Community banks traditionally have trouble attracting tech-savvy talent, but institutions who have successfully built fintech-friendly products and brands start by creating a culture focused on problem-solving.
That build-your-solution approach can be at odds with banks’ core risk management mission, so early sponsorship by forward-thinking executives is key to protecting and fostering fintech-like innovation.
Recruiting the talent to build tech products inside a bank is not an easy proposition, said Leader Bank Executive Vice President Jay Tuli. Banks are not seen by developers and product managers as a place where innovation happens.
“It’s a real obstacle,” he said. “Banks aren’t known for technology innovation. If you have to put yourself in the head of a star talent on the other side. If you think of a star developer or a star product manager, working for a bank is not going to be the first thing that comes to mind.”
Tuli helped shepherd the Arlington-based lender’s internal tech efforts that eventually became ZSuite, a standalone fintech startup that offers online automated payment portals for landlords property managers, where he is founder and chairman of the board. ZSuite recently raised $6 million and completed its spin-out from Leader in August.
Foosball Won’t Fix It
Changing perceptions among tech talent is the crucial first step, but it’s certainly not impossible in a community bank environment. Tuli said successful community banks exist on their most basic level to solve their customers’ problems however they can. That isn’t at odds with how developers think: they’re engineers, they want to build things that solve problems.
“They want to build something,” he said. “They have to really believe in what they’re building … that it’s a really meaningful thing, and that it’s exciting or it’s going to have real value to people.”
Once a bank decides the solution to a customer’s problem is building a technology platform, promoting an environment and culture where problem-solvers flourish is the next step. The bank doesn’t need to become a Silicon Valley archetype, Tuli said. It’s more about the day-to-day excitement of taking on something exciting.
“I don’t think it’s about foosball tables,” he said. “That’s not relevant. Passionate employees attract other passionate employees.”
Hudson-based Avidia Bank has made it a company-wide mission to become as tech-friendly as possible. Katelin Cwieka, associate vice president and communications manager at Avidia Bank, said there are several actions a bank can take to create fertile ground for employees passionate about technology and innovation.
“The [old-fashioned community bank stereotype] is definitely something we’ve felt first–hand, and that we’ve worked to overcome,” Cwieka said.
The bank has created a tech ambassador program, staffing each branch with at least one employee to specifically help customers with any questions about Avidia’s online or mobile tech products. The company also has an internal “technology table team,” Cwieka said, a group of employees who beta-test new features, offer feedback and help build a level of excitement.
The outward expression of that excitement on the company’s social media feeds – #AvidiaLife – has helped significantly with showcasing Avidia’s commitment to new technologies, she added, and has been a major boon in recruitment of tech-savvy talent.
Take Cues from Outside Banking
Avidia has also focused on writing job descriptions in a nontraditional manner, Cwieka said, taking cues from startups and other innovators rather than other community banks.
“We don’t just look at other banks for job descriptions for inspiration. We’re looking at other tech companies, and other companies that foster innovation,” she said. “We’re looking outside the box – some these job descriptions haven’t ever been written for a bank. We’re not looking for a typical, banker-type role.”
Those types of initiatives don’t work unless they have executive sponsorship, she said, because it involves a significant change in mindset from the traditional community bank approach. Cwieka said there are at least two executive vice presidents at her bank – Bob Conrey and Bart Murphy – who have pushed the team to become more tech–friendly, and to get involved in things like Boston’s FinTech Week, which runs Sept. 9-12.
“People take that pretty seriously, when an executive VP says that to you,” she said.
Senior leaders have a key role to play in any bank with fintech ambitions, Leader’s Tuli agreed.
It’s very difficult to grow a fintech products like ZSuite inside a traditional banking structure, he said, where there can be too many priorities that conflict with innovating something like a software platform. An executive sponsor will provide that initial push, and then protect it from leaders’ natural inclination to clamp down on risk.
“Banks are about risk management,” said Tuli. “When you over–risk–manage on a really young, new idea, that idea is always going to get killed. It needs to be protected from the rest of your organization by an executive sponsor. You have to protect it like a baby until it can stand on its own.
“There are banks that have this fear that you can’t launch something that’s not 100 percent perfect,” he said. “If that’s the case, you’re never going to launch anything, because nothing is ever 100 percent perfect.”