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February 15, 2024

The Path to Purpose-Driven Leadership: Interview with WaFd CEO Brent Beardall

You are sure to be inspired, both personally and professionally, by our 15th episode of the Banking on Innovation podcast  Our guest is Brent Beardall, the exceptional CEO of $22 billion WaFd Bank. Brent shares his perspectives on life, leadership, and banking after surviving a near-fatal plane crash. While the tragic events are etched in his memory, the accident seems to have inspired Brent to a greater purpose. His comments are powerful and uplifting. I hope you will be left with the same sense of hope and optimism that I experienced as Brent describes his journey.

Appreciating Each Day

On January 2, 2023, Brent was seated in the cockpit of a small airplane in Provo, Utah on his way to attend the celebrated Rose Bowl game in Pasadena, Calif. The airplane barely managed to climb 30 feet before suddenly taking a nosedive, leaving 30 yards of wreckage from the extreme impact. Tragically, the pilot, Nathan Ricks, was killed on impact. In the adjacent seat, Brent somehow emerged alive, but with critical injuries, including fractures and deep lacerations.

“I’m happy to debate with anyone that I am the luckiest man alive. I’m so grateful,” Brent shares at the outset of our conversation. Brent shares how his improbable odds for survival and extensive injuries instilled in him a deep sense of gratitude and the gift of being present: “What’s changed for me is an appreciation for life,” he says. “I’ve always had a zest for life, but now I appreciate every single day.”

Cultivating a Culture with People Who Care

Remarkably, Brent returned to work full time in March 2023. Since the crash and returning to the CEO role full time, Brent says his leadership approach has focused more on the people and culture within WaFd Bank: “The most important thing any CEO can do is be the chief caretaker of your culture,” he says.

“Your culture is how you live your life,” Brent adds. “Are you surrounded with people who care?” That is culture — caring about integrity, clients’ financial well-being, and making a difference. Brent says he tries to practice this, celebrating and providing opportunities for WaFd’s culture to shine and grow.

Creating Raving Fans

Brent is an empathic leader who sets a high bar for the experience WaFd delivers for its customers. “At the end of the day, we have to create raving fans. If not, we’ve got a problem,” Brent says. He highlights WaFd’s impressive journey from having a “not bad” Net Promoter Score (NPS) of 17 just five years ago to its current all-time high NPS score of 57. “It’s the incremental, on-the-edges technology [steps] that can differentiate you.”

Navigating Industry Headwinds

Brent reflects on the banking industry’s turbulent times earlier this year (timed perfectly when he returned to the office in March 2023), when missteps by regulators — for example, initially not guaranteeing all deposits at failed Silicon Valley Bank — sparked fear, runs on the bank, and liquidity issues, even causing the failure of otherwise solvent banks like First Republic.

Thankfully, stability has returned, he comments. “I think the state of banking in the U.S. is incredibly strong,” Brent notes, but he cautions that banks aren’t immune from economic shifts. The real “tipping point” is around technology, he adds, and stresses the importance for banks to keep pace with the “Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft-like experiences” consumers now demand.

Envisioning Client Experiences Customers Will Love

Brent recognized five years ago that WaFd needed to embrace technology to compete with larger banks. He raised his plan to the supportive board of directors, who not only backed him, but told him to “Aim higher!”

Since then Brent has been leading WaFd in becoming a “digital-first bank — not a digital-only bank” by 2025. WaFd intends to keep customer relationships at the core while better leveraging customer data to anticipate their needs — providing predictive, personalized recommendations and services. Through this approach, Brent envisions banking where customers feel a deep sense of trust and support, saying “‘I know my bank has my back; my bank is in my corner.’” WaFd refers to this as “making banking simple, reliable and fast” through technology.

Innovation Driven Banking

Brent says his goal is to inspire “Wow!” reactions from customers by implementing new ideas in 60 days or less. He believes this “cool factor,” combined with having the fastest website in banking, sets the bank apart and attracts deposits. In doing so, Brent encourages a willingness to accept failure. “If you’re not failing, you’re not taking enough risk. So fail small, fail quickly.”

Watch the whole podcast here

Serving Customers Holistically

Summing up consumer expectations, Brent says: “I think customers will expect a one-stop seamless financial experience where they can easily pay bills when, where, and how they want.”

“If we give them the tools to utilize their money, make smart decisions, and have confidence in their bank,” he summarizes, “they’ll reward us with more deposits.”

Brent Beardall is an inspiration to so many leaders in banking, and across all industries, and I appreciate his willingness and generosity in sharing his experiences and perspectives for the Banking on Innovation podcast.

How can you listen to the podcast?
Please tune in and join me and my guests on this journey.

You can access new podcast episodes here: SpotifyApple, and Google.

Connect with podcast host Jody Bhagat on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/digitalbusinessgrower


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Jody Bhagat, President of Americas, Personetics

Jody Bhagat

President of Americas, Personetics

Jody brings deep operating experience in financial services – managing direct channels, launching digital ventures, and leading digital transformation programs. He was previously a Partner at McKinsey & Company, where he helped financial institutions define and execute digital transformation programs to drive customer growth and operating efficiency. Jody also served in senior digital operating roles at U.S. Bank, Wells Fargo, and Providian. In these positions, he led digital sales and service functions and direct to consumer businesses to deliver organic growth and enhanced customer experience. Jody has an MBA from Northwestern University and a BS in Computer Engineering from The University of Michigan.

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