Since he was a just a teenager, people close to Amer Kamal have been making big bets on his potential – and he’s been proving them right all along.
Amer’s unpredictable journey to vice president and head of mobile banking at U.S. Bank started as a 14-year-old growing up as a Palestinian in East Jerusalem when he was selected by his principal to apply for a government program that invited him to attend a prestigious summer camp in the United States.
The camp, called Seeds of Peace, had been founded in Maine five years earlier with of a mission to bolster long term peace prospects in the volatile Middle East. After the camp concluded, Amer was picked to help film a documentary about his return to Jerusalem.
The film, called Peace of Mind, came out in 1999 and received several positive reviews and awards from major papers including the New York Times and part of it was shown on the TV show Nightline.
The Seeds of Peace experience gave Amer, now 34, a perspective that helps him even in his job today.
"You’re able to go beyond and listen to people and not just put on your own judgments," he said. "It allows me to build compassion to others’ story, and see where they’re coming from."
Amer sat down for a Q&A to talk about mobile banking, his background and his appreciation for his professional mentors.
Remote control for the bank
Q. What do you do as head of mobile banking?
AMER: I lead the mobile channel by helping define the strategy and path for where we take U.S. Bank mobile and how we execute that experience.
Q. How do you do that?
AMER: Some of it is applying the enterprise strategy to mobile. Understanding your customer is another important part. I read every comment our customers write on our app stores. I also listen to our bankers and have stayed very close to tech and what’s happening in Silicon Valley and other places around the world, and then try to think about what it means for U.S. Bank.
Q. What do customers say about U.S. Bank's mobile business?
AMER: Our customers have high expectations of us. It’s less about being measured against other banks and more about them demanding a high level experience from U.S. Bank. They want from us what they get from Facebook or Uber or Apple.
Q. How excited are you about where the next year is headed for mobile banking?
AMER: I'm very excited. There has been unconditional support from U.S. Bank for us to achieve leadership in this space, using mobile as the remote control of the bank.
Q. What do you mean, remote control of the bank?
AMER: It's your ATM. You access your branch using your phone. You pay for things. You’re connected to our contact center and we don’t have to authenticate you three times when you call because you use your mobile which we already know you from. When you walk into the branch, for example, we should know you and we should greet you by name. This is the vision that I’ve set for mobile, as well, and what we’ll be executing towards in the near future.
Seeds of Peace to Minnesota
Q. How did you get into the mobile banking business?
AMER: I worked for mobile phone company Qtel [now called Ooredeoo Group] based in Qatar. I was employee 35 and they were building a mobile portfolio from the ground up. My boss at the time was Canadian and she had helped create a mobile banking system in Kenya, where about 75 percent of the gross domestic product is stored on devices. I realized then I wanted to learn more and immerse myself into the mobile space.
Q. Why did you move to Minnesota?
AMER: My wife is from Minnesota. We met in Jerusalem. We lived there a couple of years. In 2011, I started to apply for jobs here, but most people wanted to meet me face to face, so we decided to make the bold move and move to Minnesota without a job. We were pregnant too, and moved in to my in-laws basement in Apple Valley.
Q. You joined U.S. Bank in 2011 and became a senior product manager. Why did you pick U.S. Bank when you could have pursued one of the many multi-national companies based in the Twin Cities?
AMER: What excited me about U.S. Bank was the journey that we were on. We were building our internet and mobile, and our goal is to be great. And that really interested me.
Q. I understand Seeds of Peace is still operating in Maine and it has more than 5,000 graduates from over the years. From your perspective, what's the status of peace in the Middle East today?
AMER: It's frozen in time and it's unfortunate because both sides turned their faces away from the other. In the last year violence has got worse in the region. Probably one of the reasons that I moved here was seeing the hopes of peace in the late 1990s and then seeing hate emerge again. It was something that I didn’t want to live in. The region needs strong leaders who are willing to go stand and shake the hand of the other side. There is some hope. Sometimes people forget what the meaning of war is. It’s not a heart attack or a cancer, it hurts like a toothache. That’s how the peace process is, up and down.
"Supporting light" of career path
Q. You’ve mentioned that you had a couple of mentors at U.S. Bank, Gareth Gaston (Executive Vice President, Omnichannel) and Jeannie Fichtel (Executive Vice President, Enterprise Education, Talent Development & Recognition). How have they influenced you?
AMER: One of the best experiences of U.S. Bank is our mentorship program. I lucked out. I started with Jeannie in 2012, as part of the bank's Dynamic Dozen program. [The Dynamic Dozen is a group of millennials chosen by the company’s senior leaders to provide perspectives on how to make U.S. Bank a bank of choice for customers and employees in the same age group.] It was beneficial to have someone you can open up to without being judged. I can sit with either mentor and they help me set my goals.
Q. Why did you pick Jeannie in the beginning?
AMER: I wanted a woman to mentor me and I always think of women as compassionate leaders. I wanted to build in some more compassion in my leadership. The digital world is tough, it’s fast, and I wanted to better relate to people.
Says Fichtel, "Amer is one of the most driven emerging leaders I have ever met. When we first connected, I focused him on taking a deep breath, reminding him that stepping back and allowing his team to push forward with his guidance (not his constant input) was critical for his long term success. Being a quick study, he took the feedback and made changes to get a different result. He's one of my favorite people and I've enjoyed helping him own his future here. His passion for peace is an inspiration."
Q. Why did you like Gareth?
AMER: Gareth is an inspiration to me. He is my Tom Brady. He helped me improve my leadership skills, challenged me in digital and encouraged me to improve myself. He also helped me decide where I need to go to be able to take command of my career. He’s been the supporting light that helped me find the path that I need to find and he encouraged me to go on it. Gareth really challenged me to take out the magic that’s inside of me and to polish it. I went back and sought my executive MBA because of that mentorship. Both Gareth and Jeannie helped me elevate myself to be a better person and really understand what it means to be a strong leader.
Says Gaston, "It's always a pleasure to mentor someone who wants to better themselves – and Amer's drive comes from both the desire to deliver the best solutions for our customers and to improve the way he does that to ensure he brings people with him. His commitment to self-improvement is an example to us all."
Q. What does leadership mean to you?
AMER: It’s the ability to set a vision and align your people towards it. The important piece is for your team to believe in that vision and then build the path to execute it.
Sam Black is a Minneapolis-based member of U.S. Bank's corporate communications team.