As our own esteemed Steve Williams pointed out two weeks ago (read “A Crash Course on Management,”) we are running headlong into Strategic Planning retreat season for banks and credit unions nationwide. GonzoDisciples, this is not just about rounds of golf, massages and heavy, undocumented “Miscellaneous Expenses” on the shareholders’ dime. No, sir, “there’s some serious strategizin’ going on here,” if you’ll allow me to paraphrase Pres. George W. Bush.
As the senior management team digests plates of chicken with rice along with the most popular and kitschy management hardbacks, the group settles down in a luxurious room to begin the much-needed task of charting the future of the organization (only after spending a good four hours modernizing the mission statement). I have visions of Alan Greenspan, drunk, foul-spirited and brown tie askew, kicking through the double doors at the back of the room and slurring at top volume, “I moved your cheese, big shots. Anyone have something to say about that?”
A highly common end-product of strategic planning sessions is the commitment to make the bank and the entire employee base “entrepreneurial.” My peeps at dictionary.com define it like this:
A person who organizes, operates, and assumes the risk for a business venture.
1: of or relating to an entrepreneur; “entrepreneurial risks” 2: willing to take risks in order to make a profit.
That’s the idea, isn’t it? Create employees/team members/associates who feel like they have the power to make decisions and not get beat up too harshly if a risky endeavor fails, right? 10-4. That IS the idea.
The problem is in the real world interpretation of “entrepreneurial.” When people hear “entrepreneurial,” they do not necessarily hear risk-taking in the context of being unafraid to throw a bowlful at the wall and see what sticks. All too often, only thinking “outside the box” and doing things in dramatically new, unconventional ways will be acceptable. “Different” and “Revolutionary” develop loud, boisterous voices, regardless of whether the two shy brothers, “Common Sense” and “Reality,” whisper or even scream otherwise.
And therein lies the problem with everyone in the bank thinking they must be entrepreneurs. In an overly entrepreneurial bank, embracing conventional ways and traditional, dirty-fingernailed tenaciousness – even when it makes sense – is a sure-fire way to be perceived as too old-school for the new, modern organization. For an idea to be considered edgy and in the fold of the new, new way of thinking, it must be offbeat, revolutionary or at least expensive and risky.
There is nothing inherently wrong with offbeat and risky. In fact, every institution needs some thinkers who tread off the beaten path. All banks need rebels who so hate the deliberate, measured ways of most banks that they do not even consider them when attacking a newfound problem. We all need the guy or gal who isn’t afraid to look dumb in questioning why things are done the way they are. But for every mental innovator and intellectual maverick, the bank needs hundreds of hardheaded foot soldiers to make sure the Vision Thing gets some legs and actually materializes.
A great example of this in practice is the bank that has a Sales Culture General. For every Sales Culture General, we need:
Often at our clients who drink too much of the deceptively sweet Entrepreneurial Kool-Aid, the culture gains so much momentum that bad decisions are made in the name of entrepreneurialism. Naysayers are reluctant (and rightfully so) to object to a clearly dim-witted, doomed project for fear of being labeled an inside-the-box thinker or, worse yet, Pragmatic. That can be the career kiss of death in the more entrepreneurial institutions I have visited. You’re either with us or against us, right? You are either a big picture thinker or woefully tactical. There is no room for a few measly details to get in the way of Vision, baby. A healthy and informed pragmatic perspective can quickly be interpreted as uncreative and lacking in team spirit.
What happens as a result? Projects with zero chance of success get approved up the line. All looks fine at first, sometimes even up until final implementation, but then the wheels fall off. That is when it becomes apparent that the project from its onset never had even a whiff of support from the rank and file.
Back to our example…Tellers have no intent of filling out six screens of information to track sales and referral efforts while their customers wait impatiently. An extra $35 per month is not enough to inspire the call center rep to take twice as long as normal to complete a transaction. To sell a HELOC to a first mortgage holder, new account reps never needed the long-awaited Next-Best-Product screen in the first place.
What shows up in the Reports when the projects fail? Obviously, no one blames the entrepreneurial rainmaker. Why, everyone with a counted opinion long ago voted to approve the project! Wouldn’t look too brainy to criticize the Merits of the project at this point, would it?
No sir! Instead, IT and vendors are blamed for poor implementation. Sales managers are criticized for poor motivational skills. Management threatens to replace new account reps with Gap and Banana Republic employees who have some real sales experience. But the real problem was that the ill-fated project was half-baked and lacked key support from the onset, and the overgrown Entrepreneurial Spirit silenced anyone with an informed sense of the project’s inability to succeed.
This is just an example, of course. There is no rhyme or reason to the example I chose, and the scenario plays out for many types of ideas. The situation sounds like an outlier, I know, but it is becoming increasingly common. Does every bank and credit union need some entrepreneurial thinking? Heck yes! Every CEO needs to know he or she has a few daring and maybe even crazy souls who are brave enough to challenge the status quo and visionary enough to translate their distaste for the normal and boring into something that will revolutionize us. But to make sure that golden ideas don’t sink like lead in their implementation, we’re probably talking about a ratio of one true entrepreneur per 150 or 200 employees.
Too much pressure for Everyone to be an entrepreneur can, if gone unchecked, create a culture where many “good” ideas are really whacky stunts – hopelessly complex with zero input, backing or enthusiasm from the very people who are needed to make the idea a success – the people in the bottom quarter of the org chart.
So, three cheers for the entrepreneurial Generals of our industry – the fun and demanding and quirky souls who make changes happen and keep things interesting and challenging. But also, 10 cheers for the branch workers, deposit ops clerks, loan servicing employees and the CEOs who value their opinions and perspectives all the time.
“Forgive me all my anger
Forgive me all my faults
There’s no need to forgive me
For thinkin’ what I thought”
–Guy Clark, “Dublin Blues”
I’ll try for something funnier next time, GonzoBankers. See you boys in Austin at the Chili Parlour Bar for some Mad Dog Margaritas come Fridee…