"I'm not saying come in like hammer style and start hammering into 'em because ‘you're the boss’. I'm saying embrace that awkward conversation, try to understand what's getting in the way." - Todd Weiden

In our fast-paced, transformative world, individuals are fatigued from the constant change and complexity. How can we confidently navigate through the chaos of the AI era, especially in the banking industry?

Host James Robert Lay explored this issue on the Banking on Digital Growth podcast, featuring special guest Todd Weiden, the founder and principal of Saltee Co, a boutique consulting firm who's partnering with credit unions with banks to simplify, to prioritize, and most importantly, to execute their strategy.

The top 3 insights from this article:

  • Earn success by confidently navigating change
  • Utilize storytelling to drive transformation
  • Embrace awkward conversations

From Paperboy to Change Leader: Earning Success in a Rapidly Changing Landscape

Todd, who once filled the humble roles of a paperboy and ice cream maker, now devotes his career to assisting organizations adapt to the swift changes instigated by the explosive growth of technology. Todd believes these past roles were crucial stepping stones in his journey, shaping his identity as a risk-taker and a committed partner.

"I call myself the fastest ice cream maker in the south. Those ice cream making skills clearly impressed her [his wife] enough to stay along. That's been the driving force for all the success that I've had at this point in my life."

Todd delved into his professional transition from corporate life, where he spent nearly two decades in financial services, to entrepreneurship. His move from SunTrust to Synovus was punctuated by a crucial decision to launch Saltee Co., a decision that came at what he deemed the "right time."

"Everything happens at the right time when it's supposed to happen, even if it doesn't feel that way."

Revealing his entrepreneurial passion, Todd confessed that he initially had a skewed understanding of what it meant. He thought it was about launching a tangible product, citing his failed sock company venture as an example. Later, he recognized that his true entrepreneurial value lay in utilizing his knowledge and experience running large organizations and teams.

In all Todd’s major career pivots, success came because he worked diligently and proved himself. Now, through Saltee Co., he strives to instill this ethos in the organizations he works with, enabling them to earn their success amidst the rapid changes in the financial services sector.

Unpacking the Power of Narrative: Driving Transformation through Storytelling

Todd shared insights into what inhibits individuals from embarking on transformative journeys. According to him, human nature inherently craves comfort and predictability, making change a daunting concept for many.

"Human nature is people love comfort, and they love complacency. They love comfort, it's rooted in their soul...It's fear of the unknown. It's fear of the change," Todd expressed.

He believes that an effective way to navigate change and ease people's fears is through storytelling. With a background in film, he uses storytelling to frame significant changes in a way that is both digestible and meaningful to the team.

"Whenever I had big changes come through from a leadership perspective... I had to craft and say, okay, how is this now going to affect the team. And then I had to tell the story as to why it made sense... the sooner I could say, here's why you don't need to be scared... it allowed the human element of the team to embrace the change and start running with me."

Todd narrated his experience leading a new team at SunTrust and dealing with unknowns and uncertainties. His leadership philosophy was transparent and motivational, acknowledging that stumbling blocks were inevitable. His main focus was on helping the team recover and learn from these challenges.

"I was like, hey, team, like, we're gonna be tripping on potholes, like they're everywhere... I need you to keep running. And then the next time we see that same pothole, I need to jump over it... I needed them to keep running. I need them to keep recognizing it."

Using narratives and archetypal patterns can positively influence people's attitudes towards change. And understanding these patterns can serve as a powerful tool to guide transformations.

Ability Over Authority and Embracing Awkward Conversations

Todd shared a poignant example from his tenure at SunTrust, where he turned an underperforming division into the highest performing team in the company.

He did this by empowering the team, inspiring them with the notion of "ability over authority."

"I don't need any of you to have the authority to do anything different. I need you to know you have the ability to do something different. And we are going to do something different, “ he shared during their first, big team meeting.

The path to progress often starts with an uncomfortable discussion. But these conversations are a gateway to transformation, and leaders shouldn't shy away from them.

As Todd puts it, "If you avoid it, you're never going to get to awesome."

He insists that embracing these difficult dialogues can lead to significant improvements, both personally and professionally.

So, how can leaders initiate these necessary yet awkward conversations?

Todd recommends leading by example. Make it clear that you are ready to face challenges head-on, to learn and grow from them, and to encourage your team to do the same. 

He says, "Here's what we can expect. And here's all the things I don't know that are going to happen. But you'll see me in front, failing, and learning and continuing to move forward. And I need you doing the same thing."

Step by Step: Initiating the Awkward Conversation

To help leaders take the first step toward these challenging yet fruitful discussions, Todd suggests a few practical methods:

  1. Openness about Uncertainty: Starting a conversation about a topic you're unsure about can feel strange. However, expressing your uncertainty can foster an environment of openness and mutual understanding. You can say something like, "I'm not sure how to approach this, but I think it's important that we discuss it."
  2. Recognize the Elephant in the Room: If there's an issue that's clearly affecting the team but no one is discussing it, be the one to bring it up. This can be as simple as saying, "I've noticed that this has been a concern for some of us. Can we talk about it?"
  3. Transparency about Feelings: It's okay to admit when you're uncomfortable. Transparency can help others feel more at ease about expressing their feelings too. You might say, "This isn't easy for me to bring up, but I think it's important for us to address."
  4. Promote a No-Blame Environment: Encourage open communication by ensuring that people feel safe sharing their thoughts. Frame the conversation in a way that doesn't attribute blame, but focuses on finding solutions.

Facing the Future Together

In our rapidly evolving world, it's crucial for leaders to guide their teams through uncertainty. By embracing awkward conversations, leaders can not only address immediate issues, but also foster an environment of trust, openness, and continuous growth.

As Todd puts it, "Whether it's how to get on the internet, and how to download AOL Instant Messenger, 2530 years ago, right to where whatever chaos might be coming our way...it's still, here's what we can expect...But you'll see me in front, failing, and learning and continuing to move forward. And I need you doing the same thing."

And so, as we navigate the new terrain of AI and other technological advancements, let's remember that it's okay to be uncomfortable. That it's okay to have awkward conversations. Because, in the end, that's how we grow and achieve awesomeness.

Take Action Today:

  • Engage in continuous learning and training programs related to AI and digital technologies, and understand how they can be leveraged in your specific role for improved efficiency and performance.
  • Create narratives around the benefits and impacts of these changes on customers' banking or investment experience, which will help them navigate the changes confidently.
  •  Encourage and participate in open dialogues about challenges, uncertainties, and areas of discomfort within the team. 

For more about financial transformation, reach out to James Robert Lay at the Digital Growth Institute.