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Young Bankers Wish Banks Would Function Less Like Banks, More Like Tech Startups

Three industry newcomers weigh in on workplace culture, hiring and the impact of the Great Recession.

By Alaina Webster, Managing Editor

Recently, while attending the 2018 BAI Beacon in Orlando, Fla., I had the opportunity to sit down and speak with three of the organization’s “Emerging Leaders.” Having been selected in previous years, the trio now serve as program advisors to other incoming Leaders. During our roughly 45 minute conversation, we covered topics ranging from what attracted them to banking to what people in their generations (spoiler: they’re not all millennials!) find attractive in prospective and current employers.

Houston-based Julieta Falcón Uribe, program manager, retail consumer segments for Birmingham, Ala.-headquartered BBVA Compass took what could be termed a more “conventional” approach when entering the financial sector. She joined BBVA through a bank-operated management training program, which she learned about at an information session hosted by her alma mater, McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin.

“I attended an information session,” she said. “Before you even apply, they’re telling you about the positions and about the bank, and they have people who have graduated from my business school who work currently at the bank.

“This is the only job that I’ve had out of college,” she continued. “I graduated in 2011, and the way that it was pitched to me is ‘A bank is not just the retail branch. A bank is marketing, a bank is compliance, a bank is digital.’… I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do whenever I graduated, so it was an opportunity to learn more about myself, what kind of environments I enjoyed and what I was good at.”

For Yury Nabokov and Ben Lemke, the path to a career in finance wasn’t quite so linear. Nabokov, who serves as omnichannel experience manager and marketing strategist for Machias Savings Bank in Machias, Maine, described his introduction to banking as “unique.” Prior to joining Machias, he was working as part of the development office for a local university, creating a social media communication program.

“After I developed that, they couldn’t really implement it because they didn’t really have the resources, but I had friends who were in banking,” he said.

These friends happened to be the president and CEO and chief marketing officer at Machias, both of whom recognized that the bank was struggling to find its voice on social media. They offered Nabokov a part-time, temporary gig.

“Six months later, we were ranked no. 7 [for social media outreach] by ICBA,” he said. “We were no. 7 in the nation across community banks.”

By developing and showing the success of the program, Nabokov was able to turn a six-month, part-time temp position into a full-time job, a role he has since expanded. “I was given the runway because they really experimented with me,” he said.

Lemke, who now works for San Jose, Calif.-based Technology Credit Union as associate vice president, audit and compliance, started out concerned he was going to throw off the whole interview.

“I hope this doesn’t ruin anything; I’m not technically a millennial,” he began. “I didn’t come to banking until I was 35. This is my third career.”

Having worked in special education prior to practicing law for 5 years, Lemke brought an interesting skill set to his new financial career.

“It was offered to me in terms of ‘Here’s risk management – we think your legal skills fit that well. You want to give this a try?’ and I said, reading the job description, ‘I don’t know what any of this means, but sure why not? Let’s give it a whirl.’”

Listening to their stories of finding a career path, one thing that stands out is how much they appreciate the various job opportunities and flexible career trajectories financial careers can offer, and they all agreed that of not only upward but lateral movement was important to younger employees.

“It’s hard for me – this is so millennial of me to say, but – to paint all millennials with the same brush,” Falcón Uribe ventured. “I can only speak from my experience … but I think for young people, they want to see growth opportunities — that I’m not going to be committing to just one thing throughout my professional lifespan … that I can be moving into different roles, learning different things, have multiple careers within the same place.”

“It’s not just upward mobility, it’s lateral mobility,” Lemke suggested.

“Exactly!” she replied. “Because it gets boring – I get bored very easily. I need to be constantly challenged, and I like to be heard as well and be able to have a voice in the workplace. I don’t think we [millennials] just want to show up.”

Speaking of his early experiences at Tech CU, Lemke said, “The things that I found that I wasn’t expecting … I think especially at smaller institutions … they really do look to foster their people. You wear so many hats, you have the opportunity to do a lot of different things. So, if the first thing, the second thing, the third thing you do you don’t like, there’s five, six, seven, eight down the line. You’re going to land on something eventually.”

Nabokov himself is a perfect example of the satisfaction of movement within one company. After turning his temporary social media position into full-time employment he transitioned from e-marketing assistant to digital marketing manager to digital experience manager followed by innovation digital strategy, which all led to his current title.

So why aren’t all young people taking to banking in the way these three have? Falcón Uribe, Nabokov and Lemke have thoughts on that, too.

“I don’t think it’s sexy to work for a bank,” Falcón Uribe stated, referring to millennial and Gen Z perceptions of financial careers. “I mean, just to be honest, it’s not. Whenever I tell people I work for a bank, they say ‘Oh, which branch?’ They automatically think I’m counting money.

“I think they [banks] could do a lot more, emphasizing all those great things that are happening in our industry. For example, at BBVA Compass, we’re working towards being completely agile, and I feel like we look and function on the inside a lot more like a startup and a tech company … I think that if we were to sell ourselves in that way, position ourselves outside of what a conventional bank looks like – even the simple fact that whenever you go into our offices, we have an open work space, the guys don’t have to wear ties, it’s very casual.”

Nabokov, however, disagreed regarding the sex appeal of banking. “I truly believe that banking is as sexy as anything right now,” he countered. “My banking is my phone now. You know, artificial intelligence. Someone has to write the script and design it, lay out the interface of my mobile banking or online banking, someone had to think it through. The way I communicate with my customer service or interact with the business bankers: LinkedIn, Twitter, chat, text, email, online video portals.”

