These are complex corporate times but as the fingers of blame for the global economic downturn have been pointed at various external stakeholders, it’s interesting to hear the term “culture” creeping into the post mortem about the banking sector.
I’ve become increasingly fascinated by the growing abuse of the term performance culture within performance management parlance. For me this phrase has become inextricably linked with the drive for delivering shareholder value in quarterly increments and the “up or out” mentality which has spilled over from investment banking.
But where does this leave the zealots now that a number of the investment banking super-tankers have holed themselves on the reefs of greed, selfishness, arrogance and some fairly suspect practice? It’s time for a fundamental re-think. The infrastructure underpinning many employment brands is clearly in need of a dramatic overhaul.
The current witch hunt for high profile scapegoats amongst the executive leadership cadre may “give good headline” but this sideshow threatens to distract from the core issues. Controversially I would go so far as to suggest that the culture problem is a widespread issue every bit as serious as the accusations of systemic racism levelled at the police force back in the 90s. Arguably this crisis will have even more far reaching consequences.
Far from being advocates of what have often been derided as “nice to have” initiatives, in these tough times, organisation development should be prioritised as part of the recovery process and OD professionals should be leading the revolutionary line. The time has come for comprehensive internal reviews followed by an energetic re-positioning of the vision, mission and values and associated people processes within many of our leading brand names. This should be the first step towards a re-framing of the definition of performance in the context of the employer or employment brand
This is a complex issue but consider for a second the long established theory that an individual is at their most effective within a role some 2.5 years into the job. Or reflect on the equally established best practice that leaders should spend most of their first 100 days listening and gathering information. Contrast this with the notion of “hitting the ground running” and the obsession with quarterly shareholder reporting and year on year incremental targeting regardless of conditions. Mixed messages?
It seems a little old fashioned in these high octane times but there’s sound logic underpinning leadership best practices which call for considered, well paced decision making based upon an understanding that the decision makers will still be around when the impact of their decisions come to fruition.
Bankers, for example, used to be remunerated on the basis of loyalty bonuses and benefits packages at preferential rates. Not so long ago, any posting on a c.v. revealing tenure in a role of under three years was viewed with suspicion. Lift the drains on the recent recruitment drive amongst the retail banking sector and you will be greeted by whole teams made up of job-hopping former investment bankers.
Of course the flipside of low employee turnover includes problems with innovation, pace and inertia. But inertia and stability are two very different things. The latter was once a highly prized commodity even in important parts of the investment market but was derided by the “short termists”. What wouldn’t shareholders now give for even incremental returns on their investments?
Those in the know suggest that many of the high profile leaders who will be appearing in committees over the next few months have been off the record advocates of culling grey hair in their staff ranks. What price wisdom now?
Don’t get me wrong. I very much believe in the notion of a culture of performance. That’s why we’re all in business after all. I just don’t believe in the notion of winning at all costs.
I’m realistic enough to understand that sustainability, network building and relationship development are the bedfellows of integrity, accountability, security and trust (the values, ironically, most popularly used to advertise the wares of financial services companies). I’m certainly not calling for a complete return to the old hierarchies and command and control regimes but it’s clear that there’s going to have to be a large dose of mature,“back to the future” thinking if the nirvana of an appropriate and authentic performance culture is ever going to be achieved by arguably our most influential businesses and brands.
Ian is the author of Brand Engagement: How Employees Make or Break Brands