Getting the best people on the pitch or the right environment?



This week, under the excellent stewardship of Sean Dyche, Burnley crept into fourth place in the English Premier League, though they’ve since dropped back to sixth (4th-6th are all on 31 points).  Dyche has a limited budget, with no big names lining up as first choice (at least for most people outside Burnley) but, like Leicester two seasons ago, they continue to prove a challenge to the better funded teams in the league – punching above their weight.

There seems to be an obsession in both sporting and corporate worlds with getting the best people ‘on the pitch’, though this often equates to getting the team that the top person is comfortable with!  Some years ago I worked with a consulting firm whose regular advice to clients was to bring in the top talent from across the organisation when they wanted to get a key change programme delivered.

What comes first good leadership or the environment?  I’ve often struggled with this question.  After all a leader can screw up a successful environment quickly but turning an underperforming team into a successful team takes time.  Witness the experience at Manchester United over the past 30 years.  When Sir Alex Ferguson was appointed manager of Manchester United in 1986 he didn’t win his first trophy (the FA Cup) until 1990 and the first of 13 league titles came two years later.  Unusually, in British football Ferguson was given time and, of course, became the most successful manager in British football, retiring in 2013, to be succeeded by David Moyes.

Moyes did what many top managers do – replaced a successful management team with his own people – from Everton, a very different club to Manchester United. So Manchester United have become like so many other clubs – impatient with management, resulting in four managers since Ferguson.  How many times have we seen that in the corporate world – a firm brings in a new CXO from another firm and before long most of their top table are from the same firm! The connections with the wider organisation are lost or diluted, trust dissipates.

In the banking world it’s rare that the CXO is afforded the same patience that Ferguson had but building success and changing culture undoubtedly takes time – something that Sean Dyche at Burnley has been given by Burnley.  Dyche has even survived a relegation into the Championship, having been at Burnley now for five years.  Described last season by Martin Keown as one of the two best managers in the Premier League, he has taken Burnley to the threshold of Champions League football.  Of course, that may all change but Dyche is no short-term flash in the pan.

Some of Dyches quotes are revealing:

“We make the environment a good place to be and I think that’s important…Players are human and if you can make it an enjoyable but informative environment then I think that’s the right way to work.  The first thing really is to align your new group with what you can offer them – that’s certainly what I did. I thought there were things we could put in place to enhance their individual potential and collective potential.”

So, for Dyche, creating the right environment that is both enjoyable and helps players improve has been important to getting results.

“A lot of psychology goes into some of our planning.  I want the players to know that they can grow here, develop as players and get results.”

“I have worked very hard to make my life what it is. I Love Gary Player’s quote ‘the harder I work the luckier I become’. Fortune favours the prepared. I like that.”

Preparation and helping players achieve their potential are clearly key to Dyche’s approach but, while the mention of psychology might not be surprising, how often is it considered explicitly in the modern workplace.  Dyche has a clear vision of how to set his team up and communicates it effectively to his players.  He has provided an environment for growth and has a group of players that work as a cohesive team.

I once worked with a consulting firm whose advice to clients was regularly to bring in the top talent across a programme team to deliver change.  However, it’s the leadership that really counts.  Getting the right environment and culture and teams will flourish, the wrong environment and even the most talented can be set up to fail.

I was asked to take over a failing programme at a major bank some years ago and, while the major consulting firms were advocating sending in teams of people and replacement of a failing team, I was fortunate enough to be taken on by someone who believed in our approach of coaching the team.  We developed an environment where collaboration and support became the norm and the same team with only minor tweaks that had been seen as a basket case became a cohesive and highly effective delivery team.

To do this takes time and the results are not always evident in the early stages, however, with a clear vision and persistence the transformation can be profound.   The first few weeks are often challenging – particularly as senior management want to see quick results – quick results are often not sustainable results.  Getting teams to perform at their optimum needs giving them the space and time to do so.

