Playing the game you’re in
I see so many exchanges and heartfelt pleas about ‘work-life balance’ in our industry. About how people can choose to be more present at home, choose to clock off early to go watch their kid’s sports day and go to the gym in the middle of a long day.
And I agree with that.
I agree most wholeheartedly with all of that.
I also think it’s displacement of the highest order.
Of course you can go to the gym in the middle of your working day.
Admittedly, some days it won’t happen. Urgent meetings will spill over into the time you had painstakingly earmarked to get some exercise. But that’s OK, it’s work time anyway, right?
The only problem is, with a workday that starts around 6:30/7 am and drags into 7/8 pm, what time isn’t work time? Early calls, late calls, weekend ‘catching up’.
It is dishonest of us to say to people that they have a choice of how they work in this industry.
Sure, they have a choice to earmark and protect some of their time and there is flexibility within the long-long hours. You can (and should) carve out time and do what is important to you and your family, but are we really saying that the long hours are optional if you want a career in finance? Are we honestly saying to people that work ethic and resilience aren’t cherished traits, in their own right, in our industry?
Are we really saying that we don’t all buy some flexibility at the high price of availability?
I think all we are trying to say is we know that the way things undeniably are is not right and healthy. And we collectively wish that it wasn’t so.
But here is the rub.
As an individual, if you want to succeed at your chosen career, you have to play the game you are in. By the rules everyone else is playing it, largely.
And I say ‘largely’ because it is absolutely possible to push the boundaries and redefine certain rules of the game and carve your own path. But the reality is that if you are a change-maker by profession or choice (if you champion, drive, implement and embody change in everything you do), then you are already pushing boundaries.
If you are outspoken and energetic and inquisitive, you are already pushing the boundaries of what the normal order and pace of things is in your organisation.
If you look or sound different, you are already pushing some more boundaries.
Do you really think you can be a female change-maker of colour and also push the work-life balance agenda? Without considerable personal cost?
What is my point, exactly, I hear you ask?
Exactly this. Actually.
That at an individual actor level we all have to play the game we are in. We can play a different game if the one we are in really doesn’t do it for us, but we don’t really get to play the game we are in differently and not… lose.
While we are in a particular game, that’s the one we have to play. With all its rules and foibles.
What does that mean in practice?
It means that, as a supplier of technology, I may think that RFPs are a counter-intuitive way of selecting technology partners. I have written extensively about it. I have spoken extensively about it both at an industry level and within the organisations I have worked in that practiced the voodoo themselves. I have affected some small change but the vast majority of the industry, including the people that had the pleasure of my lectures on the topic, still run RFPs.
Do you think I keep my company back from participating out of principle?
You cannot win a race you are not in.
Of course we participate.
It is a sub-optimal way of selecting technology, yes, but it is the way the industry does things and while we, as a business, want to continue making our mark, in our time, in our industry, this is the way. This is how the cookie crumbles. This is how it goes. And therefore this is the game we play.
Do we need to change the game?
Yes. But it can’t be done at the individual level without also paying a price for exclusion at the individual level. And that is an awful choice we are presenting ourselves with, as if it were the only one.
If an individual employee of a big bank, a big consulting firm, a growing start-up decides unilaterally that they will work their contracted 9 to 5 with an hour for lunch and 15-minute breaks at the required intervals, two things will happen… their workload will start mounting and they will fall behind. Working long hours is not a matter of organising your time better. There is just that much stuff you have to do or, and this is equally important, be seen to be doing.
The second thing that will happen is that slowly but surely they will stop being the go-to person for their team or client. If something urgent happens and you are not responsive in the timeframe the organisation deems expedient, you have let the side down.
Is it all really, actually, truly important, I hear you ask? Is the building on fire? Is someone’s life in danger? Does it really matter that I didn’t get to it till the following day?
In real terms, perhaps yes (if a payments system is down, it really matters) and perhaps no (if what was ‘urgent’ was a storm in a teacup made up of some senior folks having visibility of some unflattering detail).
But in career terms, it always matters, and political capital is accumulated and expended in moments that tend to pivot around your personal availability.
So if you want to build a career in this industry, that’s the game.
If you don’t want to play it (which I respect), then playing a different game is probably more profitable than trying to play this game ‘Your Way’. I am not saying this is right. I am just saying this is sadly true.
And the same applies to our businesses.
We all know valuations do not a sustainable business make, but furnishing the proof points to create the sort of valuation that will get you the headlines, the funding and the accelerants required has been the game. And for the people who joined in. Played it. Often not drinking their own Kool-Aid. It is a dance. And you dance it until the music stops or changes.
We all know that when BNPL became ‘flavour of the month’ everyone – and I mean EVERYONE – added it to their arsenal without much thought on whether it was that different or that relevant to what they were trying to do, because their investors and the industry analysts asked for it and expected it respectively. This is the game. If you are in it, you play it by the rules. And if you don’t play, you can’t win. You cannot win if you don’t play. Facts.
Now that DeFi is becoming ‘The Topic’, it appears in bank planning, consulting strategy decks and investor packs like the spring of cilantro adorning your dish at a restaurant. Not integral to the dish, but very much there, as expected.
And this goes on.
Conventions and habits and ill-informed expectations, perhaps, that shape the topics, frequency and tenor of the conversations you are having at an individual and company level, at a career and business level at any one time. And my point is: seeing through the conventions for what is valuable and what is muscle memory, what is constructive and what is obfuscation, what is real and what is noise, is valuable. But it can’t always inform your actions in real terms. Because your actions are in context, and the context determines their impact as much as your intent. And yes it is all inter-connected.
It is not all about work-life balance, but it is all about the things that the industry does and the way the industry does them. And the things you are expected to focus on and the hours you are expected to work may be unrelated, but the mechanics of how they shape the game you play are not.
And yes, we have been transforming this industry for almost two decades now and we are nowhere near making enough of a change here. We have added new topics to the old ways of engaging with them. And added to the workload and the stress, especially as some of the new topics and the old ways of working really don’t go well together and we solve for that by adding human labour to the mix.
And yes, in so many ways, getting this right is a key part of the work we’ve been trying to do for the past decade and a half.
If we want our people to do meaningful work and have work-life balance. If we want the engagements between our businesses to be balanced and meaningful. If we want our industry to be energised by new ideas but not distracted by every shiny thing that moves. If we want to do meaningful work that has an impact at an individual, community and company level… we need to face up to the fact that we need to fundamentally change the game we play at the company, market and industry level. We can’t change this from where we stand for ourselves and our communities any more than Bobby not flying any more will reverse the damage done by multi-nationals dumping untreated waste in our water supply and pumping carbon monoxide right into our faces.
I am a huge proponent of individual responsibility.
But for certain things, putting the focus on the individual (person or company) is displacement. And this is one of them.
If you want to succeed as a person or a business, you play the game by the rules everyone else is playing it by, largely. You resist, you push the boundaries, but fundamentally you look around you and make choices that will guarantee your success or simply your survival in the context you are in.
All I am saying… is if we all see that the context is broken, that the rules of the game demand immense sacrifice in time and energy and focus at an individual and collective level on things that don’t hugely matter or could be done better for everyone’s sake, maybe it’s time we change the game.
And still go to the gym at lunchtime.
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!