Taking on Banking’s ‘Brave New World’ Requires Courageous Leadership

By Monica C. Meinert

It’s a brave new world for bankers. Navigating it—from fintech to millennials, from blockchain to biometrics—demands courage from individuals at all levels of their careers, says leadership expert and author Cindy Solomon, who spoke at ABA’s Women’s Leadership Forum in March.

“I always used to think courage was something you had or you didn’t. You were or you weren’t,” Solomon continues. “But the reality is, courage is just taking that step past your discomfort. And if you really want to transform the industry, you have to get comfortable with doing things differently.” She offers four “unwritten rules” for building courage:

1. Own your strengths.

Becoming “comfortable with discomfort” starts by looking inward. “Get crystal clear about what you’re really good at and what you love doing,” Solomon advises. “Then start talking to people about it.” Emily Gray, SVP and senior credit officer with Hardin County Bank in Savannah, Tenn., says that doing just that helped her advance her career in a big way. During her 16 years with the bank, the institution has grown from $200 million to just under $500 million—all with the same staffing levels. And while the bank’s growth gave her the opportunity to wear many different hats, it didn’t come without its share of growing pains. One particular pain point came as the bank’s loan portfolio began to expand. Gray quickly realized that the bank needed not only a new senior lender, but a senior credit officer to go along with it, and she made the decision to speak up. “I knew it was exactly what our bank needed in order to move forward in the future,” she says.

Armed with her years of relevant experience, she made her case to the CEO for creating the new post and why she was uniquely qualified for it. And as her title indicates, she succeeded.

2. Own your place at the table. 

The ability to clearly communicate your strengths can make the difference between simply sitting at the table and owning your place at the table, Solomon explains. “When you walk into a room, unless you introduce yourself with your full name, your title, ideally, and why you’re in the meeting, you become instantly invisible.”Gender plays a role in how individuals level-set with one another, she adds—research indicates that for men, direct level-setting tends to occur automatically, while women tend to level-set in vaguer terms. (For example, saying “I’m in private banking” versus “I’m in charge of a team of seven managing $1.2 billion.”) Level-setting sends a signal that you are relevant and ready to lead.

“I think the more relevant you are, the more involved you are,” observes Cara James, SVP and chief compliance officer for Arvest Bank in Tulsa, Okla. “I think being the person that can stand up and communicate the needs of the company is the most important thing.”

Gray notes that owning your place at the table also means being a proactive problem solver. “If you ever bring a problem, you have to bring a solution for it,” she says. “You never want to identify an issue that you’re not prepared to solve.

3. Make relationships a priority.

Solomon, Gray and James emphasize the importance of professional relationships at all stages of one’s career. “Being associated with your industry partners is vitally important because those relationships are huge as you build your career,” Solomon says. “The bigger the network, the better.”James and Gray both say that getting involved with ABA and their state associations helped them to expand their professional networks. “Opportunities present themselves,” James says. “I think it also helps you do your job better. I have learned so much just being around those other people.”

4. Seek ‘micromentoring’ opportunities. 

Solomon also encourages seeking out “micro-mentoring”—engaging colleagues who are exceptionally good at a given skill in quick, 15- to 20-minute mentoring sessions. Micro-mentoring can be more advantageous than traditional mentoring, she adds, because it asks for a much smaller sacrifice of time from the mentor, and allows the mentee to focus on developing a specific skill set.


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