Today we sit down with Josh Collins (VP – Talent & Culture) and Ryan Liebowitz (VP – Commercial Lending) from Oconee State Bank in Watkinsville, GA.  We talk all about the importance of creating a culture of both accountability and purpose… and why the two are not mutually exclusive.

The views, information, or opinions expressed during this show are solely those of the participants involved and do not necessarily represent those of SouthState Bank and its employees. 


Intro: Helping community bankers grow themselves their team and their profits. This is “The Community Bank Podcast.”

Erik Bagwell: Welcome to “The Community Bank Podcast.” I’m Eric Bagwell, Director of Sales and Marketing for the correspondent division of “SouthState Bank” joining me Tom Fitzgerald, Tom is Directors Strategy and Research for the correspondent division Tom you doing okay?

Tom Fitzgerald: Doing good Eric, hope you’re as well.

Erik Bagwell: Doing well and also join us here is Caleb Stevens. Caleb is our producer, co-hosts Business Development Officer, marketing guru. Caleb does it all, Caleb doing good man?

Caleb Stevens: Doing great. Good to see you guys. It’s not always that we have the three of us on at one time. So, good to be talking to you guys.

Erik Bagwell: No doubt. We got a great show today. Caleb sat down with Josh Collins and Ryan Liebowitz. They are from Oconee State Bank in Watkinsville, Georgia near Athens; Josh is the Vice President of Talent and Culture. Ryan is a Commercial Lender at the bank; Caleb tells us what this interview is about.

Caleb Stevens: So, this interview is all about what does it look like to create a culture of high performance where everyone’s held accountable, you know what’s expected of you, you’re all working towards a common vision, and you’re all on the same page. But you’re also an environment where your value you care for people realize there’s more to life than just your work. And so there’s space for family and for other things that matter in life but you’re also held accountable, you’re also held to a standard of high performance and how do you do that?

That’s a lot easier said than done and so Josh, and Ryan, I think, do a great job of showing how community banks, they’re 500 million in assets, they’re not big, typical community banks, like them, can emphasize culture. And I think they’re driving home, that culture goes beyond just the, you know, the fun stuff and the fuzzy stuff of being beanbags and free food and everyone being nice to each other. And I think he kind of drills down to more of the heart of culture, and why it matters, and why everyone has one, but few are intentional about it. So it’s a good discussion.

Erik Bagwell: It’s going to be good, before we get to that real quick, Tom, let’s talk about your bond report. It’s a report we put out quarterly, talk about it and where the folks can go and download this.

Tom Fitzgerald: Sure, thanks. In the South State Correspondent division, we’ve been a bond accounting for about 140 banks, and about 14 billion in par value for those banks. And so, it’s a quarterly look, as you said, of kind of how those portfolio is performing kind of as on an aggregate basis. And so, you take a look at the book yields of the portfolio, the duration, unrealized gain or loss. So just kind of really good, quick look at how the typical Community Bank portfolio is performing, as we work through 21 so, again, the listeners can pull it down at, and we’d like for all the listeners to take it, no-obligation at all. And most community bankers like to know what the other guy is doing and this is a real quick way to see how that’s happening in the investment portfolio.

Erik Bagwell: Well, guys, before we go to the interview with Caleb and Josh, and Ryan, just want to say thank you for listening to the podcast. I think we just went over 21,000 listens and…

Caleb Stevens: Probably coming up on 22 by the time this show releases, so yes.

Erik Bagwell: And I think we’re over 50, maybe 5354 shows. So, we’re excited to get a lot of good feedback from you, guys. Thanks for listening; let’s go to that interview right now.

Caleb Stevens: Well, Josh, and Ryan, thanks for hopping on the show today. It’s good to see you guys. How’s it going?

Josh Collins: It’s going great, man. It’s great to be here with you. Thank you for having us come in.

Ryan Liebowitz: And appreciate you bringing us down here on a day we didn’t see any traffic. So we owe a lot to you.

