Surviving the digital era by accident: banks and gen X bankers
I am technically a Xennial. Belonging to a micro generation between gen X and true millennials. I don’t know what that means other than people like me will spend almost all our working life dragging decision-makers into the future with the fervour of the convert because, unlike millennials, we weren’t born into this. Love brought us here. And we had to learn. A lot, fast and often by trial and very frequent error.
Our careers are in many ways a parable for the transformation and digitisation journey banks have been on, over the last decade/decade and a half. And every opportunity we seized to learn, is an opportunity missed on a grand scale. We leaned when the bank’s didn’t. This has given many of us careers, but is not sustainable long term.
A game of chance
My first ever job out of academia, I was hired because I had a PhD and they liked the idea of “having one of those” on staff. It was never said in those terms. But you know. They pointed me out to clients and investors. They were willing to forgive my zero corporate experience, they were willing to give me a chance in exchange for what I bought/was/represented.
So my PhD on Kemalism as a language of negotiating political legitimacy in Turkey (just in case you were thinking it was in any way relevant to the job…) randomly and unexpectedly landed me in my first pivot, the first big platform integration I had ever seen and the first real experience in articulating “becoming something new” as a firm. I had no idea what I was getting into. They were confident I would be useful. I was confident I could learn. It was the biggest lesson I ever learned: hire for potential.
Try explaining that to your HR department.
My second job, I got because some buddies from university had an awesome idea and we were too young and clueless to be afraid, so we took it on and became a fintech start-up before either term meant anything.
We got lucky. We learned fast. We worked hard. We built a cool product.
We were in the right place at the right time and we were given a break. As was I.
That’s the second biggest lesson I have ever learned: timing, being at the right place at the right time with the right product, is worth its weight in gold. And since you can’t know when the right time is, ASAP is the only way to not miss out on the elusive window of opportunity.
Try explaining that to your IT planning committee when fighting for your place in the queue of the quarterly release cycle.
The things we don’t like the sound of
Since then, and having joined the digital universe within banking, the roles I have been offered have been on the strength of my delivery record, my delivery discipline, the credibility of my war wounds. Ironically, as I moved into innovation and experimentation, proof points became more important. Banks were not taking chances with their innovation departments. Luckily for me, by then I had a delivery record and yet it grated taut proving what I knew and what I had done became overwhelming important. Not how. What.
And, it will come as no surprise to those who know me, each time I had a new job/new project/ new organisation conversation I flagged the mistakes that worked out better than planned. The impeccable by-the-book process-aligned instances that exploded spectacularly. And the inescapable fact that my secret sauce, my answer to how it all actually came good, the only consistent trait to the consistency of my delivery is integrity, curiosity, relentless hard work and the extremely annoying habit of asking why and saying no to things that don’t make sense.
Accepting that a lot of this is a game of chance, is the only way to win it.
I know that my experience is hard earned and although valued by my employers, it is valued for the wrong reasons so I make a point of stating I am a pain to a manage: I am loyal but I question. I am hard working to a fault, but I need purpose. I will resist when you make no sense. Because staying the course is what gets you a delivery record. And the course is not always charged and it is often rocky.
Nobody ever believes me, by the way. Or they don’t believe they are so corporate as to fall foul of my unstoppable force / immovable object nature.
Every time we are all in for a little surprise.
Why am I telling you this? Because, given my age and career trajectory, my life is a perfect analogy for the banking sector awakening to the digital era. So I am offering myself up as an example of what banks don’t want to think about when managing topics and people, in our brave new world.
Blessed be those who make it up as they go along, for the world is forever changing
The first careers talk I gave, I also gave the university administrators a heart attack, by opening with: I never knew any of my jobs existed till briefly before I had them and consequently I don’t know what I want to do when I grow up because I am banking on it not existing yet.
Discovering or building it is what it’s all about.
Not for the faint-hearted, you say.
Not for the analogue-minded, I reply.
In my career I have seen change so immense – in terms of what technology can do, regulators are willing to let it do, and clients are happy to pay it do – that I can safely say that the world is a different place. In fact, the world has become a different place a couple of times over already.
Multiply that by industry vertical, tech stack and proliferation of user experiences creating a new language of expectation, and you are faced with a kaleidoscope of options.
I didn’t know what I know before I learned it. Truism? Perhaps. And yet.
I am teachable, I am curious, I am a geek. So I learned new stuff and then brought those back to work.
That the organisation fought me when it could have taught me, is a common experience to those like me. Like us.
But it is no longer viable.
It can no longer be a struggle.
