For individuals and the banking industry, mentoring matters more than ever

It’s impossible for me to forget the day I interviewed for a very unconventional internship with the Coro Foundation. It was 1970 and fresh out of Claremont McKenna College with a religion degree, I craved the kind of guidance and direction that would prepare me for a career in public service.

To say the grueling, eight-hour interview was unconventional is putting it more than mildly. As one of a dozen finalists whittled down from 100, I was challenged, among other things, to influence and get information out of a community activist. It was role playing, but not with a stand in. The man who sat opposite me was a Tommy Jacquette, best known as the executive director of the Watts Summer Festival.

Winning a coveted slot meant exhausting 12-hour days for the next nine months. My mentors put me to work with labor organizers, state politicians and in one case, a group of stodgy, uppity urban planners. Among the lessons hammered into me time and again: Don’t assume you know anything about people when you walk into a room, especially based on surface appearance. Listen and get a feel for things as you go. And: What you experience first-hand in the field trumps textbook knowledge every time.

What I learned from my mentors has stayed with me and enriched every step in my career. As I transitioned into financial services, and eventually to a director’s position at PwC’s San Francisco office, those rubber-hits-the-road truths never left me—to the point where I felt moved to pay it forward and become a mentor. For those reasons and others I’ll get into in a bit, the BAI Emerging Leaders Network represents something special to me. Increased in size and scope for 2018 to accept 100 mentees, the program is accepting applications through Wednesday July 25, 5 p.m. CT.

What do mentors get out of it?

We can reach back as far as the professional and trade guilds of the Middle Ages to find the roots of mentorship. It became a primary means by which various professions discovered and developed each succeeding generation of workers and leaders. Indeed, much of our formal education system has been based on the mentorship model—hence the word “professor.”

Of course, there is the aspect of personal satisfaction, the feeling that a mentor has made a difference. Time and again at PwC I experienced surprise, sometimes in stunning fashion, when one of my mentees solved a problem that had otherwise flummoxed me and my colleagues.

Here’s an example: While working with a bank that managed a large number of branches and ATMs across a multi-state territory, I confronted a major cost inefficiency. Armored couriers struggled with the logistics of servicing bank locations and cash machines in the wee hours. In large part, the issue boiled down to this: How could we most efficiently get the right packets of the correct currencies loaded into each truck every night? The standard industry routing algorithms weren’t up to the challenge.

It turned out my mentee had tackled a similar problem in a college math class that surrounded how airlines get the right combination of aircraft and crew to each gate of each airport. She strode up to the white board in my office and asked: “What if we think of each bundle of cash as a passenger, each type of armored courier as an aircraft, and each branch or ATM as an airport?” With my skills in cash management multiplied by her math acumen, the two of us created the solution the bank needed—together.

What do mentees get out of it?

Solid mentorship as exemplified within the BAI Emerging Leaders Network provides an opportunity for mentees to learn the banking and payments profession first hand.

Emerging Leaders are chosen for their potential to become industry lights; the mentors who serve them embrace the practical and moral commitment to guide mentees on their career path as they embrace opportunities and face challenges. The focus is on the major, overarching and ongoing industry issues from understanding emerging technologies to expanding the reach of financial services institutions. Another important goal is achieving the full inclusion of women, minority communities and people of all gender identities in the financial services industry.

What makes for a good mentorship program?

In the Coro internship, I experienced the power of living out a role versus learning it in school. As a mentor, I continue to apply this principle. That’s not to negate classroom knowledge or an understanding of fundamentals; I’d hate to think of a first-time driver who hasn’t taken driver’s ed. But at PwC, we took care not to waste the time of mentors by turning them into by-the-book instructors. The company conducted formal classes for new employees that addressed training and hard skills—leaving time for me and my fellow mentors to concentrate on soft skills.

I like to think of it as turning best knowledge into best practice. The mentor’s role is to pass on a body of practice (“this is how you do it”) as opposed to a body of knowledge (“this is what you do”). The mentor provides reassurance and direction: “Come with me and let’s learn how to apply what you know and build on it.”

What does the industry gain?

Of course, mentors need someone to mentor. This sounds obvious until you plumb deeper and realize that powerful outside factors—from a jobseeker’s market to the glamor and informality of other professions such as high-tech—make attracting talent a formidable hurdle, even when salary offers are increased.

I’ve heard how the perception of banking as a suit-and-tie, corporate profession has moved qualified millennials and new college grads to ignore the industry and look instead at startups where they can wear jeans, play ping-pong in the break room and grab a quick nap if they need to.

But there is more. A June piece in the Wall Street Journal speaks to the crisis. In “Why Banks Are Losing the Battle for MBA Talent,” reporters Laurence Fletcher and Pat Minczeski cite competition from the consulting field, for example. So how can banks compete?  

Here, mentoring matters more than ever. Mentors and mentees form personal relationships that yield professional, positive results for the industry. New bank employees who get the guidance and coaching they need are much more likely to stay on than if cast adrift to make their own way. PwC actively sponsored the mentoring program I served in and banks can help their own cause by doing the same. Solid mentoring represents one of the surest, most direct ways to retain and hence grow the type of people the financial services industry needs. 

BAI’s Emerging Leaders Network is doing its part. I encourage you to apply or recommend applicants for the current annual class before the July 25 deadline. Here’s hoping that in the process you will find experiences to equal or top those that took me for college grad to eternal gratitude.

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George Warfel has worked in banking and payments for more than 30 years at SRI International, IBM and PwC. Currently he is General Manager, FinTech & Payments Strategy at IBM partner Haddon Hill Group, Inc. in Oakland, California. He can be reached at [email protected].