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Innovation: It’s In The Soil, Not The Seeds

Growing up in the cornfields of Indiana, I vividly remember watching as farmers put down their seeds for spring crops. Sometimes, in some fields, it was as if the seeds never took. In others, they took but they were patchy, and then of course there were full fields. I always wondered, “Why did that happen?”

I talked with the farmers, and they would oftentimes say, “Well, it’s about the soil.”

We can apply this idea to the problems that exist in the banking industry right now. In the industry today, the “soil” of banking is culture. The seeds are technology.

Over the last decade or two, the culture didn’t evolve. Banks weren’t a destination workplace, especially for young people. As a result, the first generation to really “grow up digital” didn’t come to work at banks; they went to almost any other kind of company. What we’re seeing now are those companies evolving and pushing the boundaries of innovation and technology. I would argue that there are even restaurants that have more sophisticated technology than a federally regulated bank. And it’s because digitally native talent went there—they didn’t come to banking.

Today, banks keep trying to drop the seeds of technology, and they’re not sticking. Or maybe it’s patchy and it sticks, but it doesn’t really take fruit.

When this happens, people tend to ask me, “How do I fix my bank?” At this point, the question has evolved from, “What do you think we need?” to “Show me your roadmap.”

As I’ve reflected on that, while knowing it’s a subtle difference in the two questions, it’s an important one to focus on. Truthfully, I don’t think any specific technology decision I made was all that innovative or different. I can recognize that. But I also can recognize that the trajectory of Quontic is on—where we’re going with tech and digital innovation—is in fact probably leading edge for the industry. And I’m excited to bring to life our true vision over the next eighteen months.

But right now, we’re here. And people want to know why. Why are we in this spot in our journey?

My best answer is that there’s a fundamental disconnect in the industry’s understanding of why banks are falling behind fintechs. I don’t think the issue today is that there’s not enough technology or not enough options for banks. That’s not why there’s such an acute sense of anxiety in the industry. It’s something much deeper than that.

It’s not a technology that you need. That won’t fix it.

To fix this truly, we must go back to the “soil” of banking—to the culture. We need to figure out how to innovate and evolve here and now so that the generations that are growing up digitally native want to come work at a bank and are excited about it. More importantly, we need to ensure that the next generation that is inherently digital wants to come work in a bank.

Now, I bet you’re wondering, “Ok… How?”

Stop looking for the answer and go listen. That’s it. Go listen to this generation. Go ask them: “What do you think of banks?”
“What do you think of MY bank?”
“What do you think of the company you work for?”
“What’s the most inspiring company you know about?”
“If you could have any job, what would it be?”

We need to stop assuming we have the answers. We’ve clearly missed the mark and we need to become much more reflective and willing to listen. In that, I think you will find your path. The innovation, technology, or culture that your bank needs is highly likely going to be different from my bank or other banks. The idea of a “community bank” is a bank that fits YOUR community. It’s fundamentally flawed to assume that there’s an answer that applies to all community banks. That implies that communities are the same.

My Manhattan community is very different from the community in rural Indiana, where I grew up, but the common denominator in all of it is that you are still surrounded by businesses, adults, young people, and even kids that will have an opinion. So you need to go listen to them. Once you do that, you can begin to say, “Ok. How can I change my culture (or the “soil”) at my bank to align with their needs?” You need to figure out how to become attractive.

Be bold. Ask people, “What WOULD it take?” Have them come in and shadow you. Get feedback on what you could do to make it the type of place they would want to come work in. Ask them what they didn’t like.

That’s exactly the approach I took when I came over to Quontic. I was uniquely positioned to be asked for feedback because I am that first digitally native generation. I was able to give my opinion and reach out to my peers. And Steve listened. Along with a 25 year old VP of Marketing. We worked together and quickly identified what sucked, essentially.

When we talked to other younger employees who were considering coming to work for Quontic, they would always ask about maternity and paternity leave. We recognized that we have to listen to them and change how we view our benefits. So we’re in the process of creating a more robust parental paid leave policy.

We also know that young people want experiences. It’s a profound way in which they learn. After hearing that, we decided to take some of our employees on a four day trip to the Dominican Republic to do just that. To have an experience. It’s not what your typical bank would do.

When I give this answer, there’s always this concern that a bank can’t be a bunch of twenty-two-year olds. Banks don’t want to get too influenced by that mindset. I hear that and recognize that, but today there’s this assumption that young people are fundamentally different than the older generation. And I don’t agree with that.

Think about how Uber has affected young and old people alike. Similarly, there’s this idea that online banking is for millennials. I think online banking is for young and old people alike. For example at Quontic, the average age of our online customer is 58. It’s not a millennial.

I obviously can’t tell you exactly what to do with your bank. You can read about what we did. If you take away anything, take away this: Simply broaden the conversation.

It doesn’t mean you need to listen to everything that every young person has to say. But it does mean you have to invite them to the conversation. Then, invite your existing employees to the conversation. When you find your unified answer that speaks to everyone, THEN we can talk about your roadmap.

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