be achieving profitability for your shareholders,” says Crawford. “Unfortunately for Hyperion, they lost money for seven straight years. A lot of those 15 board members said ‘You know what? This isn’t so fun.’” One by one, most of them left the board.

Crawford had also formed a new bank in 2006, but this venture turned out to be much more successful than Hyperion. Crawford’s bank — known as Private Bank of Buckhead and situated in an upscale community north of Atlanta – was sold in 2017. After the sale, an investor in both Private Bank and Hyperion asked him to take a close look at its operation and perhaps join the board. Crawford says he saw “a great entrepreneurial opportunity” and signed on.

Since then, Crawford has raised $18 million in capital, which has enabled the $250 million asset bank to finally begin to grow, and opened a branch in the Atlanta market. He has also rebuilt the Hyperion board almost from scratch. Today’s board has eight members, including an African American male, who joined the board in 2018, and three females who signed on in the fourth quarter of 2019. Crawford values the different experiences and points of view – often referred to as diversity of thought – that the group brings to the governance process.

“To me, it’s not just gender and ethnic diversity,” Crawford says. “It’s backgrounds and skillsets and knowledge, and that people think differently and ask different questions.” Hyperion’s board diversity didn’t occur by accident. “You do have to be very intentional to be able to build a diverse board or a diverse workforce,” he says.

One of Crawford’s challenges in rebuilding the board was his unfamiliarity with the Philadelphia business community. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania but hadn’t lived in Philadelphia for over 30 years, so he didn’t know a lot of people there. One of his first recruits was Robert N.C. “Bobby” Nix III, an African American attorney with extensive experience serving on bank boards, including one occasion when he had to step in and take over as the interim CEO. Crawford was introduced to Nix by another Hyperion director who has since left the board.

Nix says he quickly developed a rapport with Crawford. “He is a very accomplished banker and a really bright and nice guy,” Nix says. “I got along with Charlie really well and had a great comfort level with him. And we talked about a lot of stuff about how I would like to see the bank go, and he actually listened.”

One of Nix’s suggestions was to recruit an economist because Hyperion is an active construction lender and that tends to be a cyclical business. Crawford later brought to the board Lara Rhame, the chief U.S. economist at FS Investments, an alternative asset manager in Philadelphia. Crawford started playing tennis after he moved to Philadelphia as a way of meeting people, and a fellow tennis player connected him to Rhame. Crawford said he was looking to add more talent to the Hyperion board.

“Lara and I had coffee and I explained what the bank was up to and [what] the mission [was] and got to know her background,” Crawford says. “I’ve never had an economist on my bank board, but it is very valuable. She helps not just me but the other directors and bank management see the big picture of what’s going on.”

Crawford first met another female director – Gretchen Santamour, a partner at the Philadelphia law firm Stradley Ronon, where she specializes in business restructurings and loan workouts – through a public relations consultant that did some work for the bank. Santamour invested in Hyperion when Crawford did a capital raise and later sent him a note. “She said, ‘I’m glad to see that you have a female on your bank board. Most community banks I’m aware of don’t. If you ever want to add to that let me know. I’d be glad to help you.’ I took that very literally and followed up with Gretchen later and said, ‘I got your note and frankly with your experience as an attorney and [with] workouts, and being so engrained in the Philadelphia business community, how about you? Would you be willing to serve? And she said she would.’ So she, too, has been a great addition.”

A third female director at Hyperion is Jill Jinks, CEO at Insurance House Holdings, an agency located in Marietta, Georgia. Jinks had been an investor in the Private Bank of Buckhead and had served on the board. Jinks also invested in Hyperion when Crawford did his capital raise, and when Hyperion expanded into the Atlanta market, he asked Jinks to become a director. “I had the experience of having her as a director for a decade on my previous bank [board] and I knew her,” Crawford says. “She chaired my audit committee – she’s chairing [Hyperion’s audit committee] now – and I knew she would be of great value to us, both in the Atlanta market and in general with governance.”

In addition to himself, other Hyperion directors include Louis DeCesare, Jr., the bank’s president and chief operating officer who joined the company in 2013; James McAlpin, Jr., a partner at the Atlanta-based law firm Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner and leader of the firm’s financial services client services group; and Michael Purcell, an investment adviser and former Deloitte & Touche audit partner with deep ties in the Philadelphia business community.

