As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Kyle Hranicky.
Growing up in Dallas, Texas, as the shy, only child of a high school teacher and sales representative, Kyle Hranicky never imagined he’d go into banking let alone lead a team of more than 4,000 employees. But, that’s where his 26-year career has taken him. Since 2018, as the head of Wells Fargo’s Middle Market Banking division, which provides financial solutions for middle market and government and institutional banking clients, Kyle has guided his team through organizational transformation, brand reputation challenges, and the unique obstacles brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. I know that you are a very busy person. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you grew up?
I grew up in Dallas. My parents were the first in their family to go to college, and had me when they were very young, so I basically grew up with them. My dad was a salesman, and my mom taught school. Her students were diverse and came from all different backgrounds, and I learned about the importance of inclusivity at an early age. Thanks to how active she was in her school, I had the opportunity to meet a lot of people who were different from me.
My parents taught me early that hard work pays off and if you start something, you finish it. They would never let me quit in the middle of something. They also raised me to appreciate and understand the “golden rule,” which is “treat others as you’d want to be treated.” If they saw me doing something other than that, they’d correct me. I take this lesson with me and make sure to give everyone an equal chance and the benefit of the doubt.
My parents’ influence and my own competitive spirt have shaped who I am today, and continue to guide my leadership style and passion for working with my team and our clients every day.
What were your early inspirations that set you off on your particular journey?
When I was studying at The University of Texas at Austin, it was during the time in the late ’80s that a lot of Japanese business owners were doing business in the U.S. I decided to learn how to speak Japanese, and took the opportunity to spend six months in Japan. I lived with a family who didn’t speak English, and I was the only person in the community from America. It was an incredibly unique experience, and one that forced me to get out of my comfort zone — something I encourage people to do whenever they have the chance. It made me realize the world isn’t all about me, or even all about the U.S. It also taught me something that I’ve carried with me throughout my career: it’s okay –necessary, even — to have different perspectives and to do things in different ways.
This gave me a great global perspective, but it didn’t necessarily lead me to banking. When I was younger, I had no idea what I wanted to be and certainly never considered being a banker. In fact, when I was a business school student, I took a class called Money, Banking, and the U.S. Economy. I really didn’t like it and recall thinking at the time that I had figured out what I didn’t want to do with my life. I disliked it so much that when my father’s friend, who was in the financial services industry, told me he thought I’d be a good banker, I completely dismissed it and decided to go into retail after getting my graduate degree.
A couple of years into retail management, I decided it wasn’t the right long-term fit for me. I started networking and reached back out with hat in hand to that same friend. I ended up getting an entry level analyst job with a bank called First Interstate that eventually became part of Wells Fargo. What I loved about this job and what inspired me to continue pursuing a career in banking was helping colleagues and clients achieve their goals. I learned from an eclectic set of individuals as I grew my skill set there. I thought I’d have that job for a couple of years and it would look good on my resume. I never dreamed I would like it as much as I do or make a meaningful career out of it.
One other thing I’d add is that while I can appreciate people who really take charge of their careers in terms of moving up the ladder, I often took the opposite route. I focused on being outstanding in the job at hand, not on where it might get me in the future or over-managing my career. This approach worked for me, and I often advise young bankers that the best way to move up and gain more responsibility is to do a great job with the task at hand.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
This one’s not so funny, but I remember it well. We’ve all heard the term, “don’t judge a book by its cover,” but I did exactly that when I first started out in a leadership role. It’s easy to make personnel decisions based on first impressions and over-promote people too quickly because of that. I’ve learned that waiting and getting to see people in action is really important, and it’s even more important to see how the team responds to someone. For example, in some cases, you might have people who don’t make a good first impression on you, but after time you realize they’re a hard worker who has a positive impact, and people react to them well because they’re authentic. So, my take away was to get to know people over time, see how my team reacts to them, if they respect them, and if the team goes to bat for them. Sometimes the best way to learn is simply by staying quiet, and observing what is happening around you.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There have been different people at different points in my career who helped and inspired me. I recall back in middle school I had a sponsor and teacher who took me to leadership camps in the summer. As an only child and a shy kid, it forced me to interact with a variety of people, which really influenced me as far as being around all different types of people and learning from them. Being exposed to leadership roles at a young age helped me build confidence.
