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3 Things I’ve Learned as a CIO of a Bank… With No Banking Experience

As the Chief Innovation Officer of Quontic, it might come as a surprise that I’ve only been in the finance industry for just over 20 months. Oh, and I’m 29 years old.

That’s not typical for a CIO of a bank, but that’s part of what has helped Steve Schnall and I reenvision Quontic. In 2017, when I met Steve (Quontic’s CEO and founder) I was in marketing and technology. Even Steve, before he founded Quontic, was not a banker—he was more of an entrepreneur who had experience in mortgages. You might think this lack of experience in the industry would hinder our ability to succeed in banking, but in reality, it was because we were ignorant of the status quos and the “no’s” in banking that Steve and I had more freedom to, as we like to say, “break shit.”

Because of its size, it was actually easier to inject innovation at Quontic, (compared to trying to do this at a large bank, where sheer overhead and legacy practices would likely prevent that).

But that freedom didn’t come without eye-opening pushback. From that, here are the top three things I learned by entering banking without banking experience.

The Culture is Broken

In my experience, the people who come into banking from a different industry are few and far between. Everyone else is who you’d expect—lifelong bankers—and that’s not a bad thing at all! But when I say that the culture of banking is broken, the fix isn’t trying to bring in outsiders, or even new tech. It’s that the leadership needs to truly innovate and start with changing themselves.

Let’s rewind to when banks used to be a vibrant part of a community. Remember when being a banker was a prestigious job? Banks weren’t just a business; they had a mission focused on helping their communities flourish.

Vibrant. Prestigious. Mission-based. If you read those three adjectives today in the news, you’d probably think it was in reference to a tech start-up or a farm-to-table restaurant, not a community bank.

That’s because the culture at community banks, by and large, has stagnated. Salaries aren’t competitive, benefits aren’t competitive, and the workplace is boring. We lost the war on young talent because of this. In the last decade, almost none of them have wanted to go into community banking. Instead they’ve gone to startups and companies that are vibrant, prestigious and mission oriented. And as a result, we’re seeing that those startups and companies that were more attractive back then, have better technology today and entering the financial space at a rapid pace and displacing the customer relationships banks should have.

Now, our job should be changing banking culture so we can inject the industry with innovation. That’s the only way we’ll be able to actually absorb all this new technology. Since I’ve been at Quontic, we’ve made it a priority to focus much more on that, and it’s worked well for our lifelong bankers. We give them a fun place to work.

So, to actually change a company culture, you need daily repetition. I love to say that my job is to be the Chief Reminder Officer. I remind people that it’s ok to make a mistake; they’re not being held to perfection. They’re being held to being in a constant state of progress. And if we continue to change the culture of banking—at least at Quontic—people will want to come here. In turn, it will prevent the resistance to change that lifelong bankers often default to.

You Need a Willingness to Learn

Especially being 27 at the time I started at Quontic, I didn’t know shit. I learned quickly that you have to relinquish control and develop two skill sets.

I compare it to being a lawyer: you need to know law and you need to know your area of expertise, like taxes, divorce, or corporate. Likewise, banking required me to take my expertise in marketing and technology, and learn about banking, regulations, and compliance mastery on top of it.

It wasn’t a walk in the park, but I had the willingness to learn. When I got in, what helped me build some of the trust was me saying, “I don’t know what I’m doing, I don’t know if this works.” I would try to take phone calls that were coming into the branch for the experience—to understand how to act like a teller, to show a willingness, and say, “It’s not just about new Quontic ideas. Let me understand what goes on in your world.” I think that helped build some trust. I also think people want to have fun in banking, they’re just looking for someone who can actually back it up—if you have that, it doesn’t matter how old you are or how much experience you have.

In terms of new hires, this means that if you want to attract new talent from outside the industry, you are going to have to be willing to slow down to teach them banking. Don’t let that challenge deter you, though. Do the hard work and be willing to learn. Bankers need to learn non-banking skills, and non-bankers need to learn banking skills.

Innovation Must Be More Than Technology

Lastly, I want to acknowledge that the industry has made “innovation” synonymous with “technology”—but that’s not the definition of innovation. It just means ‘to do something different.”

Today, there’s this rhetoric going around about banks lacking the technology we need; That we’re not innovative and the fintechs have beat us. But here’s the thing: Banks are not going to fix that imbalance by trying to add technology to a bank. That’s a bandage. I’m not saying that banks don’t need better technology for our customers—we DO. But it’s got to be more than that. We need to truly innovate things beyond technology. Innovate how we think about our data. Innovate how we think about the role we play in our customer’s lives. Innovate how we manage our employees. Innovate how we work with our regulators.

Once again, fixing this innovation mindset goes back to changing banking culture. But on top of that, banks can start helping other banks to become more digital, efficient, and therefore innovative. This involves banks incubating fintechs in the name of internal efficiency and external value for their customers. It involves banks developing fintechs that they can then sell into the industry. And it can happen. But until the industry’s reputation for poor innovation gets fixed, we’re facing the greatest existential crisis in banking.

If you want to hear more about the role fintechs have in banking, creating a culture of innovation, and my journey to CIO of a bank without banking experience, check out my interview with Sam Maule of The Breakfast Show, streaming below via Youtube.

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