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’!


The Performance Comes First …. Or Does It?



It certainly comes before the outcome.  In the semi finals of the ATP Tour Finals Federer did not perform sufficiently well against the improving David Goffin.  While he took the first set with ease, Goffin was increasingly aggressive in the second set and Federer started missing that usually reliable forehand, the one that normally has the attributes of an exocet missile!

One sports journalist argued some time ago that Federer’s beautiful game was a consequence of his assassin like approach to winning.  In contrast, the same journalist in another article described how Johan Cruyff wanted to play beautifully, for which he wanted to be remembered, both as player and manager. I believe it’s evident that incredible athletes like Cruyff in his prime and Federer worked incredibly hard to achieve a level of performance that has been awesome in it’s beauty (with Federer this is still the case). At the O2 over a week ago he may have lost but for much of the match the quality of tennis was outstanding, particularly given it was the end of a long season when players are undoubtedly a little tired.  The final the following day between Dimitrov and Goffin also proved to be a high level and close contest between two of the slightly younger generation of players.

In sports psychology there is a common ordering of process – performance – outcome.  For a particular outcome, or end result,  you need a certain level of performance and therefore you start with the process you need to go through to achieve the performance.  However, perhaps it should be prefaced by preparation, though some see this as part of the process.   Though in tennis terms the process usually describes what the player goes through prior to and during the match – this includes the vital routines that players go through between points that enable them to tune out of the previous point and re-focus on the next.  Then, of course, if the performance is better than your opponents the outcome is a victory.

Preparation includes ensuring an athlete is in peak shape to achieve the performance, as well as practice to develop the ability to execute shots consistently in a range of contexts.

Of course, in the world of work, we rarely give significant consideration to preparation, process, performance but all too often focus purely on outcomes.  While delivering the right outcome is critical by neglecting the steps to enable high levels of performance we are inviting mediocrity or even failure – a deep irony in the world I’ve spent much of my time on where failure is not tolerated.

Much of knowledge work is based around meetings and personal interaction, yet how often do we just wing it?  Most of the firms that I have worked in over the last two decades or more, senior managers often spend their time going from meeting to meeting, with little opportunity to prepare or reflect on the outcome.

This, in conjunction with the pervading culture (top down directive) in many large established corporations is an inhibitor to performance and of innovation.  This is in contrast to top athletes who will continually experiment to improve.

One of my more recent roles was establishing an innovation function at a large bank.  I’ve also been to a number of innovation events focused on financial services in the last year – one theme that consistently crops up is that of culture.  The pervading culture – hierarchical and top down directive – is seen as a barrier to innovation, quite rightly.

Lots of folks want to be involved in innovation or fintech – it’s cool – but getting folks who’ve spent their lives in these hierarchical cultures to change the way they think and behave is a major challenge.  There are good reasons and being like Google is not the answer!


Next time …. Why being like Google is not the answer!

Getting The Basics Right…


I was hoping an end to this tennis year would result in a final at the ATP tour finals between the two outstanding players of the year and possibly of all time, Federer and Nadal.  Especially as I’ve got tickets for the final!

However, while Federer continues to show that at the grand old age of 36 that he can still outsmart the new kid on the block, Zverev, it was sad to see a Nadal, half a yard short on pace on Monday lose to David Goffin and end his season.

One of my rants this year has been to see top players, particularly amongst the women, playing drop shots and staying back. It’s not only the women but some of the men.  When you play a drop shot, good or bad, unless the other player has no hope of getting there, following it in to the net is the smart play.  It’s something that Federer and Nadal just about always do.  In doing so, if the other player only just gets to it you’re likely to have an easy put away and if it’s a poor drop shot at least by coming forward you reduce your opponents options.

Watching some of the matches at the US Open earlier in the year I was shocked at how many drop shots  were played and the player stayed at the back of the court, particularly in some of the later rounds in the women’s singles.