We need to learn to hire people for how they learn, not what they know. And we need to manage them accounting for that learning, not by dictating modules, but by allowing for a conversation between where their inquisitive nature takes them, what the client is saying, where the market is going and what our organisational appetite is. Because we need to become organisationally learning engines. To thrive in the digital era, we need to become teachable organisations.
Wait but why
Corporates spend an incredible amount of time on governance and reporting but correspondingly little time in figuring out if what is being done is the right thing: what is it for? Who is it for? Why would they want it from us? How do you know? Will the need still be there by the time we are done building given how much time we spent debating?
Corporates spend time answering predictable questions and avoiding the uncomfortable ones, in short.
The uncomfortable questions that are part of your design thinking toolkit. The toolkit you got paid to bring to the organisation, when you were hired. The tool kit you told them you would use in ways they may not like and they said oh don’t be silly.
But there was an invisible boundary nobody mentioned: you are paid to ask these questions in the innovation centre: when you ask them in the boardroom, the very questions brand you as difficult and unsupportive. Even though you warned the company before you joined: this is different, this is not you being obtuse on how the organisation works. This is not you not getting things.
This is about the organisation wanting the body of an athlete without their diet or training regime. This is the story of my life. This is also not a thing any more.
The tension point is upon us. You can’t transform in the innovation centre and silence the mindset in the boardroom. It is counter productive, it is counter intuitive, it is nonsensical. Stop it.
Either do, or don’t, but stop trying to contain, it won’t work. Because those who don’t contain it will beat you to market on the transformational side, and those who embrace their dinosaur status will beat you to market on the traditional side of your business.
And just you wait till we get to the favourite scrum question: OK chaps, we have a plan. We have a product brief. We have prioritised, and sized, and timed. Are we ready to go? Do we believe in this?
I can see, in my mind’s eye, every colleague I’ve ever had on the banking side getting impatient with all the fluff. What does belief have to do with anything?
And I can see all my friends and colleagues who are entrepreneurs and developers, who are innovation and digital transformation long suffering prophets and they say one word: everything.
Entropy is not your friend
True to the agile manifesto, my career is the product of luck, curiosity and hard work. Not a plan.
But that doesn’t mean no planning is needed. At some point you need to commit: I did that about ten years ago when I tied my colours to the mast of digital banking. And I did that because, getting here by chance, I knew that surviving the digital era by accident is no more a plan than hope is a strategy – for a person or a corporate. The second law of thermodynamics is not your friend.
Things have a tendency to return to their natural state if your efforts at changing them are not constant, consistent or committed enough.
Inside your organisation, entropy points towards endless meetings and paperwork. Outside your organisation, however, there has been a paradigm shift and a new normal has emerged. You either choose to continue channelling effort in resisting the advent of a digital mindset as a necessity for a digital business or you accept that the halfway house approach has had its time.
It’s time to make some decisions.
And most of them are accepting that less control is inevitable.
My first two jobs I got because of luck, serendipity and an affinity that had nothing to do with the job at hand. This is also true of most early success stories, be it product, innovation project or trend. It’s ok. Lucky accidents need to be allowed to happen.
What I learned in every job was more valuable to the organisation, both in terms of the monetisation I could generate and in terms of the germination effect, than what I knew coming in. Don’t fight it. In a changing world, hire for teachability, manage for knowledge sharing, plan for agility. The world is changing. Make sure you can too.
But also, don’t leave it to chance. At some point commitment is needed. Full throttle, no ifs no buts commitment. Allowing for luck doesn’t mean relying on it.
And prepare yourself for discomfort.
In the last ten years I have opened every conversation – new job, new client, new project, with the same disclaimer exactly nobody believed. If you want the results (yes yes nod nod we’ve seen your delivery record) then you need to accept the methods.
You need to allow that the creative process is messy, that change is uncomfortable, that innovation means you are doing things for the first time and no matter how good your plan up-front, you discover stumbling blocks you did not and could not have anticipated. It’s ok. In fact it’s more than ok. It’s essential.
It’s what builds your organisational muscles so you can do it better next time.
If you want the result, you need to learn to want the process. Or at least be ok with it and not try to change or hide it as it unfolds.
Oh and you need to be ok with people who ask why and don’t accept “because hierarchy” as an answer. People who are curious and passionate and need to believe before they move mountains for you.
The digital era is here and, with it, a generation that champions creative forces and conversational integrity the likes of which banks have not seen since their inception.
You thought I was a pain to manage? Make space for the real digital natives.
You have seen nothing yet.
By Leda Glyptis
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ new resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption.
Leda is a lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem, inhabiting both start-ups and banks over the years. She is a roaming banker and all-weather geek.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!