Thursday, 31 October 2013

Be Fruitful

Last week I found myself as Key Note speaker at the Financial Services HR Leaders’ Strategy Meeting 2013 in London - a first for me, as having damaged my hip, I had to speak to whilst sitting down.  I hope people didn't think I was being rude.  I am indebted to a fellow Human Resources Director, who unexpectedly had to pull out of the conference, not only for the opportunity but also for his title: What does “strengthen your core, innovate your business” mean for HR in Financial Services?  Given that today is Halloween, a day on which apple bobbing is a traditional pastime, I thought I’d swiftly share with you the points I covered in my talk, many of which centred on fruit and fruitful approaches.

As you know, I firmly believe that you reap what you sow.  When I was at school, there was a girl in my class called Sarah.  For some reason, Sarah really irritated one member of staff and I remember this teacher yelling at Sarah
“You are rotten, rotten to the core.” 

This is a shocking thing to shout at anyone, but potentially a devastating statement for a young girl hitting puberty.  Sarah was shocked and hurt and spent much time mulling the phrase over.  Eventually she decided that, if she was already a lost cause there was little point in trying to be an obedient and studious pupil.  Sarah became a rebel and, to my mind, her decision can be traced back to the expectations expressed of her and they way that she was spoken to.  Admittedly, there are occasions when telling an individual that they are potentially doomed to be a failure can drive their behaviour the other way.  My father’s office was next that of the father of a boy who was seen as different, a troublesome handful at school.  His headmaster told him that

“You will either go to prison or become a millionaire”

The father was so exasperated by his son’s conduct that it fell to family friends, such as my father, to give the lad funds to establish a small magazine (initially a school publication) that grew into a national student magazine with interviews with Mick Jagger and John Lennon, and which was the first entrepreneurial success for young Richard Branson.  Some people need a challenge to spur them on.  Much depends on how you react to the way you are perceived by others.

As Marcellus famously says to Horatio in Hamlet, there is

“Something rotten in the state of Denmark”

And one could claim a similar opinion towards the state of Banking.  Certainly, Financial Services as a whole have not been well perceived since the Financial Markets crisis of 2007-2009 and it is not hard to see why.  The wasp-like Media has feasted on a glut of issues, including:

  1.  UBS being accused of concealing assets
  2.  RBS, HSBC, Standard Chartered and others allegedly involved in money laundering
  3.  J.P. Morgan Chase - $7 Billion trading mishap and more recent problems
  4.  Barclays settles re Libor rate rigging
  5.  Anglo Irish Bank directors recorded planning to deceive regulators
  6.  ING named for aiding illicit Iranian and Cuban transactions
  7.  Capital One accused of deceiving customers
  8.  Occupy Wall Street
  9.  Mis-selling of insurance by retail banks & credit card providers
  10. 80% of the world’s 26 banking and finance unions have cited stress as a major problem for their members – UNI survey 16 Oct 2013
  11. Huge pressure on staff - since 2008 the big 4 banks have cut around 180,000 jobs 

Financial Services’ reputation has been badly damaged, as Casio says to Iago in Othello:

“Oh I have lost my reputation I have lost the immortal part of myself and what remains is bestial.”

The only thing that can restore the institutions’ reputations and the trust of their customers and clients is the conduct of the people who work within them.  People working in Financial Services must do what is right.  As Douglas Adams once said:

“To give real service you must add something which cannot be bought or measured with money, and that is sincerity and integrity.”

HR’s area of expertise is people and hence now is the time when HR should shine.

To be taken seriously, HR needs to prove itself to be commercially astute and have the strength to stand up for what is right and in the long-term, sustainable interests of the industry, as opposed to caving in to short-term greed and personal gain.  I have mentioned before the situation with the pear orchards in Sichuan where it was believed that a greater commercial harvest could be reaped by eliminating insects that damaged the fruit.  Powerful insecticides were utilised that destroyed all insects – now, due to the lack of pollinators, men have to climb the trees and pollinate the blossom by hand.  HR needs to speak out and address the shortcomings in strategic plans and proposed behaviours.

HR needs to be brave and when necessary make the hard decisions – all orchards are enhanced by judicious pruning.

There is much to be said for focusing on core business activities when times are tough.  Some topical examples include:

  • Twitter, which is concentrating on its mobile offering going forward as that is where it anticipates most customer usage in the years ahead
  • Burberry which has turned itself around by strengthening its core retail offering thereby producing 17% growth – it as also interesting to note that Apple launched its latest handset on the Burberry catwalk – an indication perhaps of closer connections to come.

Apple, of course, has traditionally been hailed for its focus on innovation. Collaboration and Innovation are two key buzzwords being used to explain the anticipated success of leading businesses going forwards.  When done well, innovation can be the key to success much like the appeal of the unusual citrus tree below (clever grafting has enabled grapefruit, oranges, limes, lemons and clementines to be harvested simultaneously).

But you need to take care not to overdo it.  This apple tree has 250 varieties of apple but the man who created it can no longer name or remember each type without assistance.

Over the past year I have worked hard with fellow executives to introduce some innovative approaches and roles within my own employer.  We know and are proud of the fact that we provide a unique offering for our clients based on understanding and trust.  HR has earned its place and has a voice that is listened to when considering our strategic direction and drivers for success.  I urge you to look at your offering and business model, truly understand what your clients value and work to ensure, through relationships based on integrity, that both you and they can thrive.  It is HR’s role to ensure that the businesses we work for and the employees within them are well organised, flourishing and fruitful.  Like the honeybee, HR can bring a little sweetness to the world.

Fruit trees at Highgrove House


  1. Do we know what happened to poor Sarah?

  2. Well said Kate. And it's not just the financial industry, the energy sector, including the oil giants are also rotten to their core and just now I hear the 5 trillion forex industry with 40% of it in London is under investigation for suspicious trading during 60 seconds at the end of the trading day. HR has a major role in helping the misguided and the greedy to get their priorities back in line. It will take many years for them to see the errors of their ways. Success!