Bank Boards Need to be Younger, More Diverse and More Visionary


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I was chairing a conference recently at which a Gartner Group consultant talked about the firm’s annual bank survey. Gartner found that of the senior bankers it surveyed, 76 percent don’t believe that digitalization will affect their business model.

I can tell you that 76 percent of those survey respondents were wrong. Of course digitalization is affecting the business model, and if you don’t think it is then you need to read my blogs about platformification; back office overhaul through the cloud and machine learning; the impact of shared databases through blockchain; the rapid cycle change of microservices organizations; and the rise of innovation economies in Africa and growth economies like China’s.

In fact, I would be amazed if any banker who reads my blog could honestly say that digitalization doesn’t change their business model. After all, the business model of traditional banks was built for face-to-face interactions backed up by paper documentation; the business model of digital banks is for device-to-device interactions backed up by data. The two are completely different.

It doesn’t worry me that bankers think their banks business models don’t need to change—after all, banks are run by bankers and it’s their problem if they believe otherwise—but it does worry me that people in charge of systemically important institutions that are so important to so many aspects of our lives could be so ignorant. I think it reflects the lack of insight into how digital transformation is impacting the world, and also the lack of balance in bank boardrooms.

This was evidenced by a recent Accenture analysisof the boardrooms of the 100 biggest banks in the world, which shows that:

  • Only 6 percent of board members have professional technology backgrounds.
  • Just 3 percent of these banks have CEOs with professional technology backgrounds.
  • Forty-three percent of the banks analyzed don’t have any board members with professional technology backgrounds.
  • Thirty percent of these banks have only one board member with a professional technology background.
  • In North American banks, 12 percent of board members have professional technology experience, compared with 5 percent in both European and Asian banks.
  • Though boards of banks in the United States and the United Kingdom have higher percentages of directors with professional technology experience than others, the numbers are still low—at 16 percent in the U.S. and 14 percent in the U.K.

Banks are led by bankers even though banks are actually fintech companies—even if they don’t yet realize that. That is the fatal flaw here, as fintech firms are led by a combination of technologists and bankers. Most fintech firms I meet have a healthy balance of young, bright technology experts and seasoned financial people.

That is why it’s interesting to see that the biggest banks are gradually reconstructing their boardrooms for more balance, or sothis year’s trendspredicted. When I think of a bank boardroom, I picture a lot ofold menin suits (andthe numbersprove this). When I think of a fintech firm’s boardroom, I see something that is young, diverse and visionary. It does have some old hands on board, but it’s balanced. So what I really expect in the next decade is to see a bank boardroom become just a little bit more awesome. Still a bit grey, but also a little younger, more diverse and a healthy mix and balance of financial acumen and technology vision. Please.

The Bank Director of the Future: Diversity of Experiences and Skill Sets Matter


bank-director-2-22-17.pngWhile the requirements needed in a bank leader today continue to evolve, the same can also be said for bank directors. Boards of directors today are under more scrutiny than ever before, whether from governance advisors, shareholders, Wall Street analysts, activist investors, community leaders and customers. Even mutuals and privately held institutions face more visible scrutiny around corporate governance from their regulators and key constituents. Serving as a bank director today may still have a certain amount of prestige (depending on whom you ask), but the expectations for director performance and engagement have never been higher.

Community banks in particular tend to have long tenured board members—in many cases with decades of service. Continuity can be a good thing, provided the director skill sets continue to be relevant and the board does not become too close to the CEO, compromising objectivity. However, many bank boards have begun to focus more on the “collective skills” represented around the board table, and have started to emphasize a skill-based approach in making director retention and recruiting decisions.

There are certain skills sets which nearly every bank board likely needs more of; first and foremost in technology. So-called cyber or digital skills are paramount in today’s industry, from both risk and growth perspectives. Likewise, we often see high demand for new board members to serve as qualified financial experts—particularly in public companies—and for directors who bring risk management, strategic planning, marketing/branding, human capital or prior CEO experience to the board table. Depending on the ownership structure, many publicly traded banks are also interested in directors with prior exposure to best practices in public company governance.

However, the real place for improvement in the boardroom is often around how the board behaves. Research from numerous sources validates that how a board operates is the most critical factor of whether a board is a truly valuable strategic asset for the company. Director willingness to discuss the truly vital issues—such as strategy, CEO and board succession, transactions and risk—in an open and candid manner is an important ingredient for institutional success. CEO succession in particular can be an Achilles heel for banks if they are unwilling to deal with the elephant in the room.

One of the other weaknesses in the boardroom involves the underperforming director. According to audit and consulting firm PwC, 35 percent of directors think someone on their board should be replaced. Yet the percentage of community banks conducting peer reviews (compiled by an objective third-party to maintain confidentiality) remains low. In addition, PwC research also suggests that 25 percent of directors come to board meetings unprepared. If we truly believe in building a strategic-asset board as governance best practices would suggest, then boards have an obligation to raise their game and make some tough decisions. A board seat is a rare and precious thing, and not having every director contribute in a currently meaningful way reduces board effectiveness considerably.

The single biggest determinant in board effectiveness is the board’s willingness to address these tough topics head-on, and to do so in a non-personal, collaborative and open manner. Boards that cannot handle straight-talk, or dodge the big issues around director or CEO succession, often prove less effective, in part because they are presenting a status-quo message rather than a forward-thinking viewpoint. Fostering a boardroom culture which enables robust discussions from divergent viewpoints, in order to arrive at the best decisions, remains critical. And, while boards have had to increase their focus on checks and balances in this regulatory climate, it is important to maintain some focus on looking through the windshield and not just the rear-view mirror as well.

Lastly, diversity around the board table has become a front burner issue. Many governance experts tout a diversity of thought, perspectives and experiences as critical in order for the board to make the wisest decisions. Yet in order to garner those wider viewpoints, it is usually necessary to move beyond the classic board which still often remains stale, pale and male. Boards will need to become proactive in seeking a more diverse group around the board table, and will likely need to broaden how and from where as they think about sourcing new potential directors.

In summary, the new bank director today needs to be a subject matter expert in an important area, but also a collaborative, communicative, engaged partner in the boardroom. The more willing a board is to tackle the toughest business issues, and encourage and respect divergent views around the table, the more likely the bank will continue to be successful.