As regulators continue to examine the business practices that led to the near meltdown of our financial system in 2008, a financial institution’s culture plays a key role as a true indicator of how it handles the challenges and opportunities of a competitive and often difficult business environment.
In a recent op-ed column that addressed concerns regarding risky decisions and behaviors at large institutions, Comptroller of the Currency Thomas Curry stated that “culture at banks and the ‘tone’ set by senior executives play a bigger role in spurring problems than individual bad decisions.”
Soon after this article appeared, the Basel Committee – comprised of 30 nations including the U.S. – issued new corporate governance principles on everything from how boards oversee corporate culture to implementing strong compensation structures to guard against excessive or improper risk-taking. And while Comptroller Curry’s comments and the Committee’s guidelines were specifically addressing the type of risk-taking that led to the recent financial crisis, both went on to suggest that corporate culture concerns should also be addressed by smaller institutions as well.
In today’s highly regulated, highly competitive and socially connected environment, a financial institution’s behaviors – both good and bad – can have immediate rewards or consequences. So establishing and maintaining a culture of integrity requires more than writing a values statement into a strategic plan or board orientation document.
Maintaining a strong culture requires a commitment
A corporate culture is about behavior – what is acceptable and what isn’t – and not tolerating any actions that conflict with an organization’s stated value system. Regardless of what leaders profess regarding their business attitudes and practices, the actual culture will inevitably reflect the behaviors of those at the top, along with what they reward and what they discourage. Otherwise, if leadership isn’t walking the walk and there are no incentives to reinforce good behavior or consequences to deter bad actions, it will be very difficult – if not impossible – to maintain a consistent culture of best practices.
Incorporating integrity into all institution activities – such as consistently utilizing sound business principles, supporting an atmosphere of inclusion among staff, placing value on all employee contributions to the workplace and providing excellent service to all stakeholders – can differentiate a bank or credit union from its competition. Beyond the reputational benefits of a strong culture, there are also internal advantages, such as:
- continuous employee collaboration;
- increased productivity;
- account holder satisfaction and new business referrals;
- low employee turnover; and,
- decreased costs for hiring and training.
By demonstrating to employees that you are committed to maintaining a strong business culture, you can create a healthy environment where everyone is focused on doing the right thing for the institution and its account holders. This leads to a more collaborative environment where new and better ways of doing things can rise to the top. Plus, employees have ownership in how the institution functions. This can greatly enhance morale because people feel valued.
A strong business culture doesn’t happen by accident
Every organization has a culture based on the values, attitudes and traditions that are practiced every day. Following are five steps you can take to ensure that your bank or credit union culture is based on well-thought-out practices aimed to garner your institution a positive, respected reputation:
- Develop a responsible mission statement that clearly reflects your philosophy and goals.
- Involve your employees to get the best possible input from all levels and angles of the organization – Remember, your front-line staff members are the ones who are hearing what your account holders really have to say about the financial institution.
- Reinforce your culture every day by the way you interact in meetings, during business calls, at community functions and through employee celebrations. With practice, your culture will become as natural as breathing in every possible situation.
- Hire people who have the personality and attitude to fit into and support your culture.
- Periodically check your culture’s compass. As your institution grows, make sure any changes you make are consistent with keeping your culture on course.
In today’s competitive environment, you may find that you can’t operate as you once did. Yet consumers still expect their financial institution to have all of the products and services they need and want. More importantly, as the focus continues on risk prevention and consumer protection, account holders also want to know that they can trust their financial institution to do what they say they will and consistently maintain best practices and a strong, reliable foundation.