Of course, how we play is contextual, determined by the style of play of our opponents, our own capabilities, whether we are playing singles, doubles, etc.  It was great to see Melo and Kubot awarded the year end doubles number one trophy after their win on Monday night. It followed a routine but well executed win against Granollers and Dodig.

When next watching top doubles players, observe player positioning and serve placement. The vast majority of serves are played down the middle or into the body of the receiver.  Serving out wide in doubles, unless it’s an ace, gives the receiver too many options, particularly exposing your partner to being passed down the line. Top players will, most of the time, aim to control the play when serving by compressing play down the middle of the court.

I was asked on Monday why doubles players touched each other between points. It’s not congratulatory, as it happens whether the point has been won or lost but it’s a routine  and, like many that are now taught in tennis, it has a purpose.  In doubles it primarily emphasises the connection between the players and hence the team element, the players are in it together and the best doubles teams retain constant communication and contact.

While running a large programme team at a large investment bank a few years ago a young technical analyst asked me, referring to some of the senior management of the bank, why such seemingly bright people seemed to lack common sense! The programme had been a basket case and we subsequently turned it around despite the behaviour of some of the people round us.

There was a telling interaction between myself and the analyst not long afterwards that revealed something of the cockeyed culture of the environments we sometimes have to work in. I was on a rolling three month contract and, having restructured the programme and overseen successful deliveries, I informed the bank that I would not renew the next time.  The analyst in question indicated a certain amount of dismay at my imminent departure. When I pointed out that my replacement was highly capable and things were in much better shape he said he understood but that he was bothered because I cared! Now I consider myself a normal human being but not significantly more caring than the next individual, so I asked why he thought that.  He said that every time he saw me for the first time in the morning I said ‘good morning’ and asked how he was and also said good night when he or I left.  I was a little startled, as to me this is normal human behaviour but on questioning further it appeared that previously team members rarely spoke, communicated mostly by email and pleasantries were rare!

It’s not the only time I’ve encountered poor basic communication at all levels in a work context but without getting such simple basics right how can we ever expect to build cohesive teams?

Like players making brief contact with each other in doubles between points, these may seem trivial or minor points but they are an element that can make a significant difference to the functioning and cohesion of a team.

How Come Rafa …?

Oh, so it’s not the head to head we might have been hoping for in Cincinnati this week. Fed has withdrawn to nurse a tweak to his back and, as a result, Rafa will replace Andy Murray as world number one next Monday. Rafa returns to the top three years since he last held the top ranking.

With the withdrawal from competition for the rest of the year of Djokovic and Murray’s injury problems, it could be an interesting tussle for the top spot over the rest of the year. Federer has no points to defend for the rest of the year and Nadal very few. So it could be back to the familiar two horse race of two old staggers running up to the end of year – into their thirties and both a managing their schedules with care.

Should Federer get back to number one, which is a distinct possibility, he will set another record of being the oldest number one. It’s amazing what you can do at the tender age of 36!

However, for what seems like many years now pundits have talked about his demise, as they were talking about Rafa’s last year. Yet here we are coming up to the final slam of the year and it’s two to Roger and one to Rafa. Wayne Gretzky commented last week in Montreal that he considered Roger to be not simply the greatest tennis player of all time but one of the top three athletes of all time – up there with Pele, Michael Jordan, etc. Rafa’s probably not far behind given his achievements in a slightly shorter career. Time marches on and there will come a time when neither will be challenging at the highest level and we, like them will have to move on, looking for the new elite players to take their place, as surely they will.

Small Change – Big Impact …

Fed Cilic

So, the old codger does it again.  Let’s celebrate Fed’s achievement – his eighth Wimbledon, 11th Wimbledon final and 19th slam and, at close to 36, the old man achieved it without the loss of a set.

Although it was the first time since 2009 that Federer has won a slam without having to play another member of the big four (Nadal, Djokovic, Murray), Federer seems to be playing better than ever.  As one pundit put it, he has to thank the other top players for pushing his game on.  His once suspect backhand, that Nadal used to attack relentlessly, has become a weapon of power and beauty.  His movement and speed around the court has been exceptional. He continues to strive to improve despite having reached such heights as a player.