Citing NYU Stern School of Business professor and Meta Idea Labs CEO Luke Williams, who addressed the general assembly earlier that evening, Nabokov continued, “We are all tech companies, like [Williams] said, the silicon is leaving Silicon Valley because everyone is a tech company … One of the cool things that we [Machias] are doing right now, we hired a professional videographer to benefit the way we communicate with messaging. We churn the content, we have a content strategy, we have content meetings. We run our social media like we’re running our own social media company. If you are exposed to that type of thing that your bank is communicating to you, you start learning about what’s available.”

When asked if he thought more banks should follow this template, he responded, “I think banks need to do a better job at being banks. You can put lipstick on a pig, and it’s not going to make a difference.”

“I think that we just need to reposition ourselves differently,” Falcón Uribe offered. “There’s all this great stuff happening, smaller banks, bigger banks, but maybe it’s not coming across to this new generation.”

Although a self-professed member of Gen X, Lemke pointed out that the oft joked about idea of millennials and “flex time” really does hold true. “One thing that traditional financial institutions aren’t doing is providing that flexibility, and we just saw a speaker [Williams] talk for almost an hour and a half about disruption, disrupting the way we do business and the way that we employ people. Because we’re still by and large 9 to 5. It’s bankers hours, which is great, but also doesn’t fit everybody.”

Falcón Uribe and Nabokov also agreed that this was a tool banks could use to appeal to younger employees, particularly those with growing families. “The flexible thing – that was important to me when I was single, and it’s important to me now that I’m married with children, so I think that’s something that a bank can grow with you” Falcón Uribe said.

Nabokov stated that Machias has enacted a 6-week paternity leave policy. “So, if my wife has a child, I can take paternity leave,” he said. “I came from Russia where it’s [maternity leave] a year and a half, so 6 weeks is like, what?”

As we delved deeper into the perception of banks held by younger people entering the workforce, I asked if they felt the Great Recession had at all impacted the desire of their generations to choose a career in finance.

Falcón Uribe recalled beginning her career with BBVA at its Birmingham offices, “There was an Occupy Birmingham [an offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street protests that were ongoing at the time], and right across the street there were protestors … Everything that’s happening in the government, everything that’s happened with the recession – millennials are growing up and seeing this and are driven by purpose. With the recession, the banks were seen as the bad guys. If you’re driven by purpose, then I don’t want to be one of those bad guys. I think that’s been driving the negative perception with banks with this generation, what we grew up seeing in our early, formative, young adult years.”

Lemke picked up the thread saying, “I think parallel to the recession issue, when you look at [financial institutions] you see money. Money’s great – it’s a means to an end – but you don’t see the connection to lifestyle. Down at Tech CU, we’ve got a booming solar lending program, so we’re green. We loan to small businesses, help them get started in the world. We’re here to help you … We can be lifestyle institutions, not financial institutions.

“If you want to sell to millennials,” he continued, “you have to have millennials. I’m not that much older, but we live in different worlds. We came up with different things, so I don’t have the vision that millennials would have. You need to bring those people in.”

Nabokov didn’t see the talent crunch as entirely generational, though. “It’s not about millennials or non-millennials,” he said. “It’s about hiring people who are driven and have purpose in life. I think financial institutions – and I don’t want to talk about the big or the small, I’m talking about the … things that I’m exposed to at Machias Savings Bank – we are family first.”

He explained that when Machias made “Making a difference in the lives of our communities” it meant it, and this applies to its employees as well as the municipality as a whole.

“It comes at a cost at the end of the year when we look at the performance,” he said. “We spend significantly more than our competition on different [employee engagement] programs. For example, we pay up to 20 hours of volunteer time. The average financial institution, if they have programs like that, it’s probably one business day.

“The bank tells me, if you have a problem at home, whatever it is, take care of it. We will take care of the things that we will take care of … If a financial institutions lacks [the ability to nurture and value its employees] it doesn’t matter what you say in your ad to hire those people. They’re going to show up, and they’re going to see you’re telling me that I’m a difference maker, and I can’t really go and volunteer? You’re telling me that you value me as a contributing member of our family, but you’re not allowing me to take care of my family? It is super-incongruent.”

“I think it goes back to what you were saying, Yury, about we are at heart technology institutions with that financial bent,” Lemke asserts. “We shouldn’t be role-modeling ourselves off of financial institutions of the past but off of technology institutions of the present. What are the practices that they’re doing in their employment that are drawing people in?”

When asked what keeps them coming into work each day, the Leaders’ answers were as varied as their career paths. For Nabokov, who is self-admittedly quite competitive, the ambition to be the best in his field drives his passion. “I want the work that I do to be so good that people want to emulate my practices, my principles, and actually try to do it even better. If I do something good, I want to see someone do it better, so I can go and beat them again.

“It all goes back to seeing the impact of my work. It’s being able to actually comprehend the impact of the things that I do.”

“I think with my employer, the benefits are great, the environment is great, I think the work is stimulating,” said Falcón Uribe, who you’ll remember earlier also touted flexible work hours as making family life easier for her.

Lemke’s sentiments are along the same lines. “I’m far less ambitious than Yury here,” he admitted. “I want a career that allows me to put family first. I want a variety of work that’s interesting, and I want challenging work. I want to work with people that I enjoy and that appreciate me. I want to feel like I’m not, at least, making the world a worse place. I don’t want to be a lawyer anymore,” he concluded, drawing laughter from the entire table.

Bottom line: The employment market is tight, and Nabokov offered some sage advice for banks experiencing staffing issues.

“I think the financial institutions need to take a closer look at what they are and what they stand for at their cores,” he said. “That will change the perception. I think that’s what will attract people to work for banks and make a difference and see the impact of their work.”

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