On making your bed and having a future
You know that speech that went viral a few years ago? The admiral or whatsit saying to a group of graduating students “always make your bed” because whatever your day ends up bringing, you will have started by accomplishing something, however small. And that is not nothing.
It’s a very “army” thing, making your bed. Or so many of us think.
All soldiers do it.
Easy to assume it is a discipline thing. And I am sure there is an element of that in there.
But when, as a child, I mentioned it (the bed making thing, not the speech, that was decades into the future) to my retired General grandfather, he told me something very different.
A soldier who makes his bed is a soldier who expects to come back to it. It’s a soldier who expects to live through the day. It’s an affirmation. It’s a claim staked.
It’s dramatic and raw and real.
And sure enough there is a business metaphor in there for all to see.
Sure, when it comes to banking, the odds are really nowhere near the same. And yet there is always something to learn from life’s little stories. Because expecting to survive isn’t always about blood and death. Sometimes it’s about keeping your job.
Not living through fear of rejection and loss each and every day.
At work, “surviving” is going through a period of change with a modicum of belief that you are expected to be part of the future being built around you. That there is a bed for you to make. And you can choose to make it, so to speak.
The time bank pact
A decade ago I persuaded the bank I worked for to enter the “time bank pact”.
I say I persuaded them like it took any effort.
I walked through an open door.
But the fact remains, we did something different.
The pact was that in a particular site, any time-saving process improvement, any revenue-enhancing innovation, any fresh idea that simplified life, solved problems and explored solutions would neither be frowned upon as surplus to requirements before it bore fruit nor would it be taken into consideration for redundancies and efficiency cuts.
We wouldn’t be told we are wasting time, if the day’s work was done anyway, and we wouldn’t be penalised for success if our little innovations worked.
We didn’t go for big things. We just wanted space to make little changes to make our own lives easier.
With hindsight, the hardest thing to credit is not that the bank promised us that, no matter how much time we saved, they wouldn’t try to translate it to FTE cuts. It was that we believed them.
And they honoured it.
One team recorded a 100% reduction in overtime. Another recorded efficiencies equivalent to adding a full working day per FTE to their week.
Another team originated client-focused ideas that delighted and inspired. And made money.
Another saved printing costs and the equivalent of planting a tree each month in terms of the site’s carbon footprint.
It’s worth noting that these were ops teams and some of those successes were easier to measure because their work has highly structured and streamlined anyway. These were teams that knew how to do business process redesign. They were no rookies.
It is equally worth reminding ourselves that these were ops teams and, historically, their innovation, creativity or efficiency-related successes are measured in job cuts and brown envelopes.
The ops muscle memory inside a bank tells you that, if you get creative with the present you may be robbing yourself of a future; if you seek to make things better and more efficient today, it’s not your bed you are making but rather your funeral. Efficiencies have come to mean job cuts and the incentive to contribute to a bank’s transformation at the ops level is sub-zero. When the shape of the future has a hole where your world is, why would you seek to accelerate getting there?
As I said, the amazing thing about the time bank was the bank’s commitment to not translate efficiency to redundancy. And the fact that the team believed them.
Within two quarters of running the experiment, we had all-green client KPIs and the highest employee engagement scores. We had an office buzzing with creativity and productivity.
We had a group of people who felt they were part of building their own future in ways big and small. They were making their bed. And in doing so they learned that the organisation values them. In most cases a split second after the organisation learned to value them. But that is a story for another time.
This is a story about belief. On our part as employees. On our part as employers.
Because in part one, old world workers were often not given the chance to be part of the future. They didn’t have a bed to make, even if they had wanted to.
But this is a story in two parts. And in the second part workers walk into our buildings wondering if the future they are offered is a future they want to be a part of. And that is a whole new ballgame.
The skills gap, the age gap and its moral deficit
For banking, redundancies have long been a cost cutting measure.
In times of plenty, we used to throw money and people at a problem. In lean times, we chopped.
It’s brutal. It’s ugly. It’s life.
But a new age has dawned and we haven’t even noticed.
Jobs are not being cut because of the turn of the wheel. Jobs are being cut because a cycle is closed. A story is over. A new one has began. The thing you did and the knowledge you used to do it with is no longer what the thing needs. For every UX designer and engineer walking in through the bank’s doors, there are teams of ops folks walking out. It is not like for like and that is the point. The world we are redesigning used to be manual. The new world isn’t. The task and the hands that used to do it and the people those hands are attached to are no longer part of the story.
Even if times of plenty come again, people will not be thrown at any problem. That is no longer how things work.
