Privilege makes for bad leadership
Humans like predictability, don’t we?
Familiar tropes emerge in the most unlikely situations, and COVID was no different.
People developed new ways of working. Families and couples developed new routines in their new, reduced domains. And as we gathered for panels and webinars from our living rooms over the last year and a half, we developed a routine before long, especially if bankers were on these calls.
Picture a lockdown webinar or a post lockdown timid hybrid get-together. In the thick of it, or just out of it. It makes little difference. There are usually three or four folks on screen. Some in beautiful home office surroundings, some with a blurry background concealing… What? That’s the point. It’s none of your business. Not everyone wants the world peeking into their home.
And the dance begins.
And, whatever the topic of the panel, there will be two questions that seem to be asked with relentless predictability.
The first one is: how did your bank cope with the demands of remote working?
And gloriously, every single one of them did amazingly well.
They had all the tools. They had all the strategies. They are now fully digital. Their strategy accelerated. The journey is triumphantly complete.
Is it now?
We have set ourselves up for remote working. Our systems can now be accessed securely from other locations. Gone are the days of wealth advisors in big European banks who had iPads to take into client meetings because that looked fancy, but the iPads were not online because compliance would not permit access to systems of record from outside the bank, so they would ‘pretend’ to work on the iPad, taking notes to work through when they got back to base.
So, is that gone now? Well no. Critical systems. You know how it is.
But everyone has laptops now.
Well. Almost everyone.
And Zoom licences.
Or Microsoft Teams.
Or maybe Google Hangouts.
But only one of them because… compliance. So if they need to talk to another bank who use BlueJeans or Webex, it’s easier to use a personal device and be done with it. Just don’t tell the risk team.
You know how it is.
Yes I do. And it sounds pretty familiar so far. But no matter. Let’s press on and hear all about how we have sped up our approvals processes.
Sure you have.
And we have focused on critical infrastructure.
Also true. Although it may be fairer to say, “We caught up with ten years’ worth of baselining that was long overdue.”
If you want to pretend this is a triumph, I won’t stop you. Celebrating victories is important. Even if they are long overdue.
But shall we talk of all the ambitious strategic projects that got moth-balled because nobody had mind-share anymore? The work that was meant to take your bank into the future that is now paused and you are left with rickety 30-year-old systems patched over by COBOL programmers coming out of retirement? An app refresh to deal with the fact that your call centres stand empty and the rest is lights-on and hope for the best?
And before you ask.
It’s not every bank. Some carried on, some doubled down.
I have had the privilege of working on two incredibly ambitious strategic initiatives through lockdown. But I have seen many more fizzle and pause due to lack of leadership, funds or focus. And it’s fine. But let’s call a spade a spade.
What is not fine is the industry collusion of celebrating the success alongside those who just muddled through. We are not doing anyone any favours when they say their bank did great during COVID, enhancing their digital channels by including a chat function that helps people while they are waiting for the call centres to come back online. How? By telling them which numbers to call.
And nobody shouts “spare me” in these sessions.
Instead, the facilitator nods, smiles, congratulates the banker on their organisational resilience and asks the second question that has become a COVID era classic: “What have you learned during this period, what has the lockdown been like for you, how did you cope?”
It’s not an original question.
But it is not a trite one. The challenges of this period were universal but the way they affected each of us were unique to our circumstances. Crowded or lonely. Battling with health worries, isolation, unemployment or actually enjoying the slower pace of life.
Some people say they found folks got kinder.
Others say folks got more distant. It’s easier to be cold and flippant over email.
Both can be true, and that’s the point.
One size rarely fits all.
And someone, usually a man, always white and middle class, will say with unfeigned surprise: “You know, I recently found out that not everyone is well set up for this. Some people share small flats. Some people have to take turns taking work calls at the kitchen table because there is not enough space for all flat mates to work simultaneously. Some people have no offices at home. Imagine.”
Imagine that not everyone lives in a mansion.
They are not asking us to imagine drought or flood.
They are not asking us to imagine all the children in this world going to bed hungry.
The millions of people waking up scared.
Not the lonely and the sick and the dispossessed.
They are asking us to imagine people who are not just like us. Like them.
Crazy talk, right?
It was a COVID shock for so many.
My heart bleeds for you.
No. No, it really doesn’t.
It rages. My heart rages.
Partly because this level of ignorance takes wilful cultivation. It can’t just happen on its own. And partly because that level of ignorance makes one dangerous.
Here’s a fun fact for you: no matter who you are, most of the world is not like you.
And if you are a powerful decision-maker inside an organisation of any size, any size at all, most of the world is definitely not like you. By sheer dint of numbers and statistics.
So how do you take that fact, and your achievement and good fortune and hard work and all the things that got you to where you are now, and let it be a strength – because look at you and isn’t that fab – and not allow it to be the ridiculous bit of blinding privilege it is now, privilege that shields you from even being embarrassed at your amazement that not everyone has a study at home. Fancy that.
I am not here to make you a better person. Frankly, that was your mother’s job and it’s probably too late by now.
But I am here to make you a better banker.
And I have three things to say to you. Always three – I like symmetry:
- Just because you thought of something, don’t feel compelled to say it out loud. Not everything, not always. Sometimes, just shut up, you know?
- Digital is not an app, it’s not a channel, it’s not a department and it’s not the fact that your bank now has Zoom licences and whoop-dee-doo.
- We have been learning about how to exist in a world of real-time digital connectivity for the best part of a decade and a half. We have been learning what is possible, what is useful and what is good. Maybe you missed it, but the world has moved on, all around your office and way past it. And if it surprises you that not everyone has spare space in their home, then all I am going to say is you are not fit to command change. Because to drive change, you need to understand what is real, now. What is needed, now and next. And how to get from here to there.
It’s an exercise in realism and imagination and, well…
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!