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’!

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