Thursday 31 January 2013

How do we drive growth?

This is a tough one. We could lower interest rates. They were lowered years ago. That does not seem to work. We could pump more money into the system; encourage lending so that we can increase consumption. We tried that. I know we could print more money. Where did all that money go? That was clever. We could lower taxes or increase them. I got another idea; we could increase spending.
After all these bright ideas which by the way as usual are all to do with money; Britain could be going into a triple dip recession, Belgium has stagnated and it’s going to get worse.  Holland’s economy is in the doldrums and just cannot find the answers. Young people have no work and are increasingly, frustrated and uninspired. What is going on?

I am not an economist as such but all these ideas look like they need to be put into the bin. Somehow we have to do better than this. My take on growth is this. We need to sit down, take a step back, spend time on ourselves and think; each and every one of us who has that potential. Leaders, potential leaders, high potentials, even young people. Perhaps it is not those people; but the quiet ones, hiding or most likely those amongst us who are unhappy in their careers or feel trapped in the system. In brief all those; who can feel or can hear that quiet voice knocking within them telling them to do something more useful which may encompass your sense of purpose, to change or to do something greater in whatever capacity or form.

Therefore it has to start from the individual. This individual would require getting a grip of his or her own concience, searching for a purpose and finding his/her talent. It will come. It can be that simple. He/she is suddenly driven by passion, drive and loves what he/she does. He has discovered himself and his voice. He has quite likely invented something and with a vision he or she sees the need. He has convinced people that this product or service has to work because he or she believes in it. There is a goal and a purpose for the moral benefit of others which will either improve the way we live in our society or it is for the greater good. 

People like what he or she is doing. He or she becomes a magnet to others as they share that belief and the passion spreads. They join him or her and contribute their added value into the differing requirements of the company. There is very little money of course but who cares. Suddenly with collective belief and a lot of work; the business is coming together. There is a need and the customers like it. They start paying them. Suddenly there is some revenue. This revenue grows and the service or product is able to expand and grow. There are more job opportunities and things simply take off from there.

Perhaps I am being an idealist but is this not the way we drive growth. It has nothing to do with monetary policy or economics. Economics is important in the sense that when revenue comes; we need to manage this well and sensibly and find ways to help the most vulnerable. Money is important of course as it is a tool or an object that is used in exchange for goods and services. But it must not be a sole driver or a purpose or used as some power tool. It is also what the world justifiably and fairly pays you for our work, our contribution, our added value and talent.

Back in 2000, I met a company called Tom Tom in Amsterdam. I had to find them a financial controller. They were explaining their product to me; it took me a while to understand or comprehend their product as I had never seen or heard of it before. Some sort of global satellite picture map system in your car which could direct you and tell you where you are and where to go. I thought this was really bizarre, and a liked what I heard. They were going to launch it. Their offices were in an attic of a rundown house in Amsterdam. They had perhaps a dozen people or so. These guys really believed in what they were doing. Today they employ 3.500 people in 40 countries.  This is growth, mixed in with talent, ambition and self-belief in which they saw a need. This has nothing to do with monetary policy and of economics.

If you look at today the money is being pumped in then sucked out of the system. Government taxes go up and banks working for their own interests. Regulation increases. People feel trapped in their careers and talent is being stifled. There has to be something wrong. But it is hard for me to give the answers; it might be falling into the wrong pockets or of the few. In truth; it is not working and it is meaningless. Surely the forces of nature are enticing those of us out there, who want to contribute particularly those of us in business; to think, to stand up, to see where we can improve, to change, to adapt and to be ultimately fulfilled for the benefit of others in whatever capacity or form. Essentially we must have the freedom and be permitted to do at least that; if not then God help us.

Friday 25 January 2013

Are the Bank CEO’s still aloof?

I am following Davos 2013 in the news particularly the financiers and the banking leadership, how they think and if they are learning from their current mistakes and of the past. I am always interested in this topic for one the financial sector caused one of the biggest economic catastrophes in modern times which we are all suffering from and making genuine sacrifices. Secondly we need to understand and ensure that this never happens again. Finally my core business is to help to train bankers, assist them in developing themselves and in their careers therefore I need to continually feel abreast on what is going on in this sector.

I was particularly intrigued to listen to an interview by Lloyd Blankfien the CEO of Goldman Sachs, a ‘highly successful’ Investment Bank. (That is if you are of a mind-set that measures success in pure monetary terms) It is not often a CEO of a highly secretive investment bank comes forward to answer questions in front of the media. They are generally less inclined to do so perhaps it is a way of covering up their guilt in how they actually make money; who knows.  Anyhow let me start by saying that to come forward like this is good news and is a good step with regard to a much needed transparency in this sector. This is a bank that employs 31.000 people with net profit of 7.5 Billion dollars for 2012.

