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What City National Bank Learned About Leading Through Change

The pandemic created new and urgent financial needs for Americans, and the bank adapted swiftly to support its community.

The passing of the CARES Act quickly launched the financial industry into high gear. Small businesses around the country turned to banks to access these new PPP loans. [SDI Productions / Getty Images]

On March 13, 2020, we sent 85% of our colleagues at City National Bank home and told everyone to work remotely for the next few weeks. Like so many other organizations, we had no idea how long the COVID-19 pandemic would go on. We thought we’d be back to business as usual before long.

Just two weeks later, the federal government passed the CARES Act, with a provision known as the Paycheck Protection Program (or PPP), which set aside funding to help small businesses stay afloat and weather the storm of the pandemic.

And while life slowed down for many Americans, the passing of the CARES Act quickly launched the financial industry into high gear. Small businesses around the country turned to banks to access these new PPP loans. I’m incredibly proud to be a part of a company that did so much to support small businesses during this time — our colleagues across the bank worked around the clock to get business-saving loans to companies that needed them. Through both rounds of the PPP, City National helped clients secure about 26,000 loans totaling nearly $6.2 billion, saving thousands of jobs and keeping many small businesses afloat.

My team jumped into action. We juggled the dual imperatives of developing urgent solutions to facilitate PPP lending and of enhancing our digital capabilities across the board to support our clients’ transitions to remote work. We stepped up our communications with clients and colleagues to ensure they were well informed and supported, while also seeking out ways to step up for our communities that were hurting due to the crisis.

My team’s focus on quickly identifying needs and responding with empathy and agility reflects our commitment to our clients, colleagues and communities — especially during this unprecedented time. No matter what came at us, we always ensured we could prioritize the safety and well-being of our colleagues, while making sure we never lost sight of our clients and communities.

More than a year and a half into our “new normal,” our commitment to our clients, colleagues and communities is stronger than ever. The lessons I learned along the way have fundamentally shifted how I think about leadership in times of crisis and the role of our business as a platform for change. 

Creating new online tools

The funds provided through the PPP were vital for many of the small businesses that are the backbone of our economy. It was critical for City National to get as many of those emergency loans as possible into our clients’ hands — many of their businesses depended on it.

One of the problems we faced, however, was that most of that activity was completely manual for City National, like it was for most banks trying to navigate this entirely new program. Our bankers were working tirelessly around the clock, manually walking clients through the application process and helping them to navigate the government’s online portal. It wasn’t long before we had to ask ourselves: “How can we automate some of what we’re doing here?”

Fortunately, our relationship with Salesforce gave us a framework to quickly and seamlessly create the new tools we needed. My team built two online portals: one for agents applying for referral fees and one for clients applying for loan forgiveness. For the second round of the PPP, which was launched in January 2021, we built an online application system using Salesforce to reduce manual processes and help clients apply faster. Thanks to these efforts, City National funded more than 9,800 second-round PPP loans worth nearly $1.6 billion.

Before the pandemic, I would have thought it impossible to accomplish everything we did with an entirely remote workforce.

Linda Duncombe, City National Bank

It’s worth noting that this was all happening while our team members were working remotely, spread across the country. Before the pandemic, I would have thought it impossible to accomplish everything we did with an entirely remote workforce. But we far exceeded my expectations. I had hundreds of people around the country (and a few in Canada) working together to launch these new tools — and we found ways to make it work. I would never wish those timelines on my team again, but the things they accomplished were truly amazing. I am so proud to lead such an incredible team of individuals who have consistently exhibited unbelievable drive, integrity and ingenuity.

Our PPP innovations and the bank’s overall efforts were a bona fide success, and we’ve gotten a fair amount of press about it since then. For us, the big win was being able to support our clients during such a challenging time.

Business as a platform for change

At City National, we believe a bank can only be as strong as the communities we serve. We believe it’s important to invest in the community and to use your business as a platform for change.

The past year and a half have really underscored the need for societies and companies to do better in their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). The pandemic and the global racial reckoning that was spurred by the murder of George Floyd last year have sparked national conversations about racial equity, institutional racism, and the outsized effects of the pandemic on women and people of color. 

At City National, DEI has been a priority for us since our founding nearly 70 years ago, but we have identified key areas where we can improve the DEI in our culture. As our CEO, Kelly Coffey, likes to say, our commitment to DEI is a movement, not a moment. We’ve made a lot of progress, but this will continue to be a major focus for us. 

My team partnered with our human resources team to launch a new DEI task force last year, and we’re continuing to focus our training for our leaders on how to build high-performing and inclusive teams. The bank launched a new executive mentoring program to nurture the growth of mid-career Black colleagues, and I’ve been honored and excited to take part as a mentor, along with the rest of our executive committee. We have also significantly enhanced diversity across the top levels of our company, and cultivated relationships with 16 new colleges and universities to increase the diversity of our recruits.

I also oversee our philanthropic giving at City National, and we invested $13.2 million in our communities last year into a wide range of worthwhile organizations and causes, many of which benefit communities of color. We made donations and matching gifts of more than $360,000 to the Equal Justice Initiative and the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund to support the fight for racial justice and equality.

Stepping up for our communities is core to who we are as a company. This company has a heartbeat, and has never compromised on its clients, colleagues or communities.

What it means to be a ‘relationship bank’

At City National, we call ourselves a digitally enabled relationship bank. Everything starts and stops with our clients — that’s one of the big reasons why I was attracted to this organization. 

When COVID-19 hit, we saw an 800% increase in the use of our digital channels as clients stayed home. During that tough year, our clients resoundingly told us: “Don’t abandon us!” We responded by being there for them as we always have and understanding the change in needs.  We made sure we had the right digital and online services in place to serve them. 

During that tough year, our clients resoundingly told us: ‘Don’t abandon us!’

Linda duncombe, city national bank

Even while working remotely, my team was able to come together to create client-sustaining resources during a global pandemic. In addition to the tools we built for PPP, we also launched an entirely reimagined mobile app early in the pandemic, to high acclaim from our clients. The app was accessed more than 700,000 times in its first five months. We also launched a redesigned cnb.com in April 2021, transforming our site into an interactive online branch with seamless connectivity to Salesforce and new ways for our clients and future clients to engage with our bankers.

In addition, we enhanced the reach of City National’s content marketing, including implementing strategies that placed our “Insights” content hub in the top five of Google search results for “wealth management.” No other banks were in the top five during this time.

My team also sought out other ways to help clients be more flexible when most of their employees were remote. We were the first issuer in the U.S. to join with the fintech company Extend to launch a virtual Visa commercial credit card solution that generates on-demand virtual cards for simple, secure, contactless payments. The solution allows businesses to issue and send virtual cards to employees, establish spending controls and limits, and access transaction data.

The biggest reason City National has been able to deliver for our clients and communities when it has mattered most is our colleagues’ extraordinary dedication — everybody dug deeper to help out. The turmoil of the past year and a half has been truly unprecedented. But my team, and all of our colleagues at City National, have done what they could to keep supporting our clients through it all.

That dedication has been critical for our clients, and it’s what has allowed us to stay true to our values, even in the most challenging of circumstances. 


Linda Duncombe is executive vice president and chief marketing, product and digital officer of City National Bank. Linda leads a team that is responsible for advancing the company’s brand and digital strategy, articulating its value proposition and supporting business development. Linda oversees marketing, client experience, advertising and communications, as well as digital channels, product development, credit cards and multicultural outreach.

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