The story of how Crawford rebuilt the bank’s board reveals several important truths about board diversity. When bank boards need to recruit a new director they tend to rely on personal networks, and some of Hyperion’s directors were individuals that Crawford already knew. But the Hyperion board’s diversity is also intentional. Board diversity won’t happen unless the people driving the refreshment process make it happen through a deliberate process.

“As you can tell from my story, and I think this would be true with most community banks, we didn’t hire a big recruiting firm to help us ‘ID’ directors,” Crawford says. “My advice is, reach out to community organizations … by being involved. I remember back at my Atlanta bank, I served on the City of Atlanta Board of Ethics and it exposed me to a whole different group of people. And the chair of that board … was [an] African-American [who] had served on the Delta Credit Union board and he ended up joining my board. It’s just another example of, if you get out in the community, you’re going to get exposed to and meet people you otherwise wouldn’t if you’re sitting in your boardroom, or office, hoping they’ll come to you.” Nix, Rhame and Santamour are a case in point; all were unknown to Crawford before he recruited them to the board.

Crawford has another piece of advice for bank boards looking to be more inclusive. “Building a diverse board … is an ongoing, moving target,” he says. “I don’t think you’re ever done, as your community ebbs and flows, to make sure that either your board or our workforce looks like your community.”

Four Essential Governance Practices

Bank Director’s 2020 Governance Best Practices Survey, sponsored by Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, focused on how bank boards manage their business, including their composition, independence and oversight. The analysis also digs into some key best practices, which Bryan Cave Partner James McAlpin Jr. explores further in this video.

  • Meeting Frequency
  • Appointing a Lead Director
  • Building Diversity
  • Assessing the Board

How One Woman Inspires Others

Women are still underrepresented in the senior management ranks of many U.S. banks, and other women are quick to notice — and celebrate — when one of their own is elevated to a top position.

A perfect example of this dynamic is Maria Tedesco, the president of $19.9 billion Atlantic Union Bankshares in Richmond, Virginia. Tedesco joined the bank in September 2018 from BMO Harris Bank in Chicago, where she had been chief operating officer of its retail operation. Tedesco, who I interviewed via Zoom in October, says she came to Atlantic Union in part to work with CEO John Asbury, but also because she saw a customer-first culture that is missing at most large banks.

“What I found here at [Atlantic] Union is that the culture of [the] customer is woven into the fabric of the company, and that really attracted me,” says Tedesco. “I’ve had wonderful experiences at other banks, but I think the larger the bank the [more] they get away from the customer. And I missed being closer to the customer.”

When Atlantic Union Bank adopted its current name in May 2019 and launched a branding campaign (it had been named Union Bank & Trust previously), Tedesco and Asbury did a television ad together to promote the new name. After that, Tedesco says, “I was stopped all the time in stores to the point that I had to start getting dressed up just to go to the CVS [drug store] because people would stop me and say, ‘Oh, you’re my president.’ And I’d say, ‘What? No, I don’t think I’m president yet. You might have me mixed up with somebody else.’ But they’d say, ‘No, I’m a customer of Atlantic Union, and I love you.’ When did you ever hear anybody say they love their bank?”

Asbury, who took over as CEO at Atlantic Union in October 2016, initially decided not to hire a president when the board of directors first raised the issue, preferring to immerse himself in the bank’s operations. But not long after Atlantic Union acquired Richmond-based Xenith Bankshares in May 2017, which took the bank just past the $10 billion regulatory threshold where oversight becomes more rigorous and caps are placed on banks’ debit card interchange fees, Asbury decided he needed a strong No. 2 executive to help manage the bank.

Asbury first hired the late John Stallings Jr., previously the division president and CEO for SunTrust Banks in Virginia, but an illness soon forced him to step down. (Sadly, Stallings passed away in early November.) Convinced he now needed someone in the president’s role, Asbury says he pressed Stallings if he knew someone who could replace him. “I said to John, ‘Do you have any ideas?’ And he said, ‘I know of a fabulous leader, I’ve known her for 20 years, she’s in Chicago. I doubt she would do it, but we’ve got to talk to her. Her name is Maria Tedesco.’ I said, Maria — I’ve known her for a decade.”

