Interview of Jim Collins on How to build a career for the C-suite and transform banks to a digital future.

Could you tell me how you got started in your career and ended up in your current role?

My career actually started in the Oil Industry, with then Mobil Oil prior to the Exxon-Mobil merger. I began learning about the industry from the ground up starting in customer service for the distribution side of the business and then making my way in a rotational environment to accounting before finally setting my path in the Sales & Marketing program. The rotational program was an excellent way to learn the business and what about it I liked and didn’t like. Then came the decision point – Sales or Operations. And I chose Sales and was put in a formal accelerator program at the Mobil’s HQ in Fairfax, VA which was a relocation from Philadelphia, PA. This was the best decision of my young career because this program gave me exposure to many facets of one of the largest companies in the Fortune 500 at that time in 1993. It also enabled me to create a network of peers from all over the country that came to VA for this program which was critical for my future success. Relationships are key to opening up opportunities for any growth-minded professional.

After relocating across the country to Scottsdale, AZ and Palm Springs, CA, I found myself at another decision point in my career because the Oil Industry was changing and consolidating and I decided to use my transferrable skillset and move into the Banking Industry and once again relocate across the country to the East Coast.  In the mid-90’s the Financial Services industry was flourishing and I felt it was a good time to take what I learned from a big company and apply it to a smaller company in another industry. As a Retail Leader in a small bank in New Jersey, we were quickly acquired within the first six months of my tenure by a fast-growing M&A minded regional bank out of PA named Sovereign Bank. This acquisition would turn out to be monumental for my career in terms of direction and leadership because since that acquisition I have now worked for the same CEO for the last 26 years.

Sovereign Bank was an M&A machine acquiring almost thirty institutions over a 15 year timeframe and created a $90 billion asset based bank by the time I left in 2009. At Sovereign, I held many leadership positions during my tenure include Regional Manager, Director of Sales Management, Regional Executive, Mid Atlantic Market Executive and the first ever appointed Director of Small Business Banking. I was again focused on the Sales side of the business and the same side I chose earlier in my career in the Oil Industry.

During the great recession of 2009, I chose to follow our CEO over the a smaller troubled bank that needed new management and new capital to stay alive. I felt after 15 years it was time to make a change and make an impact elsewhere. It was a risk, but with risks if handled correctly come rewards. This small bank had only 50 team members and was $250 million in assets which was a far cry from a $90 billion bank. Back to the ground level and rolling up the sleeves to quickly turn this around and I mean stop the bleeding on a daily basis was the norm. Our CEO and the management team we brought over did just that and we renamed the bank Customers Bank because our focus was truly on each and every customer. When I began at Customers Bank, I was in a familiar role as the Director of Small Business Banking, but then came more change. During this time period, banks were failing and the FDIC was giving other banks opportunities to take over failing banks and save their customers. We capitalized on two of those opportunities which was significant for a small PA bank because it opened the door for us in NY state and NJ. The first FDIC deal came upon us and I volunteered to lead the project and pull the whole organization together to execute on something most of us had never been involved with in our careers. Working with our team leaders and the FDIC, I was able to lead a coordinated effort and execute the deal and takeover successfully.

At that point, our CEO named me Chief Administrative Officer for the bank and told me that I had the leadership ability and skill set to run the support side of the business – Operations, Technology, and Administration – and this opportunity would round out my experience from the Sales side of the business and position me for a top executive position in the future. The key to this story is volunteering to lead a critical project when no one including yourself has the experience demonstrates leadership capabilities that get noticed and will be leveraged in the future. Taking risk, taking a chance, and most importantly continuously learning is critical to success or at least my success.

Over my 11 year tenure here at Customers Bank, we have taken a 50 team member $250 million bank and grown it to 850 team members and $18 billion in assets. And during that time, I have never stopped learning and taking chances. In this day and age of Digital Transformation and ever-evolving technology, everyone has to learn to stay at par to compete and those that are better than par become the leaders in their industry. At this point in 2020, I am now a Senior Executive Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer for the bank and a member of the Office of the Chairman.

What was your childhood dream career and why?

As a child, I grew up in a blue-collar town as the youngest of three sons of wonderful parents who were devout to their family and their faith. My parents were not college-educated, but paid for each of their sons’ college educations and taught us the meaning of work ethic, values, family values, and most importantly commitment to each other. I was very fortunate to grow up in the coal region of PA because it taught me so much about family, community, and hard work and dedication. In Berwick, PA, we were known for high school football. My coach was the winningest coach in the state of PA with 455 career wins up until last weekend. The motto for our football program was God – Family – Football. And all I can say was that wasn’t an exaggeration for the entire community. In my career, we ended up winning 35 out of 37 games and were declared by the USA Today as the National Champion in 1983.

As a young child, I dreamed about playing for the Berwick Bulldogs because that was the pinnacle in our town. And I played and signed a letter of intent to play college football at a small division two school following high school. In my town growing up, that was the childhood dream of most young boys. And I was fortunate to fulfill that dream and wouldn’t change one thing about where I grew up because it gave me the foundation – character, values, work ethic – that has stayed with me the rest of my life.

