The Fully Empowered Banker

By Evan Sparks
Casey Christopher is a “CEO,” but not the one you’re familiar with. As “chief empowerment officer” at Manhattan-based Quontic Bank, she has a unique role in catalyzing innovation from the bottom up.
Quontic Bank has become well-known in the banking world for innovative digital products—most famously, starting at the end of 2020, a bitcoin rewards checking that allows customers to opt to receive 1.5 percent of the transaction value back, in bitcoin, every time they use their debit card. (Quontic also gave bitcoin to each of its employees to help them understand the cryptocurrency—a valuable employee perk indeed, depending on the day you check your wallet.) Bitcoin checking allows customers to diversity their portfolio and dabble in crypto without having to go out and purchase it directly; Quontic clients’ bitcoin is purchased and custodied through a partner called NYDIG.
“We’re super excited about being the first bank to go live with the debit card; it was a heavy lift for our team and to do it right before the holidays too—so I’m really proud of them and really proud to be part of the team,” says Christopher.
As a community development financial institution, Quontic also has an express mission of reaching underserved market segments—for example, constructing credit products that work well for gig economy workers and immigrants whose finances may not fit standard underwriting models. This kind of financial empowerment translates into employee empowerment too—it calls on a whole team to feel ownership and empowered to introduce new ideas. That’s where Christopher comes in.
Christopher leads empowerment through Quontic Bank’s core values: “say cheese” (smile and be positive); “try it on” (be adaptive and open to new ideas), “know the goal” and “progress, not perfection.”

That last one was the hardest for Christopher, a community banking veteran, to get her head around. “You can’t just wire a million-ish dollars!” she says. “You have to be accurate on everything. But ‘progress, not perfection’ was the core value that was really something that I was able to embrace. When I do the onboarding of our new employees, we have a culture day where we talk all about our strategies and our core values. And often the one that resonates with folks the most—not only when they’re in the hiring process, but once they’ve started—is ‘progress, not perfection.’ It’s really liberating to understand that your employer understands that.”

Iterative innovation

That step-by-step approach to innovation—the pursuit of progress, not perfection—not only helps Quontic Bank iterate on ideas. It also lowers the stakes for employees to share innovative ideas. An idea might need to address only one component of a process, or it might mesh with other ideas. Innovation doesn’t have to be a neatly wrapped package—not that it ever is in the real world anyway.
“At Quontic, we think that innovation is not technology—it’s reframing and re-engineering the way we look at things, the way we perceive things,” says Christopher. “We think that soil is our culture and that the seeds are technology, so we have a kind of a different way of looking at things.”
Employees also feel more invested in innovation when they see their work implemented and making a difference quickly. At TIAA, a financial services provider and parent company of Jacksonville, Florida-based TIAA Bank, employees can see that difference through a program called High-Velocity Engineering. Launched in 2019, HVE helps employees across TIAA embrace agile processes and techniques.
“All of this new technology—containers, a focus on APIs, ability to release multiple times per day versus once a month—should result in the experience for my engineers and my project teams being a lot better,” says TIAA Chief Digital Officer Scott Blandford. Moreover, “if we do it right, it’s an improved user experience.”
For example, Blandford says, TIAA was the first retirement provider to offer full technical support for CARES Act provisions on distributions and retirement plan loans. “We were there Monday morning ready to go” after a weekend coding sprint, he explains. And with the capacity to release updates multiple times per day, TIAA is constantly pushing changes to its digital adviser and chatbot tools in response to customer use.

Starting with culture

For a bank with an employee empowerment approach, culture is fundamental. “The employees in the bank are really the ones who are building our culture,” says Patricia Weigel, chairman and CEO of Norway Savings Bank in Norway, Maine. “It doesn’t live with me. Employees are empowered to build our culture at any given time.”

Norway Savings Bank does this through employee-led culture teams, with more than a third serving on one of these teams or as a culture ambassador across the organization. For 2021, six culture teams are working on issues identified in an employee engagement survey, Weigel says, including coaching, employee experience, peak performance, diversity and inclusion, meeting effectiveness and remote work.
Like many banks, Norway Savings Bank and Quontic Bank are exploring how to adapt their corporate culture in a more or fully remote environment. The aftermath of the pandemic demonstrated to Quontic that it could operate on a remote basis—and that the ability to hire anywhere would help jumpstart its growth plans. The bank now has employees in 23 states, in addition to its home base in the New York metro area. “What that led us to understand throughout the summer and then in October—when I was promoted and given the title of chief empowerment officer—is that we really had to be intentional about fostering joy, well-being and human flourishing,” Christopher says. “We needed to make sure that our employees felt heard supported and challenged.”
She spends a lot of time listening to team members and asking for feedback, then working to put that feedback into practice. For Christopher, it might be as small as getting an employee who seemed to have eye strain the right home monitor setup or as major as successfully advocating for the bank to provide paid parental leave.

Empowerment through education

At TIAA, High-Velocity Engineering allows employees to learn from each other. Employees make videos sharing their expertise and post them internally; more than 25,000 training courses have been completed since the program launched.
“The people who have something to share love sharing, and the people who have something to learn love learning from their colleagues,” says Blandford. Peer-to-peer training helps the concepts feel less abstract, and TIAA team members can see the effects of their learning in real life. “It’s helped everyone feel the momentum.”
Ultimately, employees are empowered by being able to succeed. Friction in processes—tech or otherwise—demoralizes employees as much as it annoys customers. “It should be really easy for our engineers to do their most creative work in the office,” says Blandford. “Every time there’s an enterprise process that gets in the way or creates friction, we ought to take that every bit as seriously as when the customer has a problem.”
“Everyone on my team gets energized by doing great work,” he adds. “This just gives us a chance to do great work faster.”
Christopher notes—as many bankers will—that “people are our greatest asset.” What that means for Quontic Bank is that “we want to make sure there are the right people in the right seats and that we have the right systems for them. if we’re going to curate and cultivate innovation, it has to start with our team members.”

About Author

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