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Leaders in Lending | Ep. 128

From Big Bank to Community Leader

Neil Stevens, President and CEO at Oconee State Bank, reflects on lessons learned from launching a community bank, and how he has built a positive organizational culture.

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Neil Stevens

Neil Stevens is an accomplished banker, speaker, community leader, brand strategist, and fitness enthusiast. As President & CEO of Oconee State Bank, his visionary perspective inspires growth, drives direction, and helps clear obstacles for team members to achieve their personal and professional goals. Happiest when surrounded by his family, Neil’s passion is to create a positive impact on others through servant leadership.







Oconee State Bank

Oconee State Bank is a locally owned and operated Community Bank in Oconee County, offering a competitive line of products and services. Today, Oconee State Bank has three full-service branches located in Oconee County, Georgia as well as a website which serves as an “Internet Branch.” In December 2004, the H. Mell Wells Operations Center and Rosella E. Hansford Learning Center were dedicated. This facility houses the offices of bank wide support staff including Human Resources, Education Department, Marketing, Retail Administration, IT and Operations, Loan Operations, Finance and the Personal Banking Center. Oconoee State Bank is proud to provide an unparalleled commitment to personalized service, value-added products, and a deep sense of responsibility to the communities it serves.

Key Topics Covered

  1. Leveraging opportunities for banking by being more entrepreneurial (how a focus on the construction industry powered them through the pandemic
  2. Insights into building and maintaining a positive organizational culture
  3. The unique model of community engagement and effective charitable giving in local communities


Our guest connected his love of helping and being around people to his career in banking, and the work he has done for the community is astonishing. 

Neil Stevens, President and CEO at Oconee State Bank, graduated from Mercer University in 1989 with an Accounting degree and a Communications degree. After working as a paramedic through college, he had his eyes set on working in the business administration side of healthcare. 

Yet, his older brother was in the banking space — and strongly encouraged Neil to follow suit. Noticing the banking industry offered so many connections to other industries, Neil took his advice. 34 years later, Neil is still in banking, and he absolutely loves it.

From starting a bank during a time when the economy was on the brink of recession to now, Neil has leaned heavily into his love for helping people. Through the bank’s non-profit foundation, Neil’s podcast, and his book, he has made massive strides to reach and uplift the community. His efforts all begin internally, and his dedication to culture, holding high standards, and building support networks for his employees is remarkable.

Building and maintaining a strong, positive culture

Neil tries to avoid saying the word culture in internal conversations, as he believes culture is an overused word more or less describing the byproduct of their efforts. 

“We are extremely intentional about the process of building a great culture, and that starts with the leadership of the organization,” Neil says. 

As the President and CEO, Neil knows that the term leadership does not start and end with him alone. Supervisors and department heads across the entire organization are held responsible for building, maintaining, and reinforcing the culture. This is quite an important responsibility, as people connect more to other people rather than inanimate objects, such as organizations and position titles.

“If you don't have great leadership across the organization, it's really hard to be intentional about a process that will lead to a great culture. People work for people. People don't leave organizations, they leave people — they leave their manager,” Neil says. 

Neil sees his responsibility as putting the pieces in place to foster the environment for a great culture to grow. Like a plant requires a set temperature range, a particular environment and amount of sunlight, culture requires the same tender and intentional care. 

Neil also views culture as nothing more than the sum of the whole. 

“The group of individuals that are in that company, they make the culture, whether it's a good culture or a bad culture,” Neil says.

One of the biggest red flags to look for is when people explain their organization does not have a culture at all — that typically means the culture is poor. 

Neil also takes notice of the term culture getting negative attention in today’s environment.

“The way we define culture is a very high standard of winning. We want to be the best at what we do. We want a standard of excellence. We don't want to become complacent. We want to continue to grow, to expand, to learn to build a better bank,” Neil says.

Neil believes the recipe for building a great culture is holding employees to a high standard of excellence and providing them with a high level of support.

Systematically maintaining a high standard

Neil explains that he utilizes a concept from author and educator, Stephen Covey, to maintain a high standard: begin with the end in mind. 

Neil believes that engagement metrics are important, and staying on top of them is crucial. 

With the average engagement score for American corporations in the low 30th percentile, Oconee State Bank touts an 84 percent engagement rate — something that has not always been the case but is instead the product of dedicated, intentional efforts.

“Think about a football play. The national average means only about three out of the eleven players have been engaged. I don't know that that play would go very well,” Neil says. “There are some of those who are actively disengaged, which means they're trying to sabotage the play or your company.” 

Neil believes that engagement derives from how connected employees feel.

How can you build that connection? It all begins with leadership. 

Relentless leadership that consistently holds themselves and their employees to a higher standard is key. Identifying employees who are more resistant to coaching is of equal importance.

Building the support network

Neil believes that building a strong support network is one of the most important components of building a positive culture — and it is as simple as a four-step process, made even easier by the acronym LEAD, meaning: 

  • L: Listen and learn
  • E: Empower others
  • A: Accept
  • D: Make a difference 

Neil believes this process hinges heavily upon loving others. He explains leadership should pour into others, equip them, offer affirmation regularly, and develop others. This can be done through intentional listening and communication, selfless recognition, providing flexibility, growing and giving trust, and offering quality compensation. 

Interested in learning more? Listen to our full conversation with Neil, where he takes a deep dive into culture building, his podcast, Make Your Remarkable, his book that began as an internal manual, Leading Life on Life, his foundation, giving back to the community, and more. Listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast player. 


Stay tuned for new episodes every week on the Leaders in Lending Podcast