What is the one habit which you tend to do on a regular basis which has made you successful in your career?

It’s not one habit, but one process that I do on a regular basis that impacts my success. I always want Clarity first. Clarity of purpose, Clarity of the objective, Clarity of the task, why do you want this, why are we doing this. Then, I define Priority because there may be many things that are at play at the same time. Lastly, I define the Process to get things done and as our President and COO always tell me, “you are a process maven who can break anything down and get it done.”

So in three words Clarify – Prioritize – Process.

Can you talk about your most recent project which you completed recently, what business results did it achieve, 2 obstacles or challenges you faced, and how you overcame it?

At the beginning of 2020, our organization was beginning year two of our Digital Transformation efforts. By March of 2020, the whole world changed. Now our Digital Transformation roadmap needed to go from months to days. Our biggest challenge we faced was executing PPP for our clients, communities, and our Fintech partners. My Operations and Technology teams had to spin up solutions – external and internal – in a matter of days to be able to take applications and help our customers apply for funds they needed to keep their businesses alive and their employees working during this global pandemic.

We were faced with manual processes and a lack of having digital account opening in place at that time. We scrambled to find API solutions and had to learn on the fly how to implement certain technologies to take applications from our customers, open deposit accounts digitally, and then find connectivity with our Fintech partners to help them satisfy their customer demands. It all came down to breaking down silos and constant communication. We had team members take on different roles and they “adapted” quickly.

We were already an “agile” shop and we became more agile. We transformed processes and launched solutions to help our customers digitally open and sign documents. We came together as ONE team and not separate business units each and every day to solve problems and execute. Communication was critical and enterprise-wide communication was the answer.

The team effort that evolved resulted in helping process almost $5 billion of PPP loans for our customers and Fintech partners.  This put Customers Bank in the top twenty banks in the country and help save thousands of jobs in our communities.

What is your leadership philosophy and how do you keep the team engaged and motivate them?

 My leadership style is about communication, collaboration, mutual respect and trust, and commitment to all stakeholders. It all starts with communicating to your leaders and their team members and making sure everyone is aligned with the vision and mission of the organization. Communicating strategic direction is part of this process and making sure everyone knows what we are trying to accomplish and the plan we have in place to execute.

I communicate weekly with my leaders and their teams. Collaboration is the key to success. No one can do it alone and work together as a team and across teams is how success comes about. Also, you can’t be a team if you don’t have mutual respect and trust for each other. This is foundational and if it doesn’t exist you won’t be successful. Lastly, as a leader, I need to make sure all key stakeholders are satisfied and focus both internally and externally. Thus, in the end, our external customers, internal customers, and the communities that we serve are all successful.

With the current COVID 19 situations, what are 2 or 3 key challenges you faced and how are you managing them effectively?

COVID 19 has created opportunities within organizations to change the way they do business and most importantly how team members interact with each other. The key challenge at the beginning of COVID 19 was defining how to interact and the cadence of interaction. I know our CEO wanted daily updates and we were just rolling out Microsoft Teams as our channel for internal face to face communication.

The challenge with that was training 855 team members on how to use Teams the right way and how to leverage that technology to build collaboration across the organization. Fortunately, we were able to deliver and as time went on everyone in the organization became more comfortable with working remotely and 85% of our organization is doing just that. Our CEO also became confident in our productivity level and our cadence went from daily updates to three times a week to once a week to now every other week. The new norm has been created and we are ready for the future.

With the current COVID 19 situations, can you list 1 key project which was given more attention, the reason for it, and what results did it achieve for your business?

The one key project that has been given the most attention is PPP loan processing. As I mentioned previously, we had to scramble to be able to take in the original loan applications to be able to process the loans for funding. Once that was done, our attention turned to the PPP Forgiveness Process and how we were going to get our $5 billion of loan customers through Forgiveness internally and with our Fintech partners.

My Information Technology team quickly went to work and leveraged a current, but not widely used or adopted, platform and turned it into an externally facing customer portal to be able to accept Forgiveness documentation, and this portal, in turn, created an automated or digitized way of taking that information through the submission and approval process. My IT, Business Intelligence and Loan Operations teams worked for hand in hand to fine-tune this process with our front line commercial teams, and not only did they have to adjust and pivot because of customer demands and circumstances, but also because of our federal government constantly changing the parameters of the program including the PPP Forgiveness application itself. Once Forgiveness began, we were ready and have been processing applications in a well thought out structure.

With COVID 19 was there a project which was pushed on the back burner, given a low priority in your company and the reason for it?

Since the majority of our projects for 2020 were Digital Transformation oriented, not only did projects NOT get pushed to the back burner, they got accelerated into the first half of the year.

Projects like the full implementation of DocuSign, the implementation of Code Connect and Mule Soft for API integration, the nCino customer portal project, and other Salesforce Case Management rollouts all occurred before they were originally scheduled.

With teams working remotely now, what 1 or 2 key activities do you do more with your team to increase engagement with the teams?