The longer I’ve been a leader, the more grateful I am for the people I work with. I often feel my employees are as influential on me as my peers or other leaders. It’s easy to gravitate toward people who are similar to you because you have a lot in common. But, I’m a big believer in getting different perspectives, and I try to sponsor people who have different backgrounds from me. I also think that if you talk to people enough, you can always find some sort of connection with them and you can use that connection to build relationships with clients and employees.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
When I started leading this team, my charge was to take three separate, market-leading businesses and bring them together. These organizations had different leaders, technology, processes, strengths and weaknesses. Even though I understood that when I started, it was more difficult than I thought it would be to get people to understand the need to make such significant changes and buy into the work to make it all happen. Making decisions with my direct reports was a collaborative process that helped us work through the changes that would directly impact us, and prepare to support the many other people across our teams who would also be affected by the changes. It was tough but good work.
After my own team started our transformation, Wells Fargo subsequently embarked on a multiyear effort to transform and build a simpler and more effective company. This meant the work my team and I had underway to further align the business to our clients became a bit more complex, and I realized it would ultimately require further downsizing. This was especially difficult to know we would have to make decisions that impacted the livelihood of so many people. And unbeknownst to me or anyone, there was a pandemic lurking around the corner.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Integrity is everything, and I was committed to doing the best I could to lead with it every day. I was hired to do a difficult but meaningful job. People depended on me to lead through change, and I derive a lot of satisfaction from seeing employees succeed, grow in their careers, and achieve their personal goals. Despite our broader reputational challenges, I focused on the fact that people want to understand how they are making a difference in what we do, and they want to feel appreciated.
When people are going through significant change, it’s hard to make them feel appreciated because they’re concerned about their jobs. We focused on getting through that, and now we’re hopefully showing them that we’re growing our business, investing in them and our clients by improving our technology, making our processes easier, and making their jobs easier. Once we have that environment where there is growth in the business and we’ve removed obstacles, they can focus on doing what they love, which is building and fostering relationships with their clients.
That brings me to the other piece that drove me to continue: our clients. As a financial services company, we have a huge responsibility to help our clients succeed. They rely on us for services and products that help them with their day-to-day business. These clients range from farmers to manufacturers to local universities, all key drivers of the economy. They call on us when they have opportunities, like acquisitions or expansions. They look to us for our expertise to help them navigate challenges. Our clients need us to be here for them 100% every single day, and that kept me going in a big way.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
The changes we’ve put in place are part of a multiyear effort. Last year, we had some pretty severe headwinds. It would have been easy to give up, but my leadership team and I saw an opportunity to accelerate change.
We took some punches, as you do in leadership, we grew thicker skin and didn’t give up because we knew if we could get through it, employees and clients would be better off. We took stock of what was good about our business and spent time laying out what makes us who we are, and what gives us the strong market share we have. We kept that front and center. At the same time, we knew there were things we needed to improve — become more efficient, reduce the number of processes, work more collaboratively together, make it easier to do business with us. It was critical that the changes we made were in support of those areas.
2020 was the hardest year of my career. Looking back, though, we mostly made the right decisions. There are still some bumps in the road, but we’re in a much better place today. We are focused on growing the business, developing our people, and doing exciting things for our clients.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We have the ability to truly understand the needs of middle market companies given the scope of products, services and market intelligence we deliver at scale. Most middle market companies aspire for growth and we are the bank that can grow with them.
An example of this is our relationship with Zoom. We’ve been their commercial bank from day one and played an important role in their IPO. You can imagine their growth over the years with the emergence of video conferencing and their explosive growth with the pandemic. I’m really proud of the way our technology bankers have cared for the team at Zoom and stepped up their efforts to support the growth brought on by the pandemic, which changed the way we communicate worldwide.
Our employees thrive on helping businesses like Zoom succeed. I’ve always loved this part of banking — building relationships and delivering solutions in times of need. Regardless of the struggles our company has faced over the years, there is one thing that always comes through when I talk to our employees, and that is the satisfaction they get from supporting their clients through every day business and through all kinds of unexpected events, including a pandemic.
I believe we have the best people in the business, many of whom have decades of experience. Some are company veterans who have a deep understanding about our business and clients, and others are newer employees who joined us from competitors and bring in fresh ideas that help us grow. All of our employees are incredibly dedicated to our clients and to supporting each other.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
- We are in the relationship business. It’s imperative that you keep clients in mind when making decisions.
- Having the right talent is key. You have to spend time developing people and helping them see your vision and the path to that vision.
- Banking is a marathon and not a sprint. Yes, we have a lot of sprints, but we need to survive and run the marathon.
- Have thick skin and learn how to survive different environments, leaders, bosses, and points of view.
- Be resilient. It will get you through the challenging times.