Caleb Stevens: Man, Atlanta traffic is a beast to be reckoned with. So, I’m glad it wasn’t too hard on you. Tell us a little bit about Oconee State Bank where you guys are located and your respective roles there at the bank?

Josh Collins: Absolutely. So Oconee State Bank is based out of Watkinsville. Georgia, we’ve been around for 61 years this year, it’ll be 62 next February. And we are a local community bank that truly strives to set ourselves apart and make a difference in the lives of every customer and stakeholder we serve. We have most of our offices in Oconee County, but we also have an office in Athens and one in Gwinnett, as well currently.

Ryan Liebowitz: And what I do with the bank, I’m a VP of Commercial Lending, which just means that I get to go and build relationships with phenomenal businesses within the area. Provide financial advice, whether that’s lending deposits, just kind of coming up with plans and goals to help a business go from where they are right now to where they want to be in the next 5 10 15 years. So, what I get to do every day is just talk to people so very exciting.

Caleb Stevens: Well, one of the things that I think sets you guys apart is your emphasis on culture. And we talk about culture a lot on this show and we’ve had a lot of great guesses who know their stuff when it comes to culture and a great leader. But you guys aren’t just thought leaders, you’re not just people who speak about culture or who write books about culture. You’re living it every day in and out, day in and day out at Oconee State Bank, talk about how you guys think about culture and how you define culture, and then secondly, why do you think it matters?

Josh Collins: And I think, to me, there’s a couple of definitions of culture that I usually go with, I usually go with the definition of it’s the written and unwritten rules that determine how team members interact with one another and how work gets done within the organization. That’s probably my favorite just because it mentions unwritten rules, which I think a lot of times are what we forget about, we think if we put the vision, mission, and values in writing, or put them on the wall, hey, boom, we’ve got great culture here. But we don’t think about the unwritten rules of how our team members interact together and what they do on a day-to-day basis, or are we communicating the way we should be?

Are we doing these other things that will impact their lives for the better or the worse, depending on how we approach it? But from my perspective, have kind of been thinking about my definition of what culture is recently and how we do what we do. And I think it comes down to three components the first big component is the quality of your people. If you don’t have quality people, you can’t build a great culture, because that’s going to impact the day-to-day interactions between one another, then you have to have great leaders who have a great vision and a direction you want to go as an organization. And then beyond that, can you create the clarity so, that vision goes from the leadership down to your frontline.

Caleb Stevens: Connecting the dots for everybody, which is probably a lot harder, said than done I would think.

Josh Collins: That’s always the challenge. And I know I sat down with one team member A while ago is probably a few years ago. And I was asking them, you know, what do you do? And they worked in our call center and she just looks at me like, she was confused by the question. She just goes, well, I answered the phone. No, that’s the method you use to do what you do, what do you do and we talked about what she does every day is help our customers who are unable to come into the bank for a reason, whether they’re sick, whether they’re on vacation, whether they’re experiencing some great high moment in their life, or some tough, low moment in their life, she’s the voice that has to be there to make them feel comforted with their banking situation at that point in time.

Caleb Stevens: Yes, for sure. Ryan, any thoughts? So, you’re more on the commercial lending side, you’re helping small business owners every day think through their decisions as they grow their business and lead their companies? For you, how do you sort of think about culture? And what does it look like, in your role on the commercial lending side?

Ryan Liebowitz: So, for me culture is ensuring that from the top of your organization, as the CEO to the, I guess, the lowest person on the totem pole, everybody’s on the same page, everybody has to feel empowered within the organization to, if they have great ideas they want you to want them to feel like they can come to a culture officer, like Josh is or come to the CEO and say, hey, listen, here’s what I see in the position that I’m in, maybe we should try these things, and let’s flesh them out. And what I’ve seen in banking for almost 20 years is you can build relationships up over 10 years, and they can be destroyed pretty quickly. And if your team if your organization is not on the same page, working towards the same goals at all times, that can be torn down pretty quickly. So I think what we do, besides all the things that Josh talked about, we’re always talking about it. It’s not something that we go somewhere on December 20th, and say, alright, guys, here’s our culture, and we’re going to be exceptional.

