November 16, 2022

Jim Marous on defining yourself, ahas from unstructured dialogue, mutually beneficial learning, and the excitement of what you don’t know (Ep39)

“If somebody asks me to write about what’s not in my field, I push it out. I may know about it, I may feel comfortable about it. But at the end of the day, I need to make it so that my audience is defined and my information perspective is defined. Otherwise, thriving on overload, I would have been buried by overload.”

– Jim Marous

Tim O'Reilly

About Jim Marous

Jim Marous is the publisher of the Digital Banking Report, co-publisher of The Financial Brand and host of the Banking Transformed Podcast. He has been named as one of the most influential people in banking, a sought-after keynote speaker, and is regularly featured in leading media such as CNBC, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, The Financial Times, and The Economist.

What you will learn

  • Why generosity with your insights builds your brand (02:20)
  • How to start building your niche expertise (05:13)
  • Why a process for a steady flow of content is vital (09:51)
  • Why you owe it to your audience to look at alternative perspectives (14:10)
  • What does it mean to build a framework? (20:14)
  • Why we need to speed up our learning and execution (23:27)
  • Why human interaction is essential to mental models and synthesis (24:40)
  • Why you need a daily routine for information processing (28:14)

Episode resources


Ross Dawn: Jim, it’s awesome to have you on the show.

Jim Marous: Hey, great to be on it.

Ross: Throughout your career, you have been on the edge of change and seen the transformation, how do you do it, Jim?

Jim: It’s interesting. A little historical reference here, I started in the banking industry over 40 years ago as a retail banker within a management training program right out of university. During my entire career, I went from being a banker to selling to banks for 25 years, and the last 12-13 years have been focused on communicating about the banking industry. But the whole background on what I was interested in throughout my career was in trying to stay ahead of what was going on, and continually learn in the process of doing what I was doing. The aha moment maybe came when I was 35, which is still over a decade ago. I was worried about becoming irrelevant. I figured out then, that the best way to not be irrelevant was to communicate to all my prospects in the universe as a whole; here’s what I see happening in banking, and here’s my interpretation of that.

I started building a voice and the voice was really about I want to share what I know and share with everybody but as soon as I shared it, I emptied my bucket and had to fill it again. It was a way to not only learn but was a way to show that I am on the front edge of what is going on in banking. It just so happened 14 years ago, that was also really the beginning of social media, I realised quickly that Twitter and LinkedIn really provided me with the opportunity to broadcast that I was doing these things. I very quickly gained a fairly large following back then on the blog. I then joined a bigger organisation that uses communication in articles called The Financial Brand. That became my platform for speaking and for sharing.

Then l also bought a research company, and in the last few years started a podcast but with all pretty much the same strategy, collect insights, give my perception on what those insights are, and distribute them. It became a nice business model, as I was talking to you before we came on air, even better with the advent of COVID because people couldn’t go on the road, they couldn’t sell, and they couldn’t do a lot of things so I became a resource for the distribution of thought. In some cases, it was my own thought leadership in the research we were doing but a lot of times, I’m giving perception on other people’s research and try to combine it because most of the people that are my audience, retail bankers, didn’t have the time to collate, combine, distribute and discern what was important, what wasn’t so I tried to do it for them. Knock on wood, It’s been a lot of fun.

Ross: It sounds great. Obviously, you have been on that journey of creating value from information, that’s really what thriving on overload is about. When you started, when you had that insight, Alright, I need to learn about what’s changing and share that, what was the first step? How did you begin to do your first thought piece or perspective on what was changing?

Jim: It was interesting because I realised very quickly I need to narrow my field of vision, retail banking, or banking, let’s take it, financial services is too broad, banking was too broad so I made it retail banking, and then my major focus was on things that impact the ultimate customer. For instance, if somebody reaches out to me and says, I would like you to write about the accounting backgrounds and how financial services should do their accounting, or regulations or something that doesn’t impact the consumer but is more back office, I pushed it out and said, that’s not my field, I may know about it, I may feel comfortable about it but at the end of the day, I need to make it so that my audience is defined and my information perspective is defined.