I can honestly say I think I “see” my teams more now than I did prior to COVID by using Microsoft Teams. As the CAO, I have the largest group of FTE in the bank and they are geographically disbursed across our footprint. So, conference calls were the main method of communication.

But now with Teams, I can see everyone anytime I want and I can honestly say I have interacted more with my teams this year than in years past. Even when we go back to “normal”, I will continue to interact this way in order to make sure my cadence of virtual in-person meetings continues because it is an effective way to manage a large disbursed team.

With remote teams, what activity have you stopped doing or doing less which seems to be less effective in this situation?

Conference calls are non-existent now when pre-COVID they were the norm. I can honestly say I will never have a meeting with a conference call number again because I’ll use virtual tools instead because they are more effective.

What is the one trend you see in Financial  Services happening now and how do you think companies should adapt to this new trend based on your experience?

One trend, in particular, is the adoption of Digital Signatures. This is critical to executing documentation in a virtual world and I see this trend continuing. However, the reason I bring this trend up is that digital signatures need to be adopted by all legal means and some federal institutions don’t recognize digital signatures which are causing issues with loan documentation.

Federal institutions need to change their mindset and adapt and adopt and don’t create obstacles for banks and their clients who are trying to conduct business in a pandemic environment.

If you contribute to a nonprofit or a cause which is dear to you, can you talk about a few words on the activities they do and how people can donate or contribute to it?

The three causes that are dear to me include the Alzheimer’s Association, the SPCA, and the BCOC. My father passed away from Alzheimer’s at a very young age right when he retired and I support that cause for a cure on a regular basis.

I also love animals and support the local SPCAs every year to make sure animals get the care they need and find the proper home. And lastly, the BCOC supports the hungry in our local communities and I give ongoing support to them because we have a national crisis on our hands and support needs to start at the local level.

If you want to advise students who are looking to start a career or people who want to change their career to sales, marketing, finance operations as an example, What would be the 2 or 3 things you would advise them to follow now to get a job quickly?

In my opinion, students should follow their passion first and leverage their strengths. If someone has a passion for a specific industry or product then they should pursue that area of study or job search. And a lot of times you hear people say to focus on improving your weaknesses. One approach is to be aware of your weaknesses, but continue to build on your strengths because they will take you to the highest level. If you have strong technical skills, or communication skills, or problem-solving skills that’s what you should leverage and find a job that brings those out and you will be successful.

Lastly, if you have an opportunity to be or find the solution for a company or boss, even if it’s a risk for you to step up…….do it! Early in your career take chances and be the answer your boss needs. Take on assignments and projects that leverage your strengths and get results. That’s how to jumpstart your career.

What are 1 or 2 key traits or skills you look for in choosing a candidate for the role apart from the technical skills in your interviews?

The world is ever-changing and the pace of change today is greater than it’s ever been. So the traits or skills I look for are collaboration/project management, problem-solving, communication skills – clear and concise, adaptability, and of course technical/digital skills. When I’m looking for a leader these are the traits necessary to succeed.

Is there a gotcha you would advise students or job seekers not to do when they do an interview?

Always talk about the “we” or “team” and your role within the collective group and the collective results and stay away from always focusing on the “I”.  Organizations are looking for team players and yes the interview is about you, but try to focus on collective efforts and how you lead or were a part of those efforts.

Can you list 1 or 2 tips that you have used in your career to differentiate yourself from your peers which have helped you to position yourself and move up the career ladder?

To move up the ladder you have to move from tactical to strategic. To differentiate yourself from your peers when opportunities arise you have to prove you can make that jump and clearly and concisely articulate the strategy and then the underlying tactics that will be implemented to get the desired results.

 And most importantly, results do matter. To move up you need to get results at your current level and that’s what differentiates you from your peers.

For Midlevel Managers, who are aspiring to become the next C-Level Job, can you list  1 or 2 challenges these leaders face which prevents them from going up the ladder ?

Mid-level managers need to gain cross-functional or enterprise-wide exposure and experience. So, those aspiring to become a C-Level candidate should become part of enterprise-wide projects to learn about other areas of the organization and how they all integrate within the enterprise.

This knowledge and experience are critical and a must for those looking to increase their span of control. Also, relationships are key. Build an internal network of peers and use that network to learn and solve organizational problems. Relationships with peers and having their support will fuel your growth and success.

Can you list 1 or 2 skills that you highly recommend folks to develop or learn which will help them move up?

As a leader, you need to understand Change Management and Emotional Intelligence in order to be a successful leader of an organization. EQ skills are critical the higher you go and reading about EQ, listening, and understanding how to lead successful change in an organization are for success. It’s all about people and understanding what’s important to them, how to motivate them, and how to help them deal with internal and external change.

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Jim Collins

Author: Jim Collins

A C-Level Executive with over thirty years of business experience including twenty-six years in the banking industry. A strategic leader who fosters a positive working environment while focusing on building high performing teams that focus on execution and results. The key to my success includes building strong relationships filled with open and honest communication because the foundation of success begins with integrity and results depend on people you can trust.

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