09/29/2016 06:00 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Listen to Frank Zappa.


I remember a holiday staff party one Saturday night, to which we invited several of our employees' spouses, many of whom happened to work for our Big Bank competitors. At one point our guests started laughing at the way our people were interacting, their dress, their demeanour. "You would never see something like this where we are," one told me. "They'd never even get through the cafeteria. Only five years ago there was a woman who had an interesting job, if interesting means hard-to-believe. If you were having coffee or lunch and took your blazer off in the cafeteria, she'd tap you on the shoulder like a gruff old teacher and tell you to put your jacket back on."

He wasn't talking about the 1950s, but more than half a century later.

Obviously, that's not the kind of policy that would even be discussed, much less implemented, at Tangerine, but it carries important lessons. First of all, being different affects every part of the business, cafeteria included. Second, if you're going to look and behave differently, you have to think differently.

It would be easy here to talk about Steve Jobs and his "Think Different" motto, but someone already wrote that book so we'll refer to another kind of creative thinker, Frank Zappa. Although Zappa and his 1970s rock band The Mothers of Invention spilled a lot of controversial ink in newspapers over their careers, they built legions of fans based on their musical creativity and Zappa's virtuoso genius. Zappa may have had children named Dweezil and Moon Unit, but he's also the guy who recorded albums of his own compositions with the London Symphony Orchestra. So when Zappa wrote, "Without deviations from the norm, progress isn't possible," I chose to listen.

This philosophy changed the way we plotted strategy and helped create a different working model. We saw that we couldn't take on the Big Five banks directly and win: they'd tap us on the shoulder and the blazer would have to come back on. We weren't going to beat the established banks at their game, on their turf, using their weapons.

We had to change how the rules were written; the battleground and the weapons would then change as well. We took the idea one step further. Our fight was about something much bigger. We were customer advocates. We were fighting for what we thought was in the best interest of Canadians, and we hoped to inspire Canadians to take action. To show their appreciation for us, or frustration with the status quo, and become our customers, our advocates, and of course bring their hard-earned savings into our strong, trusted arms.

By repeatedly opening that door to Canadians, we've let the majority be heard. Today, there is a clear demand for what most consumers need and want, not necessarily what the banks want. Isn't that what service is all about?

In our hearts people see the world ideally, how we want to see it changed. We can afford to be idealistic there. If you want to transform you can't just improve on what already exists. You need to have a vision of how you want the world to be and find ways to make it happen. In our minds we know that change comes slowly, with a great deal of preparation. Setting winning conditions is as much mental as technical, and it is based in reality. You need the right mindset in every one of your employees going forward--like Total Football.

There is a pretty satisfying trajectory to the Total Football adventure: any serious soccer coach makes sure all the skills are learned by everyone, and any player can swap roles in an instant with another. I wouldn't be surprised if that same coach is telling them to listen to Frank Zappa too.