Commitment issues: Why bankers need to read more comic books

Dr Leda Glyptis 11:FS Foundry CEO
5min read

We are mid-transformation and while some trends are becoming clear, nothing is set in stone. Leda Glyptis explains while that means there is a window of opportunity it also means decisions need to be made about where, how and why you will play in this new world.

Safety notice: If you don’t like comic books stop reading now.

Over the past 15 years I have found myself in many a room with many a Very Senior Dude in meetings with aspirational titles such as ‘taming uncertainty’ and ‘navigating a digital future’ that boiled down to ‘tell us stuff, then listen to us try to work out why it doesn’t apply to us or (more recently) seek the silver bullet you just finished telling us doesn’t exist’.

I have no intention of being unkind, I was a banker until recently. Still think like one even if I no longer dress the part.

We try to find shortcuts to make radical change more palatable. We talk about cultural transformation. We talk about contained experiments. We talk about non-monetary metrics of success. We create tech radars, and startup showcases and funnels and roadmaps.

And we rattle beautiful things and whisper comforting words. All true and real. We are not being tricked and neither are we fooling ourselves.

But there is no escaping the fact that all that is not the full story and you, dear fellow banker, have commitment issues.

Fully emerged digital capabilities and changing socio-economic realities, constraints and expectations mean that viable business models are changing whether you like it or not.

We are mid digital transformation and although some trends are clear, nothing is set in stone yet. It means you have time (1% finished, remember?) but it’s a window not a runway and it also means you have to decide what you will be in this new world. Where you will play, why and what for. You have to decide and then build to serve the purpose.

It means you have to make choices. And, as we said, that’s hard because you have commitment issues.

Only you don’t want to admit them so you keep trying to make out like it’s not you, it’s the situation (too uncertain), the tech (too new), the digital natives (too immature, too... casual), the startups (too untested), the millennials (too entitled) your own digital professionals (too....different).

If I had a penny for every time a senior exec told me in a patronising tone that they would rather run the tech experiments first, their way, away from all this... openness... as the business piece is not a concern. If I had a penny for every time I was told ‘you don’t understand, we have a business to run, we have shareholders’. If I had a penny for every time a bank tried to transform itself by keeping its options open, neither choosing one direction in the absence of certainty nor really giving anything enough time, resources or headspace, perversely for the same reason.

Believe me, I do understand.

You won’t commit till the die is cast because you don’t trust the digital tribe. They talk, dress and behave like rebels. And they deliver like ninjas. None of this was meant to happen. And yet. We are not going away and, contrary to your deepest wishes, you can’t do this stuff without committing.

Time to believe in things

I love stating the obvious so here it goes. Transformation efforts are exhausting because they go against the grain (if they didn’t, they would be called Tuesday or ‘some more work’) and come with immense uncertainty, choices made on incomplete information, risks and personal investment. So. Believe in it. Or don’t bother.

Believe in the future you are trying to build. Believe in the direction you choose. Believe in your company’s brand permission to do the thing you are setting out to do.

If you don’t believe, you will spend a lot of time and money seeking faith. Seeking proof that things are safe bets, that your choices are the right ones, the only ones. And that proof doesn’t exist. You have to make a choice. You have to take a risk.

It’s hard. But that’s what business is. Choices, risks, difficulties handled.

There is no epiphany.

You will have to make choices and you will make mistakes.

If you are a superhero buff (I did warn you it was coming) you will know only the bad guys are steeped in certainty. The good guys have conviction, they have faith, they know what direction they are going in, but they make mistakes, they have doubt, their only certainty is their belief and their own commitment. They feel inadequate at times but keep striving. And they band together and try hard and keep going.

Superheroes have no commitment issues.

Sure there is nothing universally soul-soaring about overhauling core banking systems and it’s hard to see how creating an open data architecture for your bank makes you worthy of a spot beside Superwoman but believe me when I say to you that your work today helps keep pensions accessible tomorrow, it helps people live their lives and run their businesses in a way that is more democratic, fair, seamless and connected.

It matters. And let’s face it, we love this stuff.

And, for once, feeling like you belong to professor Xavier’s school for gifted children, finance edition, is not sad. It’s useful. Because some hard and expensive choices are afoot and a lot of hard work will follow. Caring is the secret ingredient to staying the course. Banking needs superheroes because those guys have no issues with belief and commitment.

Oh and another thing...

Banking, Superheroes and Choosing Sides

Life is messy. Even for superheroes, there are no absolute truths and, even though we expect a happy and triumphant ending, in the fray, there are no guarantees of success.

Equally, there is no clean finale.

