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Banking on Leadership

Susan Eick / CEO
Dec 10, 2020

I’m pretty proud of the fact that I spent a good majority of my formative career years in the banking industry. Fortunately, I had some great leaders to guide me through the sometimes treacherous political waters of “big bank” hierarchies. Over the years, I worked in Marketing and Business Development, headed up Sales and Service Quality initiatives for banks, managed at one time 71 branches of a regional bank in the Western US, and led a product innovation team for a national supplier to the financial services industry. Banking is in my blood, and I have to admit, I get a little excited every time Refinery gets a chance to work with a financial institution, whether it’s a large multi-national bank or a purpose-driven regional credit union.

I was giving some thought over the past few months to how leadership needs in the financial services industry have changed over the past 10 years.  Is banking any different than any other industry experiencing digital transformation, change in client expectations, an aging workforce, and multi-generational cohorts working together?  Are the traditional views of what makes a great banking leader being challenged at all? 

To help me with my research, I interviewed someone who I have partnered with several times in my banking career—Ned Miller, Founder of Third Act Consulting.  Ned has dedicated the majority of his career to helping business and commercial bankers be better at what they do—for their clients, for their communities, and for their own teams. 

What I found in talking with Ned is that there are still some “traditional” expectations around what is viewed as strong leadership in banking: Having a solid understanding of credit risk, knowing how to manage pricing and margins in client relationships, and knowing how to leverage key relationships throughout the bank. But, what is emerging as net new expectations for banking leaders might surprise you.

In our discussion, Ned used a term that I really liked. He said that leaders in the banking industry need to be “curious generalists.” Sure, they may have been trained originally in commercial lending, investments, or perhaps even in technology – but if they are on the path to CEO or upper management, they need to walk around and ask questions. Lots of them. And, they need to be able to develop their team.

According to Ned, team development consists of three main parts: assessing the talent you already have, developing them and finding the right people to fill in the gaps between what you need on your team and what you already have

As an industry that most would consider very conservative and traditional, developing leadership in banking is not without its challenges. Since the 1980s, it seems that investment in leadership training in the banking industry has slowed considerably. Perhaps it’s because training has become more specialized, or perhaps it’s a failure to understand the return on the investment in leadership development. But complacency in this area is dangerous. CEOs need to have good leadership skills to grow their organization and attract more talent to their team. As Ned puts it, you should always be recruiting.

I ended our discussion by asking Ned what advice he would give to a new bank CEO.  His answer was simple:  Get to know your people and assess the talent you have on your team. Be a curious generalist.

Do you have an opinion about how leadership in banking is changing, or needs to change—I’d love to hear from you!

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