- Earn respect by being consistent in how you treat people — and that includes everyone at all levels in your company from the CEO to your peers to your employees.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
On a day-to-day basis, I have the great fortune of helping people achieve success at work. I try to help as many people as I can and do this as part of my everyday approach to leading. For example, while we were making changes to bring our businesses together, I brought in a mix of junior-level leaders and individual contributors to talk with my senior leadership team frequently through the change in order to get a better understanding of the ideas and challenges at the frontline. It was not only a great way to gather different perspectives, but it also created opportunities for more junior talent to work with senior leaders and develop their strategic thinking skills. I hope it also helped them feel like they contributed in a meaningful way to the changes we made to the organization.
I also try to bring goodness to the world around me by supporting the balance between work and home, and making sure my team feels looked after and supported as individuals. I try to be a good example of that by working hard, but also using my time off and encouraging my employees to do the same.
When my children were younger, I was able to volunteer to help with their sports teams thanks to my managers who understood and supported work/life balance. That ability to be present for my children is something that has stuck with me, and motivates me to encourage others to get involved in their children’s lives, their communities, or whatever activity helps them balance their work life with their personal life.
And lastly, like many of us, I have interests outside of work that involve volunteer work and supporting charities and organizations that have special meaning to my family.
Wonderful. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- Change will be harder than you anticipate. As a leader, you know change will be hard, but brace yourself for the unforeseen. I find that most people are afraid of change and naturally resist it. I was asked to bring three businesses together and help them operate in a way that was more efficient and effective for clients and employees. There is always collateral impact from decisions you make and other areas are affected in ways you couldn’t have imagined or navigated. It’s critical to be nimble, keep employees and clients at the forefront of your decisions, and be broad in your thinking.
- Have the courage to make hard decisions. Lean on your people and empower them to lead, but ultimately be ready to make necessary changes to the business others are reluctant to do. We’ve had to make a lot of significant changes in our organization over the past year. Many of them affected employees, and not always in positive ways. It was very difficult to make decisions that I knew would affect people, but knowing it would help our clients and company in the long-term gave me the courage do it. Evaluate the risks and be okay to fail, as long as you learn from your mistakes.
- Expect the unexpected. The obvious here is the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic which came about in the midst of some already complex changes we had embarked on. We could have easily put everything on hold and picked up again when we knew things were more certain. Instead, we kept moving forward in an accelerated and calculated way to ensure we were prepared to serve clients through the pandemic and be strong on the other side of it.
- It’s lonely at the top. This is something I heard in the years before I took on leadership roles, but until you’re in it, it’s hard to fully understand. Take the past year, for example. I made decisions about my organization that I knew would affect people. There weren’t many people I could talk to about what was going on, and that can feel isolating at times. I think it’s important to have a support system that you can trust and reach out to when you could use a friend.
- Your team is more resilient than you may think. I worried a lot about our team and how the changes we were making would impact them, their livelihood, and their productivity. The pandemic added even more worry. But, leave it to my team to prove me wrong. I’ve never been more impressed — and grateful — than I can say for their professionalism and the way they stepped up to continue caring for clients and each other.
Now that you have gained this experience and knowledge, has it affected or changed your personal leadership philosophy and style? How have these changes affected your company?
I’m a big believer in different perspectives, so one thing that my experience has taught me is to be open to new ways of doing things. For example, our company is taking a much more data- and metrics-driven approach as well as a process driven approach than we have in the past. That is something that has helped me as we evolve our business routines and become more efficient.
This series is called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me”. This has the implicit assumption that had you known something, you might have acted differently. But from your current vantage point, do you feel that knowing alone would have been enough, or do you feel that ultimately you can only learn from experience? I think that learning from mistakes is the best way, perhaps the only way, to truly absorb and integrate abstract information. What do you think about this idea? Can you explain?
I think it’s a little of both. For example, had I known how strong the headwinds were going to be in 2020, I might not have necessarily changed the decisions I made, but I would have braced myself more. It was without question the hardest year of my career so far. While I’ve had plenty of challenging experiences, I don’t think they really gave me the knowledge or perspective to manage through the unique challenges 2020 brought about.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
We are at a turning point for diversity, equity, and inclusion. Inclusivity and seeing the world from a perspective different from my own were a big part of my life experiences and helped make me the person I am today. So, if I could start a movement, it would be one that pushes people out of their comfort zones, and helps them see there are a lot of different people, perspectives, ideas and ways of doing things, and how beneficial this can be for personal and professional growth.
How can our readers further follow your work online?