You know how the good guys and the bad guys clash but very very rarely exterminate each other? After the battle they are both tired, bruised yet the balance of things has changed only a little and they live to fight another day?

A bit like that.

The economics of finance have changed.

Disintermediation and unbundling are not straightforward redistribution plays. Your loss may be nobody’s gain in real financial terms. It could just be a paradigm shift pushing everyone to do better, or do different. The pie is not pre sliced. The lunch that the newcomers are trying to eat, wasn’t ever truly yours.

Waiting to see who will survive, what ideas will still be standing before you join the fray to claim your place in the future is short sighted and misinformed. It is also a terrible idea, economically speaking.

The ingrained approach of seeing the world in oppositional terms - think the Avengers vs Thanos, Batman vs the Joker, Charles Xavier vs Magneto - is reassuring only if you are the bad guy of the story. The good guys are happy to live and let live. If left to their own devices they would live their own lives, focus on their own business. It’s not them spoiling for a scrap. They just don’t shy away from the fight when it comes to them. Very different story, there.

Destruction of the opposition is not how the good guys roll.

There is nothing heroic about zero sum games and yet we play them often, either by creating financial sieges (since we have reserves and you do not), by playing valuation bingo at the expense of business viability and by trying to have or have not what the other guy has or has not, rather than what the client and the business needs. There are always reasons why. But they are not good enough.

Choose your side while there is still time. This is not about whether you like Corda or prefer another flavour of DLT. This is about the fundamental morality of your economic positioning and the decisions you make as a result of it. This is about choosing to be one of the good guys rather than waiting to see who wins before picking sides.

It’s time to act. It is time to change.

Believe in heroes. Avoid heroics.

What’s a hero but a person with resources? Bruce Wayne’s money, mutations, alien parentage. Whatever. You have it, you use it, a sense of mission and a relentless determination that brings them back despite their setbacks, fatigue and bruises.

Not being funny. That’s what it takes: Resources and determination.

Stop looking to the smart people you hire whose budget isn’t enough to buy a round of coffees and expect them to set the engine rolling with conference attendance and PowerPoint decks. Stop running experiments hoping that one day you will come into the lab and find that your contained exercise will have reached scale by magic and osmosis, requiring no decisions, commitments or funding.

This new infrastructure is cheaper to run than your old stuff. But it is not a gift from Cinderella’s fairy godmother. That’s a different genre and you are in the wrong story.

You need resources, and you need a special kind of commitment and relentless determination. One won’t do without the other. Not every millionaire is Tony Stark. But without funding, Bruce Wayne is just another dude with a weird fetish for leather, a lot of big ideas and no way to deliver on them.

So hire properly, fund properly and move away from the historic banking view of solo endeavours, late nights and last-minute saves. The fire-fighter and the last-minute rabbit-out-of-hat puller that you have historically rewarded are bad for you on this journey. They are the heroes of the other side.

As you are making difficult choices around profitability and business viability in a constantly reconfiguring economy, as you are building new capabilities with new technology, as you are trying to up-skill your people and retain your customers, you will have enough stress, enough drama and enough call for determination and resilience that to add a penchant for entirely unnecessary heroics is a bridge too far.

Trust in your heroes being constant. Not flamboyant.

Be part of a team

I have said it before and I will say it again. Find your tribe.

How many times have the Avengers said ‘I need some help here?’. Where would Batman be without Alfred? What would Logan do if it wasn’t for the X-men?

Once you have your vision and you have your resources you need to find your heroes. But you are not done yet.

It is your behaviour that will turn your heroes into a team.

Teams by definition avoid unnecessary heroics.

They work together and that requires openness, vulnerability, tolerance for each other’s foibles and quirks. It requires trust. It means that doubts will be shared and so will praise. It means you will each look over each other’s shoulder and have each other’s back. It will mean you will not seek the limelight and keep your best ideas in your back pocket until an executive is in the room or on cc there to witness your brilliance. It means you will join forces and trust. There is enough hard work to be done in building this thing, it makes no sense doing it with people you don’t trust or who you don’t believe have what it takes, in their heart or mind.

If you are ready, all you will need is a few of us to get started. Just like the Avengers, we shall assemble. We will find each other. We will tap each other on the shoulder.

Reach out to the people who you have worked magic with before. Send out the bat signal. If you have managed to summon the courage to commit the business to a future, we can and will do the rest.

I know that despite a decade of startup challenges and innovation centres, the digital folks look and feel alien. A species apart. But if you commit to the vision you will find that we can deliver it for you. If you commit, in the words of Dr Strange ‘I think you will find our will equal to yours’.