How Bankers Can Save the World (8 mins)


What is the purpose of our life? We don’t often think of that question, especially when at work. Many of us will say that it is to be happy and healthy. Others may say to have a fun time. For me, it would have to be leaving the world in a better place than when I entered it. This would be at every level from family to work to community to the world. Another related question, then, is what is the biggest problem in the world? Some may say climate change, others income inequality, yet others war and terrorism. For me though, when I think about this I think is the lack trust that pervades our culture.

Useless experts

In fact, I think the so-called rise of populism is really a slap in the face of those that were running institutions and governments over the last few decades. We were supposed to live an era of technologically-driven growing prosperity and a post-Communist safe world. Instead we are still reeling from the after-shocks of the 2008 financial crisis and wars gone wrong. It is natural that we no longer trust the supposed experts who had been running the show. And it’s no wonder that someone like Donald Trump won the US election – his lack of political experience was viewed as a positive and his show “The Apprentice” made people feel like they knew the real man.

Not a move to the right-wing

But importantly this also means that the underlying force is not a move to the political right across the world, rather it’s a move to figures who are perceived to be trustworthy. This week’s Dutch election is a case in point. The right-wing candidate, Geert Wilders, failed to make the biggest gains – instead it was the Green Party  that gained the most. Its agenda was tackling climate change, European integration and reforming labour markets to make it easier for immigrants to get jobs. The party is led by Jesse Klaver, a 30-year old whose father has Moroccan background and mother has a mixed Dutch and Indonesian background.

Digital unreality

What hasn’t helped the trust situation is the rise of social media and smartphones. They have created a whole new digital universe that we live that bears little resemblance to reality. We use filters to make our photos look great then post it on Instagram. We see our friends having seemingly amazing lives. Yet we know much of this is fake, which makes us suspicious of even those close to us. Then we enter news bubbles which make people outside our “tribe” look terrible, which exaggerates the “otherness” of outsiders. Smartphones brings this digital reality to us with alerts almost continuously through the day. Even when meet someone physically, the presence of our phones keeps our minds distracted and consequently fails to make deep connections with others.

Banking is inevitable

You may be wondering why if I care about the world am I working in banking then. It is one of the least-trusted professions and caused the financial crisis. Well, the first thing I would say is that banking has existed in almost all types of societies throughout time. Even Islamic civilisations, which should in theory frown upon lending with interest (the Quran forbids usury), had thriving banking systems. In the early 11thcentury, Basrah in today’s Iraq contained perhaps the first cashless shopping district, where bank-based cheques were used. So given that banking is a natural part of any society, we cannot pretend to hope it can just be eradicated and all problems solved.

The business of trust

More fundamentally, banking is the ultimate business of trust. It deals in something that is not real, money, which is entirely based on trust. Its value lies entirely on the basis that a stranger believes it has value. If segments of society no longer trust in “money” or the banks that hold it, then the whole system collapses as we saw in 2008. If society stops trusting in banks, they come in to regulate banks to ensure the system remains viable. In that way, regulation can be seen as a symptom of a lack of trust in bankers. So if bankers want less regulation, they should demonstrate they can be trusted.

Fear culture

This brings me to our working lives. Are we working in a trust-based culture or fear-based culture. For if we’re not working in trusting environment how can we expect society to trust us. So how do we know which culture we are in? Well, it’s actually quite easy. When we make a mistake, if everyone around starts to blame us, we work in a fear-based culture. In that culture, it’s all about not taking chances, hiding mistakes and looking for faults in others. Alternatively If everyone chips in to help us when we make a mistake, then we work in a trust-based culture. In that culture, we want to stretch ourselves and take changes, we share mistakes and look to help others.

Pixar magic

The power of a trust-based culture is probably best seen the animation company Pixar Studios [1]. When it was founded in 1986, Disney was the champion of animated movies with such hits as Beauty and Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King. But Pixar delivered Toy Story in 1995, which marked the beginning of an almost unmatched string of hits including Finding Nemo, The Incredibles and Inside Out. Ed Catmull, one of the co-founders of Pixar, attributed its success to it its trust-based culture. An example of this was Pixar’s regular “Braintrust” meetings. This would be where all the team would get together, someone would present a movie idea and then everyone would openly critique it. All opinions were welcome and encouraged and ultimately it would be down to the idea-holder to incorporate the suggestions or not. Importantly, in the meetings, there was no dancing around “elephants in  the room” or holding back. This only worked if everyone trusted each other.

