CXO Series – Tom Struan, CTO at Citizens National Bank shares insight regarding IT trends and challenges faced by small banks…
I started with CNB on the 19th of October 2015 and it has been a pleasure working with such a great team of people who are dedicated to serving the financial needs of our customers in East Texas or wherever life might take them. CNB was founded more than 85 years ago to serve the needs of a robust agricultural community and a growing petroleum industry. Today we are approaching $2 billion in assets and our mission has continued – support the communities we work and live in.
Sajid Khan: Tom, thank you very much for taking the time out of your busy schedule for this interview. Can you please begin by sharing your perspective on the role of the CTO in Citizens National Bank?
Tom: Technology is evolving constantly, that’s the only given in my job. How we deploy those technologies and engage the people who use them in a positive way is the real positive in all of this. I’ve personally always believed that deploying technology without engaging people or determining how they benefit up front is often a fruitless endeavor. There are times when you just have to do something, but the most enjoyable and rewarding outcomes are when people embrace the technologies you bring to the table and benefit from them – this is true whether they are an employee or a customer.
SK: What have been some of the biggest challenges faced by small banks during the last couple of years?
Tom: If you ask any banking executive of any size you would likely hear regulatory burden as one of the biggest challenges faced by banks. Coming out of the real estate bubble a few years ago the government chose to punish banks who did the right things instead of supporting them. Compliance with these regulations has created a new industry within an industry and increased the costs of doing business. The myth that banks are evil machines who seek to rob the populace are absolutely false. Banks, especially community banks, are made up of people who work and live in the same communities, go to church, shop, and send our kids to the same schools. Our owners and executives are part of these communities so we are incentivized to do the right things.
SK: While keeping the systems up and running, how do you ensure that the IT organization is agile enough to respond quickly to clients’ changing needs?
Tom: Technology departments are becoming some of the biggest users of technology in a bid to keep staffing down, manage costs, be more accountable, but still deliver a great end-user experience. Automation of traditional help desk, employee self-service, and constant environmental monitoring enable tech teams to accomplish their missions.
SK: What has been your proudest achievement in your career?
Tom: My proudest achievement was discovering that the key to technology was the people who use it. My first go as a technology executive challenged my perceptions and could have ended in failure quickly were it not for the realization that people are the ones using the technology and their buy-in is crucial to any perceived success and this is even more important when working with Board Members and Sr. Executives. Their faith in technology to deliver on a number of fronts is critical.
SK: What is your leadership style? Does your leadership style vary based on your role?
Tom: My leadership style is rather easy – work hard, learn constantly, and encourage those that work with you to do the same. I do change my style depending on whether I am the project manager, business sponsor, or technological leader, but by and large I tend to trust my team members to accomplish tasks and operate within a framework of verification that ensures everyone is visible accountable.
SK: What advice would you offer to our readers who aspire to follow in your footsteps?
Tom: Develop an understanding of the big picture and be willing to surrender the need to control everything. By this I mean you cannot be an effective technology executive by continuing to write command line or code. Understanding and keeping yourself up to date about the capabilities of technology is important, but your role has to evolve into becoming more of a business partner. To do this you need to improve your communications skills – this means public speaking, written language, and effective leadership skills. I like to think of myself as a technologist who evolved into a businessperson and who is entrepreneurial in thought and attitude.
SK: Is there anything else you would like to share with your fellow C-level executives?
Tom: Don’t focus too heavily on the problems to the point that all you begin to see are obstacles. Instead, focus broadly on each opportunity and by doing so you develop solutions that solve multiple issues. I would also share the need to be involved with technology in the areas that you operate. Look at your IT teams as collaborators and partners and you will have greater success than if you viewed them as strictly a service bureau.