Wednesday 26 March 2014

The Trappings of Power: Is it worth it?

President Obama was on a 5 day tour of several European Cities. I spoke to a friend of mine  whose office is located in Amsterdam, on the Museumplein. This was where the President landed in his helicopter right opposite the Rijksmuseum, one of the world's most famous art museums. From what I heard, the President was dwarfed by several Apache helicopters and a squadron of marine corps gunships that were constantly flying overhead for a good part of the day in such gung-ho fashion, as if perhaps this small city of cyclists, and down to earth peace loving citizens had woken up to a dossage of the war in Afghanistan on their very own doorstep. My friend was not allowed onto his balcony to see him. Infact no one was. There were 200 armed secret service agents all over the place in civilian clothes with one right outside his office. They could be spotted a mile off mainly through their small ear piece, hidden guns, dark glasses and constantly suspicious of others. Some were found blind drunk before the President arrived. As he described, ‘it was straight out of the movies!’

President Obama was also in Belgium where it all started again. The main route in the centre of Brussels was cordoned off from cars and civilians so he could drive through in his tanked up, amour protected black vehicle (known as the beast) with a line of dark vehicles following in pursuit. Flanked again by endless security and extra police which had even got the Belgian media ruffled.

Earlier that day he was visiting a World War One US cemetery somewhere in the battle fields of Flanders south west of the country not far from where my great-great uncle fought, died and is buried. The quiet town was described in a Belgian newspaper as a, ‘ghost town welcoming Obama.’ No one was allowed anywhere near him. Villagers were not allowed to give him flowers, Belgian chocolates, nor greet him which would certainly not be the case if other dignitaries were to visit.

We know we live in difficult times of economic hardship and there are some people out there in our world that can terrorise and can cause harm. Forgive me for asking but who (or what) are we at war with or trying to protect? We all know that security is important but is this not somewhat exaggerated? As a European, by withholding judgement, this comes across as a little aggressive, hostile and almost comical in which there has to be a fine line. This is not our style Mr. President and the opposite to what I call liberty, a word you often like to use. I can not help but wonder who the bad guys are, the US or the rest of us.  What could be causing this fear, is it their policies or is it the President himself who is afraid? Or might the US be in a perpetual state of vulnerability, paranoia or at war with itself?

I was taught in US politics that a President is elected by the people to serve the people. When he is not allowed anywhere near the people then this has to be a reflection of very bizarre and bewildering times leaving many of us disillusioned by politics. Clearly something is not quite right. The President together with his security and trappings has made himself a prisoner in his own right. Not to mention all that extra burden of expense and upheaval on the civilian tax payer, then one can understand that it makes little sense to make too many foreign trips. Who would want to go through all that? One is almost better off just staying locked up inside the White House leading the so called free world by pressing buttons and pulling levers. Oh how it must feel so lonely to be at the top.

Our greatest fear of course is fear itself. Mistrust so often reaps mistrust which can become a vicious circle by which we will never solve anything and move forward in a peaceful manner. How far and for how long are we prepared to stay this way? Somehow the solution has to be that we  overcome our greatest obstacle, by courageously mirroring ourselves with our policies as nations and as humans to break through this deadlock, find solutions and change the course, in so as we do not exasperate this phenomenon, in particular, in and amongst our leadership. Courage and true character surely is drawn from the confidence that comes from within.

In brief, this is Europe. We are often a gentle, talented, fun loving continent which is suffering a prolonged economic crisis in which change is crying out to us or rumbling beneath our feet. We also often like the occasional pomp. Belgium is supposed to be an Ally as you pointed out just now Mr. President, ‘un de nos partenaire les plus proche dans le monde.’ If you would like to come and visit us then with all due respect act as such. Try and be a little more trusting to us as civilians through example and treat us with more compassion and heart which is really what is needed in our culture and desperate world. Honestly, we are not at war with each other and neither is this North Korea. Lest not forget that World War One in the battlefields of Flanders where many of our ancestors fought, if anything portrayed the circle of mistrust born out of egos and simple abnormalities in our leadership that led to so much unnecessary destruction, resentment and suffering. Have we not learnt anything from this?
Compassion is the ability to reach out

Wednesday 19 March 2014

5 ways for (senior) bankers to improve accountability

• To understand where the buck stops and take personal responsibility for your actions.
• Empower your own sense of responsibility.
• Success is not just reaping the rewards when things are great it is also when we are prepared to take the slack when things are not so good. Almost like a vow one makes in marriage ‘….for richer and for poorer’. 
• Clear and concise reporting lines.
• To have (or try to be) a boss that leads by example.

