Traditionally, strong leadership is associated with decisive decision-making rooted in a clear sense of what's best for the organization and an unwavering focus on the "right" path.
Having successfully steered a business through a once-in-a-century calamity, Kevin Kramer contends that philosophy could use an update.
"It's okay to be vulnerable as a leader, and there's no scarlet letter that goes along with that," said Kramer, CEO of the Kansas City market for BOK Financial®. "In fact, having dealt with the situation that we've all come through together, I believe being vulnerable strengthens the bonds between team members."
Like many executives in 2020, Kramer was forced to lead his business through uncharted waters by the global economy's abrupt halt amid the COVID-19 pandemic's onset in March, followed by the fits and starts of the reopening effort over the ensuing 18-plus months.
Unlike many of his peers, however, when the pandemic hit, Kramer was still acclimating to a role he'd taken on only six months earlier. Plus, the BOK Financial brand was just establishing itself in Kansas City when everything shut down, derailing outreach initiatives like sponsored events and business gatherings.
“The challenges reminded us why meeting face-to-face is so important, not only for success, but also for building a culture of being together to solve problems and celebrate success. Now that we're mostly back together and we've all come through those challenges, we have a shared spirit of understanding.”- Kevin Kramer, Kansas City Market CEO
With nearly 30 years of experience in commercial banking, including 20 years in leadership roles, Kramer knew the playbook for his new BOK Financial role when he took the job in July 2019: Reacquaint himself with a market he knew well but hadn't lived in for more than two years, oversee the rebranding effort of a business that had changed its name and brand after a regional acquisition by BOK Financial and start planting business development seeds.
By March 2020, it became clear that the playbook had to be quarantined and that banking, like much of life, had to proceed primarily via video connections. Kramer realized adaptability would be the only way to endure the numerous unknowns.
"In late March, when things were changing daily and we didn't know what was coming next, I stressed that our focus must be on keeping our associates healthy and staying connected with our clients," he said. "Our overall strategy didn't change, but the tactics did."
Events went virtual, the home workspace served as a base for day-to-day operations with existing and prospective customers, and Kramer reached out to other BOK Financial market leaders for tips on staying connected. He also started periodically checking in with fellow Kansas City employees who weren't in his everyday circle of contacts.
As the weeks and months ground by, Kramer said he learned some valuable lessons:
- Being open to new ideas was essential (a new mindset, he admitted).
- Trusting your people by giving them the resources they need and staying out of their way was amplified when your 200-person business is dispersed across the metro area.
- While financial performance still defines success, so do a host of other factors that reinforce an engaged workplace and a satisfied customer base.
It was a long road back from those early dark days, and Kramer points to two key times when he felt the landscape at least started firming.
First, around Memorial Day 2020, he sensed that the country was coming to grips with understanding the threat of COVID-19.
"Cases were still ramping higher on a day-to-day basis, but we had a better feeling for what we were in for," he said. "It was not going away, but it was no longer week-to-week uncertainty, so we could start making longer-term plans."
Then, this spring, the mass availability of vaccines restored some semblance of normalcy to the broader landscape.
"Vaccine availability allowed us to bring more people into the office, have more meaningful interactions and resume our face-to-face approach to growing and maintaining relationships with clients and prospective clients," he said.
Resetting the bar
Although the pandemic still presents challenges, Kramer has returned to the core strategic elements for a regional bank in a competitive market: continuity, comfort and trust.
"In my history and in BOK Financial's history, it's those in-person connections created over time that lead to success," he said. "A new relationship that we bring in this year is probably someone we've been calling on for 24 to 30 months. We know they want to feel comfortable and know that they'll be taken care of so they're not looking for a new bank again next year.
"They don't see what we offer as a commodity, but as a relationship."
Top photo: Kansas City employees enjoyed cheering on the 2020 Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs with spirit days in the office.