THE EXTOLLED VIRTUES OF THE CORPORATE IDEALIST


Neil Gaught & Associates

www.neilgaught.com

The Quaker way

In this article I want to talk about a company that will be 325 years old next year. Like many of its sector peers it has made mistakes and like many of those that have survived, it is in the midst of re-focusing and renewing itself using its values to guide its decision making. I am talking about Barclays.

The founders of Barclays were Quakers who, back in the 17th century, promoted and thrived on a reputation for integrity and trust. As well as Barclays they also founded Lloyds and Friends Provident. In manufacturing they established Clarks, Rowntree and Fry’s; in Japan Sony and in America John Hopkins University; the list goes on. Their strong beliefs led to the founding of Greenpeace, Oxfam and a founding partner of Amnesty was also a Quaker.  The Quakers were undoubtedly a force for good as well as enterprise – Barclays perhaps not so much.

Barclays’ name has been tarnished for some time. In the 1980s its involvement with the South African apartheid regime earned it the moniker ‘Boerclaysbank’. Since then it has been accused of money laundering, excessive bonus payments, tax avoidance, poor customer service, manipulation and fraud. The source of many of these ills for Barclays, and many others in the banking sector, was the Big Bang – the large scale market de-regulation which began in 1985-6 and peaked in the 1990s with the end of the Glass-Steagall Act which had prevented banks being both commercial banks and investment banks. The separation was ended, giving rise to the creation of mega banks. The battle for scale raged and competition was fierce. The loosening of rules also led to the loosening of lending criteria and the introduction of more complex financial ‘products’. The dramatic consequences in terms of higher risks has been the source of suffering for many in recent years.

Race for growth

It was in this context, and having been overtaken by National Westminster Bank in terms of profitability, the Barclays board responded by joining the race for growth. They bought Wedd Durlacher Mardawrit and de Zoet v Bevan in a strategy to become an integrated investment bank, Barclays de Zoete Wedd (BZW).

The need for scale as a prerequisite for success in an investment bank was recognised within Barclay’s by the CEO in 1997, Martin Taylor. He also recognised that Barclays lacked sufficient scale and recommended to the board that they exit investment banking. His proposal was rejected. In the years that followed the power of the investment bank traders increased, infecting the business with a virus-like transactional culture of strong competition, individualism and greed. The scale of Bob Diamond’s remuneration package still reverberates inside and outside the City of London.

Culture clash

Neil Gaught
Neil Gaught

In essence, the pursuit of a growth strategy (at all costs), resulted in a total cultural mis-alignment – the commercial banker and the investment banker are very different animals.  Viz the commercial (corporate or retail) banker being, as the name suggests, more customer focused. The commercial arm provides a range of banking services such as deposit taking, lending and day to day account support without offering strategic advice.  The investment (or wholesale) banker provides an entirely different service focusing more on strategic institutional support and advice in areas such as capital markets, trade finance, securities and equities as well as how financial products should be structured to maximize return.

This culture clash couldn’t more clearly illustrate management guru Peter Drucker’s insight “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”.

A series of scandals, from the LIBOR Scandal to the mis-selling of payment protection insurance, has been blamed on this poisoned culture. Perhaps the most high profile being the 244 page independent report into Barclays’ business practices by the City of London lawyer Anthony Salz. He concluded “Significant failings developed in the organisation as it grew. The absence of a common purpose or common set of values has led to conduct problems, reputational damage and a loss of public trust”.

But herein lies the rub. Attempt to talk about the importance of values and ‘values statements’ and you are very likely to provoke a cynical response. There is a good reason for this. Many are meaningless rhetoric at best and poor attempts at manipulation and spin at worst. Particularly when the behaviours of leaders contradict them and nobody is actually encouraged or recognised for living by them.

Leading with values

It is for these reasons that I talk of the strategic importance of reputation before I talk about values. People intuitively understand the importance of reputation from experiences in their own daily lives. Using reputation to frame issues leads more naturally to the role of values.

So far I have used Barclays to explore what can go wrong when values are forgotten and culture drifts.  I now want to demonstrate how the current CEO, Antony Jenkins is trying to reestablish Barclays’ damaged reputation using values.