Wednesday 12 March 2014

Jerôme Kerviel: Saint or Villain?

I was struck by the headline, that Jerôme Kerviel, the convicted ex trader from Société Générale for the 4.9 Billion Euro trading loss back in 2007-8, had just met Pope Francis. Kerviel had a special audience with the pontiff who seemed very disturbed by what he heard, and Kerviel is currently on a pilgrimage walking back to Paris from Rome with a rosary, seeking divine justice in what he calls the ‘tyranny of the markets’ whilst awaiting the result of his appeal.

It is not my position to pass judgement before the appeal has reached its verdict in this particular case. Kerviel may or may not be guilty and by no means am I saying he was an angel. The man will no doubt accept his fate and serve the consequences. What is clear from this head line is that he is not the only one and there has to be a wider issue at stake here? In other words Société Générale looks suspiciously guilty. The French Bank is already under US investigation for other serious matters. If it is true that certain senior key staff knew of the malpractice and what he was doing, then the bank needs to be made accountable, heads will nead to roll and other criminal charges may well need to be pursued. To make someone a scapegoat from a supposedly trustworthy institution is both weak and pathetic and reflects if anything a culture ruled by fear irrespective of the amount of money involved.

I am not one to claim inside knowledge of the French financial system nevertheless my gut feeling tells me it is partially flawed which is most likely down to the colluding and/or cronyism between Government officials and leaders of their banks. According to Wikipedia, both the former CEO and current CEO were educated at the Institute d’Etudes Politique de Paris and were Civil or Public Servants by profession and experience and each followed very similar career paths. The current CEO Fredrik Ordea, before he joined the bank was a plain civil servant who worked for the office of Nicolas Sarkozy in the 90's. Does that qualify them as Commercial Bankers? It may be ok if Soc. Gen was a public state run service except that it is not.

On the other end of the spectrum and across the Channel, things are done differently where progress is being made. The UK Parliamentary commission on banking standards has already reviewed their own financial system on their own back yard and done their own mirroring. Last year in their report, they had already pointed out the lack of accountability and responsibility, issues of high rewards offered for high risk, and incentivising misconduct amongst senior bankers. The UK goes as far as proposing criminal charges to help restore our trust. Solutions are not easy but they are there and will always remain challenging to implement as many of us are adverse to change particularly where money is involved and certain livelihoods could be at stake. Some banks have got the message and are reviewing their mission, corporate governance & values, leadership, pay, and training and so on. Others such as the Co-op just cannot cope and many still remain indifferent.

Money must be there to serve and not to rule. In the case of the latter then this is tyranical by its very own nature resulting to endless conflicts of interest, exploitation, misconduct and mistrust. Many think that money can buy ourselves out of trouble, instead we have learnt it can pay a very heavy price. Lest not forget how the financial crisis was caused? Should the perpetrators be brought to justice with a Hague Tribunal?

In some quarters the message is not clear, there still exists a sub culture of sleaze and corruption amongst parts of the financial and wider intermediary sector as the raw truths in the film 'The Wolf of Wall Street correctly exposes. (A film I do not wish to see for personal reasons). If we do not go through this change in our behaviour and attitude, for many our next precipice will be too great to bear. This is why we must care, and all do our bit and work for the common good of our world, our society, our family and our children. Take your pick.

Jerôme Kerviel was a product of the flawed system and culture. I cannot but admire his walk regardless of the verdict and I am in two minds to join and support him. That is a trek of 1.380KM ! Is Kerviel showing us the long walk to a life in chains confined to a prison with a cliff fall in our midst or is he showing us the long walk to recovery, change and true freedom?

