Thomas J. Shara

Where will the next generation of banking leaders come from?

Given the challenges facing the banking industry today — including issues raised by the Covid-19 pandemic, the quest for solutions to systemic racial and economic inequality, and the need for digital transformation — our ability to answer that question is critical. In order to meet a host of challenges and ensure that our industry remains relevant to the needs of customers, employees, communities and shareholders, banks must attract and cultivate a new generation of leaders with a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives.

In particular, the industry suffers from a “talent gap” in terms of its ability to attract members of the Gen Y and Gen Z demographics. This shortfall is especially acute in the area of technologically-skilled associates, at a time of rapidly growing demand for digital banking, data analytics and artificial intelligence capabilities. But, in reality, all areas of our business would benefit from a broader, deeper and more diverse talent pool.

Rising Stars and Emerging Leaders
NJBankers continues to play a key role in encouraging the development of talented individuals to fill the banking industry’s needs. The Association’s Rising Star Award recognizes leadership on the job and in community-centric initiatives. At this year’s virtual award event in November, professionals under the age of 40 from banks across the state were honored for their professionalism, service and teamwork.

In addition, their Emerging Leaders Program is designed to enhance the organizational, performance and leadership skills of highly motivated managers who have the potential to become future leaders. The program helps emerging leaders build expertise in areas such as talent development, team effectiveness, communication, diversity and inclusivity, leading change, emotional intelligence, and strategic banking issues at the state and national level.

It is encouraging to see the accomplishments of all the Rising Star and Emerging Leaders participants. These achievers are the future of our industry and they exemplify the initiative, innovation and devotion to excellence that will be required to succeed in a financial industry undergoing dramatic disruption.

Investing in Training and Diversity
But, cultivating talent is not just the responsibility of industry associations like NJBankers. It has to be part of every bank’s mandate. At one time, most banks of any size had formal training programs. I recall this clearly because I was the first person to go through the training program at my then-employer. Sadly, most of those programs became victims of cost-cutting efforts. To fill this void, Lakeland created the Leader Engagement and Development (LEAD) Program in 2019 to foster effective leadership and management abilities. Thirty-six Lakeland associates have participated in the first two rounds of this rigorous program. I strongly encourage NJ Bankers members to consider such programs for their own institutions.

Our industry cannot deepen its talent pool without taking decisive action to improve its record with respect to diversity and inclusion. Simply stated, leaders cannot be limited by race, gender, economic inequality, or whether they are differently abled. At the highest levels of our organizations, we must commit to diversifying our workforces, ensuring that the composition of our teams mirrors that of our communities, and providing opportunities for advancement. As our society faces challenges on multiple fronts, we also need to provide channels to listen to the voices of associates on a range of issues – from the pandemic, to economic dislocation, to social divisions. Recognizing this need, NJBankers recently created its Diversity Equity and Inclusion Council to help foster a more inclusive banking community by sharing ideas and providing members with resources on issues with respect to race, gender, gender identities, sexual orientation and disabilities. Among its activities, the Council will be sponsoring a webinar series on topics related to its mission.

Ultimately, closing the talent gap will require enterprise-wide efforts. Banks must create high-level talent acquisition and management teams, partnering human resources with business unit leaders in the quest for talent. Executives with responsibility for diversity and inclusion must be part of this process. It will be necessary to identify the roles within the bank that will be most critical for the delivery of future value, and to develop strategies for filling those roles through a combination of new hires and reskilling existing associates. Organizational structures will have to change to allow more fluid movement between functional areas to encourage individual learning and growth. And, employee benefits and workplace policies must be competitive with those offered by other industries that are vying for the same limited supply of talent.

The search for tomorrow’s banking leaders will not be an easy one. But, the professionalism, skill and initiative shown by the Rising Star Award winners and Emerging Leaders graduates makes me confident that we can attract and develop the talent needed to secure our industry’s future.