Digital Growth Institute founder and CEO James Robert Lay recently sat down with Yury Nabokov, Assistant Vice President (AVP) of Customer Experience at Machias Savings Bank in Portland, Maine. It was a unique opportunity to sit down and hear his story. Yury is a master of transitioning and pivoting when things get challenging. 

COVID-19: The Challenges and Opportunities for Financial Brands

Like many others, Yury is looking forward to a post-COVID world. When James Robert asked him more about what he was most excited to see after the pandemic, the two discovered that they shared a similar view: That the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic showed which financial organizations were current and which were simply preserving their past achievements. 

Yury stated, “I think the most important thing right now in a post-COVID world is the fact that we clearly see these transformational, digital, innovation stories that a lot of people were sharing or talking about.” 

He continued, “I think those individuals who took the time to actually pause during COVID-19, take a look around, assess their environment, competitive, internal, culture—all sorts of different things that play into the success of financial institutions—and prepared themselves to launch into the future are the ones who are actually going to be truly successful in the post-COVID-19.”

Ep. 38 - past achievements

Yury hit the nail on the head right there.

As we plan to move forward, it’s important to use this time to stop, pause, reflect, and assess. Those companies that thought about what the opportunities were to grow, create, and capture will be the most successful. What we are discovering is that this time, the great pause, is the opportunity to identify which roadblocks are getting in our way and need to be eliminated. 

The world that we’ve shifted into will never go back to the way things were before. The way people think, the way people shop, the way people buy, relate, have conversations? It's completely different going forward. We cannot let our past successes and failures determine who we are in the present, or who we can be in the future. 

Essentially, we have an exciting opportunity to view this time as a launching pad to practically reinvent ourselves: Personally, as teams, as organizations, and as communities to create something even bigger and better than what we ever had before. 

Yury agreed, “I'm a believer that for me, personally, as we're talking about personal transformational journeys, I believe that my greatest accomplishments are still ahead, and the saboteurs of progress are no longer relevant. And I think we need to definitely reflect on that. 

“When I said about assessing the environment, it's to see who is truly contributing and driving change and whether this change was meaningful, or it was simply driven by personal agendas.”

Even as we pause, work from home, and connect with clients and family via video chat, now is the time to drive change and set transformation in motion.

For those looking to make a change in their financial brand, whether it’s on the marketing side, the selling side, or even with leadership, the key is to stop talking about change today.

As human beings, we don’t like change.  There's a very innate fear of change.

So let's stop using the word “change.”

When we replace this word with transformation, the outlook is very different. Transformation is about creating an even better version of what you have today.

Transformation isn’t scary like change is. 

Yury's Story of Transformation

Twelve years ago, Yury came to the United States from Russia with a backpack on his back and less than $500 in his pocket. Talk about a transformation. Here is part of his story:

“Oh man, there is a lot to talk about, and I'm afraid that we would have to record several seasons just to unpack all of it. But I have to tell you, one of the most amazing experiences was that—and it's truly a testament to who Americans are and what this country is—when I came to Maine in 2008, I was working in a small village in a community store or a convenience store, and the business owner of the store, he became my mentor during the time. 

“I would open the store with him at 5:00 AM. He would be there on time, 5:00 AM, business owner. He would close the store with me around 8:00 PM. So seven days a week, 5:00 AM to 8:00 PM, he is there, I'm there, we're working back to back. And towards the end of the summer, 2008, he asked me a relatively simple question.”

The question this business owner asked? 

"So Yury, what are your next steps?"

Yury reflected:

"Well, I really wish I could find a way to stay in this country. But $500, backpack, student visa, a roadblock is a  roadblock. I don't think there is a lot for me here." 

Yury was studying public relations in Russia including marketing just as social media was really starting to emerge. He told his boss that he wanted to learn about these disciplines from American professors. 

"So you want to go to a local college or a university?” his boss asked. Yury agreed. "Sure. That'd be awesome." His boss encouraged him to apply, to give it a shot, and see what would happen. 

Yury came back with two acceptance letters—one of which focused on all the things he was excited about: Photography, design, website development—all the things that he was drawn to that were so fresh and so new and exciting.

That school? "That would be the thing that I really want to do."

His boss replied, "Okay, what do you need from me?" In truth, Yury wasn’t expecting anything from him. 

"All right, let me unpack this for you,” his boss said. “How much is it going to cost?"

The first semester would be $10,000 plus all the savings that Yury made that summer.  

His boss went upstairs, wrote a check, came back down, and gave it to Yury. "Hey, go make me proud." 

“I want to cry every time I tell this story,” Yury shared. “Because this hardworking guy came from a regular blue-collar American family, started his business, and retired a multimillionaire. And he gave me an opportunity to succeed in this country without any strings attached. The only thing he asked me to do is to make him proud.”

Since then, Yury has earned three degrees—in addition to the degree he had already earned in Russia. A Russian degree in Public Relations and Marketing, an undergraduate degree from the New England School of Communications (NESCom), an MBA in Healthcare Management, and a Masters in Human Relations.