Tedesco and Asbury had gotten to know each other a little through their involvement in the Consumer Bankers Association, and their careers had been on similar tracks, but they had never worked with each other. It took a while to convince her to leave Chicago for Richmond. Tedesco had spent the better part of her career working at big banks — before BMO Harris she held senior retail and business banking positions at Santander Bank and Citizens Financial Group — and this experience was important to Asbury as he pursues a strategy of growing Atlantic Union into a dominant regional bank.

Tedesco is responsible for overseeing all of Atlantic Union’s major business lines, as well as various enterprise-wide functions like marketing. Approximately 75% of the company’s employees report up through her.

Asbury says Tedesco has already made a significant impact on Atlantic Union.

“Maria is one of the best leaders I have ever worked with, and she is a force,” he says. “She’s very genuine. She’s very sincere. She has a tremendous breadth of experience. And she has been able to make an impact on this company that none of us could have made in a much larger organization. I’m so grateful that she’s here.”

Tedesco agrees that her position within the company is important to other women at Atlantic Union. “Absolutely,” she says. “Women have made so many advances in this industry, but it’s not good enough.” But I also sensed a certain ambivalence in Tedesco’s perspective that may be common to senior female executives generally: Is their elevated position viewed as having been earned on merit, or is there a perception that they were promoted specifically because they are a woman?

“I didn’t realize how important it was, but I heard from a number of our women in the company who said to me, ‘I’m so proud we have a woman as president,’” Tedesco says. “At first that struck me as odd. I said, ‘Well, what’s the difference? It doesn’t matter that I’m a woman. It’s about my capabilities.’”

During the interview process prior to joining the company, Tedesco says she was asked to talk about what it’s like to work in the banking industry as a woman. “It was frustrating, but I have come to realize that I have that responsibility, and it is one of my passions,” she says. Tedesco says she has begun an initiative within Atlantic Union called the “Women’s Inclusion Network” which creates opportunities for employees to leverage each other to grow personally and professionally, and is aligned with a broader diversity, equity and inclusion effort within the company. “I think I have advice and guidance and mentorship that I can provide other women inside and outside the company,” she says.

Tedesco credits Asbury with being a strong advocate for DEI efforts in the bank. “It’s who he is,” she says. “It’s an organic part of John. His support was incredibly important to me. He empowered me, and I went off running. That has helped other women.”

Asbury says that while Tedesco was not hired because of her gender, he didn’t expect her gender to invoke the reaction that it did. “When you know Maria, you know she’s here because she’s Maria, not because she’s a woman,” he says. “I can honestly say that the most skilled, most qualified person for the job was Maria, who happens to be a woman. But at the same time, I underestimated the impact that a female president would have.”

Five of Atlantic Union’s 14-member senior management team today are women. “That’s very different from when I got here,” he says. And that representation — particularly with a woman as the bank’s second most powerful executive — makes it easier to recruit other women to the bank.

“Don’t underestimate the multiplier effect that will happen if you can get women executives at the top of the house,” Asbury says. “That more than anything else is going to accelerate your ability to attract others. It really has a powerful effect.”

Asbury says that having a significant number of women in senior executive positions is “not just a perception issue. I get a lot of feedback that we’re a very contemporary or progressive leadership team. I think we are. Not just because we have so many women, but because I think we’re a ‘modern’ leadership team. That’s probably the best word to describe it.”

A Guide to Getting CEO Transitions Right in 2020 and Beyond

Banks need to get CEO transitions right to provide continuity in leadership and successful execution of key priorities.

As the world evolves, so do the factors that banks must consider when turnover occurs in the CEO role. Here are some key items we’ve come across that bank boards should consider in the event of a CEO transition today.

Identifying a Successor

Banks should prepare for CEO transitions well in advance through ongoing succession planning. Capable successors can come from within or outside of the organization. Whether looking for a new CEO internally or externally, banks need to identify leaders that have the skills to lead the bank now and into the future.

Diversity in leadership:
Considering a diverse slate of candidates is crucial, so that the bank can benefit from different perspectives that come with diversity. This may be challenging in the banking industry, given the current composition of executive teams. The U.S. House Committee on Financial Services published a diversity and inclusion report in 2020 that found that executive teams at large U.S. banks are mostly white and male. CAP found that women only represent 30% of the executive team, on average, at 18 large U.S. banks.

