Jeff For Banks

In Banking, Soft Skills Remain Blah, Blah, Blah

By: Jeffrey P. Marsico

Weakness: Middle Management. I hear this often. Why is it so common in community banks?

I have opinions. Peter Principle is alive and well in banking. We elevate superior performers in their functional position to leadership positions to which they are ill prepared. We promote them to the level of ineffectiveness.

But that doesn’t mean that the experienced and high performing loan servicing person cannot become a great manager of Loan Servicing. It means that the skills to motivate those under you to perform at their peak are different than pushing yourself to perform at your peak. But it takes more than revising their business card and giving them an office to get from here to there. It takes organizational effort.

My local newspaper featured the director of training and development at a long-standing construction company. In the article, she spoke of emotional intelligence and body language. Not skills that were critical to maximizing the tickler feature of your Jack Henry core. 

The construction company had $414 million in revenue. Enough to have a high level person that is the Director of Learning and Development. So what does a $40 million in revenue community bank do?

Do I Think Leadership Is Important?

I searched this blog for what I have written on Leadership. Here is what I came up with:

Lead Like Lincoln. Identifying attributes that made arguably our greatest president so great.  

Do We Care About Leadership? Discussing the military’s take on leadership development.

Leadership: In My Own Words. My uninhibited opinions on leadership in a changing industry. 

Do you think I believe this is an important discipline?

What To Do

Back to middle management being a weakness. When I hear this in strategic planning retreats I look in the face of bank executives and quote one of my Navy division officers: “Careful pointing your finger, because the other three are pointing at you.” To translate Lt. Proper’s quote, it means that if your middle managers are not strong, perhaps it’s because of you.

Here is what I suggest that you do about it…

1. Develop. Always develop high potential employees for the next level. If the next level includes supervising others, then their development plans should include how best to do that given your bank’s culture. There are scores of programs out there to develop people into being great leaders and managers. Choose a reputable one that fits your bank’s philosophy on maximizing the abilities of those that report to you. It doesn’t have to be within our industry. The Positive Coaching Alliance program that I took when learning how to be a girls lacrosse coach has made a significant impact on me, for example. It taught me how to “fill the emotional tank” of those that report to me. Most college business programs have leadership and management courses, but the noise of college might have diluted their impact. So why not have the employee do a white paper on leadership and management best practices for re-enforcement? Don’t just assume they get it if they went to college. But your approach may be different.

2. Empower. This means that you allow mistakes. But in so doing, create an environment that learns from mistakes. Nothing is more deflating than something going wrong and all that the employee does is defend their actions. That means that you have created an environment where they think they are in trouble. Instead, create an environment that when things go wrong, we look at why. Was the data used to make the decision incomplete? Did we miss on the execution? Allow mistakes, and reflect on them to make us better the next go round. Don’t create the environment where mistakes lead to a stern discussion. So many cumbersome bank processes where born from a ‘no mistakes’ culture. And it stifles a high potential employee’s development and the continuous pursuit of doing things better. 

3. Cheer. The assistant manager of Loan Servicing is so good that you are afraid to lose her. So in that ops meeting the COO gives kudos to automating insurance tracking, and you nod. Your assistant manager came up with the concept and led the execution. But you know that Loan Admin is looking for a new leader, and you don’t want to lose your superstar. You got nobody in the wings! And you really didn’t follow “1” above because you couldn’t afford to have your assistant manager away for a couple days anyway. When I was in the Navy, a part of leadership’s evaluations was how well your subordinates promoted. This led to unintended consequences like inflated performance reviews, but the concept was correct, in my opinion. If you are a manager and leader, then you should be advocating for your high potential employees’ upward mobility. 

Those are only three ideas for building a stream of potential future leaders. Building the capability of developing high potential employees into future leaders is the best way to preserve and advance your culture. Because if you are forced to always go outside of your bank to fill leadership positions you will dilute your culture and deflate your employees trying to reach the next level.

You can do this.

~ Jeff