Excuse Busters, Unicorns and Commitment to Community – a Conversation with Zions Bank

April 26, 2021

Founded in Salt Lake City in 1873, Zions Bank has been a leading financial institution in the Intermountain West and a cornerstone of the Utah community for nearly 150 years. Today, the bank is also a leader in Utah’s drive toward diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), most recently as one of the original signatories of the Utah Compact for Racial Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.

We sat down with Tom Morgan, Executive Vice President of Retail, Business Banking and Omni Channel Banking, and Sui Lang L. Panoke, Senior Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, to hear more about Zions Bank’s enduring commitment to DEI.

Company History
Zions Bank is a division of Zions Bancorporation, which holds eight affiliate banks across the West. With more than $81 billion in total assets, Zions prides itself on its commitment to community support and local decision-making, and its market-leading track record in U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) lending.

“I joined Zions Bank over thirty years ago,” begins Morgan, “and ever since the first day, there has always been a focus on diversity. I can hear in my mind’s ear Zions Bancorporation Chairman and CEO Harris Simmons talking about ‘having everybody’s voice a part of the conversation.’”

Thirty years ago, support for diversity largely meant support for women business owners and a women’s leadership development program that still exists today. “Scott Anderson, President and CEO of Zions Bank, has always been a champion of women. I’ve worked for several women executives who Scott has personally mentored and promoted, and each of them has made me a better leader,” he explains.

Morgan continues, “When people say, ‘Now we need to inject diversity into what we do’ – I can honestly say that at Zions Bank, I’ve never felt that we weren’t. The difference is, today the definition of diversity is broader, our understanding of equity is deeper, and our intentional focus on inclusion is stronger. But that is part of our evolution – not something that makes us a ‘new company’ today. It’s the evolution of what Harris and Scott began decades ago.”

Panoke adds, “As a woman of color and a new employee at Zions Bank, I can totally endorse everything Tom is saying. It’s honestly why I accepted the offer. My job as SVP of DEI is to ‘change hearts and minds,’ and it is extremely difficult to do that without authentic commitment from leadership at the top. At Zions Bank, that commitment is strong and true.”

DEI at Zions Bank
Zions Bancorporation is comprised of eight affiliate banks that operate across 11 western states. Zions Bank is the largest affiliate and both Zions Bank and the Zions Bancorporation are headquartered in Salt Lake City.  At the corporate level, the One Zions DEI Council is comprised of Zions Bancorporation and Zions Bank leadership.

Local DEI programming decisions are made by the Regional Executive Management Committees.  Zions Bank has added Inclusion Champions to each of the Regional Executive Management Committees who are responsible for leading out on the DEI strategy that best aligns with their local cultures and communities.

“At Zions Bank, we grew up with community roots,” explains Morgan. “One of our Guiding Principles in lending is ‘small enough to care; big enough to matter.’ We follow that same logic within our DEI strategy, encouraging local leadership to adopt the strategies that align best with the needs of their local communities rather than dictating from the top.”

Panoke continues, “We also have nine Employee Business Forums, which create a diversity of circles of trust for our employees. Each of the nine Business Forums represents a different group that has historically been underrepresented in our organization such as women, people of color, veterans, and others.”

The structure of Zions Bank’s Employee Business Forums is unique and powerful, she says. “Each forum is led by employees who identify as members of that group.  We also champion allyship so all employees are encouraged to join these forums as allies, especially if they don’t identify as a member of any given group.  There is great value in employees being exposed to a diversity of perspectives and experiences that differ from their own – this is where the learning process begins – exposure,” says Panoke.

Additionally, each Employee Business Forum  is paired with an executive sponsor from the C-suite. “The first step in creating cultures of inclusion is to eliminate ego and social hierarchy, so that everyone feels comfortable participating and sharing. At Zions Bank, I have seen great humility in leadership and a strong willingness to do just that.  Overwhelmingly, leadership here doesn’t see themselves as being above other people – culturally at Zions, our leadership may be ‘set apart,’ because of the role they play when it comes to decision-making, but generally they do not see themselves as being ‘set above’ other employees – the goal here is for everyone, regardless of rank, to feel equally valued. Every employee at Zions Bank is a member of the DEI Team,” she says.

Morgan agrees, “None of us in the C-suite lead an Employee Business Forum, but each of us participates in them. I’m a proud member of the LGBTQIA+ forum. I rarely speak – I just listen – yet I’ve received over a dozen emails thanking me for attending.”

Panoke continues, “It’s that unspoken participation from the C-suite that gives people tacit permission to talk about whatever they need to. It signals that it’s OK and that Zions Bank is a safe place to do so.”

Excuse Busters and Unicorns
Continuing on the topic of authentic commitment from leadership, Panoke acknowledges that a company’s culture of inclusion must be modeled from the top.

“Fortunately for us, our leader, Scott Anderson, is a unicorn,” says Panoke, “His leadership is personable, remarkable and truly infectious. Not only does he set the tone for our culture here at Zions Bank, his leadership influences the culture of the communities we serve in Utah, Idaho and Wyoming, and through his role as Chair-Elect of the American Bankers Association, we are uniquely positioned to have an impact on the entire banking industry.”

Yet Panoke acknowledges that the work is ongoing.  Zions Bank’s demographics reflect the Mountain West – less diverse than companies located in other parts of the country. “But I’m here to say that an organization’s demographics and its ability to create a culture of inclusion, is not mutually exclusive.”

“That’s the excuse-buster!” echoes Tom. “We don’t ‘get a bye’ because we don’t have obvious, visible diversity. We still need to be intentionally inclusive, and work to make everyone feel that they belong, so that we can become more diverse over time.”

Panoke explains that the focus on intentional inclusivity needs to extend into the broader Utah community, especially when it comes to attracting and retaining diverse talent in the state.

“Social networks and support systems help people feel integrated and secure. This is directly related to creating an environment where employees are set up to perform at their best. People need to be included in the community outside of the workplace if they’re going to stay.” She continues, “Our hope is that what we foster internally at Zions Bank – as well as the inclusion work being done by other major Utah employers – will be rolled out into the broader Utah community.”

Access to Credit and Economic Inclusion
In May 2021, Zions Bank will roll out a new Small Business Diversity Lending Program to accelerate access to capital for entrepreneurs from historically disadvantaged backgrounds. The goal is to build economic inclusion by opening opportunity, increasing access, and investing our capital – human, social and financial capital – into new communities.

“Access to capital has historically been a huge barrier to women, people of color, veterans and other underrepresented groups of entrepreneurs,” explains Morgan. “So, we designed a product to target that market with its own set of custom credit criteria. We’ve worked in concert with regulators and the SBA, aligning market needs with credit best practices. It also comes with a courtesy educational and mentoring component, through our Business Resource Centers, to assist entrepreneurs to create and grow successful businesses.”

Panoke notes that the program is unique because it signifies concrete action – not just another conversation – on moving the needle toward economic inclusion.

She continues, “Zions Bank is pioneering here. There’s really nothing at this scale currently on the market, and nothing approved by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency that targets these business owners. We’re optimistic that it’ll not only be successful in the Intermountain West, but that through Scott’s role as Chair-Elect of the ABA, other institutions will notice, be inspired, and hopefully follow.”

The bank is also standing up a supplier diversity program, she notes.

Panoke concludes, “What’s most remarkable to me is that I didn’t even know this new lending program was in development when I accepted this role. It just goes to show that community leadership and attention to diversity, equity and inclusion is deeply ingrained in Zions Bank’s DNA.”

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Zions Bank is a Founding investor in the Economic Development Corporation of Utah, and Tom Morgan serves as EDC Utah’s current Board Chair.