Why bankers don’t do casual

Someone has left a lollipop in Gemma Price’s Canary Wharf office.

“I don’t want it – you have it,” urges Gemma.

The lollipop is one of the few bright things in the otherwise very sedate office, full of grey, black and muted tones – the kind you’d expect of a leading investment/ private bank. The lollipop seems out-of-place. As rare as a Myspace page in a set of banker’s bookmarks (it turns out).

Gemma looks after learning and development for the bank’s 25,000 back-office staff, as well as overseeing learning and development (co-ordinating, sharing best practice etc), for Europe, the Middle East and Africa – this role also covers employees in private banking, investment banking and asset management.

Gemma’s unit operates as a kind of internal consultancy, brokering deals between internal ‘clients’ and external vendors, including executive coaches, facilitators and IT training providers.

Gemma has been at the bank for nine years so when she started, the internet wasn’t much of an issue. Today however, there are tight limits on what can and can’t be viewed:

“We’re very restricted with what we can access, apart from LinkedIn and Google. We can access the BBC and news sites…LinkedIn is seen as professional tool. Most Facebook groups [for example] would not be considered professional.”

With regards to internal communications, a knowledge management team has just been set up, charged with looking at KM in its entirety across the bank. But the watchwords are effectiveness and ROI, rather than radical change:

“They’ll be looking at knowledge management in terms of efficiency. The last thing anyone wants in the market right now is innovation or risk-taking!”

The bank’s vast corporate intranet serves 45,000 people across 51 countries.

“There’s a massive staff directory, and Sharepoint, which includes a lot of shared sites where people have blogs and wikis. There’s a lot of stuff on there, a lot of videos. There’s a huge amount of e-learning.”

Gemma points to the webcam on her desktop, used for Camtasia presentations.

“We design and develop our own content, working with outside vendors. We also use Harvard Management a lot, and Intuition Plus.”

In a large, multinational company, it’s a challenge to produce e-learning videos where the message hits home. And Gemma’s team needs to catch the attention of people who are extremely busy and frequently stressed.

“The shorter, the better, the funnier we can make [the videos], the better. Actually funny is a flippant comment. Because we can’t afford to have something that’s funny in London being unfunny in Singapore.”

How would she describe the overall culture of the company?

“We’re a real mix. The dominant cultures are Swiss and American. We have some people coming in who are very innovative, but then we’re also very traditional. We have people who’ve made it up themselves through adversity but also people with double PhDs in Maths – again, that duality.”

The staff is, culturally, very diverse. The bank has just won an award for its multicultural leadership programme, and Gemma clearly works hard to promote harmony.

She admits she looks for parallels where possible:

“The Singapore and Zurich offices aren’t dissimilar; their attitude is ‘we’re here to serve’. The approach of London and New York is more, ‘we’re here to work with you, and we want to get the credit’.”

“My role is to create a great working environment. A manager has to be all things – a coach, a mentor. The predominant style of the lead manager has a huge impact on mangers below. [Our CEO] isn’t a ‘show and tell’ guy so his team aren’t out there banging the drum. That creates very much a team-based culture.”

Recent experiments in sub-prime mortgages aside, the banking industry tends to be conservative by nature, especially where leadership is concerned.

“The front office tends to be very command and control. That sort of method is seen as outdated but in practice still exists. There’s a real dichtonomy there.”

Above all, the bank’s well-heeled clients want to see respect:

“We’ve got to strike a balance. It is quite formal. You don’t say ‘Great!’, ‘How you doing?’ or ‘Wassup?!’ to personal clients, a lot of whom are billionaires. There’s no room for casual language in that way. These are high net worth individuals we’re speaking to. Luckily, there’s huge amount going on socially so we’ve got plenty of opportunity to be informal and casual.”

Maybe that’s what the person who left the lollipop thought.