We are looking for a different type of banker. A banker that embraces and accelerates change, is frantically focused on the customer and is a techie at heart. A banker who sees herself as an engineer of customer experience rather than a guardian of corporate stability. In this pamphlet for the agile banker, I discuss the characteristics of the central figure of a renewed and agile banking organization. Some of these bankers are already walking around in big financial institutions, but they may not always be heard or acknowledged. Some bankers are agile at heart, but have not been able to express their drive to make banking more responsive. For all of them, and for the benefit of those banks wanting to increase their agility, I delve into the 3 traits that makes agile bankers so valuable.

After the financial crisis hit, many of the bankers I know kept their profiles low. Their trade was under scrutiny, many of their colleagues were losing their jobs and the prospects were all but rosy. Over the past year, the banking sector has experienced a modest resurgence. In the US, 2016 was a good year for big banking stocks and that trend continues. It can’t be a reason for bankers to return to pre-crisis attitudes though. There are new challenges and opportunities on the horizon. Think of the accelerating change of customer behavior, online-only banks, peer-to-peer lending and blockchain technology. Banks will need a specific type of people to handle these challenges.

What describes these agile bankers best, compared to traditional bankers?

Agile Banker Traditional Banker
What is a bank? Tech company that is in financial services Financial company that uses IT
Organizational preference – How do I grow? By applying my knowledge and creativity in new ways By climbing the corporate ladder
Preferred work setting – Who do I want to work with? Members of my multidisciplinary team Colleagues in my department
Pride and identification – What is the source of my company pride? The prestige of my organization The coolness of my organization

The foundation of the agile banker’s character is the way she looks at the industry. She recognizes that technology is at core to delight her customers using their financial services. Lending or saving money or making an investment is about providing customers with the technology they need to do so with a maximum of ease and reliability. And an agile banker supports that technological core with all the financial product knowledge and human-to-human support that is necessary.

  1. How does an agile banker grow? Taking down the corporate ladder

Most bankers find themselves somewhere on a ladder: there are people ‘lower’ and people ‘higher up.’ Climbing the ladder can be very tiring and it is an inefficient form of growth that does not always benefit the organization at large. A hierarchy of people is not the same as a hierarchy of good ideas, and the irony is that in strongly hierarchical organizations, you need those ‘higher up’ to make ideas actually come to fruition. In banking, the ladder has guaranteed a certain measure of stability and control, but it has made innovation strenuous at times because of all the approvals needed to get something done. An agile banker is not patient enough to wait for the next slot above to open up, and instead wants to put her creativity and knowledge to the task right away. This asks for new organizational models, in which decision-making is decentralized and sped up.

Holacracy flat agile bank organization
Example of a flat organizational structure called Holacracy
  1. Who does an agile banker want to work with? The rise of the multidisciplinary team

There is little more dispiriting than lobbying for a project for months, then getting it approved and working on it for months, only to find it cut short by other managers before it is completed. Much of this has to do with the competition of departments for power and resources. An agile banker doesn’t want to wait for other departments, but instead wants to feel as if she is working for a startup. That means: identifying customer needs and building and iterating solutions rapidly with a small team. A bank has an amazing pool of data that enables such teams to target micro-segments of the market, create offerings and test out new distribution models. It could mean launching robo-advisors, pop-up banks, self-service kiosks or predictive mortgages faster than any department could. A bank needs to create and enable these teams to make the agile banker feel at home. It is one of the reasons why ING Bank chose to reorganize their headquarters staff into multidisciplinary ‘squads’ of 9 people comprised of specialists ranging from marketing to product and user-experience.

  1. How to make an agile banker proud of her company? Fostering a cool employer brand

Customers rely on their identification with a brand when they make decisions. And increasingly, the same goes for those looking for or switching jobs. Employees still find compensation important, but also want to associate themselves with an organization’s purpose, behavior and image. It goes much further than the glamour and prestige an organization shows on the outside; it is about how people actually work on the inside. It is why Zappos lets you meet their great people and work environment on Twitter at @InsideZappos. In banking, the agile banker can show in 3D video to her friends the cool and innovative office she works in.

Agile Headquarters ING Bank
ING Bank’s new agile office

Banks are consistently overrun by other companies, mostly tech, when it comes to reputation. In the Glassdoor Best Places to work 2017 top 50, there are zero banks. The agile banker wants to show more than a paycheck and an established name on her business card; instead, she wants to share the great atmosphere and cool work filling up her days.

Agile bankers are not born overnight

The agile banker is not just a concept: it is a type of professional that is among us and is strongly needed. To attract them, banks will compete with a host of other technology companies, including Fintech. A good number of agile bankers, however, will be loyal to banks when the conditions are right. It means moving forward toward an agile organization that empowers multidisciplinary teams all across the business to delight customers continuously. Many banks already started their agile journey years ago in the IT department (see JP Morgan). But that is not enough for an agile banker: she is not a fan of departments; she is a fan of achieving results with small and fast teams. All this necessitates structural change within current banking organizations and the courage of their leaders to realize it.

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