Seen it all before
All banks are the same.
Fundamentally, painfully the same.
If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all.
And of course, there is a good reason for that.
They evolved and developed in similar ways, survived similar challenges, aligned to create markets under parallel circumstances.
They were regulated in the same ways.
Competed with each other. Emulated each other. Acquired each other.
Fundamentally, banks are all the same.
In the way they make money. In the way they capitalised on opportunities and leveraged technology as it became available. In the way they standardised, collaborated, pursued efficiency and negotiated best practices.
It stands to reason.
They do the same thing in the same environment, follow the same rules and largely fish in the same talent ponds. So you know. They are the same. Writ large.
And that means that when you go from one bank to another, as a banker or as a vendor, you recognise shapes. You recognise colours and hues and problems and narratives. It’s very tempting to go ‘ah yes, seen it all before’. But you shouldn’t.
Because you may see a pattern, but what you don’t recognise is the detail beyond the pattern.
And there’s a reason for that too: it is because all banks are the same, yes, but in profoundly different ways.
Where did you grow up?
The first time someone asked me that, at BNY Mellon (the only place I still refer to as ‘we’ 6 years and counting after leaving), I answered ‘Athens’, and they laughed. Good-natured laughing, before you get upset on my behalf. They didn’t laugh at me. The question was esoteric, and they explained.
What they meant was where did you learn your craft. Where did you get to know what you know so we don’t assume the wrong things about each other.
It’s a good question.
And the colleagues I served with answered it in two ways: they would say I grew up in operations, in IT, in sales. Or they would say ‘I am legacy Mellon, legacy BNY, legacy JPM’.
What do those two things say?
They say: these were the things I learned first and therefore the things I know most viscerally and they are the things that may inform my mental starting point for how big a problem seems to me… or how important a fix appears to me… or where I will probably think we should start the fix, for that matter. All the mental models I use may be coloured by those things I learned first, things you may not know much about.
The second identification declares the wider estate people learned their craft in. The systems, processes and administrative choices. The policies, rules and incentives. The culture. The tech. The products. The lot.
Banks grew by asset swap and acquisition.
We didn’t all grow up in the same part of the map and there are parts we know better than others because, you got it, we grew up there. Be it the department, the geography or the business we did our learning in.
When I first heard people putting their credentials on the table like that I was a little confused. Is it a pissing contest? Is it a divisive act, aligning us more with our past than our desired shared future?
Turns out it was the opposite.
You know what this thing did for us?
It allowed us to be vocal and upfront about the differences in our vantage points. It allowed us to be active in finding ways to navigate the highly complex combined tech or human estate of a post-acquisition hangover. It allowed us to staff teams with enough background – by department or legacy and usually both – to ensure we minimised our blind spots. It allowed us to be smart about our own challenges so they wouldn’t become dysfunctions.
It wasn’t a strategy by the way.
It was an organic thing people just did.
And it worked.
And of course people could get defensive and protective of their own way or overly keen to safeguard something that was known to work for them and their clients and of course we didn’t end up with a magical unicorn level of perfection. Because humans.
But it helped those very humans navigate.
Why am I telling you all this?
Because if you read me, you are either a banker trying to solve some of the common problems our organisations have as we face into our digital future, or someone trying to help this journey from the outside in, as an advisor, vendor or partner.
And no matter where you sit, you know that strategies are devised at the plane of reality where all banks are the same. They all have legacy infrastructure and bloated hierarchies and paper-based solutions and workarounds and talent gaps. And they have business models that still mostly operate in a pre-digital economy. And they want to transition into the future in the least disruptive way possible.
Slap their logo on the front of your PowerPoint and tell them these are the areas that need to be addressed for a successful digital transformation and you will be right. For all of them.
And then you will get the job and on day one they will ask you where you grew up. What’s your answer?
We don’t live in generalities
There is nothing wrong with your plan, before you get upset with me.
And you can sell that plan in good faith to every bank on the planet: even some of the digital ones. They don’t all have all the problems on your laundry list, but they have enough of them as they balance scale, operational efficiency and business viability while maintaining capital adequacy and compliant services across the board as to matter very little. At that level, banks are all the same. And it helps, when drafting a plan, if you’ve seen it all before.
But plans are executed in the specifics. Plans are executed where banks are drastically, dramatically different. Where habits, weird choices, different strategies are layered upon each other like some tech version of the earth’s own strata… where all the things that are very different by department, geography or organisation live. That’s where you execute. That’s where your work takes place.
In the detail of how things are today. Because where you are today is where your journey starts, whatever else you may wish for.
And where you are today is a mess.
Decades – in some cases over a century – of layered policies, legacies, choices. Departments working in silo. Not exactly against each other. Not exactly together.
Everyone likes your strategy. Everyone wants you to succeed.
But if you go into that office thinking ‘all banks are the same, how hard can this be?’, I wouldn’t even bother getting a coffee. You won’t be there long.
All banks are the same, but in profoundly different ways. And that’s where you solve their problems and unlock their futures.
So be prepared to ask your stakeholders where they grew up. Find the stories of how we all got here. To the specific ‘here’ of this department and this bank. Not the generic here of being on the cusp of disruption.
Find the parts of the landscape that are not represented in the room you sit in. Ask why. Adjust accordingly.
You don’t need to be from around here to navigate the way out. You just need to respect the landscape and pay attention to what you see. Don’t assume you’ve seen it all before. Because I can assure you, you haven’t.
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!