Otherwise, thriving on overload, I would have been buried by overload. That was probably the most important thing because initially, we’re afraid that I don’t want to leave any of the marketplaces out. We see this on social media all the time, the people retweet things on seven major topics that are sometimes related, but sometimes they’re just hot topics. We see this all the time with things around AI, the metaverse, and whatever else. What happens is I end up talking about things but not defining who I am. I want people to know but from a perception base when they listen to me, read me, watch me; I kind of know where Jim’s going to go with this, I may not know specifically, but I want to be updated by him. I’m not hitting a lot of targets but the ones I’m hitting, I’m hitting pretty hard.

Ross: That’s fantastic. As you suggest, a lot of people get a little too broad. It means that they can’t be the real expert. But giving that really pretty tight definition there means you can really be the expert and know more than others.

Jim: Because I just didn’t have the bandwidth, I had to create content. Even though I’d be using different resources to create it, it wasn’t simply I was going to rebroadcast some things that other people did. I write two articles a day, I do two webinars a week, I do two podcasts a week, I also do virtual and live events, and I do research reports, there’s only so much bandwidth and I’m at wits’ end right now anyway but the reality is if the marketplace is too broad… I call it the dirty desk theory, I end up with a very dirty desk of thought without any real focus. I want to make sure that I’m delivering for the audience that I have selected really well and the audience may be very tightly defined. A lot of that came from the tightness of my primary vehicle for distributing the content, which is Financial Brand.

I write two articles a week, one to two articles every week and they are focused on retail banking. At the very beginning, I’ve probably over-narrowed it by looking at financial marketing only for bigger banks and overseas organisations, it may expand a little bit beyond marketing. You have talked about it in your book. The biggest question you have to do is, who’s your audience? You can’t be the best at everything, as you said. You do a much better job than I do, looking at broader topics but at end of the day, if I keep on switching, I’m leaving some of my audience on the wayside.

Now, I will say that on Twitter and LinkedIn, my number of followers, as new ones get reduced because the marketplace is only so big. On the other hand, that no longer became my motivation. My motivation was if I get a new follower, I’m hoping that follower is a person I just didn’t know was out there but they are 100% in my wheelhouse, which means I that… I wrote an article about space travel, and I get a bunch of space travel geeks, they’re not gonna be happy from then on because I’m not gonna talk about it anymore. Oh, by the way, I also disappointed, while they may find it entertaining, probably disappointed my regular audience as well.

Ross: You do extremely well at that clarity and focus which helps with the engagement. You’ve got obviously this steady flow of content, that content is a distillation, it’s insights, it’s synthesis, it’s seeing what’s relevant, so what is your process on a weekly basis for being able to take, find, see what’s relevant, distil and synthesise that into something to share?

Jim: It’s easy. All the organisations that I get insight from, the primary organisation, a lot of them are consultancies, some of them are actually financial institutions. When I find a source, I keep them and I put them on Google word so that upon an organisation publishing something that may be of interest, I get a ticker that says, it’s out there. I also do the same thing on Twitter and LinkedIn where I put search terms in that say, let me know when something comes up with this sort. I spend a lot less time on Twitter than I used to, and most of it now is simply capturing what’s out there. I scan very quickly what people are talking about and what people said, a report may have come out, but I’m not going to be too far behind. At the most, I’m maybe two weeks behind something that publishes. A lot of times, I’m within immediate, almost immediate of that.

Plus, we have now other writers and financial brands that are looking at new insights that I may have missed. I read their stuff because even though they’ve written about it, I may say, Jeez, that’s a good topic, let me see if I can contact somebody that I know who talks about this in a different voice and put them on the podcast. It also happens the other way around so when I do a podcast, a lot of our other writers in the financial brands say, can we take your transcript and write about what you’re doing? We end up with a very loose-knit group of independent contractors. But that’s the key, I’ve been lucky now, 14 years into doing it the way I’m doing now to have a never-ending supply of potential content.

Then it becomes a matter of okay, how do I winnow it down to what I need to talk about? How do I find a guest that’s going to be important? What simply what I write about, what may hit me as being very important from a writing perspective is different than what I do from a podcast perspective because the podcast is all about people, and it’s finding the leaders in this base, the writing may be about a topic, maybe about digital transformation, it may be about the metaverse or maybe about AI in banking as related to the consumer. That may not have any relevance or reference to a specific person.

