Leading a bank through a pandemic

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Simon Taylor Co-founder 11:FS & CPO 11:FS Foundry
5min read

The last few weeks have shone the spotlight on leadership teams at banks and how they have responded to the unprecedented circumstances created by a global pandemic.

Leadership is hard and never more so in times like this. They say “may you live in interesting times” is a curse. This is something we’re all feeling and having to deal with, and yet business cannot end.

Financial services play a vital role in the lives of billions of people and millions of businesses. The governments of the world have taken unprecedented measures to help the economy. But all of this will be for nought if the banking system cannot cope.

Banks are under enormous pressure

  • The UK government has released extraordinary support for mortgages (Support for Mortgage Interest) and small businesses (Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan).
  • The volume of consumers and businesses in need of support has increased tenfold, putting call centres into meltdown.
  • Consumer lenders are reacting with a whole suite of initiatives
  • It’s unclear how long this crisis will last and how many consumers and businesses are insolvent.
  • The vast majority of the banking workforce has had to shift to remote with branches and contact centres running social distancing and less occupancy.
  • The banking system is critical national infrastructure vital to the functioning of the economy from payments to lending and beyond.

The combination of pressures is unique and acute, and banking staff are working incredibly hard through difficult times. Our Director of Research, Benjamin Ensor, has taken a deep dive into many of these aspects here – it’s well worth a read.

A large, top-down program of work will not happen fast enough for businesses to react to the needs of their customers and the economy

But it’s time for a different type of leadership.

We’re in a new economy and leaders have to do their bit

In times of crisis, extraordinary things must happen to protect the health of the nation and the long term viability of the economy. This is why you see conference centres becoming hospitals, car manufacturers making ventilators and breweries developing alcohol gel.

It’s not enough to be there with people and visible as leadership. It’s not enough to have crisis meetings or to work harder.

It’s not enough to do BAU but faster. A large, top-down program of work will not happen fast enough for businesses to react to the needs of their customers and the economy.

It’s time for the alternatives, it’s time for thinking laterally, it’s time to get creative.

BAU Could be Devastating

The reality of the mortgage support offered by banks is that most of it relies on the contact centre with three-hour-plus wait times. All this while many people are losing work and under psychological stress from concerns of serious illness, loss of work, or staying at home 24/7 looking after children.

Relying on more people doing the same processes is simply not good enough.

Small businesses have been offered a special package of loans, but the average processing time for the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan is longer than many businesses can stay solvent (a recent study from Morgan Stanley suggested typical small businesses can survive for about 16 days without new income).

This is an age where a paper process that takes 90 days to complete could see a cost of billions to the economy, and a massive human cost. Relying on more people doing the same processes is simply not good enough. This isn’t to underestimate how hard the people in banks are working at all – it’s to say how they’re working needs a rethink.

Courage and Calmness

Leaders need the courage to empower staff to find creative solutions. Mistakes will be made, but the ability to correct quickly and keep going will be critical. This is not a routine environment where experience matters. This is a novel environment where creativity matters. That creativity can often be frenetic. Leaders can bring an intentional calm and must point everyone at the problem.

As staff become problem solvers, as they become increasingly empowered to solve for the customer, they must have the support of leadership. They cannot feel like the axe is hanging because the company is “in trouble”.

Over-communication has become crucial. There are massive challenges people in your business will face. Personal risks, health risks and empathy will be key.


In the worst of situations, people are capable of incredible things. Remind people of what they have already achieved, make sure people feel valued, but more than anything create room for creativity.

People will naturally want to make a difference for the world around them. By understanding how what they do makes a difference and being empowered to make a difference, they can.

More than anything, it’s at times like this that digital shows it’s not about cost saving. Digital is now mission critical. How will you unleash your creativity and your organisations?

What if digital didn’t have to mean the same service with a slightly nicer web page? What if you could have 100% digital onboarding and you could build it in a weekend?

It’s amazing what is possible when you unleash talent.

How we can help

Digital is no longer a nice to have. Becoming truly digital means shifting not just what you do but how you do it across your value chain and operating model. We live and breathe the start-up approach. We have a remote-first approach and can deliver in any circumstances.