Caleb Stevens: Talk about another company retreat, and then you put it in a filing cabinet the next day.

Ryan Liebowitz: Exactly, we talked about it monthly, if not more, here’s what we want to be, here’s what we want everybody to know we are we want to be, exceptional within the community and in for people to know that Oconee State Bank is always going to be there for all their needs, whether it’s, somebody just needs to be to have a friend to talk to you. It’s funny, here in COVID, people just wanted to talk to somebody, it may not have even been about banking, it may have been anything. But that was important and we made it important so that everybody’s voices were heard. And we have terrific leadership that creates phenomenal ways for us to see what the vision they layout is it makes it’s simple to understand.

Caleb Stevens: So, one of the common critiques as we’re talking about driving home the value of culture talking about culture, is we tend to conflate it with beanbags and free food and things that make people feel good. You feel valued, feel like you’re heard, you feel like your opinions are important, a lot of times people will say, I love my company because it just feels like a family, but the kind of that is yes, but your family doesn’t ask you to leave if you stop performing up to your expectations. A company does so I’ve often heard people say you should think about you know your company more as a community, not as a family because your family’s more than likely if you have a healthy family is not going to kick you out if you stop performing. But if you go three, four years, without performing up to expectations in any organization, your chances of being there are probably pretty slim. So, how do you sort of think about culture in light of, but we’ve got to perform, we’ve got these expectations, we’ve got standards for production and hard work? But we also want you to feel included and valued and that you’re part of this community and that your opinions are important. So Josh, how do you sort of think about that as it relates to culture?

Erik Bagwell: I love your distinction between community and family, but I will disagree with you a little bit, let’s say I have a strange family member, I’d still care about them, I still want the best for that person, even if I’m not going to interact with them and don’t see them. But if they came back to me and say, hey, I was wrong can we work through this? I’d be willing to give them another shot or potentially, bring them back into the fold. So, I think as long as we continue to care about our team members, and I think that’s a huge component of what we talk about at Oconee State Bank, especially with our leaders, when we do leadership roundtables and things like that are how much do we care about our team? And it’s not just how much we care, it’s how do we show and put that into action?

Because saying, hey, we care about you, great. Do I feel it? Do I see it? Can I believe it? And what we talk about at Oconee State Bank is in our values, the Unity value; we boil it down into the phrase best, believe the best in expect the best from seeking the best for and tell the best about one another. And if we truly practice that routinely, then our team members should be feel cared for, and know that we have compassion for them as human beings. But I’ve been telling Neil, this recently, he’s our CEO that best isn’t spelled with a silent E, we have to hold people to high expectations. And if it’s just about making people feel happy, or wow, this is a fun place to work, what I would call the fuzzes.

We want everybody to feel warm and fuzzy inside, then you’re never going to have high performance, unless you have that expectation built in to best, you’re never going to have high performance. So, there’s a way to balance how we feel as team members do, we feel valued and appreciated but also, hey, here’s some feedback on how you can perform better because if we bring in the best team members in the world, and we have them operate at 50%, they’re not the best team members in the world. If we bring in people who can perform at 10% better, and they give me 50% I’m not a math wizard, but that’s not the best I could get from somebody else if they buy into our values, and they believe what we believe in, they’re going the same direction.

Caleb Stevens: So it sounds like if you have great performance, but you’re not valued, you sort of have a cutthroat culture, that’s probably backstabbing. But if you just have a culture that focuses on feeling valued, and feeling like we care for you, as a person, you’re not just a cog in our system, but you’re not held to high expectations, and you’ve got a fun place to work, but it’s a bunch of mediocre performers. And a lot of times high achievers, don’t want to be around mediocre performance, they want to be around Tigers, who also want to have performed at a time. But you also want to have a culture where we’re all valued and there’s more to life than just our jobs.

