Three Elements of Bank Leadership

By Evan Sparks

There are as many paths to the community bank C-suite as there are bankers in those jobs. Some rise through the ranks at a single institution. Others move from bank to bank as they build their skills. Still more make a move from a regulatory agency, and some come from entirely outside the banking world altogether.

But today’s bank leaders emphasize common themes: namely, that regardless of their paths thus far, constant learning, investing in others and a spirit of humility are essential for continuing to grow. Eight top bank executives elaborated on these questions during a recent conversation at the ABA Stonier Graduate School of Banking in Philadelphia, where they were preparing to graduate.

Constant learning

Tanner Moore joined Extraco Banks in Waco, Texas, in 2002 and worked his way up through the company’s leadership development program to the role of EVP for strategic integration. At Extraco, he says, “learning leadership culture” is one of the bank’s six corporate leadership values. The bank promotes constant learning through cross-functional teams and frequent rotations of high performers. (Moore is on his eighth role with Extraco in his 15 years with the bank.) “We try and make sure our team members get a broad breadth of experience by at least participating in other areas while their roles remain the same,” he explains. “We try to give them other opportunities for exposure to and insight from other leaders within the organization.”

But regardless of formal learning opportunities, today’s bank leaders need to be comfortable with wringing all the education they can out of every opportunity. Chris Gerken is COO at Minnwest Bank in Minnetonka, Minn., and he is in his first banking job, having been recruited a few years ago from the technology sector. “I tell people on my team, you’re always going to be on the learning curve, so get comfortable being uncomfortable,” he explains. “You’re always going to be pushed to go and learn the next experience.”

Bank leaders need to be comfortable with learning, and they need to model it for their teams too. Jon Edney notes that his presence at Stonier underlines the value of learning for his employees. Edney is president and CEO of Community Valley Bank in El Centro, Calif.—a bank he co-founded in 2007 and served as chairman of before joining as CEO in 2014. It was his first banking job and his first time reporting to a board after decades of owning his own businesses.

“What I’ve tried to do since I’ve been the CEO is provide credibility,” he explains. “I’m here still learning. Why? Not really other than I want to be as smart and as capable as I can.” He’s been in El Centro for 35 years and isn’t looking for the next gig; in fact, by moving from chairman to CEO “in a sense I took a demotion. It doesn’t mean I stopped learning”—and that, he adds, is an invaluable object lesson for his team.

“If you get an opportunity to try something new, never turn it down because all you will do is learn,” says Moore. Adds Sara Patterson, CFO at First State Bank and Trust in Caruthersville, Mo.: “The more you learn, the more valuable you become.”

Investing in others

Almost everyone in a senior bank role can point to someone who gave them a big opportunity—and a chance to knock the ball out of the park. For Elise Hubbard, CFO at Old Line Bank in Bowie, Md., that opportunity came when she was working in a junior role in a two-person accounting department at Old Line, which she first joined as a part-time teller before going to college. After the stress of two back-to-back acquisitions, Hubbard’s boss called it a day and retired—and Hubbard tried the job on for size. “We’ve been rolling ever since.”

John Holdsclaw IV is SVP for corporate affairs at National Cooperative Bank, which provides financing to cooperatives and member-owned organizations. He came to the bank from a career in government relations and community development finance but knew he didn’t want to continue in that field. “The president and CEO wanted me to leverage those relationships that I had in the community development financial institutions world and basically created this job to help in that regard,” he says.

For many, however, those big career opportunities were facilitated by dedicated mentoring and coaching by other leaders. As a teenager, Stacy Cox knew she wanted to be a lender. A leader at her bank suggested she work in collections—which would teach her all about the importance of making good loans and the risks of bad loans¬—which began a 34-year career in banking that led her to be COO at Croghan Colonial Bank in Fremont, Ohio.

Early in her career, she worked for a COO at a large regional bank who was recruited to a community bank—and took Cox with her. “That was the first step in a long history that we’ve had together where she actually pulled me away from a job that I really liked to put me in a different field. And that was the first time she said, ‘I know you don’t like this right now, but this is going to make you more well-rounded.’”

“She invested personal time in me beyond the performance appraisal, beyond just normal coaching,” Cox recalls. “She had the courage to say, ‘You did this really well, try this next time,’ and then, when I tried it next time, if I did it well, she followed up. A lot of leaders don’t coach actively.”

‘Hungry and humble’

A hunger for learning and new opportunities has to be balanced with humility, Gerken says. “If you’re humble, you generally have a pretty good sense of self-awareness,” he says, “so that when you do come across new information or you encounter something that changes your paradigm, you’re willing to integrate that within yourself and prepare for changes in the business.”

Leading by example is key here. “If you want your team to work hard, you don’t come in at 9:00, leave at noon and go golfing,” says Cox. “There is a balance at the executive level; I get that. But you need to lead by example.”

Edney agrees. “I can’t tell you how many times in the last three or four years, one of my board members has called me on a Friday of a three-day weekend at noon or 11:00 and said, ‘Oh, you’re probably on your way to San Diego now.’ I said, ‘No. I’m here until 5:00.’ Because what am I telling all my employees?”

Gerken describes a sense of entitlement as “one of the cardinal sins of managers.” Bank leaders should not consider themselves special in terms of their role in the bank, he adds. “If you don’t watch out for that all the time, you can get yourself into a lot of ethical messes as well. If you look at some of the big scandals, they felt that they were special or different.”

No one is exempt. Jeremy Callais, COO and CFO of M C Bank and Trust in Morgan City, La., urges every leader to remember that even they are replaceable. “We know we’ll just hire a person and teach him how to bank, right? So remember that. That goes with the humility.”

About Evan Sparks

Evan Sparks
Evan Sparks is editor-in-chief of the ABA Banking Journal and vice president for publications at the American Bankers Association.
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