By Rachel Reece

Over the holidays, I bought my 13-year old daughter a book titled “The Art of Being a Brilliant Teenager” by Andy Cope. My daughter is already brilliant (no bias of course!) and from the reviews online, the book looked packed full of interesting content covering everything from relationship advice to ideas for future careers. She started reading it almost immediately and loved it. Then, she showed me the following page about careers:

“If you want to be a footballer you to have to be practicing 7 days a week and will have to start playing for your local team. Now!

“If you want to be a web-designer you need to start designing websites. Now!

“If you want to be in the Army you need to be in the cadets. Now!

Tell me when you’ve got the point!

“If you want to go to Uni you need to be working your backside off. Now!

If you want to be a Banker you need to get used to having no mates NOW and FOREVER!”

So there it was, in black and white: don’t be a banker kids, or you’ll face a life of loneliness and misery.

Shocked by the innocent negativity of the statement, it prompted me to reflect on who or what is a banker? How has it become such an undesirable profession? And can we ever hope to change this perspective?

Starting with the first question…. what is a banker? For anyone who doesn’t work in the financial services industry, a banker covers a wide range of different roles and even whole geographies. Whether you work in investment banking, asset management, insurance or any other financial service related firm – you are a banker. If you work in the City of London or Wall Street, or even perhaps Luxembourg, Frankfurt or Switzerland, you must be a banker.

To the outsider, the world of financial services is, a mysterious and altogether Machiavellian place – associated with greed, self-interest and (post the financial crisis) even incompetence. I was once a banker too – working in asset management marketing. But the world has changed a lot since then, and financial services must up its game to adapt. Not doing so, or not being perceived to change for the better, will leave the financial industry and the “bankers” who work there in the purgatory of public opinion at best, or without any mates – now and forever.

Much has been written about the huge changes in society and technology that are impacting financial services. And yet somehow the image of banking has stayed stubbornly outdated. Mainstream banks appear hopelessly bound to antiquated, legacy processes and procedures that appear to deny their clients any perception of efficiency or flexibility, and corporate culture appears to be increasingly out of tune with a civilization that is demanding more transparency, more inclusiveness and interconnectivity. Those firms who appear more reactive to change are labeled, hedge funds or Fintech and are regarded by the man on the street.with suspicion, not trust. The culture and communications of most financial services companies is weak and prosaic. Alien language and vague propositions abound in every corner.

 One of the few institutions seeking to strike a more relevant, contemporary and engaging tone is HSBC with their recent UK campaign “We are not an island” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ujd90spQGU0), (which has generated over 8 million views to date. Key to any change in culture, however, is to match glitzy messaging to reality. In a world of consumers who no longer believe that a banker’s word is his bond, claims need to be backed by action and stories that ooze authenticity. Only this will fundamentally shift public perceptions such as that expressed in my daughter’s book.

How is this even possible? It will be hard work, painstaking in its brick by brick conversion and, most importantly, requires firms starting from inside the organisation, not with its PR departments and external advertising. It requires a much more human-centred and holistic approach to leadership & culture. It also requires making whole organisations relentlessly focused on the creation of customer value. Literally: how can we add greater value to all our various constituents. This means focusing the organisational efforts of the financial industry on new and better ways of supporting customers with their savings and pensions, of facilitating business success and improving livelihoods, enabling investments in better infrastructure and sustainable development. As Anthony Smith-Meyer of thegovernanceproject.org once told me: Too many firms make the mistake of believing that the core purpose of their company is to produce profits. It is not. Profits are merely a performance indicator that a firm is producing value in their products or services that people are willing to pay good money for. That value creation is at the core of long term success; net profit is a distraction.

Improving the financial stability, sustainability and increasing client confidence in the future are all noble and essential causes, for the individuals in financial services, as much as for society as a whole. To recognize this, and act on it, would be to succeed in putting genuine corporate social responsibility at the heart of banking. It would be a far cry from the accusations and reality of greed and self-interest that have dogged the profession for so long. Such an approach would be much more powerful and relevant for a young audience today than any advertising campaign could hope to achieve by itself.

If the financial services industry is to attract the strongest talent into the sector in future, then this change is essential. Indeed, it’s just as relevant and important to inspire, engage and retain the best people already in the profession. Speaking about this topic to Jim Ware, founder of Focus Consulting Group and a fellow warrior in the mission to make “financial services better”, he observed:

“I’m not sure I would want my daughters in the world of financial services. And they have NO interest in it at all. That’s kind of telling. But the good news is that the financial world is changing. Lots of leaders are starting to tune in to creating a better world.”

This is no small challenge and yet, like Jim, I am hopeful. I believe all of us involved in financial services have an opportunity to raise our game in 2020 – to invest in better corporate culture and leadership, and to deliver greater value for our customers and for society overall. If we do this, then maybe Andy Cope will be required to update the advice in his book and publish a second edition!

Rachel Treece is the CEO of fts global and WELLBUSINESS™

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