Is the song playing in your head yet? Under pressure… pam pam pam pam papapapam…
That’s not where I am going with this piece, but if I am going to have Bowie and Mercury playing in my head as I write, I thought I’d share the joy.
Where I am going with this is that humans and metals show their mettle under pressure. And pressure is the one thing we’ve had loads of courtesy of COVID and a looming financial crisis.
This has been bloody hard.
For the people who needed to go out to work. For the people stuck at home.
For the people unable to say goodbye to loved ones as they died in quarantine. For the sick. For the dying. For the healthy.
It has also been hard in ways less terminal and yet traumatic.
For the people being fired.
For the people being furloughed.
For those not getting fired, raked with survivors’ guilt.
For (some of) those making the decisions and trying to navigate a path through the unknown.
Some of them.
Because metals and humans show their mettle under pressure and the reality is COVID has made everyone more… themselves.
I have seen people offer to take a bigger salary sacrifice to spare their colleagues.
I have seen people lose sleep to save other folks’ jobs.
I have seen people take projects they don’t want to make “more room on the boat” for others.
I have seen people I knew were good through and through shine like the little suns that they are: life-affirming, full of warmth and light.
And I have seen people retreat into self-absorbed cowardice.
I have seen people refuse to tackle the hard questions. Instead they take shortcuts and look after number one.
I have seen people become petty and short-sighted in a desperate attempt to not make hard decisions. To not test their own mettle. To not stand up to be counted when doing so is hard and risky.
The saddest thing about cowardice, however, is that, long term, it leads to lose-lose decisions.
What does that look like?
If you are a challenger, it may look like cutting jobs and getting heat because the jobs you cut suggest that, perhaps, you consider, say, diversity and inclusion a “nice to have” not a necessity. There is no right answer to that.
Because yes you have just said this is not business critical through the act of the redundancy itself, having admitted first, in the act of hiring, that it wasn’t effortlessly happening (the neos suffering from the industry afflictions of the incumbents proving, in bitter irony, that some things are not that easy to solve.) And, while you are trying to explain business expediency in terms that sound spookily Wall Street, you announce that you are slapping a fee on all cash withdrawals above a minuscule threshold (yes, Monzo, I am looking at you but I am also looking at all the others) because the folks using this service “don’t use us as their primary bank” and it feels fair that they should pay for the service.
Does it? Because what I am seeing is an avoidance of the main question which is “does our business model hold water”.
And it doesn’t.
And we knew it didn’t.
The challengers haven’t worked out how to make money yet. Not how to make it differently to the incumbents. Not how to make enough of it (despite their lower running costs and less predatory fee structures). They have survived on high valuations and even higher hopes. Hype and VC cash while losing money hand over fist as they grow.
And now the push has come to shove, rather than asking the hard questions, we are trying to act like all this is normal.
There is no normal.
This is uncharted territory but if you see the emperor is naked, you have a choice to make: Tell or be silent. Act or be complicit.
And I hear you grumble: why should it be you, asking the “what the hell are we doing” question about your shop when none of your direct competitors are and nobody seems to be asking them to?
Because it is the right thing to do.
Because the question is staring you in the face and no amount of wishful thinking will make it go away.
Because you need to answer it, in order to move forward.
Because you were meant to be different and now is the time to prove it. To be different. Not just look different.
It’s not a new challenge. But it is a challenge that cannot be ignored any more.
And the incumbents?
A little bit of “same old”, I’m afraid.
On the aftermath of COVID, bankers are busily revising “projects committed”, revisiting offshoring strategies, delaying some programmes and celebrating small victories and initiatives without risk or deliverables (or should I say “without risk of deliverables”), desperately looking for a free spot to bury their head in the sand alongside their colleagues and competitors.
They are not alone and therefore it doesn’t feel like a failure. If everyone does it, it’s ok.
Nobody is talking about how we need new risk matrices.
Nobody is talking about how our innovation departments should stop playing with drones and widgets and start re-plumbing the bank infrastructure.
Nobody is talking about how our systems failed and they will fail again.
And if nobody talks about it, why should I?
Because it is the right thing to do.
Right by your clients. Your employees. And your conscience.
Right for the future.
These are not new challenges. But they are challenges that can’t be ignored anymore.
I know what you are thinking.
It is normal to hesitate.
It is normal to balk when faced with the hard decisions.
It is normal and human to be cowardly, to choose the easier path, to go with the flow and the flock.
It is normal. But it is not ok.
In times of pressure our choices matter more than ever. For us and those who rely on us.
And when the choice matters, the act of choosing also matters.
When nothing is in the balance, saying the right thing costs nothing and paying lip service to good intentions is easy.
It’s pressure that reveals the mettle of humans and metals.
Will you stand firm, take on what comes your way and stay true to your values, principles and the purpose you were purportedly pursuing when times were good?
Will you break? The pressure of trying to withstand proving too much?
Or will you bend, abandoning principle and vision for the sake of survival, comfort and the path of least resistance?
Do not go gentle into that good night
Rage against the dying of the light
What you do matters mainly when it’s hard. When it’s easy, it’s easy and you get no medals for it.
When it’s hard it’s real. And you get no medals for it.
There is never a medal in the mix.
Thankfully, the medal doesn’t matter.
You know it when you make the hard choices.
The other people who stood firm also know.
There is no medal, but there is a reward.
Under pressure, you have seen each other’s mettle and next time you pick your team for the next adventure, you know that the future is unknowable. You know storms may come. You know you may have to walk straight into a roaring fire. And when that happens, you know which metals and whose mettle you will bet your life on.
Principles, after all, are the sort of substance that doesn’t bend under pressure.
About the author
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption.
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!