As he said in his post-match interview with Sue Barker, “I kept on believing and dreaming” and five years since his last victory at Wimbledon, with two final losses to Djokovic in between, he was here again.  Roger, the favourite, yet he still had to execute.

In contrast, the losing finalists in both the men’s and women’s seemed to lose their way.  Venus, following relentless pressure from Muguruza and Cilic, where a number of factors got in the way – an injury, first time in a Wimbledon final and the relentless pressure from Roger from the off.

In execution, Federer’s pressure came from the very first point and, while Cilic resisted well at the outset, even out hitting Federer in the first four games, Federer’s pressure finally told in the fifth game, when he broke the Cilic serve.  Other factors started to come into play – the occasion and an injury (blister) to Cilic’s foot.  These are things that professional athletes have to deal with, indeed Federer admitted to feeling nerves and whether it was the ability of Cilic to reach other serves others couldn’t or the occasion, Fed himself served two double faults in the first set – it’s rare for him to serve more than two in a match!

So Cilic had a break point in the fourth game and failed to convert, then, as so often is the case, was broken in the following game. A similar thing had happened in the women’s final, where Venus had had set points at 5-4, only to be broken in the next game and then capitulate under the constant pressure from Muguruza.

One noticeable thing and small but significant change with Federer was that, having battled Cilic’s power with power in the first few games, the match was tight and close. Fed then took the pace off some of the shots, which led to errors from Cilic, as he was having to generate his own place.  The small psychological impact of not converting a break point, together with a small tactical change from Fed changed the flow of the game.  In the fifth game Cilic found himself 0-40 down, following a string of errors, saving two break points he finally conceded his serve on the third.

In sport, as in work, small things can have a significant impact on proceedings and so it did in the final.  Federer with a greater experience and the nouse and ability to give Cilic a different look when he needed to – there was only going to be one winner.

Where Was Plan B?

konta williams

After a phenomenally successful Wimbledon for Jo Konta (she’d never made it past the second round before) it was intriguing to see a player with a reputation for a strong mental approach capitulate to Venus Williams.

To put this in context, Williams, at 37, is obviously very experienced with five Wimbledon singles titles to her name.  However, their head to head, prior to this match, was 3-2 in favour of Konta.  So, while they had never played on grass before, Konta was far from the underdog.

Let’s not take anything away from Venus, she was the better player and dealt with everything Konta through at her exceptionally well.  Konta, in her post match press conference, talked about Venus dictating play from the outset.  However, that belies what happens in a match between two high quality players.  At 4 all in the first set there was little to choose between the two and in the next game Konta put Venus’s serve under pressure.  How often it is that after a closely held service game the next game results in a break and so it was.  From then on the pressure told and Venus ran out the winner 6-4 6-2.

There were a couple of notable things that happened in the second set – firstly as the pressure told Konta’s groundstrokes became more conservative, for the most part, where she had previously been moving Venus around, she played much more within the court.  Secondly, other than that, there was little change to her game.

John McEnroe, earlier in the week, commented in a different context, that one of his coaches had said that he should not give his opponent the same shot twice.  Interestingly, Konta’s average groundstoke speed prior to yesterday, over the tournament, was a couple of miles per hour faster than Andy Murray’s.  This is not because Konta can hit harder than Murray but that Murray varies the pace and spin of his shots far more, making it difficult for his opponent to get into a rhythm.

There was a point in the second set yesterday where Konta chipped a short return in, which Venus stepped into and hit long.  Martina Navratilova, commenting on BBC, noted it and the need for a change up but nothing more came.  Throwing in the occasional   short slice may well have disrupted Venus but other than the one instance there was nothing, so Konta seemed not to be assessing what did and didn’t work.

A lot has been made of the processes that Konta has put in place with the aid of a mental coach and relies on to strengthen her and build the positivity to her approach.  However, there was something more needed yesterday, some variation to unsettle her opponent.  Top players tend to be good at probing and assessing where the weaknesses occur with their opponents, this element seemed to be missing from Konta’s game yesterday.

