Fifth Third Bank’s Melissa Stevens: Change Doesn’t Mean Starting from Scratch

You don’t have to be a giant, nationwide bank to be a pioneer of innovation.

That’s the reality of Fifth Third Bank, which rivals some of the nation’s largest institutions when it comes to technology. This is thanks in part to Chief Digital Officer Melissa Stevens, who puts innovation at the center of her work.

From launching the Momentum app, which helps millennials pay down student loan debt, to integrating Siri and even opening ONE67, Fifth Third’s new innovation center, Melissa is a true luminary. (She also spoke at our annual digital innovation summit, FWD, in 2016).

Here, she talks about how to make culture changes stick in financial services, celebrating your strengths but not being afraid to experiment, and how mentors and sponsors helped her get to the next level.

 

JARED JOHNSON: What is it going to look and feel like to be a Fifth Third retail customer five years from now?

MELISSA STEVENS: Over the next three to five years, you’re going to find more of us coming to meet you as a customer — where you are. That might mean that we have more capabilities available on the devices you carry, in your home, your car, or on your person. It might mean that you find us in more of your “neighborhood locations”. It certainly will mean that it's easier to connect to us anytime and from anyplace so that you can actually get the business of banking done and go on with the business of living.

Over the next three to five years, you’re going to find more of us coming to meet you as a customer — where you are.

In five years or anytime in the future, you’ll still find a company that has your best interest at heart. You’ll find a company who wants a relationship with you. We’re not here to offer our customer a product or a service — we’re here to bring you solutions to help you live your life or improve your business on a day-to-day basis. But how you see it come to light — in terms of the solutions that we offer, the way our retail branches look, the way you feel when you're in them, and the solutions that are available to you over mobile or internet — will continue to improve so that we meet customers where they are versus having them come to us.


JJ: What does it look like to be more relationship oriented? Are there certain tactics that you use or different ways you train employees to think more in terms of relationships and less in terms of selling products and services?

MS: We want to be with you individually, we want to be with you in your community, and we want to help your business grow. This means several things: One of the many things we look at are the customer insights [we acquire] from customer service or sales people who talk to customers every day and the relationship managers who are out in the field, visiting branches and customers at their places of business. How do we take those insights and continue to understand what's working and what's not working for our customers and make sure we are walking with them on their journey, not adding obstacles in their way?

The other thing it means is that we talk differently. As we move forward the next several years, we could change the way that we dialogue, we could change the way that we bring data to life for them to give them better information about how they're doing financially. It means that we may be proactive. For example, with small business owners, we [try] to see opportunities for them or things that will actually be roadblocks to their future success — [think] cash flow challenges or investments they need to make it over that next big leap in their growth. That relationship piece is about how we better enable the employees who are actually talking to those customers every day or meeting with them every week and month. How do we better enable our employees, both from a training and from a data and analytic standpoint, to be that trusted partner or the advocate for that customer?

 

JJ: Change is notoriously hard. Fifth Third has over 19,000 employees and a history that goes back over a 100 years. What makes culture changes stick?

MS: No. 1, making sure that we are harnessing the great attributes of who we are today as we move forward on the changes — whether they are changes that we bring forward in terms of actually changing ourselves or the changes that come from the outside environment, like changing customer demands and needs or economic cycle [fluctuations]. Certainly financial services is major because you're talking about borrowing and lending money to customers. You have to watch these things closely, and so all of these factors whether they're internal or external have impacted us in terms of the types of changes we are experiencing as well as the types of changes we are driving.

What we're trying to do is drive an acceleration of our transformation. It's not about becoming more digital, it's about making sure we will thrive in the digital world that exists today as well as in the digital world that will be created for tomorrow. When I look at that, coming back to the question of culture change, the first thing is to build on your great assets and your great attributes. I look at change as not starting from scratch with a blank piece of paper, but standing on the shoulders of the giants who came before you so you can see out further and reach new heights faster and then build on from there.

It's not about becoming more digital, it's about making sure we will thrive in the digital world that exists today as well as in the digital world that will be created for tomorrow.

That doesn't mean you don't have some white space or you can’t [fill in] the blanks, but it means you need to take inventory of what's working great about your culture, your processes about your technology, and your customers. You need to actually harness those and defend the core of your business, but also figure out what you can build onto while at the same time chart new territory and fix what's behind that. To me, that's one of the biggest steps of driving the next batch of change: there are great things that we have done and will be doing and we're going to build on that as our starting stage.

The second thing I think is really important is the vision. The first steps (jumps, really) are challenging — you barely feel like you can get to that next level because the leaps are at such a height that if you just jump in the air you wouldn't reach the rim of the basketball hoop. You don't want to [outline] every step of that journey because it can be overwhelming. You do want to paint the vision for where you think you can go and the difference it will make for the company, customer, shareholder and the world at large, so [employees] can grab onto that shiny light that's way out there and believe in something from a heart and mind standpoint while you are building out the actual plan from today forward.

 

JJ: Speaking of roadmaps and future visions, when you look at the landscape today there are all of these technologies that are popping up. How do you tell the difference between a technology fad and the beginning of a long term shift? In other words, how do you separate the signals from the noise?

MS: We're probably getting it right half of the time and wrong half of the time, which is part of it.