But on the other hand, on the podcast, what I’m trying to do is say, who’s best to talk about these subjects? What are the subjects people want to know about? Now, on the podcast, I am deluge right now, I’m sure you’ve been in those times where, I get a whole lot of offers from people that want to be on the podcast. Unfortunately, my Tuesday, interviews are very much long, I select whom I wanted to speak to, and it’s very infrequent that somebody has reached out to me, I go, that’s somebody I wanted to have. I have my hit list.

On the other hand, on Thursdays, we do podcasts that are actually sponsored by the person I interview or by the company of that person first I interview. That gives them a great platform to still get interviews to be on the podcast, but differently in a different format. They have to pay for the Tuesday guests. But we’ve talked about before, my Tuesday guests, I try to find people that have name recognition, either from themselves or their organisation. I love it if they also have a great social influencer score. In other words, they’re heavy on social media. Because, obviously if I interview somebody that’s not only famous, but it’s also very socially active, I benefit from their audience, and they benefit from mine. It’s mutually beneficial value transfers.

Ross: Absolutely. For finding the information on Twitter, do you build some Twitter lists?

Jim: Yes. I do searches. I have separate groups of people that are people that I look at on social media, and on Twitter, and they cover the same general area that I do. We continually say, hey can you share what I just wrote, or what I just talked about, or what I just found? Then I also have the same thing the other way around, where I go, Hey, guys, can you share what I just found, and talked about?

You get your universe of people that can feed you what’s important, either from a mental state, or a lot of times, that simply is just from my background knowledge of this has happened in the marketplace, it may be about a specific company or a major event that has happened, I may never write about it or have it on the podcast, but I can reference it, so I try to make sure that I’m not so narrowly focused on what I’ve talked about that I lose the perspective of, we’ve talked about before, the looking at all the major stations on the news network to say, it may not be what I agree with, but I got to put it in perspective on what’s important and people know about my viewpoint on branches, on bank marketing, on personalization. I gotta give the other side of that too. I’m not going to put all my money on myself thinking that I got it nailed. People will know which way I’m going to go on most things, but you need to continually view alternative perspectives to build a better overarching viewpoint on what’s going on in the marketplace.

Ross: When you bring in those other perspectives, is that mainly through the conversation? I imagine that when you read something, obviously, you take it in some form, but if you have any conversation with somebody, usually they can be more convincing, is that a better format for evolving your thinking?

Jim: Oh, definitely! Because it’s not only a different perspective, sometimes validation is what’s important. When I started the podcast, something that came out very early in my interviews was, there is a difference between financial technology companies, big tech companies, and legacy banking organisations. I said, what is this? Let’s dig deeper. I found that it was really around the whole thought process of leadership, what leaders were willing to embrace change, and which ones are holding back from change. Now, that doesn’t make one financial institution more successful than the other because the reality is that some of the most stodgy, conservative financial institutions are extraordinarily profitable. But when I look at who’s most prepared for the future, who’s got that challenging mindset, it became very clear that the leaders of these organisations are really setting the tone.

The more I found that the more I dig into that deeper and deeper so that the takeaway from people that maybe pickup four podcasts, a quarter instead of 12 are going to say, Jim’s perspective is leadership’s got to change, and oh, by the way, we’ve got to invest in technology, and thirdly, we have to do some basic things really right because organisations will fail if they don’t do these things, and fourthly, right now, especially for financial institutions, you have to partner with outside providers to give you speed and scale, you can’t build it all internally. Chase is in the UK with a brand new digital bank that they didn’t build, they have partners that help build it for them. It’s been massively successful. Also, what they did is from guest to guest, from article to article, you start to build a new framework for what’s changed. Obviously, the pandemic changed a lot of things but so has digital technology, and so has what people get in other industries from the way they expect things.