Building a diverse talent pipeline takes time; however, it is critical to effective long-term succession planning. Citigroup recently announced that Jane Fraser, who currently serves as the head of Citi’s consumer bank, would serve as its next CEO, making her the first female CEO of a top 10 U.S. bank. As banks focus more on diversity and inclusion initiatives, we expect this to be a key tenet of succession plans.

Digital expertise:
The banking industry continues to evolve to focus more on digital channels and technology. The Covid-19 pandemic has placed greater emphasis on remote services, which furthered this evolution. As technology becomes more deeply integrated in the banking industry, banks will need to evaluate their strategies and determine how they fit into this new landscape. With increased focus on technology, banks must also keep up with leading cybersecurity practices to provide consumers with the best protection. Succession plans will need to prioritize the skills and foresight required to lead the organization through this digital transformation.

Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) strategy:
Investors are increasingly focused on the ESG priorities and the potential impact on long-term value creation at banks. One area of focus is human capital management, and the ability to attract and retain the key talent that will help banks be leaders in their markets. CEO succession should consider candidates’ views on these evolving priorities.

Paying the Incoming and Outgoing CEOs

Incoming CEO:
The incoming CEO’s pay is driven by level of experience, whether the CEO was an internal or external hire, the former CEO’s compensation, market compensation and the bank’s compensation philosophy. In many cases, it is more expensive to hire a CEO externally. Companies often pay external hires at or above the market median, and may have to negotiate sign-on awards to recruit them. Companies generally pay internally promoted CEOs below market at first and move them to market median over two or three years based on their performance.

Outgoing CEO:
In some situations, the outgoing CEO may stay on as executive chair or senior advisor to help provide continuity during the transition. In this scenario, pay practices vary based on the expected length of time that the chair or senior advisor role will exist. It’s often lower than the amount the individual received as CEO, but likely includes salary and annual bonus opportunity and, in some cases, may include long-term incentives.

Retaining Key Executives

CEO transitions may have ripple effects throughout the bank’s executive team. Executives who were passed over for the top job may pose a retention risk. These executives may have deep institutional knowledge that will help the new CEO and are critical to the future success of the company. Boards may recognize these executives by expanding their roles or granting retention awards. These approaches can enhance engagement, mitigate retention risk and promote a smooth leadership transition.

As competition remains strong in the banking industry, it is more important than ever to have a seamless CEO transition. Unsuccessful CEO transitions are a distraction from a bank’s strategic objectives and harm performance. Boards will be better positioned if they have a strong succession plan to help them identify CEO candidates with the skills needed to grow and transform the bank, and if they effectively use compensation programs to attract and retain these candidates and the teams that support them.

Compensation, Talent Challenges Abound in Pandemic Environment

The coronavirus pandemic has not altered the toughest hiring and talent challenges that banks face; it has accelerated them.

These range from finding and hiring the right people to compensating them meaningfully to succession planning. Day Three of Bank Director’s 2020 BankBEYOND experience explores all of these topics and more through the lens of investing in and cultivating talent.

Institutions looking to thrive, not merely survive, in an environment with low loan demand and heightened credit risk need talented, diverse people with essential competencies. But skills in information security, technology, lending and risk have been getting harder to find and retain, according to more than 70% of directors, CEOs, human resources officers and other senior executives responding to Bank Director’s 2020 Compensation Survey this spring.

On top of that, the remote environment that many are still operating under has made it harder to interview and onboard these individuals. And managing employees working outside the office may require a different approach than managing them on-site. There are a handful of other timely challenges, pandemic or not, that banks must be prepared to encounter.

Compensation Challenges
The pandemic has also compound challenging trends in hiring and compensation that banks already face. Headcount and associated compensation costs are one of a bank’s biggest variable expenses; in a tough earnings environment, it is more important than ever that they control that while still crafting pay that rewards prudent performance. Executives and boards may also need to contend with incentive compensation plans containing metrics or parameters that are no longer relevant or realistic, and how to message and reward employees for performance in this uncertain environment.

Retaining, Hiring Employees
Banks must recruit and retain younger and diverse employees who fit within the organization’s culture. Half of respondents to our survey indicated that it’s difficult to attract and retain entry-level employees; 30% cited recruiting younger talent as a top-three challenge this year, compared to 21% in 2017.

But banks and many other companies may encounter another trend: parents, especially women, leaving the workforce. Child-rearing responsibilities and distance-learning complications have forced working parents without effective support systems to prioritize between their children and their career. More than 800,000 women left the job market in September, making up the bulk of the 1.1 million people who opted out. Those departures were responsible for driving most of the declines in the unemployment rate that month.