Pointless meetings

Now for anyone that has worked in a bank, or indeed in any company, knows that most meetings follow a script: typically one or two people hold forth, everyone else stays silent, many are scrolling through their social media feeds and nothing gets agreed in the meeting. Then after the meeting, people express their true opinions to each other and talk about how the proposals suggested will never work. Everyone then returns to their desk, and the meeting will have had no consequence save to have wasted everyone’s time [2]. It’s one of the reasons I try to avoid most internal meetings.

Culture can be turned around

So Pixar’s approach is quite different to this. But it is not unique to them. In 2006, Disney bought Pixar to revive its failing animation studio. The original idea was for Pixar and the Disney Animation unit to merge, but the Pixar management decided to keep the units separate. They preferred to inject the Pixar culture into Disney Animation, by for example introducing the Brain Trust meeting concept. The result was remarkable. The newly revived Disney unit created Bolt, The Princess and the Frog and  Tangled – all moderate successes. In 2013, the studio created Frozen. This movie went on to become the most successful animation feature of all time grossing over $1.2 billion. It also has engrained the words “let it go” in the minds of millions of children and their parents. Anyway, this all shows the building trust at the team level can have profound effects on an organisation.

No pain, no gain

This may sound great, especially if everyone else does it, but for us it may be hard to reveal our faults or make mistakes. It’s also very tempting to resort to criticising others in the hope of making us look good. Underlying this is the fear we feel when we face difficulties. We’d rather always be content and happy then have to have a “bad patch”. Yet paradoxically the only way we can mature and grow as a person is to embrace the down times. They are inevitable, but our attitude to them is not.

The dark side

Returning to movies, this is best shown through the Star Wars franchise. In the middle trilogy, the one that we look back at embarrassingly, the story of Anakin Skywalker is told. He’s a gifted child, grows into a potential saviour, but gets consumed with rage when his wife pregnant wife Padme Amidala dies and turns into the evil Darth Vader. Shakespeare was great at describing this type of descent. In my favourite play of his, Othello, the titular character gets so engulfed in jealousy, thanks to his devious advisor Iago, that he ends up killing his love, Desdemona. He then commits suicide.

The force is good

But the alternative is shown in the other Star Wars movies. In the original trilogy, we have Luke Skywalker who like his father is gifted and grows into a potential saviour, but rather than getting consumed with anger, he overcomes adversity by turning to the Force. He is now the saviour and features in the final scene of the recent Star Wars: A Force Awakens as a messianic character. Coming back to the real world, Steve Jobs also followed a similar arc, where he invented the personal computer and the company Apple, was booted out by management in the 1980s, had his wilderness years failing to revolutionise the high-end computer market through NeXT and working with Pixar team, and returned to Apple fold where revolutionised the world with the I-Phone.

Be a hero

Joseph Campbell, one of the great chroniclers of common threads within cultures, described this pattern as the hero’s journey [3]. His ideas deeply influenced George Lucas, who created the Star Wars series. In essence, Campbell found that almost all cultures and religions, contained myths and stories that that feature a hero who often is an orphan, is thrown various obstacles, overcomes them and receives some kind of enlightenment or revelation, he then returns to his community with this new found wisdom

The point here is that when you are faced with challenges whether at work or your personal life don’t run away from it, rather embrace them, feel the pain, get help from mentors or friends and try to grow from the experience. In the end, we can only really change as people when we go through such difficulties that our sense of self gets broken and it can be re-moulded into a more mature self.

Your trust compass

Let me end by saying that the world is desperate for authenticity and trust. We are working in the industry of trust. Bankers lost the trust of society, and so we have the opportunity to demonstrate that change can happen and banking can become trustworthy once again. But this can only happen if we are trustworthy, so in every action you do, think whether it will increase trust or reduce trust [4]. When we speak ill of someone behind their back, when we take credit for someone else’s work or when we fail to advertise the good work of others, are we increasing trust or not? Good luck with your career in banking, and remember all eyes are on you.

[1] See Creativity Inc (2014), Ed Catmull. The author was the co-founder of Pixar and gives an insight into their culture.

[2] The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (2002), Patrick Lencioni. A fun read in narrative form a new division head trying to fix a company

[3] The Hero With A Thousand Faces (19490, Joseph Campbell. Sweeping overview of how myths express themselves in different cultures.

[4] For reading lists on books that can help you succeed at work click here and here



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