“One of the biggest concerns we have is for community banks that do not believe they have any weaknesses.” –Gerrish’s Musings December 28, 2023
I can’t agree with this statement any more if I tried. It should be the entire content of the blog post or just be looped over and over to make one entire podcast episode. I can’t tell you the number of times we hear something like this in grad school or in our other programming and before we talk about it further here…let’s set some context before we blow off the statement as “that’s not my bank”.
The context for the quote came from some discussions Gerrish Smith Tuck with a bank who had just finished up a focus group study with their own employees. Employees were asked to give their opinion and feedback on what they saw as to the bank’s direction and strategic initiatives. One employee seemed to do just that and management didn’t like it. The critique, according to the article, was at specific items related “creating competitive disadvantages, wasting money, and committing similar bad acts as it relates to strategy”. This doesn’t read like the disgruntled employee who is mad about teller staffing issues on the 3rd of the month. That’s important (#iykyk amirite?!?) but these critiques are on what he/she sees going on at the executive level.
Now, here’s the question…if you asked one of your employees to give you honest feedback, he/she does, and you get offended…what does that say about you? I might even grant that it might not be done in the most gracious manner with pristine professionalism…but does that make the criticism wrong? Are you willing to say that you and/or your bank really has weaknesses?
Let’s go on. Each year, I grade the GAP assessment paper for the Barret Graduate School of Banking where students survey their colleagues and analyze the results as they pertain to communication and marketing efforts (for lack of a better term). Every session, there is going to be a not insignificant number of papers that are going to have some version of the following:
- “Our bank does not conduct marketing research because we pride ourselves on knowing all of our customers.”
- “We are the best bank in town because we are the ones who care.”
- “Our customers are greeted by their first names when they walk in the door”.
Any of these or some version of them sound familiar? Be honest!
The answer to these is very simple…”Nope”. Now, I know you love your customers. I still love my old customers and miss them. Those kids have grown up too quickly or that new business is celebrating its 10th anniversary that (again, let’s be honest) you were hoping just pays the loan! But if I asked your competition in town what makes them special, guess what they would say “our bank knows our customers…we’re the best bank in town…greeted by their name…etc etc etc.” See my point? The weakness here is the bank can’t define itself and, more importantly, has deceived itself into drinking the very old and antiquated Kool-Aid.
Let’s look at another example. One of the best lessons I learned in bank training was this simple adage “be honest with yourself about what you have”. If you go around conferences bragging that you don’t make unsecured loans (seen it happen) but you grant overdrafts, congratulations, you’ve made an unsecure loan. I know a loan officer (no longer in the industry) who put in his memos (AS A STRENGTH OF THE LOAN!) that the borrower was a “well-respected member of the community”. Every memo. Apparently, the entire business community of this market was so kind and loving that everyone was well-respected. He was also one of the few lenders I have ever seen legitimately try and argue on multiple occasions that his loans had no weaknesses. Hallelujah and clap your hands because he’d found ag and real estate investment loans with no weaknesses….all to well respected members of the community. I never did see or hear about him financing the unicorn operation but I’m sure it too was run by well respected members of the community.
You can see the point by now. Just be honest with yourself and know that admitting (or facing) a weakness is not a weakness. We love to talk about our strengths (personal, professional, and corporate) and those amazing opportunities that are going to blow the top off of ROE and those threats that are out there that we have no control over and therefore don’t have to account for…but those weaknesses are where we run and hide. If we ask the question “what do you think about where we are going?” and you don’t like the response…is that a “them” problem or a “you” problem? I will grant that you may not like the answer but does that change the fact that…you have some blind spots.