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.
Since the collapse of Lehman Brothers more than a year ago, the financial services firms that remain have gone through the survival stage and are now in the midst of a second phase: focusing to thrive in the changed environment.
For all but the handful of big financial supermarkets, this phase has meant concentrating on what they do best instead of seeking to be all things to all people. Citi, Goldman Sachs, Royal Bank of Scotland, Standard Chartered Bank and a host of other banks of all sizes have in one way or another refocused on core businesses.
Those that do so successfully while working out bad assets and containing the problems that lie ahead will be best positioned to take advantage of the next bull cycle. They will leverage their leadership they are achieving in their core areas now, branch out into adjacent areas, and take some carefully calculated risks.
What kind of leadership will be needed to bring banks through this period of refocusing and into a much more robust economic future?
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. The balance among these attributes in any given leader will of course be determined by the precise situation of the institution.
Top leaders will also have to put together the right leadership team to support them. It won’t be easy. The financial crisis wiped out entire levels of executive leadership. Many former financial services executives are now pursuing careers outside financial services and are unwilling to reenter the industry full-time. To form top leadership teams with all of the requisite competencies for the future, banks will have to draw from several generations: the most senior baby boom generation, the generation immediately behind them and the high-potentials in mid-career.
These teams will need to be able to make the right decisions rapidly. That shouldgo without saying, but during the crisis many leadership teams, overwhelmed and numbed by fast-moving, cataclysmic events, were often indecisive and unable to act quickly.
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. The firms that have navigated the crisis better than others have cultures built on decades of history. It will take considerable time for other firms to instill new cultures, a task that will be achieved, in part, through a strong leadership team setting the appropriate tone at the top.
Because building new leadership teams cannot be done overnight, financial institutions with teams lacking these abilities should begin the process now. That means reassessing the management team, conducting gap analysis, benchmarking against external talent, and recruiting, promoting, and developing people to fill the gaps. It’s a daunting challenge:finding leaders who can take you to a future that will differ sharply from the recent past."