In March this year Jenkins gave a speech to the Carneige Council for Ethics in International Affairs on “Driving Competitive Advantage through Values-Based Leadership”. He informed the audience that he had joined the company in 2006 when the stock price was about £6. It peaked at about £8 pre-crisis and fell to 47p post crisis. Of this he said, “”So if you ever need an example of why doing the right thing is also financially productive and constructive, that’s the example”.

By “doing the right thing” he was referring to his long-term belief that, “…in the long term values-driven leadership will drive competitive advantage”. He added, “”You don’t get to be 324 years old without having to deal with the ups and downs of technological change, political upheaval, economic crises, and so on. You can only survive when you have strong values at its core”. Later in the speech he returned to the same theme saying, “”The one thing that we all know is that you can’t guarantee that things will remain the same in life. Life changes and you have to change with it, but always with the values as the guiding star”. “The way you respond to that change has to be in line with the core values of the organisation”. He went on, ”There is a saying that great companies change everything except their values. If you have a value system that can stand the test of time, through thick and thin, that keeps people grounded and focused on what they are doing, then I believe you will succeed”.

Commenting on recent history he said, “Banks were too aggressive, they were too self-serving and too short-term-focused. I have seen this in my own career of 30 years within the banking industry. Now, post the crisis a lot has changed for the better. Banks now have safer balance sheets, better risk management, and improved governance and supervision. But the culture of short-termism that permeates the industry can’t be fixed solely by regulatory reform and harsh words. It’s got to be rooted in people’s behaviour”. He offered the view that, “The real cure for short-term thinking lies in changing the way that people think and behave. There can be no choice between doing well financially and behaving responsibly in business. The last half-dozen years make it obvious that you cannot have long-term success without behaving responsibly. This has to be integral to how you operate a company”. And he later added, “”I believe that the [business] case for behaving responsibly in the long term is compelling. The strength of our brand is incredibly important when customers and clients make decisions to do business with us”.

These comments link to others he made in his closing remarks, “Now, let me finish these remarks by saying that none of this is about being soft or fluffy, about fulfilling a moral obligation. There are elements, clearly, of morality in what I have been talking about. But for me it’s as much about winning—winning in the long term for our customers and clients, because they can trust us; for society, because society can trust us; for our shareholders, because they can count on us for long-term, sustainable returns because of the way we run the business”.

In his speech and in the question and answer session that followed he acknowledged that change would take time; that he would have to deal with the cynics and manage resistance. In these respects his comments provide insight into his views on the importance of values, culture and reputation and the interdependence between them, and between them and better performance.

Referring to the time he thinks it will take to bring about change he said, “We have to recognise that deep-rooted cultural change of the type I’m talking about at Barclays will take time—in my view, somewhere between five and ten years”.

On needs, on values, on leadership and on resistance

On personal needs he said the crisis had been, “Devastating for the people who work inside banks to be pilloried all the time in the media. People come to work wanting to do a good job, wanting to make a difference, wanting to be part of something that’s bigger than themselves. And of course, our customers and clients want to feel that they are doing business with an institution that they can trust, that has honour at its heart, that has ethics at its heart”.

On leadership and embedding values in the culture he said, “It’s the responsibility of leaders to set the benchmark for how people are expected to behave and hold them to account against this benchmark”, adding, “I often think that ethics in my own rather simple definition is about doing the right thing in the right way. That’s what leaders have to do if they are to drive the culture inside their organisations”.

On values he said they had developed, “A common set of values, which we feel are fundamental to our long-term success”. These values are respect, integrity, service, excellence, and stewardship. He noted that, “respect, integrity, service, and excellence you might say are pretty standard. [But] stewardship is different, though. Stewardship is really about the notion that all of us who work at Barclays have an obligation to leave the institution fundamentally stronger through our work than when we joined. Now, it’s a subtle concept, but it is actually profound in shifting the thinking towards long term”.