Diversity & Inclusion
Fewer women working at banks means less gender diversity — which is an area where many banks already struggle. That could be in part due to the fact many banks haven’t prioritized measuring that and other diversity and inclusion metrics like race, ethnicity or status of disability or military service.

In Bank Director’s 2020 Governance Best Practices Survey, almost half of directors expressed skepticism that diversity on the board has a positive effect on corporate performance. Perhaps it’s not surprising that in our Compensation Survey, 42% of respondents say they don’t have a formal D&I program.

To access the 2020 BankBEYOND recordings, click here to register.

Embracing Gender Diversity as a Pathway to Success

A prolonged flat yield curve, economic contraction, increasing compliance and technology costs, not to mention the pandemic-induced pressure on stock valuations, have left banks in a difficult operating environment with limited opportunities for profitability.

Yet, there is an untapped opportunity for banks to capitalize on a strong and growing talent pool and profitable customer base: women. Research repeatedly shows that increasing gender diversity on bank boards and in C-suites drives better performance. Forward-thinking banks should look to women in their communities for growth inside and outside the institution.

Women now receive nearly 60% of all degrees, make up 50% of the workforce and, prior to the pandemic, held more jobs in the U.S. than men. They are the primary breadwinner in over 40% of U.S. households and comprise more than 50% of stock owners. A McKinsey & Co. report found that U.S. women currently control $10.9 trillion in assets; by 2030, that could grow to as much as $30 trillion in assets. Women also started 1,821 net new businesses a day in 2017 and 2018, employing 9.2 million in 2018 and recording $1.8 trillion in revenues. Startups founded by women pulled in $18.6 billion in investments across 2,304 deals in 2019 — still, lack of capital is the greatest challenge reported by female small business owners.

Broadly, research also supports a positive correlation between a critical mass of gender diversity in leadership and performance.

A study of tech and financial services stocks found a 20% increase in stock price momentum within 24 months of appointing a female CEO, a 6% increase in profitability and 8% larger stock returns with a female CFO. And they may achieve better execution on deals. In a review of 16,763 publicly announced M&A transactions globally over the last 20 years, boards that were more than 30% female performed better in terms of stock price and operational metrics than all-male boards.


Note: Performance metrics are market-adjusted
Source: M&A Research Centre at Cass Business School, University of London and SS&C Intralinks: “Gender Diversity and M&A Outcomes; How Female Board-Level Representation Affects Corporate Dealmaking” (February 2020)

But as of 2018, women held just 40 CEO positions at U.S. public banks, or 4.31%. Nearly 20% of banks have no women board members; the median is just over 16%. Banks should start by gender diversifying their boards; gender-diverse boards lead to gender-diverse C-suites.

Usually, boards feature an “accidental” composition that results from social norms: board members source new directors from their social and immediate networks. An intentional board, by comparison, is deliberate in composing a governance structure that is best equipped to evaluate and address current demands and future challenges. Boards can address this in three ways.

  1. Expand your networks. The median male board member has social connections to 62% of other men on their boards but no social connections to women on their boards. Broaden the traditional recruitment channels to ensure a more qualified, diverse slate.
  2. Seek diverse skill sets. Qualified female candidates may emerge through indirect career paths, other sectors of the financial industry or are in finance but outside of financial services. Women with nonprofit experience and small business owners can bring local market knowledge and relevant experience to bank boards.
  3. Insist on gender diverse slates. A diverse slate of candidates negates tokenism, while a diverse interviewer slate demonstrates to candidates that your bank is diverse.

But diversity in recruiting and hiring alone won’t improve a bank’s performance. To be effective, a diverse board must intentionally engage all members. Boards can address this in three ways.

  1. Ensure buy-in. Support from key board members when it comes to diversifying your board is critical to success. Provide coaching for inclusive leadership.
  2. Review director on-boarding and ongoing engagement. Make sure it’s welcoming to people with different connections or social backgrounds, builds trust and facilitates open communication.
  3. Thoughtful composition of board committees. Integrate new directors into the board’s culture and make corporate governance more inclusive and effective.

