Banking on Change: Transformation Begins Within

In the first of three exclusive excerpts from his new book, "Banking on Change", James Robert Lay pinpoints five behavioral characteristics critical to any institution's successful transformation, from empathy to adaptability.

What’s the big difference between organizations that succeed in achieving exponential growth and those that putter along only to eventually tire and retreat to the Cave of Complacency? Here’s the important distinction: true transformation of any kind begins within.

Transformation starts in the HEART (Honesty, Empathy, Adaptability, Responsiveness, Time), not the head, as you will soon learn. Transformation hinges on feelings. This is very much why transformational initiatives which start at the organizational level tend to struggle the most. The top-down approach leads to conflict among teams and individuals on those teams. But by flipping your approach and embracing the idea that true transformation begins within, you can leverage one of the greatest opportunities for achieving exponential growth in the Age of AI.


In our world of rapid, exponential change, honesty is essential to transformation.

One of the biggest lies I see financial brand leaders tell is about their knowledge (or lack of). Here’s what I mean: in this Age of AI where we’re constantly having to deal with and manage exponential change — new technologies, competitive threats, and changes in consumer behavior — one thing financial brand leaders hate to admit is that they don’t know or understand something. So they let their ego become the roadblock to maximizing the exponential growth potential of their teams. Or as Ryan Holiday puts it (in the title of his bestselling book), “ego is the enemy.” Honesty starts at the top, and when a leader has a knowledge gap, it should not be seen as a weakness but rather an opportunity for exponential growth.

By encouraging and facilitating honest dialogue, especially at the lower levels of an organization, leaders create a great opening for new strategic insight and input. Transformation happens when individuals have space for open and honest conversations without fear.


Empathy is one of the greatest competitive advantages in the Age of AI. Whenever an organization is undergoing transformation of any kind, it’s very common for some individuals within the organization to feel alone, disconnected, and even left behind. In fact, a study by communication consultancy, Duarte, of leaders planning some type of organizational transformation showed more than 50% admitting to not having fully considered their teams’ feelings or emotions about the change.

And that number is even higher in financial services, where, again, management teams tend to be led by more analytic, left-brain thinkers, whose decisions are usually guided by numbers not feelings. But that’s no excuse — and when it comes to accepting, adopting, and integrating change, it’s crucial to remember that organizations are not made up of Excel spreadsheets but human beings, real people with real emotions.

To be clear, empathy doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to make everyone happy. Empathy is simply about connecting with, acknowledging, and respecting (not judging) how others are dealing with and processing the transformation at hand — their feelings and emotions.

The good news is that all of us — even the most left-brain-driven leaders — can learn empathy. It’s like a muscle and can be strengthened with exercise. But the same applies in the opposite direction: when the empathy muscle is left idle, it atrophies, as psychologist Jamil Kaki has explained in her compelling work.


Right alongside empathy, adaptability has been described by Harvard Business Review as “the new competitive advantage” and, according to LinkedIn research, one of the top five soft skills organizations will require in the future. In fact, we believe at the Digital Growth Institute that in our era of exponential change, when AQ is combined with EQ, the sum of both are greater than IQ alone. But what exactly do we mean by adaptability as a core element in the HEART of transformation?

Adaptability in the Age of AI is largely about the ability to unlearn old beliefs, behaviors, and habits, and then to learn new ones.

This is precisely why so many well-established and highly successful organizations struggle with change. They fail to let go of past beliefs or feel differently about the actions they must commit to take to create the future. But as you now know, financial brands that commit to continuous education find themselves with the power to see things others cannot. And so they continue to ascend to their Apex of Awareness on one new mountain after another.

How can we build this adaptability muscle? Otto Scharmer of MIT suggests the following: “Three elements can help provide a framework: keeping an open mind, so you see the world with fresh eyes and remain open to possibilities; keeping an open heart, so you can try to see any situation through another person’s eyes; and keeping an open will, letting go of identity and ego to sit with the discomfort of the unknown.”