And there is another change.
Because the old world used to be more human-heavy but it was by no means more humane. As you went down a bank’s hierarchy layer by layer you were faced with the brutal fact that Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others. Some people are considered replaceable. Disposable. Unimportant. Low down in the pecking order and the first to be sacrificed at the altars of change when it became apparent that the future will not be like the past.
And some choices had to be made.
And people made them.
People who could not imagine their role and function and value being superseded. For whom people on other floors were a different story, especially people doing a thing that is no longer done the way they know how to do it.
It doesn’t matter what the thing is.
Account maintenance or net asset valuation (NAV) reconciliations.
Delayed interest claim payment investigations or checking whether your listings responsibilities are met as per the asset brochure.
The vast majority of banking isn’t Gordon Gecko territory. It’s adminy and narrow.
Done by people. Humans.
Often hundreds of them. Who did a job for a salary that fed their families and allowed them to be part of moving the economy by buying sandwiches and school supplies and birthday cards and now they are walking out the office door forever while fresh-faced youngsters walk in with bright new skills, oblivious to the carnage (as they should be), vaguely aware of the slimming down that their arrival and skillset represent and deeply sceptical about the stuff on offer. And that is where the building of the future gets interesting.
This is part two of our two-part story
The people brought in to build the new workforce that will help the banks survive look around and think this ain’t good enough.
What do you stand for, ask the youngsters.
What kind of future do you promise me, what kind of workplace? What kind of impact on the world, what kind of vision?
You have brought me here to help, and help I will. But I will not commit, I will not make my bed here, until you prove this is worth my time. And energy. And talent. And creativity.
Where your workforce of old was never given the chance to be a part of the future much as they would have wanted to, this new workforce isn’t sure they want it. And you, banker of old, haven’t necessarily felt how big a change to your way of managing humans that should represent.
As the workers who never had a chance walk out, a workforce that may not give you a chance is walking in and what hangs in the balance?
That entirely depends on what you are playing for. If you are playing for keeps, then facing up to what legacy you have created is inevitable.
Can you retrain all your people?
You have too many.
Besides. Some can’t learn the new skills you need. Some don’t want to.
But did you even try? Did you give them a path to the new future and let competition, skill and luck do its thing? Did you even think for a moment that the future may hold something for them? That if you gave them a chance to be part of it, they would rally?
No. Because you were too busy saving the ship. I get it.
And there was scarcely enough time to get folks with the right skills in, at the last minute, despite the writing being on the wall for a while, retraining and re-skilling was never more than a pipe dream given the time horizons. If you thought of it at all.
New skills, Fresh perspectives were needed. For the future.
Yet here is the rub.
The new skills breeze into a world of old skills and old perspectives that somehow are still here. Because the decision makers are all still here.
Are they doing their thing in their way as if change only happened to other people? Absolutely not.
They are learning, imagining, partaking or occasionally just fighting the change. They definitely know the world is changing, irrespective of how they feel about that. And for the purposes of this argument, how they feel matters little. They imagine themselves into the future, they make their bed, and they plan to come back to it. They work hard, because they want to keep coming back to it.
And that is the point.
Meanwhile your new hires look. And notice. And contemplate.
They do the work.
But in case you had not noticed, none of them are making their beds in the morning.
Not because they don’t believe in the future.
But because they do.
But they don’t believe in you and your chosen future yet. They see you as half-hearted. They see what happened to the last guys. They see that your old world is cynical and pragmatic and the way you seek to leverage their skills and magic is in the same vein.
And they are happy to teach you a thing or two, but if you don’t learn they won’t stay.
And their skills are the least of the lessons they are teaching you.
If you treat them with the same belief in their replaceability as you did their predecessors, you may find yourself learning a sharp, hard lesson in the new shape of the world. I have said it before. The rise of new tech is not the bank’s biggest challenge. The rise of the new techie is. Who believe in things like fairness, kindness, authenticity and creativity. Whose belief makes them good at exactly the kinds of things you are paying them to do even though it is not the thing you think you are paying for.
So here is the rub, in this story of two parts and the need to secure the business has a future:
The future is built by people. Your people. People who work hard and believe.
And although some of those people will change one way or another on the journey, the fact of people building the future remains. What has changed is where the power to choose lies.
Giving people who work hard for you a path into the future used to be a discretionary act of largesse.
Today, giving the people who are building your future a reason to believe in you and your right for a future, is survival.
It’s what making your bed looks like, at the company level.
So make it.
By Leda Glyptis
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption as CEO of 11:FS Foundry.
She is a recovering banker, lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!