Erik Bagwell: Absolutely. And I love the analogy Neil gave the other day was, if we don’t hold people to high expectations, we’re on a crashing plane, but we’re having fun as it goes down. So, if you crash that plane, well, everybody’s no longer here, the business doesn’t exist anymore so, it’s great that you had fun for two years, three years, however long you were here, but now you’re looking for a new job. So if you hold those high expectations, then you have the opportunity we’ve been in business for 61 years, hopefully, we’re looking at the next 61 years of business for Oconee State Bank. But it all comes down to those expectations but you truly have to treat your team members well, because the flip side of that is if we don’t treat people well, and we just grind them down into the dirt. You didn’t mention burnout, but you mentioned backstabbing and things like that will happen and then you’re going to lose your business anyway.

Ryan Liebowitz: I think a good culture breeds exceptional performance. I know that I’m not more important than the bank, if I don’t do what I’m supposed to do, they will go and find somebody that will because the culture breeds that one person is not going to make this bank what it is. So, if I’m seeing leadership that’s doing the small things, hey, maybe they’re cleaning the bathrooms because somebody couldn’t come in there picking the paper up off the floor, I see how important the little details are to everything we do. And if everybody sees little details and in the people that I lead, sees the little details and the people that they lead to the little details.

We’re all working off this little details thing and if we’re all executing on the little details, we can’t help but be successful. If we’ve got a great culture, we’ve got a great plan, we’ve got great processes in place I just think a great culture breeds exceptional people. I think it just does and you look at some of the greatest culture companies in the world, you look at a couple like chick-fil-A. Well, Truett Cathy wasn’t about Truett Cathy; Truett Kathy was about the brand and the people that he served. And if you’re about that, if you’re about those small things about caring for those people, I think the exception performances are just going to come because they know, hey, I got to up my level of what my expectations are because I don’t want to be the guy, the girl that tears us down.

Caleb Stevens: Yes, I don’t know, if you all listen to or follow any of Seth Golden work. He’s sort of a marketing guru and he’s got a great blog, and he talks a lot about how many companies suffer from the syndrome of the quote, “That’s not my job.” So, you see, the trash can overflowing in the bathroom and you’re a commercial lender, you’re not the janitor, that’s not my job and it never gets done because you suffer from you see something happening, that you have the power to serve or to step in and help, but that’s not my job. And if we all have that mentality of that’s not my job, then our culture is going to suffer but if we all have, as you’re saying, the mentality of, we’re all part of this team, we’re all in this together. And we all have roles that we’re responsible for but we also want to have a mentality of, I want to help and be a part of this culture and contribute. And if I see something happening, I’ve got the power or the authority to serve and change. You know, I don’t want to get stuck in that. That’s not my job sort of mentality.

Erik Bagwell: And that’s when we talk about best and we talk about seeking the best for one another, we talk about and refer to that as selfless service, are you willing to put your own needs your ambitions, dreams aside to help those people around you, that may be going through a tough time that you’re not even aware of, but you see him kind of struggling that day? And you’re like, hey, how can I help you let me support you today, you see that trash in the parking lot, and you’re like, that doesn’t make our organization look good, I’m going to go take care of that. Whatever it happens to be you put your own needs aside for a moment to help another human being and the great thing about that I’ve seen this time and time again, is when you put your own needs aside for a moment and help other people. When you hit that struggle yourself there’s gonna be tons of people lined up to help you.

Ryan Liebowitz: And I think, on the customer side, if they know that they can come to someone at the bank, and maybe I don’t have the answer for them, but they know that I’m going to do the background work to find him the answer that they need. That makes a big difference. Don’t be afraid to say, hey, listen, I don’t know the answer for you but I’m going to take it upon myself and be responsible to provide you what you need. That’s, that’s culture, that’s providing customers what they need at that time. So, I think that’s incredible.

Caleb Stevens: I can hear the listener saying right now, okay, Josh, and Ryan, this all sounds great but let’s get practical here. If I’m a team member at Oconee State Bank, what might throw out a typical week, what might be some things that I would experience as a team member, as someone who is employed with an Oconee State that may look different from your typical commercial bank? What are some things from a practical standpoint that you guys have implemented, to try to help create that alignment and create that culture?

