My partner in this blog, Ben Oleson, convinced me to give ING Direct a try for my personal banking. It actually took him months to convince me, dropping subtle hints and endorsements here and there. When I opened my account, I found out they were much more than simply an on-line banking organization. They were a business on a mission, and a disruptive mission at that. That's all I needed to hook me in.
ING Direct's mission is simple: Save the Saver. It is based on the premise that money had become (falsely) too easy, that saving your money for the future was a virtue and that they would fight for the average saver who wanted to play by the rules and, in my words, get rich slow. ING Direct felt that the only ones benefiting from today's banking system is the banks, not the people giving them money. It is a grand vision that I have no problem relating to.
Community Growth Institute is a company with a similar vision. When asked in 2001 what I wanted to accomplish with CGI, my immediate answer was, "I want to save Rural America." It was only the modesty of my co-workers and advisors that tempered my hubris down to the idea of Buildings Strong Towns, which is how we express our mission today. Like ING Direct, we stand for those communities that strive to do things right, slowly and over time. Theirs is the difficult path, because putting off short-term gains and focusing on long-term strategies takes courage and leadership.
And like ING, ours is a socially disruptive calling. The status quo of engineers and planners, while good and decent people for the most part, have been the ones that have primarily benefited from our current mode of operation in small towns. Not the communities they server, certainly not over the long-term.
When I found out that ING Direct had released a book - The Orange Code, How ING Direct Succeeded by Being a Rebel with a Cause - on their organization and their management approach, I had to read it. It was a quick read. For anyone wanting to lead an organization that is looking to bring about systematic change in the world, it is a must read.
Here is an excerpt from a chapter on "herding cats", describing some of the management challenges and benefits to an organization that actually makes decisions based on an internal compass firmly pointed towards the mission:
For any business, but especially for a rebel innovator like ING Direct, the environment is never a static thing. It's in constant flux, and it's often you that's causing that flux. By definition, then, there is never any convention to fall back on - no well-worn path, no time-proven standard solutions, no industry norms, no defaults. So, when you set a new goal or face a new challenge in the marketplace, a playbook solution is always going to feel a little bit wrong, never going to fit quite right. For ING Direct, and it would seem for many disruptive innovators, the solution instead is to have the clearest, most deeply committed sense of who you are and what your mission is. The better people understand these things, the more naturally and organically they're able to improvise and innovate as hoc, because they're not serving some kind of operational orthodoxy.
Imagine a manager, alone, hard at work in an evening or on a weekend, bumping into some kind of dilemma: Does she call her supervisor and ask what to do? Or does she just know what your way of solving this would be? Not the solution itself, but the principles by which the solution should be formulated and by which it will get the natural support of the organization on Monday morning? At ING Direct, that's what empowerment really means. It's not a matter of just granting autonomy to employees but of enabling it with a code that directs it. Think of this as the difference between having a conscript army and having a volunteer one: Soldiers in the latter always know, at least in the most general terms, what they have to do. The former will always wait to be told.
It's easy to imagine that there's an Apply way of doing things, or a Disney way, or a Virgin way; there is absolutely an ING Direct way, and steering by that star has made it a terrifically efficient and productive organization to helm.
I think the small towns that are most successful are the ones that have a real strong sense of who they are. Those communities benefit from the same principles. Have a belief system, they are able to more-quickly be able to put critical decisions into their own context and make decisions that reinforce their vision of the future, not undermine it.
A side benefit of reading the book is that it reveals a lot about the banking industry, especially at a time when everyone is talking about banking and how it is impacting our country. I highly recommend the book and, if nothing else, also highly recommend banking with ING Direct.