Phil Keithahn, chairman and CEO of ProGrowth Bank in Gaylord, Mankato and Nicollet, Minnesota., emailed the following essay the NorthWestern Financial Review blog.
Am I Trustworthy?
As is true for many community bankers, I wear many hats that reflect my interests in serving my community through volunteer contributions of time, talent, and treasure. One of these hats is the hat of “Scoutmaster”, where I serve our local Scouts and have also provided leadership to several National and World Scout Jamborees.
If you’re familiar with Scouting, you have probably heard of the “Scout Oath” and the “Scout Law”. Actually, the Scout Law is a collection of 12 words that provide the foundation for guiding what we do as Scouts and Scout Leaders. A Scout is Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean, and Reverent. Collectively, these 12 words comprise the Scout Law. Individually, the words provide the foundation for training young men about crucial elements of character.
While it is true that character is built over time by learning to deal with challenging and difficult situations, sometimes building judgment from a lifetime of mistakes seems inefficient, let alone painful.
When I coach young Scouts and also Scout leaders, we stress that we are not “yellers.” Instead, when there is a problem or a conflict or an example of inappropriate behavior, we ask the Scouts to respond to a simple question, as follows: “What is happening right now and what Scout Law is being violated by the actions or words of the individual or the group?” The Scout or group of people who has demonstrated unacceptable behavior may not always see what they are doing wrong. After all, we are often not as “self-aware” as we would like to believe! However, other Scouts can easily identify, or “answer the question”, about the Scout Law that is being violated.
Learning occurs when we hold others accountable, but even more so when we hold ourselves accountable.
In mid-2009, during the depths of the so-called “Great” Recession, I translated this Scouting code of conduct into the business world when I talked with my employees about TRUST. Yes, every letter is capitalized, because TRUST is the essence of how a community bank can continue to differentiate itself from the TBTF/TBTR/TBTHA banks (Too big to fail, too big to regulate, too big to be held accountable).
To paraphrase my words, I recall that I said: “We live in a time when the government and the world is telling us that we cannot trust other people. We need to verify their ID by checking their drivers’ license, even if they have done business with the bank for over 50 years. We can no longer rely on a person’s word of honor, their handshake, or their informal IOU, lest we be criticized by the examiners and our Board about unsafe and unsound business practices. Yes, we must know our customers. Yes, we must complete our due diligence. Yes, we must underwrite risks with accurate and current financial information. And yes, we must document, close, monitor, and manage those risks closely, so that we can uphold the faith and trust that we have received from our depositors.”
Continuing, I said: “We have an ongoing responsibility to fulfill the expectations of our depositors, our deposit-insurers, and the communities that depend on our presence as business owners and community members. So we must take steps to reduce the likelihood that we will be harmed because someone has broken the trust that we have placed in them. However, that is the second and less important aspect of trust for which we must be concerned in today’s world.”
“The most important aspect of TRUST is not whether I can trust you. It is whether or not I am worthy of the TRUST you are placing in ME. When I say to someone that “A Scout (Banker) is Trustworthy”, the focus of TRUST is not on the customer, but on the Scout/Banker. While I understand that not everyone acts in a manner that is trustworthy, my obligation is to always be centered on remaining worthy of the TRUST I receive from others. When I read about a violation of TRUST by another person – whether it is a customer, a friend, a family, member, or someone else anywhere in the world – I must remind myself that I must be ever-vigilant against letting down my guard.”
“I am always one decision away from moving from WORTHY OF TRUST….to an act of betraying someone else’s trust in me. So the appropriate question is not “Can I trust you?” Rather, it is “Am I worthy of the TRUST you give to me?”
In my opinion, community bankers throughout the country can hold their heads high, because almost without exception, we hold ourselves accountable to the highest standards of being “Worthy of TRUST.” But we must continue to be ever-vigilant against letting our guard down, lest we violate this code of conduct. And we must continue reaching out to our customers with words, actions, and behaviors that are Worthy of TRUST as well as trusting of others.”