Google Isn’t The Answer

Something of a departure from my norm, though it has some relevance in a strong relationship to a piece earlier in the year on the value and culture of the supporting entourage of tennis players.

Undoubtedly, the pressure has been on large corporations and the financial services sector, in which I do most of my work, particularly, as these firms struggle to attract the brightest technology talent in the face of competition from the large technology firms, as well as niche tech start-ups and nimbler hedge funds.

In the face of this challenge there has been an on-going temptation to want to be more like Google!  Their cool working environments have attracted a lot of attention over the past decade or so.  This seems to have gone hand in hand with a culture that has attracted fine tech and business talent.

In working in an innovation function in a bank over the last year or so and meeting with other people from large firms in innovation teams, it’s been interesting to see firms and teams ‘try’ and be ‘like Google’, or indeed create spaces that are ‘Google like’, as though this will address the challenge of talent attraction.

I was recently told by someone in HR at a large bank that they invited the CIO to present at an off-site for their team.  The thrust of his presentation was to hold up Laszlo Bock’s fine book ‘Work Rules!’ – described as ‘Insights from inside Google that will transform the way you live and lead’ – the CIO in question then instructed the HR team to read it, teeling them that this was how we need to be!

It’s insane for Deutsche Bank, Morgan Stanley, HSBC or any other large bank to try and be like a large tech company.  Sorry Larry but Google isn’t the answer to everything, though I’m sure you’d agree in this case!

Of course, there are lessons that we can learn from Mr Bock and from Google but Google are Google and, although they may ultimately be competitors to the big banks in some areas they are not Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank or HSBC.  They are a relatively recently formed company with their own culture, just like Amazon, Faebook, Innocent, Steam and a host of others with ‘cool’ working cultures.  Their cultures and environments have been developed as part of their journey, which will continue to evolve. The firms that are truly agile and innovative are far more collaborative than the directive cultures that pervade large financial services firms.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favour of having a cool culture, after all it seems obvious to state that people will be far more productive if they actually enjoy coming to work. By the way, while some of you may yearn to be in professional sport, not every elite athlete enjoys what they do – witness the outburst from Bernard Tomic earlier in the year and plenty of stories of players struggling under the weight of expectation from domineering parents.  Undoubtedly, though, those at the peak of their sport work hard and enjoy what they do.

We stray though – research has shown that millennials want purpose in their work – though this is a little limiting, it’s not only millenials that benefit from having clear purpose – of course, it provides everyone with greater motivation.

So, in the context of thinking about cultures that attract talent, it is far easier to give techies purpose in their roles in an IT company. In contrast, my experience is that there’s a fundamental disconnect between purpose and activity for many techies in Financial Services.

All large banks have a challenge, which has existed for many years, which is more pronounced in investment banking.  As someone who spent the first ten years as a trader, I can personally witness to the cultural disconnect that continues to exist between the revenue generators (trading, sales, originiiation, etc) and the support services in banks – not just IT but Operations, Risk, Finance, Legal, etc.  Many of these are seen as business by IT – a sure sign of the lack of understanding of the bank’s purpose!

Historically, the business generating areas in investment banking have been relatively agile and innovative – I started writing bond options in 1982, also witness the growth of new products, from simple swaps to more complex structures, some of which have become commoditised and common place.


The picture above was something put together for the CIO of a large bank a few years ago – this was to illustrate that the further away from the business functions (to the right and down the chart) you go the less likely people in the IT functions would understand the business drivers as to why they are there.  There are exceptions of course and size and type of organisation are also relevant. However, in general terms in my experience this holds true.

Together with on-going years of defensive behaviour and cost-cutting, driven by a number of factors, including increased regulation, this has heightened the low trust environments that persist in financial services.  Deeply ironic, when the whole industry is built on trust.

So, the lesson, which we used to use with our kids – is ‘be yourself, you can’t be anyone else’!