Charles Potts: 2021: A year of awakening

Community bankers’ awakening to new possibilities has made for an impactful year and will help position community banks to flourish in 2022 and beyond.

By Charles Potts, ICBA

Building on the digital solutions put in place for Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans in 2020, community bankers have expanded their digital services and channels to meet their customers’ evolving needs and serve their communities. These achievements are real, impactful and worthy of praise.

But I also wanted to recognize the widespread acceptance of innovation I’ve witnessed among community bankers during 2021, another challenging year.

We tripled the number of bank participants for this year’s ICBA ThinkTECH Accelerator, hosting more than 500 decision makers for solutions primed to address member bank needs. In response to bankers’ requests for additional insights, we’ve launched the ICBA ThinkTECH Innovation Series and the Communities of Innovation podcast to discuss emerging topics such as cryptocurrency and banking as a service (BaaS).

Dispelling myths

This awakening to innovation among community banks continues to spread. Hundreds of institutions are pursuing strong, proactive growth and focused, tactical lines of business. Aggressive, targeted action by bankers is dispelling the myth that community banks are not engaged or innovative.

Take, for example, Queensborough National Bank & Trust Co. in Augusta, Ga. It created an innovation center to expand product testing before deciding to add Spanish-speaking skills to its interactive teller machines (ITMs).

“I want to leverage technology to create a human experience, and that’s what we did with ITMs,” says Kimberly Kirk, executive vice president and chief operations officer. “It was a leverage of technology, but you still have live human beings on those video screens to be able to support those customers.”

The essence of innovation

While we have some early adopters out there shining bright, I think this coming year, we’re going to see explosive growth as more community banks follow suit. Some are taking baby steps, but they’re still rolling out new lines of business by using digital tools and service channels to address marketplace needs. Community banks of all sizes are no longer talking about innovation; they’re doing it.

In one episode of our podcast, CEO Eric Sprink of Coastal Community Bank made an important point that bears repeating: Community banks’ awakening to innovation and the subsequent journey forward is an evolution, not a revolution. Rather than one big bang, it’s a steady drumbeat forward. Take that to heart. The essence of the innovation process is iteration, experimentation, testing and review.

Another takeaway from this year is the importance of collaboration. We try to make this a big part of what we do at ICBA, because when community bankers come together to exchange ideas and learn from one another, the whole industry grows stronger.

Community bankers’ awakening to new possibilities has made for an impactful year and will help position community banks to flourish in 2022 and beyond.

Charles Potts ( is ICBA’s senior vice president and chief innovation officer