Channel your inner Knute Rockne to help your team weather tough times

Not every life and business challenge has a sports analogy. I’ve acknowledged that fact hundreds of times in talks to banker groups over the years — usually right before using a sports analogy.

We rely on these comparisons because they are almost universally understood — even by nonfans. Business leaders often use them when talking about competition, executing plans, coaching teams, building winning cultures or confronting obstacles.

This was on my mind recently as a senior manager friend from a large community bank talked about the business challenges of the past 12 months. He said he and his colleagues felt like they were coming off a rebuilding season and that this year would be no better.

‘Rebuilding’ is a term that makes sports fans shudder. These seasons happen when management decides that the team it has cannot win. When an organization decides an overhaul is in order, players and fans can usually expect more excuses than victories.

My friend’s feelings were based on the fact that the bank’s performance was off from the levels of the past few years. Before the pandemic, it was on a winning streak of progressively improving growth and profitability numbers.

From an outsider’s perspective, the slightly reduced growth numbers of the past 12 months were not bad. Of course, it’s easier to say that when you’re not the person directly answerable for them.

But the business world had been turned on its head. I suggested to him that in “normal” times this slowdown would mean more than it might now. These are not normal times.

The rules had been switched midgame. For all the planning banks of all sizes do for the near and distant future, no one had the economic environment and operational restrictions of most of 2020 on their planning boards.

Additionally, no matter how confident pundits sound, no one truly knows what the next year, much less several years, will look like.

Has the past year changed the way all successful banks of the future must operate? Some are adamant that it has. Of course, the doom crew has been predicting the death of established business models for a decade.

Are the pessimists right this time? It’s possible. It’s equally possible that they are not.

Regardless, banks are better positioned than some think to meet evolving customer preferences.

Contrary to the stereotypes that bankers are staid, the industry has been evolving for decades. Most banks’ operations are significantly different than they were only a decade ago and are constantly being tweaked. Banks of all sizes have not been static.

That said, the past year has brought increased focus on adopting new business models and strategies.

I’ve suggested to groups recently that for all the chatter of the past year, few large banks that have made significant moves are doing anything they weren’t already planning. If anything, the pandemic provided both reason and “cover” to accelerate plans. The consolidation of physical branches had begun. The leveraging of digital tools to enhance customer service and banker productivity was underway.

These moves may be exactly right for those banks. They also could present new opportunities to savvy competitors.

Experienced and highly motivated employees caught in reorganizations will be on the market. Some longtime customers of a competitor may have reason to reevaluate relationships when their facilities are shuttered. Small-business doors that seemed closed before just might crack open.

Nothing is guaranteed. It comes down, as always, to outworking the competition and executing in the field.

An outsider might be inclined to copy the much-publicized moves of some large banks. Their digital products must be what is required to win, their new facilities must be the right designs needed and their marketing and sales program must be state of the art, the thinking goes.

All, some, or none of those things may be true for other banks. People who follow sports realize that winning organizations win over time by continually building the best teams they can and playing to the strengths of those teams today.

After pointing out when one team appeared to be a clear favorite over another, ESPN’s Chris Berman was fond of exclaiming, “But that’s why they play the games!”

Consistently remind your teams of where their own strengths lie and inspire them to play to those strengths.

Sports and business competitions aren’t won on paper. Strategies are great, but execution on the field — and in the banking field — determines the victors.

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