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Does Your Team Have What It Takes To Thrive In A New Era?

February 19, 2012

In January of 2010 John Kim of Heidrick & Struggles wrote in a blog piece What bank leaders do you need post-crisis?:

There may be little agreement about precisely where we stand in terms of economic recovery generally or financial services recovery specifically, but one thing is certain. When the inevitable recovery gets into full swing the financial services firms that already have in place the skills and the teams to take advantage of it will far outdistance their competitors.

Now, more than two years later, the recovery picture is a little more clear, if not exactly in full swing. The rate of bank failures has been dramatically reduced but the long-predicted consolidation wave has so far been more of a gentle tide. As the economic recovery continues at an almost imperceptible pace– particularly jobs and housing prices– financial firms are challenged to find attractive avenues for revenue growth.

New regulations further complicate the picture, on everything from trading to lending to deposits, and there are still literally thousands of new rules to be written over the next few years.

So what kind of leadership do these challenges demand? I think Kim saw that pretty clearly too:

Before the economic meltdown, the top leaders of financial institutions often fell into one of two types. There was the charismatic personality who motivated, inspired or in some cases dictated through force of his own presence. And there was the hands-on, detail-oriented operator who drove performance through results and significant attention to detail.

Today’s leader needs to be a combination of both types. The operational skills and shrewd judgment of the detail-oriented leader will be needed to achieve focus, leverage strengths, work out bad assets, closely manage risk, and interact more closely with regulators and government. The strategic vision and inspirational ability of the charismatic leader will be needed to take the institution from strength to strength and into appropriate new areas, especially when the economy heats up again. 

About a year ago I gave a talk about the state of the banking industry and how its recovery was linked to the overall economic recovery. Someone in the audience asked how, seemingly, only a handful of banks were smart enough to avoid the ills that plagued so many competitors?

I replied that that was not the question, in my mind. The question was, why did so many firms forget thousands of years of history?

The banks who set themselves apart during the crisis stuck with principals tested over millenia. After all, banking is the second oldest profession in the world. You know, quaint notions like verifying borrowers’ recurring cash flow and insisting on a margin of safety on collateral values. These firms understood that lending was, at its core, a risk management activity (see my post on Why Bankers Need to Think Like Private Equity Investors).

So, how is your team prepared for this new era?

Again, from John Kim’s piece:

These teams will need to be able to make the right decisions rapidly…

They will also break complicated issues down to simple components. No matter how complex a market, a strategy, or other issue appears, the leadership team should be able to frame it in terms of banking fundamentals: liquidity, capital, credit risk, operational risk and cost control.

One of their toughest challenges will be to lead culture change. A renewed focus on core competencies and subsequent growth into adjacent areas will require a new culture, especially at institutions that sought to play across many areas.

Is your team prepared for the new era, or are they still fighting the last war?

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