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Leadership During Crisis - Insights from Mark Turner

Mark Turner and I have known each other for many years.  I have always admired his leadership style, and the great results his company achieved under his guidance speak for themselves.  Mark was also named “Banker of The Year” by American Banker a couple of years ago, a well-deserved recognition.

I was honored when Mark joined a recent CEO call to share his insights about crisis leadership.  So I asked him to write an article for BirdsEye View summarizing his brilliant talk, and the results are below.

Mark Turner spent 21 years in the C-Suite of WSFS, 13 years as CEO and/or Chair until 12/31/2019.  He started as CEO in Spring 2007... which explains why he had to marshal all his leadership skills to shepherd his team as the financial crisis hit.  He spent the next 5 years handling the 2007 recession, 2008 Financial Crisis, ensuing Great Recession, and the complex regulatory response to both the crisis and the mandatory regulator change (from OTS to OCC and Fed).   

Mark currently sits on WSFS' bank Board and a large local hospital system Board, and has actively served during the recent Pandemic and racial reckoning protests.

As I reflect upon my years with WSFS and other organizations, distinct themes emerge as lessons learned from prior and current crises.  I’d like to share with you the approach we took to navigate these various challenges, the guiding principles we employed and some tactical lessons learned.

Every crisis different.  While we accept that notion, there are three essential elements to handling any well.

a Team – a nimble, resilient, cohesive team is priceless during crisis times.   It’s a perfect time for the "fox hole" test – would you want this executive with you in the fox hole during war?  Will they have your back?  Will they do the right thing?  Leadership is essential at all levels, not just the CEO’s.  It’s time to make mental and physical notes on who rises to the occasion, who goes beyond their BAU duties, who rolls with the punches, who works well with others for greater good.  We should also note who shrinks away from responsibility, points fingers, snipes, shows negative body-language signals and doesn’t contribute to the team such that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  Accurate assessments of your team members during times of crisis could help you identify your internal successor and other key players that will reliably add value during normal times as well.

My own succession validation came through the 2008 crisis when Rodger Levenson, our Chief Commercial Banking Officer at the time, rose to the occasion and became my “go-to” executive.  His commitment and leadership skills shone bright.  Following the crisis Rodger tackled numerous additional responsibilities, many well outside his wheelhouse.  His “can do” attitude, optimistic yet realistic, served him well, and he became my successor.  Rodger is now Chairman, President and CEO of WSFS, and is doing a tremendous job handling the current challenges we are all facing.

b Evaluate your Executive Team, the key up-and-comers, AND your Board members.  Make changes as appropriate immediately after crisis.   Do not wait.  Your directors, like your executive team members and others, can add significant value during this period or start playing the blame game.  This is the right time to band together and focus on solutions, and their behavior during the period will tell you whether they understand that.  The time for lessons learned and personal accountabilities is after the crisis, not during it.

c Identify who your "go to" execs are, and mindfully invest in them post-crisis.  These are the leaders who will take your company to the next level.   

Accentuate personal leadership qualities that help the team during crisis: authenticity, empathy, calm under pressure, painting a clear and positive picture of the future state post-crisis, and be action-oriented.  This is the time to show you can clearly see the light at the end of the tunnel, and know what needs to be done to get there.  While you vision may be ambitious, it is important to start with small wins to build confidence, momentum, and team behavior.  The end target might be daunting, but each correct step gets us closer to that point.  Celebrating small victories shifts the mood from crisis management to a controlled environment, where we follow a roadmap to success.

Alex Gorsky, CEO J and J (paraphrase), recent crisis has made it clear that every CEO has to be a quasi CHRO.  The crucial importance of team engagement, morale, coordination and execution is accentuated during a crisis, and the CEO is the leader of the team.

The digital uptake has been turbo-charged by this crisis, and bank CEOs must take heed and confirm their organization’s digital strategy and path toward effective execution. 

Similarly, Stakeholder Capitalism has vastly accelerated. Recent events underscored the importance of factors other than profitability, shareholder welfare and other traditional constituencies to any company’s success.  CEOs must develop, together with their board, a position and a roadmap to Stakeholder Capitalism that is consistent with their value system, culture and mission.  

A recent quote from an American Banker article on "new social contract" of bankers says (paraphrased): Banks best positioned for success (during and after crisis) will be the ones whose leaders show their own humanity, their understanding of stresses of their employees, while also projecting a sense of calm and being guardedly optimistic.  Your behavior as a leader will visibly demonstrate your values and significantly influence your entire team’s engagement. Sharing personal vulnerability while maintaining a positive attitude, hope and focus on execution, is a delicate balance to strike.  It is the balancing act that effective CEOs will walk through this crisis and beyond.

Good planning and preparation.  Your executive team, led by you, should routinely look outside the organization to see what's coming from other industries and identify specific learnings from their observations.  Other leading industries bring about seismic shifts in consumer preferences and behaviors.  Strong CEOs explore those changes first-hand, and thoughtfully determine which ones their organization should adopt, act upon or defend against.  

When you disrupt, as you implement leading practices, do not disrupt incrementally.  Make quantum changes for maximum impact, then adjust continuously.

It is as important to determine what not to do as it is to determine what to do.  A clear definition of the company’s brand identity and culture will be the yardsticks to measure external changes and make decisions which ones fit your organization.  It is the CEO’s vision and communication that help the entire workforce understand the company’s strategic direction, its reasoning and the necessary changes that must be made in order to continue and evolve and prosper.

a. Having a strong, positive, widespread culture that is comfortable with change helps in good times, but especially in bad times.  Culture is always worth the investment. 

b. Crisis will make early-mover decisions essential; they become a strategic advantage.  Much like I used part of cost saves from a major acquisition to invest in modernizing the business and refreshing the vision, other CEOs and leaders can redirect investments and repurpose people toward greater-impact opportunities within their organization. 

c. Once stabilized during crisis, it is important to move quickly and forcefully towards investing in new people, products, businesses, locations, geographies, share buybacks, etc.--availability and pricing will never be better.  Be decisive and build into your transformation frequent checkpoints to ensure mid-course corrections and facilitate speedy progress.

d. Rule of thumb: condense two strategic plan cycle investments into one cycle, or less than one cycle.  We can do things so much faster than we expect.  This crisis certainly taught us that countless times, from DocuSign to PPP tool integration.  

Your attitude and the attitude of your senior leaders will determine your success.  Check, and authentically adjust your attitude every day, and in every key moment.  Think "what attitude does my organization need from me today...in this meeting...at this moment?" And remember, today we do not have the attitude-adjustment time we had when we commuted to the office, not do we have the decompression time on the way from the office back to home.  We need to become more intentional about appropriate attitude adjustment for each occasion.

In summary, the famous saying, "May you live in interesting times", can be a blessing or a curse.  It is you who can make it a blessing with your leadership attitude.

And, one of my favorite sayings is:  In times of crisis, "every cloud has a silver lining".  As a leader, your job: "If you can’t see that silver lining, FIND it; and if you can't find it, MAKE it."

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FOOD NOTES

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