He offered some insight into how the goals will be achieved in practical terms, “All of my 140,000 colleagues have been to a half-day workshop on what the values mean delivered by 1,500 ‘values leaders’ across the group, and we have programmes for new joiners that will essentially expose them to these concepts and what it means to live them day in and day out at Barclays”. Returning to this subject in reply to a questioner who asked whether or not each business organisation should have among its professional ranks a person devoted solely to the issue of ethics he said, “I think the idea has got some appeal on one level. But I also think it’s a bit like quality or leadership. If you have a department of quality or a department of leadership, you take the responsibility away from everybody in the organisation for living ethically”.

This reflects my own rationale in arguing that corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability should be embedded, not seen as separate roles or departments. He added, “But I do think that leadership is incredibly important in large organisations—and in small organisations, actually. Leadership sets the tone, the culture, in the organisation, which then drives organisational performance”.

On dealing with cynics he said, “Inevitably, we have our cynics and sceptics, we have our critics.” and, “They have called me ‘Saint Antony’ in the media in the UK because they think that I am hypocritically clothing myself in these values as a way to distract attention from what’s going on at Barclays”. But he says, “I recognise that what matters is not public commitment to change but, rather, demonstrating change over time and to earn the trust and permission to be believed—and we will do that. But it also falls to leaders to show resolve and stick to their principles in the face of difficult moments, including taking tough short-term decisions for longer-term benefit. This is really the heart of our value of stewardship”.

On resistance he said, “In an organization of 140,000 people, you are going to have, inevitably, some people who do not live up to the standards that we are setting. So I see the culture, as defined by the values, as being the sort of oxygen that gives people permission to do the right thing, and also the sort of antibodies that immunise it from doing the wrong thing”. He has also been tough and let people at every level know that if they are not for change then they ought to be working for another company. The biggest critics may be the markets. As an indication of this one questioner asked, “”Does ethics raise the value of Barclays stock?” to which the reply was, “I do believe that the decisions that will be taken by an ethical organisation will ultimately result in greater value being created and, therefore, a higher value on the organisation. Now, why do I think that? Firstly, because all businesses depend on trust, but banking depends on trust more than any other business. You give me your money and you expect me to give it back to you at some point in time. There is no greater trust in the commercial sense than that. So if you have a strong level of trust within the organisation, then you are likely to win more business from your customers and clients. You can see that driving revenue. But there is also a sense in which an organisation that has to solve a far more complex objective than just maximising short-term profit, has to be a more capable organisation”.

On embedding values and changing behaviour he says “If what gets measured gets managed, measuring the wrong thing matters!”  In most companies reporting (read measuring), is almost exclusively financial in focus, despite there being general agreement that intangible assets (people, intellectual property, reputation etc.) are the real drivers of future value. In short, new metrics are needed; financial and non-financial measures. Jenkins said, “One of the things that we have done, which is unusual, is we have published a list of eight commitments for Barclays out to 2018, eight commitments with hard targets. Only two of them are financial. Two of them measure the strength of our relationships with our clients in the institutional sector; two measure our relationship with our customers in the retail sector; two are about our colleagues and their level of engagement and diversity within the organisation; and two are about how society regards us. I believe that if we deliver those commitments in 2018 we’ll have a much stronger, more capable organisation, and therefore the financial performance will naturally rise as a result of that and the valuation of the organisation will rise as a result of that. But I would be the first to admit that this is a work in progress”.

Corporate idealist

I want to conclude by saying that on the basis of his speech I see Antony Jenkins as a “Corporate Idealist”, a concept Christine Bader explores in her book The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist. She describes Corporate Idealists as individuals who believe that business is the one institution that has the potential to solve the world’s problems more effectively than any other, and that doing so is just good business. These leaders advocate business with a focus on a higher purpose, with social purpose as a core activity that is embedded, not an additional extra. If Jenkins is a Corporate Idealist, his trick is going to be persuading his workforce to embrace his ideals and become idealists themselves. I suspect it will be a difficult challenge given the track record of companies like Barclays, who seem to indicate that values are only valuable when repairing the results of a reputational crisis. What they value most of the time is what the market values above all – and that is profits. The question is how do we change that?

Adapted from an article first published by Paul Barnett, Founder & CEO, Strategic Management Forum July 27th 2014.

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