Banking 2020: Expect the Unexpected

By Jim Edwards

Whether it’s coronavirus, mass protests, destructive wildfires or even “murder hornets,” one thing we’ve learned in 2020 is to expect the unexpected. There’s no one webinar we can take to help us sift through the confusing effects of the virus. There’s no BankExec simulation for civil unrest.

Responding well to crises starts long before the moment of crisis. It comes in how we and our teams are formed. To respond well, we dive deep in leadership training. We build management teams of diverse strength. We communicate clearly and listen carefully. There’s no magic formula, but we can recognize common patterns because crises are part of our experience as bankers. They come more frequently than you might think.

Looking back on the year, leading a bank through the pandemic onset as we delivered the Paycheck Protection Program funds to our Georgia communities is a highlight of my career. Our team showed up for small businesses—often not in person, but from a kitchen table late on a Sunday night—delivering in the heat of the moment.

Our whole industry can be proud. An ABA analysis shows banks were responsible for 94 percent of the 51 million jobs supported by the PPP.

Meanwhile, we saw years of digital transformation accelerated into a few weeks. We were fortunate at United Bank to have made timely investments in technology, such as our deployment of interactive teller machines, which helped us serve customers beyond bank lobbies. With more than four in 10 consumers saying they will reduce branch visits even after stay-at-home orders are withdrawn, many of these changes are here to stay.

In 2020, we also saw another crisis: our country’s painful examination of conscience around race. We need to be part of this essential national conversation, because banks are central to solving problems in the communities we serve.

The good news is that ABA was already moving to respond to these challenges long before the protests we saw this summer. While we have room for improvement, we also have much to be proud of as an industry.

Crisis moments are an amazing time to watch leaders step up—we as CEOs can see who on our teams can run the play, dig in and deal with stress. Through leadership development programs at banks like mine and through the training and executive education ABA provides, nurtured leaders are well-positioned for peak performance in these difficult times.

What will come out of these crises, for the men and women working at banks like mine and yours, is that they will emerge on the other side of this difficult period and realize: Crises are when you grow. Crises are when you can make the most difference to your customers and to your organization.

I know bankers are ready to adapt and directly confront what is ahead, to make our industry better and our country better, too. We accept that challenge.

We’ve all been stretched in 2020. What I think we’ve found is that we’re much more resilient, capable and open to new ideas.

ABA Chairman Jim Edwards is CEO of United Bank, Zebulon, Georgia.