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Change Agent: How Patty Kellerhals continues to make history.

When you hear Patty Kellerhals talk about the future of banking, it’s hard not to get as enthusiastic as she does. In a world of Amazon, Netflix and Apple, life as we know it is shifting, and people are seeking more digital experiences. This has triggered a significant change to banking, and, as director of retail banking, Patty is envisioning a way forward for Commerce Bank – just as she has been for 40 years.

Patty began her career as a bookkeeper in a branch, and her passion for driving innovation started early on. Starting with the introduction of personal computers, she has repeatedly taken on the challenging (and sometimes unpopular) job of bringing about change. The technology initiatives she spearheaded were not only ahead of their time – they were the precursors for modern banking.

In honor of Women’s History Month, we sat down with Patty to learn more about how she has shaped the Commerce customer experience we know today, as well as how women have influenced and continue to influence the future of Commerce.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?
Overall, my biggest accomplishment has been continually leading change at the bank. It’s easy to take modern technology for granted. But for every piece of technology that’s used in a bank, we had to roll it out internally at some point. Then the challenge was to get team members feeling comfortable enough to explain the new technology to customers.

In 1989, we introduced personal computers (PCs) to be used in our branches for the first time. That was a big undertaking: I drove to every branch and trained people on the computers. I remember someone holding the computer mouse like a remote and pointing it at the computer. When I asked what she was doing, she exclaimed, “I’m trying to point and click like you told us, and it’s not working!”

We also developed and introduced new software to deliver upgrades electronically, instead of manually through what we called “sneaker net.” People were wary of the new technology at first, but it was the first iteration of software we still use today, and it helps branch staff focus on the conversation with the customer.

Then, we rolled out Commerce’s first online banking service for retail customers in 1996. We were the only bank in the Midwest offering something like that at the time. It was much more basic than the version we all know today, and it integrated with Intuit’s Quicken personal accounting product. Customers could buy the Quicken software and then download their transaction history from our system to their personal computer. I led a team of bankers and programmers to design the program that would communicate between our system and the Quicken software, and then I traveled to each of our markets to introduce the technology.

Now, we’re facing the most significant change to impact our industry: The widespread demand for digital experiences. Going back to 2009, we’ve been exploring ways to leverage technology to enhance the customer experience across our delivery channels, from ATMs to mobile banking. Rather than depersonalize the experience, technology allows customers to take care of basic transactions quickly and from wherever they are (as long as they have an internet connection). That way we can save more in-depth conversations for when we are face-to-face. I’m focused on three areas: enabling customers to bank when it’s convenient for them; enhancing security; and increasing access to information to give our customers better control of their financial life.

What is the most significant challenge you’ve had to overcome?
In general, leading by influence is one of the skills that’s been the most difficult to learn. I think people sometimes believe that if you are “in charge” you can simply tell people what to do. Wrong. You can’t demand that people respect you, believe in your vision or follow your lead.

You have to earn their respect by continually and clearly articulating your vision. They need to understand and accept the plan, as well as have a personal reason to believe in it, to want to follow you. Even then, your job’s not done. It’s crucial to follow through with ongoing feedback and coaching to help them establish consistency and competency.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
When you’re leading people through change, get everyone rowing in the same direction first – even if it’s the wrong direction. It’s easier to correct the course of a single boat than to redirect a tangled sea of ships. Then, once everyone’s aligned, get moving. If you’re already in motion, it’s easier to accelerate than if you were standing still.

Is there a woman you’ve looked up to? Who is it, and why?
I admire my mother, Alice. She had a take-charge personality and believed there was nothing she couldn’t tackle. Her typical response to any challenge was, “Well, let’s just get it done.”

She was the center of her family and our community. She organized events to perfection, provided caretaker duties for family and community members in need and solved problems that others shied away from. And, through all of it, she was consistently positive. I may be biased, but I don’t know anyone that didn’t idolize my mother.

How can someone just starting their career set themselves up for success?
There are three questions that come to mind that are important to always ask yourself:

“What else can I do?” You don’t always have to wait for someone to give you instructions. Look for ways you can be of additional help. It is the fastest way to learn a wide variety of things that aren’t in your job description. That makes you more valuable, and it may make you invaluable. And people appreciate you for offering to help.

“Who do I know who can help me get this done?” You choose who you surround yourself with, and the decision matters. Build your circle with the smartest people you know. Then tap them when you need advice, help on a project or for someone great to join your team.

“Why?” My mother probably thought I asked this a little too often, but I don’t think it’s possible to over-emphasize the value of “Why?” Understanding why helps inform your thinking, making you more confident and competent as you make decisions. Otherwise you risk simply following prescribed rules or checking off tasks on a list.

How have women played a role in Commerce’s history, and how will they help shape its future?
Women have brought unique perspectives to the predominantly male banking industry for many years. And I believe diversity has been critical for preventing group think and blind spots. When you’re only surrounded by people who are like you, it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing your thoughts are the truth. I sometimes say people end up believing, “My world is the real world and you’re all just living in it.” Being closed to others’ ideas like that doesn’t spark much innovation or inspiration.

The history of women’s influence at Commerce goes back pretty far. In 1921, a year after women received the right to vote, Commerce opened a Women’s Department to help women open bank accounts and understand their personal finances. (First Women’s Bank of Tennessee had opened in 1920, but another bank for women wouldn’t open until First Women’s Bank in New York City in 1974.) Then in 1945, Commerce named Emma Hall as an executive and was the first bank in Kansas City to do so.

As we move into the future, we find ourselves with three women on our executive committee for the first time (including myself). Sara Foster, who leads talent management, legal & compliance and other corporate programs, was the first female member of our executive committee for many years. Her leadership has helped changed the dialogue, and we have developed a strong diversity and inclusion mindset as a result. Then, Paula Petersen oversees strategic planning, corporate finance and marketing, and she also leads EDGE, our initiative to foster a values-driven culture that promotes innovation and Agile practices as well.

We also recently launched an employee resource group dedicated to advancing, retaining and recruiting women at Commerce. The mission of RISE (Respect, Inspire, Succeed, Empower) is to empower women as leaders, mentors, coaches and role models to enhance personal and professional relationships. Through networking forums, professional development opportunities and mentorship programs, we’re investing in making women a bigger part of the conversation at Commerce.

Do you have a favorite quote?
It’s hard to choose just one, so I’ll give you two:
  • “A thought which does not result in an action is nothing much, and an action which does not proceed from a thought is nothing at all.” – Georges Bernanos
  • “Most people will look back and realize they did not have a great life because it’s just so easy to settle for a good life.” – Jim Collins