The first thing we do is take on a test and learn viewpoint. I'm not going to say we don't want to apply the technology that we experiment with, but we allow ourselves some room before we end-state an application.

The second thing we do is we test things early and often with customers. There are people internally who have built a proof of concept and tested an idea to get a feel for if it is helpful, if it would solve pain points, improve security, and if it would be challenging for [customers] to accept, so we can actually continue to experiment and make improvements off of that.

The first thing about distinguishing noise from signals is allowing ourselves brain power in small capacity to tinker with things before we know full end-state applicability. The second thing is, get it far enough that it's tangible so you can actually test it with customers — whether internal or external — but get some people to react to it. The third thing I'd say is, we're not planting too many seeds, but we're making sure we are looking across a variety of areas that today could look like noise but there is enough information or insight that signals they could go somewhere.

The first thing about distinguishing noise from signals is allowing ourselves brain power in small capacity to tinker with things before we know full end-state applicability.

 

JJ: When you're thinking about the digital innovation and transformation process at Fifth Third, is there anything that keeps you up at night or anything that you're scared of?

MS: No. The key for us has been building an innovation function. We’ve had different versions over the years, but now [it] has designers, business folks, and technologists from inside and outside financial services, so that we can make sure we have a cross-functional, cross-experiential group who can experiment with different ideas before they’re applied to folks running the day-to-day.

In order to not be worried about something overnight, to not be concerned that something might pass us without us realizing it or might not have time to discover, we’ve built a function and provided human capital and other technical capability so that the urgency of today will not trump the innovation of tomorrow.

 

JJ: You're overseeing digital experiences, design, and innovation for one of the largest banks in the U.S. It’s a combination of being in two different boys clubs — one in emerging tech and digital and the other in finance. You’re at the top of your game in both those worlds at the same time. What are some of the challenges you had to overcome to get where you are today? Have they become more surmountable over time or are we just getting more visibility to the successes?

MS: I am very fortunate to have had some amazing sponsors and mentors over the years. I worked really hard to have them, so I believe that luck plays into things only so much that, if you're in the right time at the right place, you can have the right things happen for you.

It’s not that I’m lucky I got to where I got to — I worked my butt off to get there. Hard work does pay off, but at the same time, depending on the industry and the diversity of where you are, you have to have great sponsors and mentors. I look at mentors as the people who take you on, who coach you, and help you develop. Sponsors are people who are in places of influence, inside or outside of your company, who are going to open those doors for you, who know who you are, what you’re working on, and what else you could do. They're the ones that bring your name up when the next big project comes, when the next big initiative comes, and when the next big job opens. The sponsors might not be personally coaching or developing you, but they’re the ones who are singing your praises and betting on you when the time comes to put a name forward.

I've had a lot of great ones — male and female — and frankly, in the earlier stage in my career, many more male than female just because of the ratios that existed. Sponsorship has been a huge piece of it. Now to be clear, I didn't have people just decide they wanted to sponsor me or mentor me because I was just sitting on the bench one day. I had them because I raised my hand and said yes every single time that any opportunity came up. That's my point about hard work: you have to be willing to put in for it. I think once you pass that, when you go to the question of working through the old boys club, I would say it's a couple of things.

First of all, I have believed in myself. I have worked really hard and sometimes struggled with my confidence, which frankly is something more common for women than it is for men. It's not that there are men without confidence issues, but study after study over the years will tell you if two people of the exact same experience and caliber saw the same job description, a man would apply for it and a woman wouldn't because she'd say I don't tick 100 percent of the boxes. Women traditionally believe that they just aren't naturally as good at things as men. It's not that it's factually accurate — it's that their confidence erodes. I have worked really hard to, even if I didn't feel confident all the time, project confidence, to advocate for myself, and to say, “I can do it”. Not in an egotistical, self-centered manner, but in a way that says, “I know I can do this. I know I can figure this out. I know I can find people to help me.” I think that has helped me significantly.

I have worked really hard and sometimes struggled with my confidence, which frankly is something more common for women than it is for men.

The second thing I've done is, I have sat at the table every time there was a seat at the table. When I was junior in my career, less because I was female and more because I was junior, I would sit on the side of the room when I knew there wouldn't be enough seats at the main table. If you get to the room and there's a seat at the table, you sit at the table. If you're in the meeting, you speak because you weren't invited to sit and be quiet and you weren't invited to sit and take notes. Those things as you work your way through, boys club or no boys club, become important attributes.

If you get to the room and there's a seat at the table, you sit at the table.

The third thing I've become really big about in the last five to 10 years of my career is I don't want people to be upset about the old boys club. I want people, and especially women or various diverse groups, to learn from what's been great about that and create the new girls club or the new diverse group club, where we’re actually supporting each other. It took so long for women to get to the same level where there were [traditionally] only one or two. So what would happen is that women would support each other to a certain level and then as soon as two got to the same place, they would turn on each other and take one stiletto heel and put it on top of the other person's head and push them back down because now you went from allies who are working your way up to a threat.

There are a lot of positives about understanding the importance of a network and working together to improve the overall goal of the company as well as the individuals. I'm not claiming that I love all things about the old boys club, but I think my success is due to having great sponsors and to recognizing that we should not complain about it, but we should take the positives and actually figure out how to bring those into the girls club.


Follow Melissa on LinkedIn.

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