by GSBC President Michael L Stevens

GSBC’s rising third-year students dedicate significant time before their final session on campus exploring and addressing an opportunity or challenge their institution is facing by completing their Strategic Topic Project. By doing so, GSBC students are positioning community banks for the future. This year, the three most popular project categories are human capital/culture, lending and technology.

Human Capital & Culture

GSBC students are learning that community banks have a lot of succession planning to do. This is a positive indicator that awareness of this important work is growing. There needs to be a better outcome than selling the bank or hiring leaders who are unprepared for their new role. This exact need was the inspiration behind GSBC’s Executive Development Institute for Community Bankers® in 2014. GSBC offers a solution for preparing future leadership for far less than hiring a search firm!

There is also an emphasis on different aspects of employee training in these projects. What makes this interesting is that the projects tend to focus on a training gap coming from the pandemic and people being disconnected from one another. Related to this issue, there are numerous projects focused on culture. The disruptive work environment has taken its toll on culture or slowed the integration of culture post-merger.


The lending project topics range from improving underwriting processes to enhancing business development. Over the last two years, we have seen an increase in the number of banks wanting to establish Small Business Administration (SBA) lending programs. You can’t help but wonder if this is the lingering effect of the banks’ Paycheck Protection Program experience but, nonetheless, the SBA is an excellent source of risk mitigation. The compliance requirements are not for the inexperienced!


The industry’s approach and attitude about technology is interesting. Some banks are trying to assess whether it is a threat or an opportunity. This dilemma could exist for some because of the unique aspect of their business model or their market. Others may need more time to accept a changing market and customer expectations.

Additionally, the evolution of technology terminology is something that stands out. Most project authors refer to their bank’s technology strategy as “FinTech” while others broadly refer to it as a “digital banking strategy.” Some are business-line specific, referring to an “online mortgage branch.” There is one pushing the edge with “robotic process automation maturity model” (refer to your favorite search engine). Of course, there is the plain language truth that is common in community banking with one student referring to his technology journey as “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly…”

Emerging & Dropped Topics

My last two observations from this year’s Strategic Topic Projects are the emerging and dropped topics. Two people are exploring Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) [Source:]. A project researching ESG is a first at GSBC, but likely not the last; early thinking in this area for community banks will be beneficial.

Last year, we had several projects focused on mergers and acquisitions. It seems like unrealized losses have pretty much shut down that activity for the time being.

What it all Means

GSBC students are leading the way in their institutions. From addressing issues holding their banks back to finding opportunities to move the bank forward, these students are not future leaders, they are today’s leaders. They will continue to work with their colleagues, conduct external research and take calculated risks – all with the goal to change, innovate and create.