Erik Bagwell: And we do a lot in that regard from week to week, it is variable, but there’s constantly something going on we do, tomorrow, we’ll experience one of those things. It’s called wake up Wednesday. So, Wednesday at two o’clock, we take a break, we all huddled together, and we take a breather from the day to do something outside of work. And it allows us to step away, we’ve all had those problems where you’re so focused on it, you can’t see the obvious solution right in front of you. So, it helps us just breathe for a minute and when we talk about, especially through COVID, and all the stresses that we’ve all had on our plates lately, even if it’s five minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes that you can step away from what you’re doing, and take that deep breath and relax, and not feel that pressure it changes the day.

Caleb Stevens: Another thing that I like that you guys do that I’ve heard about is the first Friday forum. Tell me about that because I think that’s key.

Erik Bagwell: And I think the first Friday forums are terrific because it’s a way for I mentioned clarity earlier. And if your team members aren’t all on the same page with your leaders, if they’re not aware of what’s going on in the bank, how can they truly support the vision and the direction you’re going? How can they give their best work? Is the way we look at it? So, the first Friday forums are a venue where all of our senior leaders or as many of them are as available that day will join together in a room and any team member across the entire bank has the opportunity to ask any questions from those leaders.

And those leaders are responsible for stepping up if it’s related to our retail banking. Philip Bernardi is going to be responsible for answering those questions. If it’s related to the operations of the bank it might be our CFO, Jim McLemore, stepping up to take that question. Any question a team member asks so those leaders are going to step up and answer and they do a great job of tackling that with finesse and grace and all the different things because some things can’t give out since we’re a publicly-traded company. But they do try to explain, here’s how we’re performing as an organization, here’s what we’re doing, here’s the direction we’re headed, without stepping on any of those legal landmines there as well.

Ryan Liebowitz: And I think one of the great things was during PPP, we may not have been able to be in the office, we continued our first Friday forums, and we asked some tough questions of senior leadership. Because everybody had questions, everybody’s worried, hey, are we gonna close down certain things? Are people gonna get laid off? And our leadership was able to be very brutally honest with us. Where the answer is always warm and fuzzy? No, but I think that what makes some genuine answers is when you can tell the truth and your team knows, hey, you’re not just saying that you’re going to fire six people at five o’clock.

Caleb Stevens: It’s unkind to be dishonest or unclear or untruthful, if that is the reality, for sure.

Tom Fitzgerald: Well, and if you think you want to build a great culture, go ahead and lead your team over and over and see how great you are. And then say, hey, we’re going to build a great culture guy.

Caleb Stevens: Right, that talk. It’s just window dressing and all talk. One other thing that I’ve noticed you guys do that I’ve heard about is having speakers. I think you’ve had Mark Richt, who we’ve had on the podcast here just a few weeks ago, Tony Dungy people who have accomplished a lot of great things in their life, and they’re sharing their wisdom with the team. Talk about some of those things you guys do?

Josh Collins: Absolutely. And voices a success we do that quarterly. So, we bring in speakers as you mentioned, who are fantastic leaders in their field, who, you mentioned Tony Dungy, he was one of my favorites because I’m an Indianapolis Colts fan. So, he won a Super Bowl with my team so when somebody reached out to us, like, hey, you all might have a chance to interview Tony Dungy, I was chomping at the bit to get that one done. So yeah, we were able to bring Tony Dungy in we had Mark Richt and, during that session, we had Mark Richt, John Richt son, and Fred Munson Meyer, a former player of his, and we talked about values, what does it look like when someone lives, their values?

And how does that impact the people around you? Because we talked about our values as an organization so, having that conversation, these might be leaders that our team doesn’t have access to outside of those voices of success sessions. So, if we provide those for our team, they get something that you need but also, we invite anyone in our community who wants to come to join us for those sessions, please feel free to join us for those reach out to me see, when the next one is I think we’re coming up on let’s see, the September 15 I want to say it’s a Wednesday in September. But if you’re interested, reach out to us and I can check the date but it’ll be Drew McClure’s coming up and what we’ll be talking about in that session is related to, there’s been so much on our plates, especially again, since COVID has hit now the stuff we’re tackling right now.