I try to take myself out of that picture of how I work with these technologies, and kind of look at what are organizations doing overall. I try to be on the cutting edge of this stuff, but I’m also one known for not being on the bleeding edge of it. I’m going to be more pragmatic but that’s because as you mentioned, the people I interview really help your pragmatic view because you’re not going to get all futurists, you’re going get some people that had to do this stuff. I get in front of people and speak, and I sometimes go, guys realise it’s been three years since I’ve been in a bank as a manager of a banking process. Sometimes you don’t disappoint, you do it exactly the same way that I did back in the day, and it was wrong then.

On the other hand, I don’t want to make it look like, I do often try to make it look like, Oh, this is easy, just do this, well, the messiest reality is, oh, we don’t have money, or we’re small. What you’re trying to do is convince people with enthusiasm that there’s a better way. Your book, I didn’t even put it there, it’s been there for a while since we had our podcast interview, shows that there are new ways to look into things in every realm. I don’t do a lot of the things that you mentioned in your book very well, I’ve got to do them better, I’ve made some changes since you shared the book initially, I no longer look at every email that comes across my desk. We laughed about the fact that I still did that to decide yes or no. I know somebody looking at it before I do, saying, Oh I know this, no, no, no, and they haven’t been wrong yet. Sometimes you have the desire to know why there isn’t a need to know. That’s some of that filtering process.

Ross: You mentioned a moment ago, this wonderful phrase, building a framework, which is your real foundation of knowledge. The reality is when we build a framework, a lot of that is mental as opposed to explicit or something we draw up, but when you say building a framework, what does that mean to you? How do you do that? What is the process of pulling together these pieces to build a framework for you?

Jim: As I think about it, I was thinking about it before this discussion, as you said, a lot of this is mental, you just take it for granted. But number one, is it in the wheelhouse of something that’s going to make a difference in the industry that I speak to? Number two, does the topic get me excited? There’s a lot of stuff that’s happening in the industry, I go, I’ll have Bob carry her or John carry her, I’ll have somebody else write about it, but I’m going send it to them and say, this probably has some meat to it, I just don’t have the energy to dig into it. There are certain sources of information that tend to be almost always killer, I go, everybody knows in my team, by the way, that’s mine. If I don’t say no to it, I don’t want anybody else to cover it. Then the framework really is, if I can be excited about it, I’m going to do a better job with it, I’m going to be able to write better with it. Then I actually expand my universe.

What happens is, let’s say I find a report, I always try to find other insights that are on that topic from maybe a different perspective, or maybe they add some lists that are really key to the illustration. I’m not just doing a book report on research, I’m trying to give my perspective on something that’s already been done, and then bring in some alternative sources that reinforce this thought process or don’t reinforce it, if that’s the case. But the framework is step-by-step, and it’s continually trying to narrow. As you’ve mentioned many times, we aren’t in a situation where I don’t have enough information, it’s a matter of saying, jeez, what do I focus on tomorrow? Again, at the end of the day, does it interest me? Because if it doesn’t interest me, it’s going to show. My producer on my podcast knows immediately how excited I was about the topics within four minutes of talking to the guests.

Now, sometimes, I’ll take a topic, and be like, I cannot believe I’m doing this podcast, and all of a sudden, the guest completely surprises me. I had a guest that talked about low-code programming, I’m going like, I had to research to be able to conduct the interview. When I was done, I’m going, we kept it going, we have the audio recording of it. It went on for another 10 to 15 minutes about how people learn today with low coding. My son is in data analytics, and they’re getting their learning from YouTube as opposed to traditional learning tools. I was just so excited to talk about, jeez, I may still not understand low-code, but I understand the potential and what the power of it is, but also, more importantly, how this is all going to be the way things are done going forward. You go, okay, put that in my reservoir of information, don’t know how many times you’re going to use it, but you sometimes get surprised.

Ross: Yes absolutely. That’s a great example. There’s potential for a lot of change in how organisations work and the scope of what they can do, and how fast they can move. We will need to move faster to keep up.

Jim: That’s the real key, Ross. The other one of these aha moments, let’s say, you start getting more and more podcasts, you realise, it’s all about the speed and scale of what you can do. No longer can bank sit back and say, we’re going to be developing X and we’re going to have a year to develop it, we want to have X by the end of 2023, I said whatever you used to do, take those old plans and put them to the back and say whatever you said you were going to do that you haven’t yet done, you got to cut your lead time by two, three quarters. In other words, it’s got to be done by the end of March.

