Bankers are a lot like elephants.
As animals go, that's not entirely bad. Most have long memories, travel in herds and - as the industry continues to consolidate - enjoy the benefits of significant scale.
But they're easily frightened by small things. And like a herd that has remained in one place too long, they've begun to deplete many of the traditional relationships and markets on which they have historically depended.
To remain healthy and profitable, banks need to prepare themselves to compete in a new, more global environment. Increasingly, they are being called on to invest their own portfolios internationally, serve global corporate clients, and enter into global alliances.
But bankers' skills have not kept pace. In today's fast-moving, borderless global market, banking and management skills that were adequate to the 1970s and early '80s - when banking was primarily a cozy local and regional business - are now woefully inadequate.
To address these shortcomings, banks must look for new talent, develop it in new ways, and exploit technologies to build highly mobile organizations that can become global market leaders.
Skill Sets for Century's End
Seven critical skill sets will let today's bank managers compete and succeed in a global banking environment.
*Very significant product knowledge. The days of the gentleman generalist are over. Bankers must have in-depth experience not only of a wide variety of financial products (currency swaps, interest rate hedges, ADRs) but also of how these products can be customized for world markets.
*A broad understanding of major international markets. To understand how the global marketplace works, today's bankers need international experience in the financial services sector. Ideally, they will have worked in at least one other major, international money-center bank, giving them a firm grasp of their host country's regulatory policies and competitive environment.
*Language and cultural fluency. Gone are the days when a second language meant two years of college French. Fluency is an absolute necessity, and Europe is no longer the last horizon. Markets in Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East are equally important, and financial institutions must be able to staff offices in formerly remote, foreign locations with bright people who not only speak the local language but also are conversant with the country's business and social customs.
*Change-management experience. Having negotiated a period of organizational change - and lived to tell about it - is excellent preparation for an international posting, which typically requires flexibility, open-mindedness, cultural sensitivity, and adaptability.
*Crisis management ability. World markets are linked and changing rapidly. That means a drop in technology stocks on the Nikkei has an almost immediate impact on Wall Street. And a hike in U.S. interest rates has a rapid effect on markets in London. In an environment where change is so pervasive and swift, bankers need to prepare themselves to respond quickly and intelligently to market developments.
One way to accomplish this is to run simulation exercises. For years, the military has used "war games" to train its professionals to anticipate and respond to crises. Bankers can benefit by taking a chapter from the military's book.
*A strong track record. A history of successful profit-and-loss responsibility is critical, as is familiarity and facility with modern technology.
*Personal qualities. Tact, discretion, and diplomacy are essential for success abroad. Remember, a bank's employees are also its ambassadors. In addition, patience and flexibility will stand a banker - or any businessman - in good stead. Everything seems to take longer in a new, host country. Finally, leadership qualities will make the difference between an adequate and an outstanding manager.
Right now, demand for individuals with these skills well exceeds supply. For banks, this is a recruitment challenge of the highest order. Where to look?
For starters, younger, technologically savvy managers in their 30s and 40s - trained in the 1980s - are an excellent source. While they may need to be brought along in terms of wisdom, there is no substitute for the energy, drive, and flexibility of this group.
In addition, banks may have to go outside the industry for specialized talent, particularly in disciplines like marketing. And to bring an off- shore office up to speed rapidly, recruiting foreign nationals may be the only option available in the short term.
Once the right individuals have been identified and brought on board, it's the bank's responsibility to nurture and develop their global skill sets. Banks should encourage and fund continuing education. They should also give young managers significant responsibility early, put them in situations where they will be required to make decisions about market developments, and keep an eye open for people who thrive on the challenge.
When sending bank managers on overseas assignment, banks must remember to keep their expatriate employees in the loop. The biggest complaint of managers who accept international postings has always been the "out of sight, out of mind" syndrome. Today, technology enables organizations to communicate instantaneously worldwide; and that's no longer a luxury; it's a requirement.
Finally, after sending the troops out, banks need to have a reentry strategy for bringing bank managers back home.
Ignoring this advice is always an option. Banks can choose to maintain a narrow, regional focus, and bankers can limit their resumes to traditional skill sets and domestic assignments. But lumbering down the road, elephant- like, is itself a significant challenge. It's hard to gain momentum - or even maintain an even pace - when the road you've taken is rapidly disappearing from sight.
Mr. Gow is chairman of the Americas region for Amrop International, a New York-based executive search company.