On the other hand, we should  celebrate that Konta did indeed do exceptionally well over the two weeks of Wimbledon, this is the second time she has made the semis of a slam and certainly has the capability to be involved right to the end.



What Got You Here Won’t Get You There



Apologies to renowned coach Marshall Goldsmith for stealing the title of one of his books but it seemed so appropriate.

Watching Federer play Mischa Zverev  reminded me of the need to amend our strategy both dependent on the occasion and the stage of our career.  This has been highlighted by Federer yesterday and throughout his career.

Yesterday against the older Zverev he was faced with a wily player, with a game well suited to grass ,who he expected to serve and volley and in return games to try and get to the net as often as possible. Federer, like the other top players, is good at getting the ball back into play of big servers by slicing or chipping the ball back, giving himself the chance to get into the point.  This is fine against a big server who stays back most of the time – the type of opponent he faces in many matches.  However, against Zverev it would most likely give him a relatively easy volley. So Federer’s return strategy changed – the vast majority of his returns were driven or hit with topspin, with the aim of getting the ball down at the ankles of Zverev.  Tougher to make the return but harder for the incoming volleyer.  The result of course was a straight sets win for Federer.

So, what of career changes.  Federer, faced with the growing competition from Nadal and Djokovic between 2008 and 2011 was faced with two opponents who were exceotional defensive players who played well behind the baseline.  Both stretch the limits of time allowed between play and, Nadal particularly has clearly messed with Federer’s head in disrupting his relatively rapid rhythm between points.

Federer has not stood still in this but has sought to change and in some instances innovate to compete.  First, in 2009, rather than step back and give himself more time, Federer stepped up, more frequently playing around the baseline – Nadal, Djokovic and Murray will often play two metres or more behind it.  What Federer’s strategy did was take time away from his opponents.  Of course, he’s blessed with remarkable gifts that have allowed him to do that – though this has been coupled with many hours of work on the practice court.

Then, of course, a couple of years ago we saw the sneak attack by Roger (SABR) appear in the American hard court season, where he would step forward to take a second serve almost on the service line.  A tactic very few could execute successfully but it reaped dividends, if not quite another slam.  Years ago he resurrected the forehand slice when dragged out of position, as part of his defensive arsenal, which gave him time to get back into points.

In his time off last year he seems to have worked further on being more aggressive, particularly on his backhand – once seen as a relative weakness.  This year its been a weapon and a thing of beauty.

What’s also been interesting this year and, particularly at Wimbledon, is Rafael Nadal, is stepping in more – something that has clearly paid off.  I think he’s currently playing some of the best tennis of his career.

So, what can we learn?

Firstly, as the world is changing around us we cannot rely on the way we have worked in the past, whether in terms of personal style or business or operating models. That doesn’t mean we throw everything out, indeed, where it works and is sound it may well be the right thing to continue with.

However, a week ago I briefly mentioned the dynamics of the tennis entourage.  These vary and are often unusual.  One thing we can say is that they don’t have the hierarchical, command and control cultures that we see in many large corporates.  Given the focus on achieving results, there are people bringing specific skills to bear on this and all need to be heard and often the strategy around these areas is debated between player, expert and other key members of the team.

There is undoubtedly a high degree of collaboration and debate.  The open nature of these debates is part of keeping the team engaged and on-board.  However, in many large commercial firms (my experience is principally in financial services) the hierarchical, command and control structure is counter-productive.  Lack of openness and low trust often result and bad news does not travel upwards effectively, leading to a degree of organisational blindness.

While many firms are trying to innovate and rightly concerned about the competitive threat from tech firms, traditional management styles are not only counter-productive to innovation, they also inhibit performance and productivity.

As large firms, particularly in financial services, where I have spent much of my career, seek to innovate, this cultural element is an on-going obstacle.  Command and control coaching has long since disappeared from much of elite sport – when will senior managers in the corporate sector learn that such approaches are severely limiting to individual and team performance.