In many ways I found this interview fascinating bearing in mind that fresh in our memories we have seen so many scandals, reckless behaviour and pay excesses led by some of the same people. Greg Smith and the ‘resignation letter and toxic culture.' ‘Bob Diamond Affair.’ ‘Pay excesses in the board room.’ ‘Libor rigging scandal.’ ‘Gambling with the public’s money.’ ‘Rogue traders’ ‘rewards for failure.’ I can go and on in what I would call this decadent era of our time.

‘How is it that you can justify a pay rise of $20 Million to your own pay last year when everyone else is still suffering the pain from the consequences of the financial crisis caused by banks such as yours?’ Asks Stephanie Flanders of the BBC. She is asking the right question and the public would want to know why. He did not answer it.
He continued. 'We help companies finance themselves and take on other institutions risk.’‘I live 98 % of my time worrying about the other 2% worst probabilities as that is what I am paid to do’ He said. ‘A lot of good things are happening.’ It reminds me of when he once said. ‘We are doing God’s work.’ Honestly his answers were very aloof and really and truly Joe Blogs out there will simply not comprehend what he is talking about. Even I was struggling to grasp the vagueness of what he was saying. Here was his chance to connect to the outside world and explain how and why the financial crisis occurred and what responsible banks such as his are doing about it to remedy and change the situation for the future with concrete internal examples. It is his duty to be answerable to the public. Now I understand why these people don’t often give interviews.

I am also aware that employees at Goldman’s have a strong worth ethic and are bright. I just hope the vast majority of them are honest, remain true to themselves and are not wasting their talent if they carry such responsibility in our economy as they say they do. In many ways I am saddened that this ‘influential’ leader just did not explain anything clearly to the public and made no effort whatsoever in trying to re-instil their trust who feel hurt and let down. We live in an age where a vast majority of us are desperately seeking moral personal leadership, courage, humility and a change of mind-set more so from such firms that have made large revenues through very poor codes of conduct and loss of individual values.

Let’s us give an example and a taste of the other end of the spectrum. Today in Belgium where I live (although I am British) there is a record number of bankruptcies, people struggle to make ends meet as a result of the financial crisis. It is very hard to get credit if you are small business. There is a social crisis looming. Honest and hardworking people feel insecure about their future.  It is starting to kick in. These people will simply not understand what Lloyd Blankfein is talking about when we have turned a corner let alone understand what he is saying.

Honestly we are not safe yet, the Banks have not learnt yet and we are not out of the woods. The challenge is still out there where we must ask ourselves how that trust in the Banks can be re-instilled with their customers as well as with the general public and vice versa. Which areas can we show this and in what ways? Are we working purely for our own individual benefit or for the benefit our customers and society as a whole? And I am sorry to say Mr. Blankfein; be better prepared when faced with the question about your own pay (which is no doubt excessive and incomprehensible) whilst everyone else is paying the price of the financial crisis. On a more positive note in my last article about Antony Jenkins the CEO of Barclays; he hit the nail right on the head.

Monday 21 January 2013

Is the wind changing in our financial institutions?

It was very encouraging to read about Antony Jenkins the new CEO of Barclays and his statement to his 140.000 employees at Barclays. ‘Behave or leave.’ He has asked his employees to sign up to the new code of conduct. Their five key values, ‘respect, integrity, service, excellence and stewardship’ He also went as far as linking bonus to performance which will be assessed ‘not just on what we deliver but how we deliver it.’  Therefore bonuses will be assessed against the new ‘purpose and values’ criteria.

This is the first time I have read or heard a CEO of a very large financial services organisation talk this way. He is using the right language and grasping the core issue of the problem. Time MCG has been arguing for this for some time now. Finally a CEO who has taken the courage to look into the root of the endemic cultural problem whose sector has inflicted the worst financial catastrophe ever to the detrimental effect of the wider part of our society. I really hope that these are not just words and that they remain true to themselves. I hope the bank has carefully defined what they mean by these five core values and how they will be executed.  Let me start by enlightening on two of these core values; Integrity and service.

Integrity. Integrity is a core value closely aligned to honesty and trust. This is linked to our very own interior which is why it so often hidden from others and a very difficult value to measure and to deliver. In my own experience this has been such a rare commodity when it comes to being faced with the drivers and shakers of business. Please read my last article which explains my definition of integrity and how we can put it into practice.
Service. We are paid to serve, to deliver and to contribute to our customer’s needs. This is where we have to work in ourselves to become more selfless whereby avoiding our very own needs. Service does not mean that we are here to invent what we think our customers want or by convincing them that this is what they actually need as gone are the days new products are forced down their throats. It is not for the customer to fall under the delusional hoax or clever tactics of the service provider simply for the providers own benefit. Remember what the Goldman Sach’s employee said ‘we saw our clients as muppets.’
No; a customer need is a gap that truly requires filling or a requirement that is visibly missing or requires changing or improving. A customer will actually have a problem in which it is up to the service provider together with the customer to work through a solution together and ultimately to be paid for that solution. That is service, and that is how we re-instil trust.
Finally Mr. Jenkins has taken the courage to analyse the bonus culture and how we measure success. Here he is going straight for the carrot; which has so foolishly contributed to the greed culture and as he correctly calls it the quick buck mentality or short term profit of the last 20 years. He wants to change this. He wants to reward people on upholding their values. To reward on the basis of measurement of service, purpose and customer satisfaction. This has to be step into the right direction.