The only way you’re able to do that is if you have partners that have already gone down this path on your behalf without you knowing it. For any of us, how can we do more, faster? I’m not quite to the point where robots are going to be writing my blogs, I’m going to keep on fighting that one as long as I can because it’s like biting the hand that feeds me. But on the other hand, I’m reading about it. Because I don’t want to be in the backside not knowing about it and say, Oh, jeez, I’m the only human that’s still writing. I don’t know if that’s going to be good or bad in the end.

Ross: I think it will be good, whatever it is you are writing, Jim. There’s a mental building of framework; another way of thinking about that is the mental models, the way in which you think about things. As you’ve expressed, you have the clarity around how you see banking, what is important, how that flows through? My fifth chapter is around synthesis, pulling together the many pieces to be able to build something which is coherent and congruent with this view of the world where you can have valid insights, perspectives, and advice. Is there anything which you do or you think facilitates that process of that broad synthesis, building these coherent mental models that you practise?

Jim: Essentially, it’s the human interaction, not the ones we do on Zoom, it is actually getting to be with people and ask key questions to say, am I missing a consistency or an overall thought model that I’ve not thought of before? For the last 18 months, I’ve been lucky enough to meet a lot of people, one-on-one. It wasn’t one-on-1000s, it wasn’t zero-on-one, which is like talking to a screen, but actually being able to have drinks or have a meal or to be in a small gathering and then meet every single one of people. It’s amazing, the number of aha moments you can have when people have a completely open, unstructured dialogue.

I had a meeting a few weeks ago, we were talking about a new payment product out there that I thought jeez, everybody’s going to be on the cutting edge of this. We were the biggest banks in the country and realised nobody was planning for it. The reason was, they were waiting for the business case to be made up. I’m all of a sudden almost on the floor and go: Why does this not make sense to me? Why is it that while I think that you all are going to be on the cutting edge of doing this, you all of a sudden have also come to be a fast follower? What’s interesting about that is that’s a specific example but it’s the one that opened up doors to completely different examples around financial leaders maybe not doing what they’re saying they’re going to be doing because they have their personal opinions in let’s say, as a business case, I’m not going to move forward, you go, guys, that’s a luxury to have a business case figured out when you’re supposed to be on the cutting edge.

The biggest change over the last three years is when human touch interactions came back. Because you can have open conversations, we have this right here, it’s very structured, you ask me a question, and I give you an answer. It’s like having a panel discussion. What do I want? I want the interruptions, being able to meet with small financial geniuses just to realise these guys are so ahead of the curve, or with large ones and go, they’re saying good things, but they’re not doing things. I ask a couple of questions. I have a couple of triggers that helped me understand, okay, where are you really on the learning curve? They’re gotcha questions. Sometimes I ask them, how long it takes your bank to do X, and they’ll give me the time, then I go, not acceptable. It’s interesting, and it’s good to be continually challenged by the things you don’t know because if you’re continually reading the things you know and you agree with, I’ll be enthusiastic about reinforcing my perspective but it’s when you get those surprises when you get those interactions, you get those smiles that are completely impromptu.

There’s never time, I’m still lucky. Never time I meet with any number of people, there’s not a moment I go, Okay, put that in my little notes and say, I got to dig this deeper. There’s a thought here that has legs. That’s, again, I’m lucky in that my background in the industry has been very long. It’s been in the same industry but I haven’t let that confine me, what it’s done is, it’s opened my eyes to Oh, jeez, they just said something vastly different than the marketplace as a whole. Then it’s, as you know, you meet somebody like that, it gets you excited to go, I want to get on their boat because they’re not living life as expected. I had a saying, years ago I used, which was, embrace change, take risks, and be willing to disrupt yourself. I put that in both the business, the corporate setting, as well as the personal setting. If you live that, you surround yourself with people that may not think like you, but stay inquisitive, the more people you put around you that are inquisitive, jeez, it takes care of a lot of your inquisitiveness yourself as well.