Thriving in a World of Exponential Change

Yury is a lifelong learner. Moving forward James Robert believes this is going to be an essential trait for those looking to thrive in a post-COVID world.

We're moving beyond the service economy. We did that years ago.

We're transitioning now through what many call the experience economy, and moving into the future, or what James Robert calls the “knowledge economy” or the “expert economy.”

Knowledge and expertise are going to be what separates individuals and organizations. 

Yury chalks his resilience up to his love of learning: “I think it's important to stay alert, be curious, appreciate life for what it is and what it gives you, and ultimately focus on mastering the craft. Not gaining the skill, because skill seems like a very narrow approach, a very narrow road, but the craft. 

“If we're talking about customer experience, as an example, we're talking about design, we're talking about user interface, we're talking about communication, we're talking about delivery channels, all sorts of things, we're even talking about copywriting to make a very emotional and relevant appeal in the short amount of time that we have between the moment that the person receives the message and comprehends the message and responds to the received message.” 

As for his first learning adventure, Yury is proud of how well things turned out, but not quite as proud of how he got there:

“After my first semester, while I was trying to make my mentor and friend proud, basically make the money work… towards the end of the semester, I wasn't really doing well. I was kind of cocky. I thought that, look at me, here I am, top of [my] class coming from Russia, graduate of Siberian State Aerospace University. And here I am talking about…Marketing 101.” 

He continued. “My academic advisor, she called me in the office one day and she said, ‘Yury, I'm really excited that you're here. Are you excited about being here?; I'm like, "Well, yeah, of course. I am. I'm doing my thing.’”

She asked him, “Well, do you realize that the contributions that you're making are not necessarily on par with who you say you are and maybe this place is not for you." 

Yury admits he got defensive. She responded, "No, I don't need the answers right now. I just want you to show what you're capable of." 

What happens next, as Yury put it, “So I got my rear end in gear.” He finished the semester with a 4.0-grade point average. 

“I set myself on a path that no matter what it takes, it's going to be 4.0. Next semester I was elected as vice president of student government. I received a job as a resident assistant. And I also got accepted into an MBA program for the following year as a graduate assistant. So I got three jobs while I was on campus because as an international student, you have very limited capabilities for opportunities to work off-campus. So whatever you're doing has to happen on-premise.”

As Yury humbly stated, “So, yeah, anyway, that's how I started my journey off obtaining two academic degrees at the same time while working three jobs.”

No big deal.

This is when Yury transitioned into the role he has today as AVP of Customer Experience.  What he is doing is quite fascinating.

Enter Fast Forward Maine. 

The way Yury arrived at this platform didn’t happen overnight. It was a multi-year process that started with hiring a videographer. At the time, Yury was an instructor of digital marketing and social media at Hudson University. One of his students was studying to be a videographer, and Yury reached out to him and asked him to create content.

As a marketer, Yury knew that he didn’t just need content. He needed quality content that was relevant and personalized. To do that at scale, one would have to have a significant marketing budget, which is always a problem. It was actually cheaper for Yury to hire a student to create videos on a regular, weekly schedule. 

After doing this for several years, Yury started to think. "Well, how can we take this digital engagement that is currently happening on our social media channels with the help of our videos, how can we make it a little bit more in-person type of experience? Instead of recording the messages... what can we do to bring people together and share their thoughts and ideas, learn something, and... help others around them to get better?

“So we partnered with a marketing agency called Flyte New Media.”

The founder of the agency, Rich Brooks, is well known for digital marketing and has a strong presence on social media.

“Anyway, over the years, we became good friends. So one day, three of us, Cody Chesson, the videographer, Rich Brooks, the agency owner, and myself, we were sitting there…’Okay guys, look, how can we take this, put it in-person and scale?’”

They decided to record workshops and make those video materials available for everyone to watch. Two years ago, this pilot project didn't even have a name. It was just business development workshops presented to interested viewers by Machias Savings Bank and Flyte New Media. 

Yury and his team conducted multiple, in-person events, and they went very well. This quickly transitioned into a new format: 

“The beginning of the workshop was basically presentations from two or three different experts.” But by the end of the day, it became a “mastermind session where people would present their business challenges and everyone in the audience would participate and try to offer their insights.” 

He continued. “Because we get an audience and you have a restaurant owner, or a consultant, or a CPA, all sorts of different individuals in the same room... One person got up and said, ‘Guys, how can we continue the same level of engagement and how can we continue to learn from you?’”

Yury admitted their reaction was one of astonishment. "Wow, well, first of all, it's kind of cool that someone says that they're learning from us and they also want us to continue.

“So we played with the idea of content creation, valuable information, and developing a community. Because what we really loved during the pilot program was not necessarily the presentation of the content or positioning yourself as a business coach in a way, but uniting people, bringing people together to discuss their issues and move forward together. And you can see how the idea started to shape up.”

The result? Fast Forward Maine.

