Tim Lathe | Crain's San Francisco

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Tim Lathe


First Bank is a privately owned financial institution with $6.1 billion in assets and more than 100 locations in Missouri, Illinois and California. Its parent company, First Banks Inc., is headquartered in St. Louis.

The Mistake:

Not being specific in communications.

A good number of years back, I had a mentor who wound up being president of the bank where I started. I was in a training program and trading federal funds for the bank, so trading currencies. I didn't have the nomenclature down very well and I was checking the price on fed funds out of New York. When the quote was given to me, I said, “OK.” To me, that meant, "OK, I understand.” What I didn't understand is that I had just purchased tens of tens of millions of dollars of federal funds for the company.

I immediately tried to unwind the deal. Ultimately, we were able to do just that. But I felt particularly sensitive about facing up to my mentor. When I told him, he said, “What did you learn?” I said, “I learned to be more specific in my communications and to understand that accuracy matters.” He said, “Then I think we probably got our tuition’s worth from the mistake.”

If I was going to be a strong leader, it wasn't going to be about me anymore.

The Lesson:

What I also learned is, rather than handing out some type of punishment, he was terrific in illustrating to me that's how you learn. You learn by mistakes. You learn by understanding. I really try to employ that in my career and try to inspire and motivate those individuals around me so they can accomplish the best work they've ever accomplished in their careers.

What I saw from my boss was that he was really working hard to develop me. What struck me is that if I was going to be a strong leader, it wasn't going to be about me anymore. It was about those around me. That becomes more true every day as I sit here as CEO. I spend a lot of time trying to bring passion and purpose to my management style so folks around me also feel that sense of passion and purpose — not only for the company, but for clients and, of course, for all the employees around them. I think my best days are when I see my management team really growing those people around them and imbuing them with a sense of purpose.

I think it's important that we as leaders praise those around us and recognize the good, hard work they do. Authentic leaders praise naturally and frequently but, perhaps most importantly, genuinely and with sincerity. I also think it’s important to praise in a public forum when possible.

Also, in workplace communication, there is so much of the what to execute, what to implement, what to say and, frankly, sometimes what to feel. I think what's often missing is the why. Good leaders, strong leaders, have got to explain the why. If you tell people the why, help them understand and believe and make the why their mission as well, they'll run through the proverbial brick wall for you. They want to be listened to and they want authority and responsibility.

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