Titles, corner offices and authority in a disrupted economy
Although I am no stranger to insomnia, I am not usually susceptible to stress, so that night is memorable. Sleep was elusive and the short spells I managed to snatch were filled with angst-ridden dreams.
I was starting the second year of my PhD and had just won a teaching scholarship. The following morning I was going to teach my very first seminar for a course on democracy and democratisation, a comparative politics module for third year undergraduates. I was 24 and a lot was riding on this. My funding. My future. Not letting the London School of Economics down. Not falling short.
Not letting the students down who (in my head) were demanding and sophisticated.
And realising I would be absolutely no use to anyone unless I got some sleep, I comforted myself with the thought that I was older than them. Not by much. But by enough to have completed my own degree and a masters, having done a research job for a year and completed a year of my PhD. I was older and the learning in those years would be my shield and authority justification. It was a quantity and mileage defence.
So I got a bit of sleep.
And walked into the class. And died a little.
Because here was a mature student, a breezy 60 to my 24. Retired naval officer with NATO credentials. Ready and willing to learn what I had to teach him and teaching me in turn that things need not to come from grey beards to be useful.
But also teaching me with gentility and grace that your credentials can’t be relative to how you got them or you won’t last the day. You can’t stand at the head of the class because you have a few years on your students. It has to be about what you did with those years, however many of them there were.
Authority beyond titles and hats
In banking, you always get introduced with your title and grade. Expertise and seniority.
Your chair makes you, as it hooks you to a solid box in a hierarchy that shuffles faces but not degrees of significance. If you don’t lead with your title, it is assumed you don’t have one and therefore what do you know? Because even if you do know, what can you do?
And although there is practical wisdom in this (because you may know, but in a hierarchical world, without authority, you cannot do), there is also madness. Because you can never assume what you know today is enough for tomorrow.
So when I walked into that class ready to teach, I was the only person in the room (but most definitely not the building) who had spent any time understanding the theories of democratisation, the trends in statistical associations between GDP and the stability of the democratic process and the average number of power hand-overs at the end of fully served terms of office it took before you could breathe free and assume a new-born democracy was stable (3, in case you care).
And I had a mature student who had been there for the Suez crisis, actually physically there, in the room.
He was in the listening chair, in that classroom, not the talking chair. But only a fool would silence him for the sake of situational authority. And I am a lot of things in life, many of them deeply irritating. But I am no fool and neither was he. He knew when he had invaluable experience to share. He also knew when the youngsters in the room had things to teach. He was there to learn, he was generous with the knowledge he had and the lectern was just furniture.
Three lessons in humility for banking executives
Lesson one. My one time COO and the best mentor I have ever had (his name is Jim and sadly for banking but luckily for him he retired to a sandy beach) used to insist on reverse mentoring, getting kids out of the back offices and basements and having them teach him stuff they knew. New programmes just installed in his PC, a new policy fresh off the press, how to navigate social media. It didn’t matter. It had to be someone shaking at the size of his office and level of authority having to learn that there is always something you know that’s worth sharing, and the top guy doesn’t know everything.
Be like Jim. Stay teachable. And in doing so stay humble. And in doing so, teach your organisation it is a value to be cherished, because, enter left, lesson two…
Lesson two. We love to talk about disruption but we hate what it does to the wallpaper. Technologies and ideas that are two or three years old laugh at your 30 years experience. Not because it is not valuable but because it is not relevant. Technologies or practices borrowed by other industries don’t care about the dress code or front-loaded audit reviews your industry considers normal. Not because they are not meaningful, but because they are your issue, not theirs.
As you try to learn from digital natives of all ages and from other industries, it pays to enter the conversation with the humility of the learner, despite your title, great big office and tastefully greying temples. It’s hard to stay humble but you can’t learn without it. So try. And use all that hard-earned experience to accelerate, filter, select and weigh. It is still valuable. It’s just not everything.
Lesson three. Your title is bound to your organisation, your experience isn’t. The digital natives’ age is bound to biology, their usefulness isn’t. Knowing everything is an impossibility, learning is a choice. If you want to navigate disruption, accept that the first thing that will really transform is how you relate to your work and the world around you.
It’s heady, it’s scary. It is occasionally overwhelming. It is definitely much more terrifying than a bunch of undergraduates in an overheated London classroom. But I have no sleepless nights any more because back when I was 24, a retired officer sat pen poised ready to learn from me and everyone around him and he taught me everything I needed to know about staying relevant. Shut up a little, listen and learn from everybody. Experience may be how you got the title and corner office. Learning is how you keep them.
By Leda Glyptis
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ new resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption.
Leda is a lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem, inhabiting both start-ups and banks over the years. She is a roaming banker and all-weather geek.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!