Everybody’s just adding more stress to their plate. So, what we’ll be talking about is what Drew is, how do we expand our plate? How do we extend our energy to create more capacity for ourselves to handle more of those stressors as they come along? Because the way he describes it is, as you go through life, you just have more and more stress added to you and your plate stays the same size unless you figure out a way to extend your energy and expand that capacity.

Caleb Stevens: And we’ve got a lot of bank executives listening from all over the country on this show. And I would think the majority of them probably don’t have somebody who’s fully focused like you are Josh on culture, it may be important to them, and there may be something that they talk about and in value, but there’s not somebody who their dedicated role is to devote all their time creativity energy into cultivating their culture. So, for the executives listening who are hearing this and sort of tracking with this, why should they maybe think about creating a role? Not like you have to solely dedicate to the talent development into the culture.

Erik Bagwell: I was asked any of those CEOs and anyone who’s in that realm if they have a CFO and if they do, why do you have a CFO? Hopefully, it’s to track and elevate your financial performance. The same thing can be said about people’s performance and getting the maximum value from any team members you hire, if we hire team members who are the best of the best, and bring them in and get mediocre work from them. It’s probably because something in our culture is off and if you think hey, well, we have an HR department, and we’re just going to say, hey, you all handle culture, too. It’s hard to focus on 1000 different things at once and most HR teams are focused on what I would call the floor.

That’s the alphabet soup of HR, which is, Fair Labor Standards Act, family medical leave, act, all of those different things that truly set the base. And I talked about this at a team meeting recently is that those are government requirements that set the floor of what you have to, this is the bare minimum you have to give your team but so many organizations focus so much on are we hitting the bare minimum that they never have time to look up and see the beauty around them of what do our high performers look like? How are they doing right now? Are we taking care of them? Can we see their best work? And if you never see their best work, because you’re focused on the floor, you’re never going to get maximum value from your team. And maximum value has financial implications for your organization so if you’re leaving that on the table, you’re choosing to give money back into not maximize your profit margins, you’re not investing well, is what I’m saying.

Ryan Liebowitz: And I would say every company’s got a culture and everybody’s got a culture program and if you’re the sitting at the head of the table, and you don’t have somebody in a position that’s constantly focusing on culture, I’m going to be willing to bet that it’s not the culture that you want, it’s not the culture that you’re trying to breed. So, banking is all about relationships. And the more that we’re able to at Oconee State Bank, focus on the culture and focus on our employees and in the people that are going to make a difference for the community members, why wouldn’t we want to do that? So if you’re not doing it, we appreciate it because we are and we’re able to have the best people and we’re able to create leaders, and we’re able to be so valuable within our community. We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing and we want everybody to experience that and it’s just a massive focus on who we are.

Caleb Stevens: Well, we appreciate you guys and we appreciate now your correspondent business as well on the international wire side on the interest rate, swap side with the art products, appreciate what you guys do with us. And the relationship we’ve had with Oconee State Bank for a long time. If folks are hearing this, and they’re like, wow, I want to learn more about all the things you’re doing and maybe pick your brain. How can they get in touch with you guys?

Josh Collins: Best email reach out to me we’ll set a time to meet have lunch, do a zoom call if you’re not in our area. I’m happy to talk to anybody about the culture it excites me and it’s what I get up for every day. So, if you’re interested in building your culture, we’re happy to chat about it.

Ryan Liebowitz: And you can get a hold of me and…

Caleb Stevens: You would have to spell Liebowitz for us.

Ryan Liebowitz: Yes, that’s true. So it’s a You can also follow me on Instagram. I have Instagram it’s called @abankerstoolbox. You can also follow me at @rp_liebowitz. I tried to put out some good content that may be beneficial for you moving forward.

Caleb Stevens: Nice. Not too many lenders are out hitting the gram and the social media stuff. So, good for you. That’s awesome.

Ryan Liebowitz: Thank you.

Caleb Stevens: Well, thank you guys for your time and look forward to staying in touch in the future.


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