Leadership from the Inside Out

Building the right habits can galvanize a high-performance management team

By Tom Hershberger

Say all you want about location, location, location, but creating a high-performance bank is never just about showing up in the right place at the right time. Great performance is always embedded with intention. Leaders at high-performing community banks identify their desired outcomes and challenge their entire organization to participate in success.

Leaders who develop management habits together build consensus for corporate direction more quickly. Jim Ryun, the first high school runner to break the four-minute mile, understood the value of building effective habits. He said: “Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.”

Think of all the well-intentioned strategies your community bank has initiated but not successfully completed.

So, what habits lead to well-managed, high-performance community banks? Here are eight habits any management team can implement together. Selecting the right combination of habits to support performance will have a direct impact on your organization’s success.

1. Seek to understand opportunities. Opportunities are a proactive pursuit. Just waiting for good outcomes is not an opportunity-based endeavor. Opportunities come from different sources and situations, and highly effective managers take time to assess the full potential of relevant opportunities.

Examining industry trends is a good start. Placing those trends in context with your organization’s performance is an excellent second step. But there is more. Opportunities develop as customer expectations change or new delivery systems take root. Whenever a change in banking activities will affect a customer’s banking experience, opportunities will develop. Knowing the value of pursuing an opportunity will set you apart from the competition.

2. Study the competition. The competitive landscape for community banks is expanding rapidly. It is not enough to examine just the activities of your bank’s competitors. Financial service providers from myriad industries—insurance, investments, electronic payment systems and even personal financial management—are approaching and pursuing consumers and businesses. Some of the emerging competitors lack a local presence. Instead, they rely on readily available online resources to deliver their services. Evaluating each competitor’s strengths, weaknesses and points of difference is an important step to retaining a competitive advantage with your bank’s customers.

3. Ask customers what they want and listen to what they say. It would be easy to provide superior banking services if customers would just tell us what they want. Unfortunately, the process is not that simple. Examining customer preferences is both art and science. Common research instruments like customer satisfaction surveys are certainly part of the solution. However, if discovering a deeper context for customer opinions, preferences and expectations is a habit you plan to develop, there are additional measurements that can assist with your bank’s discovery.

Don’t rely on manager observations to clarify the needs of customers. You need perspectives from more than one source. Encourage your managers to learn more about mystery shopping, focus groups, employee culture surveys and related research that can broaden their understanding of customer wants and needs.

4. Plan for the future with the help of others. Following the course set by a competitor is not a great plan for your future. Getting caught up in “me too” planning, “me too” products and “me too” marketing reinforces your competitor’s plan—not yours. Building a leadership team that can identify the right solutions for a successful future is extremely important to community banks with limited resources. Every dollar you spend and investment you make in time and resources needs to be directed to a desired outcome.

By planning together, organizing together and implementing together, the bond created at the management level will have a consistent impact on performance. Develop a clear structure for your bank’s planning process. Formalize your planning meetings, document your final plan and share the highlights with your staff. Creating visible accountability for achievement of your business plan initiatives will help ensure high performance.

5. Set goals and communicate results no matter what the outcome. Have you ever felt like goals don’t really have an impact on performance? A team without goals is just another ineffective committee. Properly managed, goals work. If you have ever made a checklist of the things you want to get done, you know how it feels to mark an item off the list. That’s goal achievement. Walt Disney put it in a good context, “Of all the things I’ve done, the most vital is coordinating the talents of those who work for us and pointing them toward a certain goal.” Realize the power of directing all your community bank’s skilled employees to the achievement of a specific goal.

Goals can become the focal point to motivate your managers to adopt activities to become a high-performing community bank. Set them and manage your bank’s achievements.

6. Strive to learn something new from today’s experiences. There is a saying, “It is impossible for anyone to learn that which he thinks he already knows.” Set an objective for learning and encourage your community bank’s leaders to develop good learning habits. There is always something to be learned during the course of daily activities. Managers can learn new skills and practices just by being attentive during interactions with staff, customers and prospects.

Learning should be encouraged at all levels. Adjust your community bank’s philosophy from conducting employee training events to providing ongoing staff development. Ask managers to identify their best learners. Too often managers spend their time on employees with low ability (can’t) and low willingness (won’t) to get the job done. Instead, have managers spend time on their top performers and employees with potential for growth. This accelerates your bank’s performance and helps avoid the distractions created by low performers. “Hire slow, fire fast” can become a powerful mantra.

7. Provide a visible example of effort and success. Highly effective managers know employees are watching their performance. Becoming an example for desired performance makes it possible to build culture faster. If your bank’s focus is teamwork, your managers need to spend time on team building. If your bank’s focus is improving time management, your managers need to set an example for managing time effectively. Sum it all up in one simple statement, “Watch your step carefully, everyone else does.”

8. Communicate vision. In his book, Lincoln On Leadership, Donald Phillips presents several behaviors that clearly define the values Abraham Lincoln invested in his leadership practices. One of those values was “preach a vision.” Lincoln knew that clarifying a vision and presenting it often has a powerful impact on people. If you want your staff to embrace a vision for your community bank, define it, document it and talk about it frequently.

Consider this application: Do your employees understand the vision that directs your community bank’s decision-making? If not, they will lack the proper context for any changes you announce related to customers, products, policies or procedures. Take your vision to the entire organization, and don’t hesitate to discuss it frequently.

What is habit-forming at your community bank? Hopefully your managers are developing visible, results-oriented habits. The kind of habits that lead to the management practices present in the DNA of high-performance community banks.

Tom Hershberger is president and founder of Cross Financial Group, a consulting firm in Lincoln, Neb.