Builders and bankers

Are you a builder, or a banker? No, we’re not talking about construction here. Nor would I label a credit union person with “the b-word.”

About five years ago, I heard an excellent presentation on leadership by T.D. Jakes. In it, he said that there are two kinds of leaders: builders and bankers. He went on to explain what he was talking about, saying that in East Texas where he grew up, no one needed a furnace, but everyone had a wood stove for those chilly nights.

Jakes explained that it took a certain set of skills to build a fire such that it quickly got sufficiently hot. However, once built, if the fire isn’t carefully tended by banking the coals properly, it will go out in the middle of the night. Properly banking the coals ensures even, constant heat until morning brings the sun’s warmth. But the coals can’t do that, no matter how expertly they’re banked, if a good, hot fire wasn’t built to begin with.

The analogy, according to Jakes, is that builders can take anything and make a fire out of it. Give them little or nothing to work with, and they’ll turn it into a raging inferno in no time. Applied to the business world, a builder is someone who can take a hopeless situation and turn it around, who can take the most limited resources and create something of value.

Bankers, on the other hand, are better at maintaining than building. They can keep the hot fire going all night. They’re the stabilizers of the business world, and they’re critical because the builder typically isn’t interested in maintaining. The builder will let the fire go out, because once it’s built, he’s off to the next task.

I’ve used a similar analogy: think of the guy at the circus who spins the plates on tall, thin poles. The builder is only interested in getting the plate spinning, then he’s off to the next plate. It’s no fun to him to maintain. But the result is that, at some point, each plate is going to crash to the ground. Someone needs to follow along and keep those plates spinning, without being concerned about getting the next plate going.

The problem is this: in the business world, builders tend to be attracted to other builders, while bankers associate with bankers. But builders need bankers to complete them, rather than other builders to compete with them (and vice versa). This is why entrepreneurs don’t always make good managers, a key reason that venture capital firms often bring in a management team as part of the deal. VC firms are looking for the builders of the world, knowing that if they pair them with a team of bankers – their specialization – they can create lasting value.

So, are you a builder, or a banker? I’d challenge that there are probably more bankers than builders in the credit union world. That’s not a bad thing; bankers are essentially good long-term managers. But to truly innovate, to compete with all of the new creative trends in payment systems, in peer-to-peer lending, and in the things that haven’t even been thought of yet, we need more builders.

It’s natural, then, when we build our teams, to seek others like ourselves, thinking that by so doing, we’ll avoid friction. But get several builders or several bankers in a room, and the competition becomes so intense that the friction really begins. It’s better to recognize our differences, and build our teams with others who will complete us, who will bring the skill set we don’t have. That takes a certain degree of vulnerability and humility, and a whole lot of trust.

The builder vs. banker phenomenon isn’t limited to management teams and staff, it extends to the boardroom as well. A CEO who’s a builder with a board composed of bankers is going to experience nothing but frustration and conflict. Thus striking the same balance between builders and bankers is also vital to creating strong governance.

Determining whether you’re a builder or a banker requires honest self-examination. (It may help to ask colleagues or peers that you trust which way they see you.) Once that step is taken, it’s important to seek out the other type of leader, and to build your teams with the right balance.

One key opportunity to address the task of building complete teams, ensuring the inclusion of both builders and bankers, is in the succession planning process, for both management and volunteers. The departure of a leader always has a profound effect on the organization. Succession planning ensures organizational continuity and continued progression through proactive needs analysis and leadership development.  Succession planning doesn’t merely name a successor, but rather systematically ensures that the organization builds and maintains the talent to realize the organization’s vision no matter what situation arises. For more information, contact Tony Ferris, Managing Partner of The Rochdale Group at (800) 424-4951 or

Brian Hague

Brian Hague

Brian has more than 25 years’ experience in financial institutions and the capital markets, and has devoted 21 years to serving credit unions through various roles at CNBS, LLC, a ... Web: Details