The long-term performance benefits of a gender diverse board and c-suite are compelling, especially in the current challenging operating environment for banks. Over time, an intentional board and C-suite that mirrors the gender diversity of your bank’s key constituents — your customer base, your employee base and your shareholder base — will out-perform banks that do not adapt.

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.

Governance Survey Results: Directors Sound Off on Diversity, Performance

SURVEY.pngU.S. banks have made modest progress on improving the diversity of their boards of directors, but more work needs to be done, based on the results of Bank Director’s 2020 Governance Best Practices Survey.

Sponsored by Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, the survey was conducted in February and March of this year and included the perspectives of 159 independent directors, chairmen and CEOs of U.S. banks under $50 billion in assets.

Thirty-nine percent of the survey participants say their boards have several diverse directors, based on gender or ethnic and racial backgrounds. Thirty percent have one of two diverse directors but hope to recruit more. Thirteen percent indicate they have one or two diverse directors and believe that is sufficient, while another 13% say they have no such directors and would like to recruit some. And 5% say they have no diverse directors and aren’t seeking to add those attributes.

“What I say to boards is to look at your communities,” says James McAlpin Jr., a partner at Bryan Cave and leader of the firm’s banking practice group. “Many communities in the United States have undergone fundamental demographic change over the last 15 years.” Included in this demographic evolution is an increase in the number of women and minority business owners. “Then look around your board table,” he continues. “I think it’s really important for the board to reflect the bank’s demographic customer base.”

There is a solid body of academic research that diverse boards make better decisions, resulting in stronger financial performance. But not all of the survey’s respondents are on board with that assessment. While 52% agree that diversity improves a board’s performance, 40% believe it does to an extent but the impact is overrated, and 8% do not believe that diversity improves performance.

The survey also finds that a significant number of participants report a lack of engagement by some members of their board, with 39% saying that some or few of their directors are actively engaged during board and committee meetings.

Not unsurprising perhaps, the survey found that a significant number — 42% — report having at least one or two underperforming directors.

McAlpin suggests that engagement and performance issues “need to be addressed through board evaluation and feedback to those directors.” Unfortunately, less than half of the survey participants say their boards perform some type of periodic performance review, and just 31% include individual director assessments in that process.

Other Survey Results Include

  • Fifty-eight percent of the respondents serve on board where the chair is an independent director. On boards where the CEO is also the chair, only 55% have a lead independent director.
  • The median length of board service for the participants is 12 years; 76% are over the age of 60.
  • Eighty-four percent identify as white and 78% as male. Just 1% are Black and 1% are Hispanic.

Click HERE to view the full survey results.

For a further analysis of the findings that examines process, independence, composition, oversight and refreshment, access “How Bank Boards Manage Their Business” HERE.

Why We Ignore Big Risks

Should we have seen COVID-19 coming?

A pandemic was far from the top risk on corporate radars a few months ago, even though experts in a variety of fields warned about the possibility of one for years.

Best-selling author Michele Wucker refers to risks like this as “gray rhinos.” It’s a metaphor for the obvious challenges that societies tend to neglect, often due to the size of the risk.

“It’s meant to evoke a two-ton thing with its horn [pointed] straight at you, and pawing the ground, snorting, probably about to charge,” says Wucker, the author of “The Gray Rhino: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore.” She is the CEO and founder of Gray Rhino & Co., which helps leaders and organizations identify and respond to these risks.

To learn about preparing for the next big threat, I interviewed Wucker about why we often ignore obvious threats, and how to approach the next crisis. The transcript that follows has been edited for brevity, clarity and flow.

BD: What are the most powerful forces that keep us from identifying and addressing gray rhinos?
MW: There are psychological and organizational and governmental [forces] that keep us from recognizing what we need to. Human beings are hardwired to ignore some of the things that we don’t want to see. We tend to deny information if we don’t like it — if we don’t like the solution to a problem. A lot of this is unconscious. So, when you recognize that unconscious bias, you’re way ahead of everybody else because it makes you much more able to see what’s in front of you.

But in terms of organizations and governments, more structural and policy factors, some of them have to do with decision-making. We like to surround ourselves with people who think the way that we do. And when we do that, it confirms what we already think. It makes us even less likely to see red flags. So, decision-making processes and organizational culture are one reason.

In terms of governments and even corporations, the incentives that we’ve set up are misaligned.

