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Lazy words

Sorry state of communication in banking today

“There’s really not much that indicates we’ve learned anything new over the last several cycles,” says veteran lender and CEO Ed O’Leary. Each week in his blog he strives to fix that. “There’s really not much that indicates we’ve learned anything new over the last several cycles,” says veteran lender and CEO Ed O’Leary. Each week in his blog he strives to fix that.

From my earliest days as a banker I remember that the ability to communicate effectively with one’s customers and colleagues was not only valued and necessary but expected.

That was stressed to those of us in The Bank of New York’s loan officer development program, particularly when we started the analysis phase of our training. Under the tutelage of a small cadre of professional credit overseers, we were analyzing virtually all credit above a relatively low dollar threshold.

Our work, clearly identified as our own, was under scrutiny at the executive management level of the bank and, in the case of large dollar credits, by a committee of the bank’s board of directors.

Everything—including how our careers would fare—hinged on good, clear communication.

Being a fellow of a certain age, obviously that was a lot of years ago. However, good communication hasn’t gone out of style.

In fact, poor communication makes the good stand out even better.

Communication makes it all work

The ultimate work product of a bank, then and now, is intangible.

Bankers don’t work for a foundry or a mill. We don’t produce a tangible good. Rather we are trafficking in ideas and concepts and these in every case result in ideas that we must communicate to others. Our business communications are usually verbal in that they are occur with words. These words may be in oral or written form.

Early civilizations understood the power of the word. Many of our ancestors were of the view that once an idea was expressed in words, these ideas and thoughts acquired an existence quite independent of their authors. This is an attitude or a concept that comes down to our own time. It emphasizes the importance of verbal communications. They are independent of us and they have the potential of an unlimited life.

Bankers have definite ideas about “image” and what’s proper or improper. We can be obsessed with our appearances, the look of the headquarters building, the statement that we are capable of making with our clothes, our cars, the neighborhoods we inhabit, and a virtually endless list of ways in which we “present” ourselves.

I grew up in a household that valued the proper use of the English language. My mother was a school teacher and my father for the first 20 years of his professional life was a magazine editor.

My siblings and I were never immune from gentle but pervasive correction in our spoken word and I carried this attitude of propriety into my academic and business activities with the written word. And I don’t think I was any different from virtually all my classmates in school and my colleagues at work. We all possessed a grasp of the basics of linguistic skills and demonstrated it to a high degree.

Something’s changed

I’ve been involved in lots of continuing education activities dealing both with in-house training efforts as well as industry-driven activities such as AIB and various banking schools and lending related conferences. Part and parcel of continuing education efforts is the reading and grading of written submissions by participants.

My current assessment of the communication skills of banking industry participants is not flattering. Indeed, much of what I see can be described with words such as “limited” or “poor.”  And the trend is discouraging. The younger the group, the less advanced the skills seem to be.

There are many possible causes. Here’s my list.


I think there is a tendency today to be sloppy—plain and simple.

We are well on our collective way to being verbal slobs. It’s as if Casual Friday is the seven-days-a-week norm. It has been showing up in lots of ways in recent years and is now endemic in our written communications.


Social media invites us to comment on everything—and we enthusiastically respond. We watch local and national disasters on live TV and share our raw reactions with friends and strangers alike.

Are we really so invested in all of these things that we have to express our views in real time? 

Do the recipients of these comments really care? Or has all of this become collectively obsessive and otherwise devoid of meaning? 

Might this tendency to elevate the trivial bleed into the more structured and significant aspects of our professional lives?


If we’re over-communicating, as I suspect we are, then are we blunting our ability to be concise? 

If words are free (so to speak), then why be brief? It is, after all, hard work to present an important idea in one or a few paragraphs.

One ray of sunshine to me is Twitter.

Really. Why? There’s a strict character limit on a tweet (140 characters, though now they are thinking about changing that rule, alas). Those who use Twitter effectively demonstrate to me a thought discipline that’s not often evident in other forms of communication, whether in business or not.


We spend so much time and effort on virtually all aspects of our personal and professional images. Yet we tend to ignore how we present ourselves in the written word.

Why? Are we compromising the quality of our professional images so thoughtlessly as to be harming ourselves in the marketplace of our ideas and our values?

These are serious questions and issues and deserve a great deal more attention than we are paying them as individuals and as economic enterprises. These are not insoluble issues any more than they are trivial.

Ed O’Leary

Banking Exchange Contributing Editor Ed O'Leary, a veteran lender and workout expert, spent nearly 50 years in bank commercial credit and related functions, working with both major banks as well as community banking institutions. His last job before retiring was as the CEO of a regional bank headquartered in Alburquerque, N.M. He earned his workout spurs in the dark days of the 1980s and early 1990s in both oil patch and commercial real estate lending. O'Leary began his banking career at The Bank of New York in 1964, and worked at banks in Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. He served as a faculty member and thesis advisor at ABA's Stonier Graduate School of Banking for more than two decades, and served as long as a faculty member for ABA's undergraduate and graduate commercial lending schools. Today he works as a consultant and expert witness, and serves as instructor for ABA e-learning courses. You can e-mail him at [email protected]. O'Leary's website can be found at

In mid-2016 O'Leary's "Talking Credit" blog received a bronze excellence award for the Northeastern Region from the American Society of Business Publication Editors.

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