It Doesn’t Take a Sports Celebrity to Inspire Greatness in Banking

To build their internal brand and inspire cultural greatness, banks and credit unions don't need celebrity spokespeople and costly endorsements from sports stars. They really just need to get a little bit better at great customer experience every day.

There is an ongoing tendency for big financial institutions — and even some brands that aren’t so big — to associate their brand with celebrities and sports stars. From runners to rowers, from football players to Olympic medalists, financial marketers hope that by connecting with athletic icons, that some of that sports magic might sprinkle on them.

As a marketing and brand-building strategy, the ROI of celebrity spokespeople is questionable. But as a culture-building strategy, hiring recognizable faces to a corporate employee function comes at considerable cost, and with no discernible outcome. So why is it done? What is the objective and where’s the ROI?

The Superhero Model Lives On

Sports stars are heralded as heroes – multiple TV channels worldwide are devoted to individual sports, with additional channels doing “fame and fortune” specials that the public loves. Newspapers are filled with sports and there is no shortage of sports websites.

Nations invest heavily in sports people as potent symbols of vigor and valor on the international stage. In addition, corporations in every industry pay handsomely to sponsor past and future superheroes, bringing them into meetings to motivate their employees.

There is little doubt that employees find sporting glory incredibly attractive – nodding along to the vivid stories of before-dawn training sessions, of grueling twice-daily weight-lifting sessions in the gym, of the sacrifice, grit and determination required to be the best!

Employees touch the Olympic medal talisman and post selfies with the taller-than-average, chisel-jawed hero. They watch, enthralled, as if it’s going to rub off on them.

Like it’s contact magic.

Unfortunately, most employees have nothing in common with these heroes who achieved televised sporting glory – back-lit with their nation’s flag, worn as a superhero cape. Both the hero and the employee know a massive difference exists between a sports hero’s daily life and life as a banking employee. And yet, everyone colludes to pretend that they’re “super pumped” from the experience.

It’s the cult of narcissism by proxy — and it’s contagious.

The Misguided Superhero Strategy

The hero model for training and inspiration of internal teams is wrong. It represents nothing more than lazy thinking – an entertaining get-out clause from the daily responsibilities of sound leadership. This model distracts from the challenge of delivering products and services which work well for the consumer.

“Financial institutions don’t need to pump money into potent human examples of heroism in the hope that the stardust will linger on their employees like fancy dandruff.”

What most financial institutions need to be, and what they need their people to be, is a little bit better. They don’t need their people to “be the best.” They don’t need their people to be “heroes.” And they certainly don’t need to pump money into potent human examples of heroism in the hope that the stardust will linger on employees like fancy dandruff.

Instead of reaching for the stars (literally), let’s think about what being a little bit better really means for leaders – even though it may be dull compared to typical motivational rallies.  It means …

  • Giving staff a voice in the decision-making process, authority within their functional areas, and the freedom to get get things done.
  • Sharing information, rather than keeping secrets.
  • Ditching rules and ways of doing things which no one can explain or justify – sweeping aside the protectionism that enslaves within the status quo.
  • Setting challenging standards – allowing people to rise to the challenge, rather than just lumbering up to expectations.
  • Keeping learning, in fact, helping people stay teachable.
  • Understanding the difference between titular authority and situational authority – and understanding which one a person has at any given time.
  • Allowing people to work out what to do when things go wrong – developing depths of resilience.

Being a little bit better means doing all of these things — and more — consistently. Day in, day out. The challenge is doing each and every one of these habitually, as opposed to sometimes or never.

Instilling these behaviors is definitely more difficult than ponying up the cash for a retired athlete to deliver some diversionary relief.

And it is much more effective.

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Celebrating and Striving for ‘Applied Dull’

So, how do we become “a little bit better” and apply this to the world of finance and fintech?

Let’s look at some companies which are spending their money on “applied dull” really well, without the need for fancy distractions.

First, three simple examples from the world of fintech:

  • Get a bank account from your mobile phone, in minutes, just like you can with Starling Bank.
  • Find out what the right type of financing is for you, apply for it, and receive that financing in your bank account, in less than an hour, just like you can with Funding Options.
  • Transfer money to different countries without getting stung by hidden fees, just like you can with TransferWise.

At the other end of the scale, we have the Tech Titans working behind the scenes to make dull captivating:

  • Every time we do a search, Google grows better in determining what types of things we like, what types of behaviors we exhibit, and what kind of answers we want.
  • Amazon earns a lot of money making products they don’t produce easier to buy and delivering them faster. They also become aware of your purchasing behaviors and recommend future purchases based on what they have learned, to save you time. Amazon is dull … perfected.

Whether through incremental change or wholesale transformation, these companies are just delivering good services well, for the benefit of consumers and businesses.  These few examples, and a myriad more, are just applied dull.  They represent what can happen when you show real leadership, when you’re consistently just a little bit better.

Well-executed dull moves the needle in a digital world.

Hiring heroes by the hour is easy – but the companies that win in the digital era are those companies that are just consistently a little bit better every single day. They instill this mentality across all levels of the organization as a cultural shift.

At the end of the day, it’s dull. But highly impactful.

Let’s start handing out medals for dull.

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