Businesses look so much at quarterly earnings, and too often pay so much attention to the short term, that they forget they are putting long-term value at risk. And for politicians who are looking at election cycles of just a few years, it’s much easier for them to tell people what they want to hear and kick the can down the road so that the problem explodes on the next guy’s watch. Our society tends to reward people for picking up the mess after the fact. And when somebody makes a hard decision that prevents the mess from happening in the first place, we don’t celebrate as much as we should.

BD: One of the things we often talk about [at Bank Director] is the danger of groupthink and the lack of diversity on corporate boards. As we’re looking at the impact of this pandemic, I would not be surprised to see things like diversity and similar initiatives taking a back seat to these more short-term concerns that we’re seeing now. Is that a mistake?
MW: Absolutely. It would be a huge mistake to stop looking at how we can make better decisions by bringing the right voices around the table, having a group of people who can overcome groupthink. And really what would be most helpful now would be an extra emphasis on who else are you going to bring to the table to help solve the problems right now? An injection of diversity in decision-making could be one of the most important factors helping us to not just get out of the crisis, but set ourselves up for future success.

In “The Gray Rhino,” I quote [European Central Bank President] Christine Lagarde … [her] comment that if Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters instead, we wouldn’t have had that problem. In my mind, that’s not quite right. It should have been Lehman Siblings, because too much of any gender or outlook or perspective or risk attitude is the wrong approach to take. There’s a lot of research showing that when you have diverse voices in different demographics, different specializations, different perspectives, you’re much better set up to make good decisions for the future.

One problem we are having right now is that there were unintended consequences of some of the decisions that were made to get us out of the 2008 crisis. It’s important when you’re getting out of a crisis to make sure that you’re not setting yourself up for something worse down the road, and to put in place check-in measures along the way, to make sure that the fixes you put in place are working the way you meant them to.

BD: Crises can force change. What do you hope to see business leaders learn from this current crisis to ensure they’re better prepared for the next crisis on the horizon?
MW: I love the way you phrased that because people are always trying to look backwards, because they’re so used to thinking of black swans. [Editor’s Note: A “black swan” refers to a rare, unforeseeable crisis.] It’s important to look back to learn what we’ve done wrong, but unless you apply it to the future, it’s a bit of an exercise in futility.

The biggest lesson I think people should learn is how important it is to be proactive about problems, particularly big problems that seem overwhelming. It’s very important for everybody to do their part to address problems. … Leaders really need to focus on two new mindsets. One, proactive, long-term, forward-looking emphasis on creating value, and thinking in complex systems. The Business Roundtable statement last August about restating the purpose of a corporation was interesting in that way. They came out and said it’s no longer a matter of prioritizing your shareholders alone, because if you don’t think about all of the other stakeholders in your orbit, that has the potential to reduce shareholder value.

I think it really brought a complex systems approach to this debate in business communities. For so long, people had looked just at shareholders, and thought about other stakeholders’ needs as a zero-sum game. This new systems-thinking approach shows how they’re all related; that you can’t effectively protect your shareholders unless you’re also looking at your other stakeholders. That brings us back to your point about having diverse voices and making sure you’re getting all the inputs you need.

BD: What are the other gray rhinos that banks and corporations might be ignoring right now?
MW: I’ve been focusing personally on a trio of interrelated gray rhinos. Inequality. The fact that the people in the bottom whatever percent you want to apply are falling behind. [This is] already hurting economic growth and making the entire economy much more vulnerable, as we’re now seeing in a painful way. So, inequality is the first one.

Second one is climate change, which is closely related to inequality, because the people who are contributing the most to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change generally tend to not be the same ones as the people who are affected the most. And third, financial fragilities, which are closely related to both climate change and inequality, as we’re seeing right now when the bottom part of the population loses their jobs and they’re blown apart, taking the whole economy down with it.

As we saw in the conversations in Davos in January, and with BlackRock’s statement about climate risk and investment risk being one and the same, there’s a close relationship between climate change decisions and shoring up the way that the whole financial system and the global economy works. Many central banks and researchers around the world last year made the point that insurers are undercapitalized if you look at the potential impact of climate change.

I think there’s also complex systems thinking, a limit to that — if you’re financing fossil fuel companies, but you have other investments that are negatively affected by climate change, say oceanfront property, then you’re basically investing in hurting the other companies and investments in your portfolio.

So, that trio to me is important, and the pandemic has shown how dangerous all three of them are and that we need to deal with all three of them together.