When I joined the investment firm Scudder, Stevens & Clark, I was given an assignment counter to the culture of the staid, old-school, white-shoe institution: shake it up; begin to build a more modern brand and reputation; build a firm that our clients' children would not fire the moment their parents died.
I was young and brash, and my boss, the president of the firm, had given me a plum assignment. So, I was full of high promises about what we were going to do, and in record time.
But my boss, George Johnston – an iconic figure in the business at the time and the epitome of a gentleman's gentleman, with a global vision – knew how hard this assignment would be. You cannot change the culture of a proud and self-satisfied organization easily. So he gave me a piece of advice I would never forget – "Never say what you are going to do, say what you are seeking to do."
That way of putting it, he advised, kept you humble, and it kept focus on your intention, not on your every action. So wise: keep yourself and others focused on your aspiration, not your arrogance. It is hard to be arrogant when you are always trying to be better, not proclaiming how good you already are.
If only Jamie Dimon, and other assorted banking leaders, had heard such advice.
He might have played JPMorgan Chase's successes slightly differently. And the past few weeks might not have been quite so painful.
Most of us in the banking community are seeking – after the crash – to do the right thing: to rebuild trust, rebuild shareholder value, rebuild client loyalty, rebuild businesses, and rebuild lives. But as time goes on, and memories fade, perhaps we should keep on remembering that the job has not been finished, even as we are seduced by some renewed successes.
Half lives of memories and experiences are getting shorter these days – and we can easily forget just how bad it got during the crisis, and how much damage was done.
Directly after the crash, banks' communications were chastened. Ads were either non-existent, or conciliatory. The ads that were produced were all about people, relationships, lives rebuilt, promises kept, trust re-established.
But as 2008 receded, it was easy to forget. And just as it almost seemed ok to gloat again, the mighty were once more put on notice. The public can so quickly remember and reconnect with their ire – every JPMorgan Chase trading loss, every kiss-and-tell op-ed from a disaffected Goldman Sachs employee fans the flames.
Having run crisis management and marketing for financial institutions throughout a number of cycles, here is my prescription for bank communications for the rest of the year, in order to minimize the damage, and continue to focus on rebuilding client and shareholder trust:
- Focus your messaging on rebuilding strength – starting with the strength of your clients, and then your own. Strength is necessary, attractive and compelling – growth or profitability are not quite as much so, because Main Street can interpret that as banks yet again putting their own benefit before that of their clients.
- Focus on shared values. Starting with a seminal article in Harvard Business Review by Michael Porter, the concept of creating value for both customers and organizations by doing the right thing is catching on world wide. The idea is persuasive and, over the long-term, is proving it can be just as good for the bottom line as it is for the common good. This intersection in the Venn diagram of doing good and doing well is worth identifying and staking claim to.
- Refrain from trumpeting your successes. In this environment, as we all know now, the successes can be short-lived, and your words may come back to haunt you.
- Create a credo by which you seek to do business…always. Work with your employees so that they understand and adopt it, and then share it with your customers. RBS Citizens does a great job of this, and the bank makes its credo more than just words – employees put it up in every branch, and make it clear they seek to live by it every day. When your customers see you have a code of ethics and values that permeates your organization, they will appreciate your approach to business, and it will validate their decision to do business with you. (Also, research has shown that organizations with strong mission statements or credos withstand crises better than those that do not.)
- Take George Johnston's advice – don't talk about what you will do, but concentrate more on what you seek to do. Your customers will more clearly understand your intent, and all of your efforts will become more believable and appreciated.