Looking Toward Tomorrow

Ideas on the future shared at ICBA’s Emerging Leaders Conference

By Kristi Miller

Optimism was abundant among the nearly 200 community bankers who gathered in Minneapolis for the 2013 ICBA Emerging Leaders Conference in early October. This first-of-its-kind national conference for community bankers offered 19 informational sessions and roundtable discussions to impart leadership skills and knowledge for the next generation of leaders.

Conference attendees, most of whom fell into Generations X or Y, expressed confidence in the future of the industry. With no intention of sitting back to watch things happen, their mindsets were aimed at helping to create proactively a bright future for their banks and the community banking industry as a whole.

Several key themes of the future of community banking resonated with these emerging industry leaders.

It’s still personal. Personal relationships and superior service have long been the heart and soul of community banking, and they are advantages worth preserving for our industry’s future, community bankers agree. Even as more consumers openly embrace the convenience of technology to serve their banking needs, many still place a high value on the option to have personal contact with local people who take a “we’re in this together” approach.

“That consumer sentiment will continue to include community bankers who serve as trusted local financial experts, helping people with the most complex and important financial decisions in their lives,” offers conference-goer Jeff Lile, a marketing information analyst with First Harrison Bank in New Albany, Ind., a $450 million-asset community bank.

“More consumers are going mobile, but they still like having contact with local people that they know and trust,” Lile says. “Additionally, community banks typically do much more to support local activities and charities than bigger banks.”

“Shopping locally is one of the ways that people support the common good in our community,” says Greg Niska, an assistant vice president with Northern State Bank of Virginia, a $60 million-asset community bank in Virginia, Minn. “It’s satisfying to see how that trend increasingly includes patronizing local community banks.”

Niska says he has noticed people’s rising interest in local economic health and sustainability playing out in his community and at Northern State Bank. “We continue to see more people moving their accounts from bigger banks to our bank,” he says. “Whatever the circumstances that prompt them to change banks, it all seems to tie back to a better understanding and appreciation of the value of personal service and support for the local community.”

Embracing changing technology. As expected, technology is in the forefront of these Gen X and Gen Y community bankers’ minds when they think about the future of community banking. While the larger operational scales of the largest banks may have once given them the edge in acquiring and developing technological systems and delivery channels, community bankers agree that the advantage has faded.

Across the board, technology of all kinds is, and will continue to become, much more available and affordable for community banks. Add their increasing technological agility to their inherent strengths in providing highly personalized, flexible and trustworthy customer service, and it’s easy to see that community banks will hold an extremely competitive position into the future, they say.

“Banks have access to so much data (internal and external), but often struggle with how to use it efficiently and effectively,” says Stephanie Petrakos, the vice president credit administrator for Five Star Bank, a $600 million-asset community bank in Sacramento, Calif. “With the right technology, we can extract and organize relevant data and use it in a meaningful way to better connect with and add value for our customers and communities.”

Bridget Jaime, an assistant vice president and recruiting and training manager for Citizens Bank of Edmond, a $125 million-asset community bank in Edmond, Okla., adds that maintaining technological parity with larger competitors may require the industry to work more strategically and creatively in developing the most advantageous business partnerships.

“We need to press those that provide technology to our banks to become more innovative and to keep pace with other types of technologies,” Jaime says. “If, for example, you’re wondering why you can do X from your smartphone but not in banking, ask for it! The fact that our bank is working to be more innovative is one of the things that makes me excited about our future.”

“With approximately half of consumers now searching for banking information on smartphones and tablets, we must make certain that our websites are responsive to mobile devices, including the ease of being able to open accounts online,” notes Joleen Fleming, a senior vice president and retail officer for First Citizens National Bank, a $1 billion-asset community bank in Mason City, Iowa.

Nate Kok says he appreciates how his community bank, Hometown Bank in Appleton, Wis., is committed to adapting technological advances to better serve its small business niche market. “Our bank is rebranding to better project the fact that our customers get the best of both superior personal service and sophisticated e-banking convenience,” says Kok, a vice president for the $200 million-asset community bank.

Leadership is a skill. The Emerging Leaders Conference offered leadership skills training on various topics, from effective listening and leading when you’re not the boss, to creating a generationally-friendly work environment and bringing out the best in yourself and others to make the workplace more enjoyable. Each session was well-attended, further affirming that leadership training is another important tool to prepare our industry for a bright future.

“I’m one of the younger members of our management group, so I really appreciated the conference opportunities to gain more knowledge and skills to help me develop as a leader in our bank,” says Jordan Ellis, a marketing director for Texas First Bank, an $800 million-asset community bank in Texas City, Texas.

“I have 21 years of banking experience, but since I started as a high school intern, I’m still one of the youngest members of our bank’s management team,” offers Tammi Little, an operations officer for the Bank of Clovis, a $180 million-asset community bank in Clovis, N.M. “The conference sessions on leadership development gave me a lot of great ideas and skills I can apply.”

Little says she particularly appreciated the conference’s workshop “How to Lead When You’re Not the Boss,” which provided useful ideas to help her oversee the work of co-workers who she doesn’t necessarily supervise.

The next generation of community bank leaders says they’re eager for more opportunities to develop, both formally and informally, their experience and skills as leaders and managers. During staff training conducted by community banks and all the educational opportunities provided at banking industry conferences, most discussions and instruction sessions typically cover issues related to products, technology, regulatory compliance or operations. However, leadership development training for both current and future managers is too often overlooked, given cursory attention or relegated to “learn as you go once you’re promoted.”

Those attending ICBA’s first-ever Emerging Leadership Conference hope that tendency changes.

Kristi Miller, a former community banker, is a writer in Minnesota.