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  • Writer's pictureJohn San Filippo

CuneXus Symposium: James Robert Lay on Cultivating Success

By John San Filippo


CuneXus, a TruStage (formerly CUNA Mutual Group) company, provides digital storefront software for community financial institutions. The CuneXus Symposium, the company’s annual client meeting, was held July 19-20 in the heart of California’s Wine Country. Finopotamus was onsite to cover this event.


Digital growth expert and best-selling author of Banking on Digital Growth James Robert Lay opened the 2023 CuneXus Symposium with valuable advice for any community financial institution interested in thriving in this hyper-competitive environment. He spoke of the need for a “unified digital strategy” and how to “bridge the digital divide” between consumers and their financial institutions.


James Robert Lay

“For the last 20 years, I have been studying the intersection of marketing, sales, technology and human behavior as a digital anthropologist,” Lay told the audience of approximately 150 people. “Today we're going to look at a lot of the patterns and trends that I've identified, particularly through the lens of financial services. And if you think about marketing, sales, technology and human behavior, what do you think is the number-one variable in all of that? Is it marketing? No. Is it sales? No. Is it technology? No. What is it? It's human behavior. And when we put people at the center of our thinking and doing, whether that's members as a credit union or customers at a bank, this is how we cultivate success for future growth.”


Back to the Future


Lay took the audience back to 1836, when a man named John left his home in Vermont with a mere $70 to travel west to Illinois. He said that when John, a struggling blacksmith, reached his new home, he struck up conversations with the local farmers.


“He was listening to their questions, to their concerns, to their pains that they were experiencing as farmers in the Midwest,” recounted Lay. “They were having trouble plowing the soil. It was thick. But John wasn't just a blacksmith, he was an innovator. And so he got some saws and he fashioned them to literally start to cut this hard soil so that the farmers could plant their crops, take care of their families. One of the things that John was known for was just simply listening and then coming up with ideas to help these farmers grow their crops and grow their families.”


Lay then revealed that John was in fact John Deere, founder of the legendary farm equipment manufacturer. He told how, a few years after Deere’s death, the company launched a publication called The Furrow, which is still published today. Whereas other equipment companies published catalogs, Lay explained that The Furrow was not designed to sell anything. Instead, its purpose was to offer help and hope to farmers, to show them how they could use new technology to grow their farms.


“Over time, The Furrow began to transform as technology transformed,” said Lay. “But one thing has remained true: the purpose of The Furrow. It’s not about the farm equipment; it’s about the people and their stories as farmers to provide them with knowledge … It's to provide them with hope for an even bigger, better, brighter future for how they can apply this knowledge to cultivate success, to grow their farms, to take care of their families.”


Lay used this example as a springboard into a discussion of how to cultivate successful organizations.


According to Lay, the same elements of success that John Deere initially leveraged are still applicable to today’s community financial institutions. Using the theme of “cultivating” success, he said those three elements are:

  • Sowing seeds of trust.

  • Nurturing human relationships.

  • Protecting the garden.


Sowing Seeds of Trust


“Let’s start with how we can sow seeds of trust by curing people's pain in the present moment,” said Lay. “I'd like to start here because right now we have a perfect storm. We have environmental elements that are clashing with one another, creating a tremendous amount of chaos and conflict for people around you, maybe even for you.”


According to Lay, there is a “confidence crisis in the banking industry. “Financial problems, money matters are the number-one source of stress for people today. And what this is creating is a silent epidemic that is taking a toll on people's health, their physical wellbeing, their mental wellbeing, their relational wellbeing. Financial stress is impacting all areas of a person's life.” He went on to explain that a recent study by TD Bank showed that 85% of all Americans are stressed about money.


“Consumers looking for someone that they can trust,” Lay continued. “As we continue to move forward into a digital world, we cannot forget why we do what we do and who we're doing it for. It's people. And at the foundation of every relationship, what is it? What establishes a strong foundation for human connection? Trust.”


Nurturing Human Relationships


Lay told the audience that the key to nurturing human relationships with your members is to take on the role of “helpful and empathetic guide.” He suggested that credit union leaders should look not only how their credit unions represent themselves in the public arena, but how their individual leaders do, as well.


“What are you saying on social media? I'm not talking about your credit union or your community bank, I'm talking about you,” he stated. “What are you say on social media as a lender, as a leader, as an advisor, as an advocate for your credit union? Are you even there right now? And if you're not, good news. There's still time.” He added that it’s essential to engage members where they are, and for younger members, that means venues like Instagram and Tik Tok.


“People trust people,” said Lay. “People do business with people.”


Protecting the Garden


“You must protect the garden to bear good fruit. And that garden is the garden of your mind,” explained Lay. “Your mind is the most important technology to master in the age of AI (artificial intelligence). EQ (emotional quotient) is greater than IQ alone in this age of AI – your emotional intelligence. John Deere had emotional intelligence to listen to the pains of farmers, and then he was able to adapt his own mind to come up with new, innovative, creative solutions to provide those farmers with help and hope.”


The challenge is keeping up with all the change around us, noted lay. “When the world is moving and changing and technology is driving so much of this at an exponential rate, the challenge lies in every single one of us, myself included, because we as human are linear thinkers. We think on a linear plane and that creates a gap. That's where the confusion sets in. That's where the chaos comes from. But if we have the awareness, we can overcome that. Your future growth is a direct result of the seeds that you're planting right now.”


Collaboration is essential, according to Lay. “Here's what I learned, here's what I'm going to do,” he told the audience. “What's your idea to help me do even better? If we keep these three elements of success at the forefront of our mind to sow seeds of trust by curing people's pain, to nurture human relationships, by guiding people beyond that pain to a bigger, better, brighter future. If we protect the garden of our mind to bear good fruit, we will all cultivate success together.”

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