Tuesday 4 March 2014

Our troubled banks: self-serving or serving?

This is a question that one could tackle philosophically, morally or even ideologically that could go to the very heart of our identity and sense of purpose. Nevertheless, I will try to tackle it pragmatically or humanely thrown in with a little common sense. Although as someone amusingly pointed out to me the other day that nowadays the idea of common sense was a rare commodity to come by and appears not to be very common these days.
The more I write about the subject of service, a bygone phenomenon in our European culture, I see it as not such a dissimilar word to one of interest. By this I mean that one could ask one selves when working for a large organisation such as a bank, whose interest are you acting or working for? Is it your own or the company? The shareholders or the customers? Are banks working in the interest of each other, or even the Government?  It is important to distinguish this fact first and foremost with a goal or purpose in mind, to help you define a more coherent path ahead and before really believing whether you are a service orientated bank. To act in all the differing above interests would be inconsistent and ultimately create too many conflicting interests which results in continuous value breakdown and we will never change public perception and move forward.

Putting myself into the position as a paying customer or client with a need, nothing is more satisfying than when your service provider acts or behaves or works in my interest. That for me is essentially the art of serving or a reflection of a service minded business even if mistakes are made. One might say we are paid to serve, to deliver and to contribute to our customer needs. This may require more work in each other to become more selfless whereby avoiding our very own needs. Service does not mean you 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 that we enforce new products down their throats. It is not for the customer to fall under the delusional hoax and clever tactics of the service provider simply for the providers own benefit. Remember what the ex-Goldman’s Sachs 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 the solution together and ultimately be paid for that solution. That is service. That is how we re-instil trust. It is linked to our deeper sense of purpose and belief system.

Self-serving in contrast, is selfish by nature and is simply a reflection of human fear, weakness or failing and is a result of a breakdown in our own belief let alone value system or lack thereof. We are likely to fall into the club of the stressed, the aggrieved, the beleaguered, the greedy and the aggressor, not to mention the low integrity, low self-esteem one is putting oneself into. Self-serving implies your own interest, it means that almost certainly that in the long run you or the other party will lose and you will never find fulfillment. How can you be serving in the interest of the paying customer when your sole interest is one’s own? Therein lays the conflict?

Another word that often corrodes all our common sense is profit or worse of all short term profit as that brings in the essential element of time. Many people may give the impression that time is something in our attitudes we are running out of or even running away from as if we are fighting something greater out of sheer fear, almost to the extent that it has become a limited and valuable resource. Is it this valuable resource that is the only answer to re instil long term belief, trust, synergy and integrity? I don’t know about you but I am tired of such uninspiring and negative business headlines such as profits have risen due to cost cutting or layoffs. Neither is it a reason to pay out higher bonuses. I am longing for headlines such as business profits are up due to … real changes, better creative products for real needs, sound investments, increase customer know what I am getting at. We all understand that profit is important, nevertheless at some point common sense has to prevail that surely profit is the positive result of a well-managed, customer orientated business offering good products and services supported by a motivated and quality work force?

I was a little disconcerted that having discussed with a private banker who was made redundant by Barclays, a bank that I often write about, one that I believe was to be making headway in change and with a strong CEO. She held the belief that good work pays off to the benefit of the customer in which she had always proved and showed. Together with her deep sense of service she was still made redundant. ‘Don’t believe what they all say.’ she said
Banks such as Citibank during the build up toward last Christmas were advertising on Television their credit cards by offering an interest free credit in the first month. The question is how can you offer debt, or pay later system at a discount to entice consumption? We already live in a debt culture that requires repairing not worsening.

Another discussion I had, with a slightly more cynical customer of a bank. ‘What has changed?’ He remarked. ‘If anything we the customer are now doing all the work. All payments and now done by us at home on the internet. It was never like that before. What are they charging us for?’ That one certainly got me thinking. Self-serving or serving, there may be a long way to go yet for a positive change and solutions that encompass a stronger belief system, sense of purpose in our business culture or will a weary impatient public get there first?