Ross: Yes, that’s fantastic. I’ve actually experienced that as a strong insight. Reflecting exactly what you said, in a way, yes, I know that the conversations are the ones where the real insights come out. But when you say it, as you are building your mental models, as you are thinking about things, it truly is when you have the conversations that strike you with any power as opposed to reading something or engaging in another way. But it’s about attitude. Of course, you need to come to that, with that attitude of what are the gems which I can find in our conversations, and being open to being able to shift and change. It does require the right approach, that attitude to how it is you have your conversations, but I think you’re absolutely right, the conversations are the places where the distillation, where that census happens, where it refines, where you get a better understanding of the world which you’re looking at.

Jim: Also, you have a situation where, if you like insights and new thoughts, you want to surround yourself with people that continually look at things from a different perspective. They’re continually learning. It’s amazing how many people I’ve gotten out of my what I call inner circle because I just feel like at some point, they decided to mail it in. They’re saying the same thing over and over again in the same way. But then you meet somebody that you don’t expect to meet, and you say, I’ve got to get in their circle, I want them in mine, I want to be in theirs. It’s interesting because if it’s the right person, you’re not asking for anything they don’t want as well. It’s one of those mutually beneficial value transfers of energy.

At the end of the day, what keeps you working at this time of night where you are in Australia, or me, working early in the morning to catch some of these calls? It’s the excitement of what you don’t know that may hit you. Those guests, those people, I continually put on my ramp saying, I got to hit them again. I’m going to an event next week with a financial brand, there are going to be 2000 marketers and retail bankers, now these are the best of the best, it’s almost like a rah-rah-rally even though that’s not what it is but these people were born with energy, you cannot be in marketing and simply mail it in. We are not looking at the back-office accountants there, nothing wrong with those, there are a lot of great people in those, but I know pretty much that everybody I’m going to meet next week is going to be just filled with energy. Then I’m going to London two weeks after that for an award ceremony for the best in FinTech awards. I’m going to like, oh, my gosh, this would be another energy transfer with a bunch of people that I know. I can’t get enough of how they learn.

Ross: Yeah, fantastic! That phrase excitement of what you don’t know is a lot of the heart of being able to make this all work.

Jim: It’s also a way to stay young. The reality is, I tell people, I say, you’re going to know I am dead the day you do not see a podcast on a Tuesday, or do not see an article on Monday, or do not see a webinar or some other event during the week because I am lucky enough that what I do, I am very blessed, what I do, I could do it anywhere, at any time. I have had some writings that have gone through the night to make sure to get out by Monday. There are some deadlines I have missed but the reality is when you have something that if your mind stays sharp, I know there are things that can impact that, it’s a blessing to have it, but it’s continually testing what I do.

I look at COVID, I look back and go, anybody who’s tired of what they’re doing, tired of their job, that did not take the COVID time as a way to just test the waters on things you don’t know, shame on you. Because the reality is, you have a lot of free time that nobody knew about; you’re still doing your job but there’s a whole lot of time, you could have a side gig and say, I want to write and research anti-cars, or toys, those toys that spin, whatever it was, you could become the specialist on this and be the best of what that is, that would be something that excited you. If nothing else, there’s no reason to be bored nowadays. Overwhelmed, yes, not bored.

Ross: Fantastic, Jim. Where can people find you and your work?

Jim: It’s interesting. Somebody said to me the other day, they said, Jim, why don’t you give emails or anything like that? Google Jim Marous, you’ll come across my podcasts, you’ll come across the writings I do for The Financial Brand, you’ll come across the research I do for The Digital Bank Report, you’ll also probably pick up a couple of YouTube clips or something else I’ve done. But if you’re in the banking industry, if you’re interested in financial institutions, financial industry, I’m not a bad go-to person. I tell people because nobody takes advantage of it that if you ever reach out to me and say, can you help me find this? I may not know it, but I know who does, and if somebody is trying to solve a problem in retail banking, I can certainly point them in the right direction. I’m not the know, end-all of anything but I am lucky enough to have a circle of friends who all have specialties that are better than mine.

Ross: That’s fantastic. Jim, thank you so much for your time and sharing your insights.

Jim: I appreciate your time also. Thanks, Ross.

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