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The Future of Banking Depends on its Talent

Richard “Dick” Ehst

President and Chief Operating Officer, Customers Bank

Recently, I had the opportunity to join President Trump and executives from across America to discuss economic successes and challenges since passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Our bank has used tax savings to offer higher deposit interest rates; increase our charitable giving, and we invest in our talent.

With unemployment the lowest it’s been in decades, we find ourselves competing at a higher level to recruit and retain the best talent in an industry that is undergoing radical transformation. Fintech, mobile banking, artificial intelligence, data science, marketing analytics, digital and social media – all of these have changed not only the way that banks work with customers, but also how customers experience banking. We need team members with the skills to understand how these technologies can be effectively applied, and we need customer-centric workforces that are agile and adaptive enough to navigate these changes with minimal disruption to customers.

How do we attract and retain this talent? We try to communicate the full value of what financial institutions and bankers actually do. While it’s vaguely understood that financial institutions manage money for individuals and organizations, the full impact that banks have on customers and on the communities we serve – and the value of that impact – is less well known.

We fuel economic growth and make job creation possible. And, we don’t do it by standing in a cage counting out cash.

Successful financial institutions require a diverse set of talent and skills – from economics to finance to compliance to customer service to technology – that work together seamlessly to provide the products and services that customers need to change their lives.

As regulatory and economic conditions change, and technology moves forward, we continually evolve to ensure that our offerings are timely and relevant. Far from being a stagnant, hierarchically driven industry, financial services is dynamic and perpetually focused on improving customer experiences and outcomes – whether it’s in the form of a new home for a first-time buyer, a business expansion loan for a company that will bring more jobs to the community, or a loan and savings plan that will finance a child’s education or a grandparent’s retirement. Sustainability, community involvement, and customer service are interwoven throughout everything we do.

Our industry is “going digital.” Only those financial institutions that embrace and master cutting-edge technology will survive. That’s easier said, then done.

The national talent recruiter Korn Ferry wrote recently, “Companies are making meaningful investments and commitments to ‘going digital,’ but they still feel like they’re struggling. Despite the fact that 96% of organizations see digital transformation as critical or important, 75% of them are ‘not very confident’ in their ability to execute a digital transformation – and 84% of executives believe that their organizations do not have the skills and capabilities to deliver on their digital ambition.”

We need IT talent, but demand outstrips the supply of skilled individuals. More than three-quarters of financial institutions report that they have created new IT roles in the last two years, but are having a hard time finding the IT talent they need. Half of all financial institutions say that hiring IT staff is either “difficult” or “very difficult,” due in part to the fact that, historically, banks aren’t known as technology or innovation incubators, especially in comparison to big Silicon Valley technology companies.

We must show prospective talent that financial institutions offer entrepreneurial environments where technology skills will be continually developed; where there is a clear, progressive career path for technology leaders; and where their contributions will have a tangible impact on the transformation of the organization.

At Customers Bank we recruit people who fit our culture based on trust and an absolute commitment to customer loyalty and memorable customer service. The vast majority of our new hires come from team member referrals. We know our current team members are best suited to spot potential colleagues so we give them a $250 bonus for every referral that results in a hire.

I meet personally with new hires and, over a welcome lunch, tell them, “The two things that matter most are having something to look forward to and knowing that someone cares about you. At Customers Bank, we’re ‘all in this together.’ If you understand the power of the team, you will have a great future here.”

We never hire someone just to fill an opening. That’s always a mistake. We wait to get the right person for the job and the organization. We treat candidates like valued customers.

After an individual is hired, the respect and nurturing must continue. We can’t simply attract talent; we must retain talent. I am so very pleased that Customers Bank’s turnover rate has ranged between 2% and 7% annually compared to the national average for financial institutions which is over 20%.

We retain employees by offering good compensation, excellent benefits, the opportunity for equity in the bank, a friendly and open-minded environment, and – we hope – fun. What’s the point of doing anything if it isn’t fun? So each office has ice cream parties, or picnics in the middle of the work day, or office outings. The CEO and I attend holiday parties in each region and give out awards for outstanding customer service and performance.

And we invest in continuing education and training. We are instituting a bank-wide “day of learning,” using Mass Open Online Courses (MOOCs) to offer diverse learning to our team members, and working with trade associations and chambers of commerce to join other firms in training and learning opportunities.

But all of this is secondary to our top talent retention tactic: we listen.

Each quarter, we hold a one-hour company-wide conference call to share financial performance results, explain strategy and take questions from team members. The CEO and I hold “town halls” with every business team and administrative unit to gain feedback and hear concerns. Recently we did a company-wide survey to learn from our team what they deem to be “stupid policies.” More than 140 issues were raised and now we are working to improve our policies, procedures, and methods based on suggestions and ideas. Team members said they are inundated by email, so we are experimenting with “No Email Fridays.”

Some of these ideas may not work, but we are listening and trying. Our people are our future. It’s that simple. A stronger, better financial services world will be built from the combined talents of diverse individuals. If I walked away from my conversation with President Trump and other executives with one thing, it was this: opportunities for progress abound, and we’re moving in the right direction. But our long-term success depends on how much we’re truly willing to invest in it – and that’s especially true of the talent that will carry our industry forward.