Wednesday, December 21, 2011

It's a Wonderful Life

This 1946 Christmas classic is a story about the impact one man made on his family, his business, and his community. It goes beyond the fate of the Bailey Building and Loan. It teaches us to take stock of our lives, to be helpful instead of hurtful, and be thankful for what we have instead of stressed over what we don't.

But It's a Wonderful Life is also a testament to the importance of community financial institutions (FIs). The classic scene of the run on the Bailey Building and Loan after the 1929 stock market crash depicts the basic principals of community banking, how FIs work, and how important character plays in bank lending and community development.

What you don't see here is the villainous Mr. Potter's diatribe on how the Bailey Building and Loan advanced loans to "riff-raff", and was unwilling to foreclose when the "rabble" ran into difficulty making payments. Instead, the Bailey's modified the terms to help borrowers make it through tough patches.

What you also don't see is the bank examiner showing up to review the bank's books. Note the examiner wasn't plowing through the loan portfolio and criticizing this underwriting anomaly or that. He was there to ensure what the bank reported in its footings was accurate. In the end, Uncle Billy Bailey loses $8,000 when depositing the funds in the correspondent bank; Mr. Potter's bank. It was the mismatch in footings that landed George Bailey in hot water with the examiners. It wasn't lax underwriting, or troubled debt restructurings.

When the Bedford Falls community pulls together to raise the missing $8,000, they toast George as the "richest man in town". The bank examiner actually contributed to the pot of money. My how times have changed.

It's a Wonderful Life portrays the significance a financial institution plays in elevating the socio-economic status of local residents. The working poor increase their wealth by owning cars so they can get to work, to go to college or technical school, and/or to achieve home ownership. The middle class can improve their wealth by upsizing their home, going to grad school, and/or starting a business. Many of these loans don't fit the one-size fits all underwriting criteria of government bureaucrats whose sole objective is to cover their butts should asset quality falter in an institution they examine. "Rabble" need not apply.

In this sense, regulators that examine our financial institutions are the modern day Mr. Potter. But in order to help businesses work through difficult economic times, to help families stay afloat during periods of unemployment, and to help communities re-adjust to remain economically vibrant during changing times, we need more Bailey Building and Loans, not less.

Is anybody listening?

~ Jeff

Note: Since this post, the NY Times wrote an article about a modern day Bailey Building & Loan: Bank of Cattaraugus. Cattaraugus, coincidentally, is in upstate NY, near Buffalo. Perhaps not too far from the fictional Bedford Falls. Although I salute the Bank for its success in helping local people, I do believe community FIs can achieve long-term success through the profit motive, which is consistent with operating in vibrant communities.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The 17 Fundamental Traits of Organizational Effectiveness

I recently read Harvard Business Review's 10 Must Reads on Strategy and reviewed it in this blog. One of the "must reads" was The Secrets to Successful Strategy Execution by Gary Neilson, Karla Martin, and Elizabeth Powers from Booz & Co. I dedicated one blog post: naming it Common Sense to Successful Strategy Execution because I didn't think it was a secret. In this post I would like to write further on the subject, focusing on the 17 fundamental traits uncovered during Neilson, Martin, and Powers' research. 

The below table was drawn from research from more than 26,000 people in 31 companies. The Booz consultants distilled them in the following order of importance...

A note about the study: The Booz consultants tested organizational effectiveness by having participants fill out online diagnostic that contained 19 questions... 17 traits and two outcomes. The traits were ranked and indexed to a 100-point scale to determine their relative importance to organizational effectiveness.

In the study, 61% of respondents in strong-execution organizations agree that field and line employees understand the bottom-line impact of their decisions. This figure plummets to 28% in weak-execution organizations. For community FIs, this is terrible news, as so many rely on top-level profit reporting to determine success or failure. Does the deposit operations manager know the implications on product costs for adding a software component? Doubtful. Does the lender understand the profit implications to his or her line of business by authorizing the waiving of a fee? Unlikely.

A similar analysis can be performed on your organization as a whole, focusing first on the top traits and working your way down, ensuring your FI moves toward affirmative responses to each trait. Once completed, FIs can then incorporate the 17 traits into executive performance reviews.

Imagine an FIs board of directors using the above table to evaluate the effectiveness of its CEO. Or a CEO to evaluate the effectiveness of his or her direct reports. Simply putting the 17 traits in a spreadsheet, and responding on a five-point scale of "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree" would certainly motivate the person evaluated to create a strong execution culture in his or her organization. For proponents of the 360 review process, subordinates can also respond, giving the Board or CEO insights beyond their own perceptions and bias.

This blog has dedicated countless posts to strategy. If an FI is to promote an execution culture, it begs the question "execute what"? It reminds me of legendary Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach John McKay's response when asked about his team's execution after a lackluster performance: "I'm all in favor of it." My point is, and I do have one, when evaluating the organization and its executives on execution, it should be executing long-term strategy. That implies the FI has a long-term strategy to chart the course to compete and succeed in a rapidly changing industry.

What are your thoughts on developing an execution culture?

~ Jeff

Note: I tried to make the table as large as I could. If you would like a larger version, e-mail me.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Power to the People

I asked the head of commercial lending how best to turn the tide in business loan growth. His response: people. I asked the head of branches how to elevate the results from low performing branches. Response: people. I asked the head of an insurance subsidiary how he intends to improve margins. Again, it's the people.

My firm moderated a brainstorming session with a client on improving profitability in certain areas. We came up with several credible ideas. But a senior executive spoke up and said something to the effect that the responses that revolved around people were so far ahead of the others, that if the bank got the people issues right then performance will surely improve.

I have opined that bankers come in two general categories: balance sheet managers and customer managers. Since that post over a year and a half ago, financial institutions continue their migration toward the customer aspect. A strategy heavily focused on balance sheet management does not do much to differentiate one FI from another, and therefore does little to improve franchise value.

But strategies that focus on customers require people that are better than the people at the FI across the street. From this perspective, our assets do go up and down the elevator every day. So what are we doing to have the right people in the right positions?

We first attacked this challenge over 10 years ago when we aggressively pursued lenders. The hot pursuit led to wage inflation. The challenge was that we wanted lenders that went after the total client relationship and were surprised when what we got were loans. They were deal people, selling loan transactions usually at attractive pricing and loose covenants. We found it difficult to get the old salts to change their perspective, to build a strong relationship, to achieve trusted advisor status with their clients. They simply wanted to do deals.

Perhaps we can learn from this experience. If FIs seek to supplement their staff with more customer managers, maybe we should focus on attracting motivated, less experienced, but more malleable talent. Or perhaps such talent exists within our franchise.

To succeed at such a strategy, the FI would need a performance measurement process that identifies top performers and hot prospects, develops a training program to teach them the skills to meet performance expectations, and to ingrain your FIs Way (manner in which your FI would ideally like to do business).

If you bring onboard new, yet under-developed talent, perhaps you implement a mentor program with more senior people that have bought into your Way and are performing well. Additionally, ensure your compensation system is consistent with your Way. If you compensate for loan volume, don't be surprised if you get the aforementioned aggressively priced loan transactions and few loyal relationships.

As you populate your employee base with higher quality people your FI will perform better. If you keep in place employees that are millstones around your neck, your FI will struggle to perform better. Your objective should be to maximize the former, and minimize the latter. That's the simplest business strategy ever, don't you think?

~ Jeff