In Praise of Barclays…?!
The phrase “In praise of Barclays”, used during this, of all weeks, and with Wimbledon coming to a conclusion, surely elicits only one response: “You cannot be serious!!” Well, no, not exactly serious. In fact, most definitely not serious, because the company’s performance has been nothing short of woeful at best and disastrous at worst. So, why the headline?
I will remodel it: “In praise of Barclays individuals that I know have worked patiently and diligently for over a decade or more to drive change against all the odds, and in praise of the tens of thousands of frontline Barclays staff who are being vilified daily by the media. They have surely felt more wretched this week than at any time in their careers. They have been badly let down and I hope this situation represents the beginning of a much needed change of fortunes for them”.
The opprobrium being heaped upon Barclays and other banks is more than deserved. The problem isn’t LIBOR. It isn’t tax avoidance. It isn’t executive pay. It isn’t poor service. It is the cumulative effect of these scandals that demonstrates a catastrophic failure of self-awareness in leadership. It is a failure typified by the notion that, somehow, cooperating with an enquiry and going first in the queue to receive the resulting fine would result in the scandal blowing over. Was the decision to take the rap first taken in the hope for a competitive advantage when the buck stopped at the other banks? Whatever the motivation, the fact that a year ago, the chief Executive stated to the Commons Select Committee that “the time for contrition was over” could not have been further from the truth – and he must have known this to be so.
But back to the employees. There are 140,000 people working at Barclays. I am sure that none of them turn up to work each day looking to do a bad job. Or annoy customers. Or rip people off. Largely they want to do a good job and have pride in the company they work for. Although there are many problems to fix in the retail bank there is enough evidence that at least many people in senior positions understand the need for change. We know this because we have been working inside Barclays to help catalyse the fundamental changes needed*. They have a long and arduous road ahead. I know this personally because I am a Barclays customer and continue to experience service ranging from the very good to the utterly atrocious. Sadly the latter experiences continue to be the majority. A culture change has to be driven from the top and with the right modifications in product and service, in transparency and above all in management attitude, it is possible for any organization to bounce back from such dark days.
Over the past 25 years I have been lucky enough to work in both the corporate and NGO/activist world. Working with so many others to bring about a new era of corporate responsibility, I have seen campaigners making a difference with their criticisms and critiques from outside. But I have also seen and worked with some notable individuals inside companies that have been driving change from within. Whenever I have drawn attention to these “intrapreneurs” and underground campaigners in speeches and presentations I have usually had several Barclays people in mind. They have been clients and even former colleagues. And I know them well enough to know the extent of their decency, commitment, their integrity and the depth of their determination that the best place for them to drive change towards a different type of business is from within. Often working without senior management support, sometimes facing outright opposition, they have chipped away at the edifice. And it would be all too easy to say “well then, they failed didn’t they?”, I say that maybe, just maybe their time has come.
Barclays Citizenship Plan, which it recently announced, has been undermined. But three weeks ago I had the opportunity to address and spend a day with a multinational group of around a 100 Barclays employees, each of whom has some or other responsibility within the new Citizenship framework. They came from all parts of the Bank including Africa. There was no cynicism in the room. No skepticism. No greenwashing. Just a genuine and diligent attempt to figure out how to go about building a solid foundation upon which the bank could restore itself and make a better contribution to society at large. These good people deserved better from their leadership. They deserve better now.
So what’s the game plan? It seems to me there are phases to go through: First, say sorry. The board and senior management should apologise (and do so with feeling) to customers and, just as importantly, apologise to staff. Unless and until the staff feel there has been some catharsis at the top, they will find it hard to believe in whatever comes next. And if staff do not believe there is something new coming, they will not, even cannot deliver well to customers.
Second, staff need to see that there is a genuine and inclusive root and branch review. They have heard “we’ve changed” before. They need to know for sure that there are no more skeletons remaining in the closet. They need to see there is a new humility on the part of the bank. Symbols are needed. The board should find a CEO willing to take the job for half the previous incumbent’s salary. There needs to be a guaranteed end to tax and executive pay scandals.
The bank’s leadership needs to get close to the frontline – invest time with staff and customers. They need to experience realities for staff in the international business and engage with young leaders that have new expectations of business.
Initiatives will be needed. Whether it stays under the same title or not, the Citizenship Plan needs to be delivered with even greater vigour. But initiatives are not the answer. Companies don’t change. People do. People change through discovery and the real act of discovery is not finding new lands but seeing with fresh eyes. That is management’s and the board’s challenge ahead.
And who knows? Could it be possible that in five years we might say “in praise of Barclays” on the back of the greatest restoration of a once-proud corporate brand. Because that is the game to be played. It’s a game worth playing.
*SustainAbility has worked with Barclays on several initiatives within its Citizenship agenda and has a small retainer for providing sustainability and citizenship insights, intended to drive change. Whilst we value all our clients, we have questioned our role recently. But we maintain that providing support to those whose intent and desire for change is genuine is the right path to take.
For a somewhat prescient call to action for the banks, look back at a post from Michael Sadowski, Going from Bashing to Boasting.
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