“You and I both know that if we scripted this, the audience would smell a rat. People don't like that kind of stuff anymore. And maybe they never did.” -Sam Kilmer

The events of 2020 were hard. Not just for those in the financial industry, but for everyone. For many banks and credit unions, the pandemic meant working faster and harder than ever to move their operations to a digital format. Now that the height of the pandemic has passed, financial brands are left to pick up the pieces, make sense of everything that just happened, and decipher what it means for the future. 

The key to growth and success moving forward?

It’s gratitude. 

Sam Kilmer, the Senior Director at Cornerstone Advisors, where he leads their FinTech industry practice. Sam also leads a few select advisory engagements with banks, credit unions, industry providers, and investors. 

So, how can financial institutions find gratitude in 2021? And how can they move forward and into this new digital culture that’s been created?

Finding Gratitude

Looking back at 2020, the financial industry saw a concentration of three or four years’ worth of growth in just one year; it was akin to a big shock or a stress test.  Pre-pandemic, many banks were adopting digital transformation at a rate of somewhere around 7 percent year over year.

So what happens when that rate suddenly soars to 70 percent all in one year, like what happened in 2020?

Sam offered his solution. “My big takeaway was gratitude, and not taking many things for granted. I think many of us walked away realizing that if we weren't already tremendously grateful for things like our families and our school teachers...we certainly are now. We see what people have had to go through.”

He also added things like unexpectedly high retail sales and buying trends shifted more than people thought they would. And of this change? “We learned how to deal with the shift.”

How does gratitude factor into this shift? It comes down to a person’s outlook.

The mind can only hold two thoughts:

  • A positive mindset, or one of abundance
  • A negative mindset, or one of scarcity

By focusing on what is going well, one can train their mind to move in that direction.

Prior to 2020, many in the financial industry hustled from airports to conferences and filled their schedules past the brim with meetings and to-do lists. And for Sam, when all that was stripped away, the only thing left was a healthy sense of gratitude for the things that remained.  

Sam also pointed out that even in the middle of a year of unparalleled digital transformation and a major focus on implementing new and emerging technology, there was also a real focus on people. Even during a full switch from the physical delivery of financial services to a world of eCommerce, there were always still people involved. 

In times of chaos, people can do one of two things.

1. They can turn inwards and focus on themselves and their own needs, which is not a really good place to be.

2. Or, they turn externally to focus on the problems of others and solving those problems. And as a result, we rise together.

Digital growth isn’t about technology.

It’s about using technology to bring people together. 

Technology can help us find a community, even if it isn’t a geographic one. There's the old adage, "The riches are in the niches." And in finding these niche communities, banks aren’t saying “No” to everyone else. They are finding a way to say “Yes” to a very specific growth opportunity.

And what is there to be more grateful for than that kind of vision and clarity?

The False Hope of Technology

Historically speaking when it comes to digital adoption, somewhere between 60 and 80 percent of all digital transformations fail. 

While this may be disheartening at first glance, it’s really quite illuminating about how to best approach digital transformation. In far too many settings where digital transformation fails, the idea of a new technology as an end-all, be-all solution creates a false hope; that some new technology will sweep in and be a savior for the entire organization. 

This blind faith in technology fails because only a few are truly aware of the reality; there’s no accountability.

The playbook for digital transformation is still being written, which means leadership through these uncharted waters is more important than ever.

Banks and credit unions need to have more positive discussions to create clarity, awareness, alignment, and a consensus organization-wide, which begins with influential people.

Technology isn’t actually where the real transformation happens in the first place.

It happens with people. 

Sam rightfully believes that this kind of meaningful, lasting transformation doesn’t happen accidentally; it starts with conscious leadership at the top of the organization. And it requires “rolling up shirt sleeves and making sure that organizations set expectations and accountability.”

Depending on the institution, this may also require a reframing of the cultural mindset of the entire team.

This is because many of the technologies that financial institutions implement aren’t viewed as assets or an investment in the organization’s growth potential. Too often, digital tools like marketing automation or customer relationship management (CRM) solutions—and the people that manage them—are viewed as cost centers instead of a valuable step towards total digital transformation.

FinTech is Not the Enemy

Another historic trend that has reached its expiration date?

The idea that financial institutions like banks and credit unions have to compete with FinTech companies

For quite some time, the outlook among banks and credit unions has been that FinTech brands are looking to destroy more traditional banks, both in-person and online.

But there’s a unique opportunity for collaboration here between banks and credit unions and their FinTech cousins. 

FinTech is not necessarily looking to disrupt the entire financial game—because they have their own challenges to overcome. While existing and traditional incumbent financial institutions need more forward-thinking digital banking solutions, FinTech brands need exposure and already-established communities. Since banks and credit unions have these kinds of audiences built in, incumbent financial institutions and FinTech brands have an opportunity to work together, to bring alignment, and to elevate the work that everyone is doing. 

"The Hustle Has Changed"

Sam noted that he has seen another emerging trend in the financial industry—one that is really working. That those paving the way, making a difference, and helping lead others are getting comfortable with the idea of being publicly uncomfortable. 

One of the greatest strengths as a leader is the ability to raise a hand and ask for help. 

For too long, there was a widespread belief that leaders and institutions needed a public, professional persona that was separate from the real person. But the more that financial leaders and institutions can have honest, real transparent conversations, the more they will inspire others to have those same honest, real transparent conversations. 

Sam agreed that authenticity in the financial industry is key, noting that in speaking with James Robert, nothing was scripted because, “You and I both know that if we scripted this, the audience would smell a rat. People don't like that kind of stuff anymore. And maybe they never did.”

And in a manner of speaking, digital transformation has changed to reflect this idea as well, because digital transformation isn’t just about technology—it’s about people, and learning, training, and education to gain clarity about what authentic, meaningful opportunities are available.

Sam explained how these two ideas are intertwined. “The big opportunity and issue for some is when you look at how the industry has changed, some people say, ‘Well, we've moved to digital sales.’”

Instead, Sam proposed that the industry has moved into self-service buying, which means organizations need to shift their thinking away from offering digital services to meeting the needs of the people.

It’s about “Who,” not “How.”

And as Sam shared, “The hustle has changed.” He continued. “We're all still hustling. We all still have the same things to do, but because people are self-service buying now, we just have to think a little bit about what our hustle looks like. Just keep being a good person, but realize that because people are buying self-service as opposed to us trying to sell things or market things as much, it just changes the way that you put together content and delivery.”

In our new digital-first world, there’s no question that consumers can sense when a financial institution is being authentic versus when they are being dealt a pre-packaged line or a marketing ploy.

To move into this new digital culture with success and gratitude, banks and credit unions need only be themselves and work with a sense of personal purpose to step into their digital future.