Fast Forward Main wasn’t created overnight. It started with the pilot program. That pilot program showed proof of concept.

It was about building a community of like minds to position the bank beyond, "Hey, we've got these commoditized loan products that every other financial brand has or these deposit accounts."

Yury and his team built the community, produced content to create value for this community, and as a result, they expanded this community's capabilities by playing the role of the helpful guide in the journeys of these business owners in Maine. And as a whole, Yury and his colleagues have a purpose they are working towards with their Fast Forward Maine program.

Pivoting During COVID-19

How does this apply to you? Or rather, how can this apply to you? Yury’s program resonates with the DNA of the bank. 

And as he puts it? “It also resonates with the people who are involved in the project, because we can meet on personal time, we work on creating content, training materials, we're sourcing different experts, and we encourage them to participate in Fast Forward Maine.”

And when COVID-19 hit? Fast Forward Maine was slated to do a live, in-person event, with 350 people expected in attendance. Instead of canceling or postponing the event, they refunded ticket sales, put the event online, and made it free. 

On the second day of the event, they had 450 people in attendance who participated virtually from across the state. They brought in social media experts and turned it into an incredibly rewarding event for all who attended online.

What else did they do?

They recorded it for their podcast so they could share it beyond the event itself.

As Yury explained, “We wanted to collect [the keynote speaker’s] insights and then ultimately syndicate this information and share it, not just live with the audience that was there, but with the listeners of Fast Forward Maine podcast after the event. And again, all the presentations, everything is available free of charge. All you have to do is share your name so we know who you are, enter your email address so we can inform you about the upcoming episodes, and there you have it.”

James Robert asked Yury about how he dealt with this roadblock; what his strategy was.

“It may sound a little bit philosophical, it's a good thing to do the right thing, but it's the right thing to do it good. 

“So when you know that there are no other agendas besides creating value and creating a community around one simple idea, as the name says, Fast Forward Maine, so I believed in it as well as the people who committed to be a part of the Fast Forward Maine. I had to work with people that did not share my vision. I had to overcome the challenges of explaining what a podcast is to people that never listen to podcasts and were saying that they couldn't find it on their local radio channel. 

“So there was a lot of education. But it makes the process actually exciting because when you start, when you're facing the objections and you're facing the challenges, those people who are willing to persevere and endure the hardships of implementing change or nurturing change in somebody's perspective, that's rewarding in itself. 

“Because ultimately, you still get to do what you love to do. You still get to launch what you believe is the right thing. And in all honesty, we were going to do it regardless if we were going to be supported or not.”

Yury does have support now, though. “At the end of the day, I have to say that I work with very talented and forward-thinking leaders who read the proposal, who saw the business case, who listened to podcasts and kind of like... I don't want to say that we're all on the same level, because their vision is 30,000-foot view versus my kind of like a small lane. But we found a common ground. We decided to give it a shot. And people were just waiting to see what we can do with it.”

According to James Robert, the takeaway here revolves around a few things. First, Yury had to help the unaware become aware of what the opportunities were in the first place. He had to give them clarity that this was a growth opportunity. 

And? He had the support of the organization because it seems like purpose is a central theme of how the entire organization operates, particularly through the lens of this Fast Forward Maine program. 

What's Next

After his experience in college and his experiences overcoming some of the challenges, James Robert was curious to know what is next for Yury. Yury shared that he is already creating all of this content for his organization’s loan officers and community development team so they can share this information among themselves and build their own personal platforms. 

It almost seems like a perpetual evergreen, sustaining program that will only create more value as they go and to get this content out to the people in the communities that Yury and his team serve. So when James Robert asked him what was next? Here was his response:

“I don't want to go anywhere from where I am. I found my place. I know my worth. I'm constantly working on polishing my skills and expanding my craft and the impact of my craft. I think it's the most rewarding and very humbling thought to have when you know that it's not that I have arrived to where I want to be, but I'm doing exactly what I wanted to do.”

Both satisfied with this answer and wanting to know more, James Robert asked one more question. The world is very different post-COVID-19, and Yury experienced a lot along the way. James Robert asked him, “What is one thing, one practical idea, insight, action item that you could recommend for me to take over the next 12 months to focus on going forward?”

Yury responded, “One thing that is going to be important for me is, and I really hope you'll find some value in it, is focusing on identifying open, complex, dynamic, and network problems and finding solutions. So when you're presented with a challenge like that, you start thinking about things like storytelling, design thinking, empathy, mindfulness. So I can't just box it into one thing...Because we are going to be faced with a new set of challenges, a new set of expectations.”

What James Robert earned from this conversation with Yury is to focus on mindfulness—being aware of what the opportunities in the future are, looking for roadblocks that we can eliminate, and looking for value that we can create together as an organization. 

Perhaps the best example of this mindfulness is the Fast Forward program, looking at collaboration opportunities with other entities, organizations, brands within a financial brand community. 

After all, even when we are socially distanced, we are still a community, which is what our clients and customers are hoping to find in a financial organization.