Mr. Jenkins; what you are doing and saying is excellent. It goes without saying that if you are setting the high standards with your employees it also starts with yourself and your board as action must speak louder than words. Double standards and hypocrisy I hope is also in the history books with regard to the financial institutions where we have so often seen other CEO’s fail. This means that the remuneration of top management must be realigned with other sectors in Europe. Your bonus pool for your management team must also be limited until your goal of proper service and trust has been achieved within the culture of your bank. There will be no pay off if you fail in your objective.
In terms of your employees; changing a culture will not happen overnight. The rotten apples don’t just ripen. Something that is culturally endemic in mentality does not change at a strike of a magic wand. It will take a generation and changes will occur through strong leadership and the examples set by others just like it will take a generation to bring our national debts down to manageable levels. We can set the momentum in motion by simply getting rid of the rotten apples if they do not change. We will need a highly successful and stringent recruitment intake. We must allow for regular annual assessments of management and training ensuring continued and improved high quality of employees.  A tough warning system and lay off program will need to be put into place for those with sub-par behaviour even if this means whether the employee is making a lot of revenue for the organisation. An employee without values and a code of conduct, making considerable profit serves to no purpose whatsoever and sets the wrong example.
Executing your plan might have a knock on effect on your short term profit and shareholder value. In the long term your policy will win and your organisation will be a happier placer for it. Hats off to you! Imagine; if you can get this right there will be no need for regulation. Your employees will start to fulfil their true potential, dreams and talent. Your customers will be better off for it and the general public will regain trust in their financial institutions. I hope the new Barclay’s leadership sets a precedent for CEO’s of other financial institutions to follow suit.

Tuesday 8 January 2013

Are we all addicted to growth....and money?

If a young person is asked nowadays what they would like to do in the future. A typical answer might be, ‘I want to get very rich, so that all my dreams will come true.’ Once I asked a more experienced person the question as follows: ‘Why do you do what you do?’ ‘Because I love the money.’ His response was. Or a slightly more subtle response may have been ‘I love my job because of this and this plus it makes me a lot of money.’ Another time I asked a lawyer about the recession. He laughed at me and responded, ‘what recession? I deal in bankruptcies and so as far as I am concerned this recession had made me a lot of money.’  He had a pretty nice Jaguar. ‘Having money makes me respected or looked up to by others’ I heard once. Another educated person (looking for a new job) said to me, ‘I just want to get very rich then spend it on helping other people.’
Are we really all addicted to growth, prosperity and money? Is it an innate right? If we all aspire to get rich, or for constant ‘growth and prosperity for all’ (a politicians favourite catch phrase); logically speaking there just would not be enough to go round let alone economically it just would not work. There is only room for a few of us at the top of the mountain. It is just not sustainable. Imagine the resources required from our planet. It would just fall apart. Anyone with any common sense would tell you that.
Again, these attitudes come down to the same old story where it might be possible that we are simply not asking ourselves the right questions where more often than not our crude aspirations far exceed our potential. There is a very simple logic to all this. I see it like this. It is not how much can I make to serve my own needs? It is more the case of how can I with my talent make a contribution to the needs of others? In simpler terms not what can I take but more what can I give. Offering something as opposed to wanting something. With this simple change in our own attitude and mentality; I am certain it has to be the way forward whereby ultimately reward follows in some form or another. We seemed to have forgotten our most basic principles taught to us as children; I want never gets.
Yet at the same time it is normal that as human beings we have needs such as food, water, warmth, a roof and ultimate security and education for our children. Nevertheless these are needs not wants.  Surely there must be a fine balance between this and our very own differing inwardly or outwardly desired attitudes? After all if there were no needs how would it be possible for any of us to offer anything? Clearly if a country has an expanding population; this means that a country’s population will require more needs, which results in an increase in money supply and increased jobs; in this case we can certainly support the theory of growth.
I don’t know about you but I am tired about reports on immediate profit, instant richness and this constant pressure on consumption and making money. It just seems to be leading us nowhere particularly in a time when people’s essential needs are more apparent than ever which deduces simple logic that there should be a lot to offer. Call me a maverick but I was taken by a recent BBC report about the President of Uruguay. He gave his entire salary to the poor and forgoes his lavish presidential palace etc and lives on a farm growing his own food. He must have the talent as he managed to become President of a sovereign country! He could not care less about the money, the status, or the typical trappings of power. He gives it all away. I don’t think he seems to want anything back for his service to his country. I am sure this person is happy and fulfilled.  I admire these kinds of stories. In these times of austerity, might it be possible for other talented people in power or positions of influence and even in business to show leadership of this nature?

Service is the rent we pay for living in this world of ours