Don’t diss the bankers
Admit it. There is a reluctance in hiring bankers. Even among bankers.
We still do it. The hiring part.
But we don’t like it any more than we like ourselves for doing it. But we do still do it.
And we do it because, when you get it right, these are the best fintech hires you can ever make. The problem is, the odds of getting it right are stacked ever in your disfavour. The chances of hiring the wrong banker are high, the stakes of doing so even higher and the universality of the experience of getting it wrong means that dissing bankers becomes almost an instinctive position.
Nobody wants to hire bankers. But we all need to.
And not just because there are so many of them. But because the good ones are so damn useful.
When you are hiring for key transformation roles inside the bank, you are a little bit damned if you do and a big bit damned if you do not, because the bank wants fresh blood, ideas, a “view from nowhere” surge of energy… but… And this but is important…
The bank has more self awareness than we give it credit for.
The bank knows that it is a weird beast and it doesn’t have time to waste while the newcomer marvels or despairs. “You do… what?” is an inevitable reaction to how a lot of global banking practice hangs together.
Hire someone with zero banking experience and you will spend weeks and months dealing with their exasperated confusion. And look. They are right. A lot of what we do is dysfunctional. That’s why we are trying to change it.
And not being constrained by The Way We’ve Always Done Things is really important in driving change but… and this but is also important… you sort of need to understand what we are changing things away from to make sure nothing is dropped or broken and end up in a future state that is in some ways worse than the place we are in today.
The endless pleading cries of “why” that the non-banker will pepper you with as they try to familiarise themselves with their new habitat, do have answers. But who has time for lessons in fiscal history, technological evolution and human nature when the world is on fire and there is more work to be done than we have time for?
So the bank knows.
They know they need to balance fresh ideas and the ability to ask “why” with a solid baseline of relevant knowledge (in both banking and tech or reg or whatever it is that person is doing). The bank knows some things can’t just be picked up as you go along.
So the bank will hire more bankers than not. Not because they are scared to venture forth and get non bankers. But because they value time and insight. They know you can’t always wing it.
They also know another thing. They, themselves, will get in their own way.
They don’t mean to.
But they will.
So they hire bankers because they know what the problem we are solving looks like but also and equally importantly they hire bankers because they know that they need them to get around the bank’s bad habits and inertia. And that’s probably the most important skill and, in that, not all bankers are created equal.
The bank knows that only too well and hires accordingly and start-ups would do well to learn this thing that the bank knows.
Not all bankers are created equal
Start-ups are wary of bankers. We see CVs of folks coming out of big banks and seeking to pursue new opportunities in our dynamic, lithe organisations and invariably we ask each other: their skills and experience are absolutely right, but will they be all Big Banky?
We know what we mean.
We mean will they be able and – equally significantly – willing to actually do things or will they just move paper around, attend meetings, say words such as “alignment” and “capability matrix”, and just hope that either someone else will do the work or nobody will notice?
The thing is, these guys are indistinguishable from actual working humans to the naked eye. The start-up doesn’t want them any more than the bank does and is much less able to carry them and their big salary and their team with their inexplicable titles and reams of PowerPoint that look oh so similar week on week.
What the start-up isn’t as good as the bank at doing is knowing which is which. It’s a bit like mushroom picking (which I know nothing about) or diving for sea urchin (which I know a lot about): only some are good for eating. You need to know which or you will waste a lot of time and possibly end up with severe food poisoning. A metaphor that works on so many levels.
There are three types of bankers, as any banker will tell you.
The ones who do what they are told. No more, no less. And most definitely no different.
It is not theirs to reason why. Often they know the work will end up on a scrap heap. They know nobody will look at it. Heartbreakingly, they often know whatever it is they are working on, won’t work. More often than not, they don’t know what the thing they are working on is actually for. And don’t care.
And before you think, “poor interns”… stop.
Some of these guys have a C in front of their title and a big office. Some of them get paid more than entire families. They are a species endemic to big organisations and they serve a purpose. They are good soldiers. They won’t take initiative but they will do the thing that needs doing.
They are not bad, you understand. But they can’t thrive outside the banking ecosystem: they can’t work without the structure, direction and momentum that the overall machinery creates.
They can work without asking why and no start-up survives long if its people don’t ask why. And people who don’t ask why either shorten their own life expectancy inside the start-up, or the start-up’s.
Then there is the sub species we described above: on paper, similar to the worker ants who do the doing without asking questions. They look busy. They rush around. They play the corporate game and climb the ladder. They have meetings and send emails late at night and produce email attachments of varying lucidity. But they work hard. They are everywhere. And they are going places.
Similar to those who do the thing and don’t ask questions, in some ways, respecting the rules of the game.
Oh, but they are different.
These ones talk a good game.
They make a point of talking about the significance of starting with why, moving the needle and putting their arms around any manner of problem. Then they hand the needle that needs moving and the problem that needs hugging to the doers who won’t ask, “what on Earth is this for?”. They will just do.
Meanwhile, our specimen will go onto another meeting where they will stay on exactly the right side of vagueness: things too theoretical to be objectionable, too high-level to be wrong.
They are visionaries, you see.
And they are dangerous.
Because they drink their own Kool-Aid and, before long, they want to come work in the start-up, they think they chafe against the big bank guard rails, they rebel against the very things that make the mirage of their effectiveness hold.
And often, oh so often, they fly high enough on their own hype to interview well and then land inside a start-up and try to ply the same trade and do the same tricks. And a few weeks into the hire you are looking at a badly written two-page memo and think, “what have we done”?
So, of course we are wary of hiring bankers. Even the bankers are wary of hiring bankers. I should know. I am one.
There is a third category of banker and when the market learns how to recognise them they will be paid their weight in gold, because frankly they are already worth it.
These guys and gals come in all shapes and with all titles. They come in all ages. They are not your digital native UXers only. They may sit in compliance. They may sit in HR, finance, IT (not the digital part, but the hardware and cables and “I need a new mouse” part), they may be close to retirement. They don’t fit a mould.
And that’s the point.
They are the people who do things. But not all the things. They do the things that need doing, side stepping the things that don’t need doing even if a million empty suits say something is top priority until it isn’t. They ask why without burning bridges. They go against the grain. They get things done. Through the noise. Through the inertia. They don’t drink the koolaid. Not their own. Not anyone else’s. They don’t fall for the empty suits but neither do they let them fell them.
These are the people who get things done despite it all. Despite the bank getting in its own way. They are the reason that every bank is still standing with some efforts of varying credibility to move in the right direction, despite the debris of pointless endeavour. They are the friends in low places (link), the rebels, the leaders, the quiet craftsmen. They come in many shapes and they are why the banks are still standing: they know how the whole thing works, they know what needs to change and what’s not worth the effort, they know when to stand tall and when to let people talk themselves out.
They transform the banks they work in and the banking system they operate in despite everyone else’s best efforts.
Those are the bankers you need: the ones who understand the thing you are trying to change (so they can change it) and get how to get change to stick inside a big organisation and they know how to avoid the noise and not get drawn to bright lights.
These are the people the bank needs.
These are the bankers the start-up needs.
They are not easy to find, I will grant you that.
But you need them.
So don’t diss bankers. Just find the right ones.
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. She is chief client officer at 10x Future Technologies.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!