Adaptability is also characterized by something called a “growth mindset.” This term was coined by Carol Dweck, who wrote: “Individuals who believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others) have a growth mindset. They tend to achieve more than those with a more fixed mindset (those who believe their talents are innate gifts). This is because they worry less about looking smart and they put more energy into learning.” Furthermore, writes Dweck, “When entire companies embrace a growth mindset, their employees report feeling far more empowered and committed; they also receive far greater organizational support for collaboration and innovation. In contrast, people at primarily fixed-mindset companies report more of one thing: cheating and deception among employees, presumably to gain an advantage in the talent race.”


There are two paths you can choose to take when the challenges, confusion, and conflict of change and transformation happen:

You can react to change.

Or you can respond to change.

We saw financial brand leaders take both paths after the world shut down in March 2020. Leaders who responded took control of the situation, and with no playbook to follow. The courage and confidence they communicated through word and action was contagious, spreading through their organizations.

As for the leaders who reacted, they struggled to deal with all of the massive change. When you react instead of respond, a predictable pattern of events unfolds: there’s a change, you panic, your lizard brain kicks in, and you try to fight, flee, or just freeze.

But when you respond to change, it’s also a predictable pattern that unfolds: there’s the same change, but instead of panicking, you pause, process, plan, and then proceed to move forward with courage and confidence.

It’s in your power to choose whether you respond or react to change. You have control over your mind. And this is especially true in how you choose to start and end each day. The great Stoics like Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus knew this. And through your own meditative writing and contemplative thinking, you can ensure that you too respond and not react.


One of the top complaints and challenges I hear from financial brand leaders is that they feel they simply don’t have enough time. This is why time management will create a competitive advantage, too, in the Age of AI where automation technologies become time multipliers.

No matter how much we want to, we can’t stop time or slow it down. But we do have control over how we invest our time. In fact, as an investment in our future, time has one of the highest returns of all. At least that’s true with the financial brands I’ve coached and advised over the years: when they’re able to change their perspective on time and focus on 90-day strategic windows instead of the traditional annual (or even 3-5 year) ones, they achieve and maximize exponential growth.

A focus on 90-day growth essentially hacks the mind to pay attention to what really matters. You’re compressing time by about three quarters, in that you’re thinking about it in 90-day intervals instead of 365-day intervals. In a 90-day growth cycle, every day counts. The 90-Day Growth also gives you the ability to be more adaptable and make changes as needed.

At the beginning of the 90-day Growth Cycle, every person on a team is usually feeling pretty positive and on-track with the goals they’re working toward. But then around the end of the 90-day period, life has happened, and business has happened.

And this is where some individuals start to report feeling “off,” as confusion, chaos, and complexity slip in, leading to conflict. But what’s great about The 90-day Growth Cycle is that even if you feel this way at the end of the first month, you still have 60 days to refocus and course-correct. Doing so requires honesty, vulnerability, and a high level of trust among your team.

Believe me, it’s worth it. At the end of The 90-day Growth Cycle, something transformative happens as you sit down to review the progress you’ve made: you’ll see more positive energy in each and every individual on the team. And from there, all that positive energy and momentum gets transferred to establishing focus, with a renewed sense of commitment going into the next 90 days — a commitment to repeat the cycle but now with even greater courage and confidence.

Yes, exponential growth starts in the HEART of every individual on your team. But the mind also plays a very powerful role.

In the Age of AI, where exponential change seems to bring with it ever more confusion, complexity, and conflict, your mind is the one thing that can calm the chaos. It’s the one thing you can control.

Excerpted from “Banking on Change.” Check out the other two excerpts from James Robert’s book here.

James Robert Lay is one of the world’s leading digital marketing authors, speakers, and advisors for financial brands. Based in Houston, James Robert is the author of Banking on Digital Growth: The Strategic Marketing Manifesto to Transform Financial Brands. He is the founder and CEO of the Digital Growth Institute and has been named one of The Financial Brand’s “Top Global Financial Services Influencers to Follow,” a CUNA “Credit Union Rock Star,” and a CU Times “Under 40 Trailblazer.”

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