In banking familiarity breeds contempt. Well, maybe ‘contempt’ is a bit strong, but familiarity or complacency can be a major problem for experienced bankers who change jobs, especially if this involves changing banks or (as in my case) moving to Hong Kong and then Singapore in the process.
As an experienced banking professional, you’ve likely built on your functional expertise and risen to the exalted heights of managing your own team. You understand your bank, its culture and processes, and you generally ‘know how to get things done’. You’ve also developed a winning formula to success as a senior banker: your golden rules, your list of acronyms, and your toolkit of management models.
And then, you decide to take up a new banking job. You’re confident that with all your knowledge, you’ll be able to make an instant impact and prove your new boss is a genius for hiring you. But after only a few weeks (or months) in your new role, you suddenly realise that things are not working out as you expected. Your colleagues don't seem to understand your rules and your tools, and your models aren’t as effective as they once were.
Moreover, getting things done is taking much longer than it used to and you’re wasting a long time trying to find the right go-to person. This can happen both when you change roles within a bank or when you join a new firm.
When I moved from New York to Hong Kong with HSBC as global head of client management, I was surrounded by a great team, but it still took much longer for me to get things done. I didn’t have my familiar network around me in Hong Kong and my team and I weren’t on the same page, at least initially. I was used to making ‘half a request’ and have my team in the US know what to do next, whereas my new employees wanted to make doubly sure they always knew exactly what I wanted.
I soon realised that it would take time to align myself with them. As always, communication was absolutely key and by listening to my team they educated me and we were soon marching along together. From this experience and others, I now know how to avoid what I call the ‘complacency trap’ in senior-level banking (i.e. behaving in a new job the same way as you did in your old one).
Firstly, assuming that you can roll out your old bag of tricks is a recipe for disaster. Your rules were successful in your previous job because you developed them to meet specific challenges which won’t exist anywhere else.
I also was certainly guilty of falling into the complacency trap when I moved to Deutsche Bank as global head of implementation and service. I turned up in February with my trusty tricks that had served me well at HSBC and I proceeded to bombard my team with a stream of ‘good ideas’. But by May I was scratching my head because things weren’t working out. I had to recalibrate my approach, and with the help of colleagues I was then able to identify both quick wins and a successful long-term strategy.
Secondly, remember number the fifth point in management guru Stephen Covey’s book ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People’: “seek first to understand, then to be understood”. This means spend time to understand your new bank. Understand its history, culture, strategies, and corporate language. Understand what models have been tried before and their level of success.
I was fortunate when I moved to Singapore a few years ago to join Standard Chartered as global head of service and solution delivery. One of my senior colleagues took me aside and recommended that I spend time to understand not just where the bank was at that point in time but how it had arrived there. This was invaluable advice because it really helped me to put Stan Chart’s positives and negatives into an appropriate context. It also helped me to avoid proposing changes that had already been tried before!
Thirdly, let people get to know you. They might have heard things about you (good and bad) and it is important to make sure people know who you really are – how you like to manage and be managed.
Fourthly, try to avoid repeated references to your previous bank and team and how great things were there. One way of doing this is to encourage your new team to (gently) call you out when you do it. Perhaps even fine yourself and use the proceeds to treat your team.
To be honest, if I had put this one into practice my team would have been partying every Friday night, at least for the first month! The key to being a successful senior banker isn’t to forget what made you successful. Rather, it’s to understand the context of your new role, so you only apply the ‘old rules’ that are appropriate, and you develop new ones to suit your new challenges.
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Russell Graham is a partner at Asian transaction banking consultancy SkyTxB. His most recent job in banking was as global head of service and solution delivery at Standard Chartered.
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