Be OK With Breaking Something If You Ever Expect Business To Evolve

Notes for corporate leaders on the lessons borne of crisis and why constant and dramatic change on everything from operations to deal-making to culture is putting our best foot forward.

In this industry, after 30-plus years, one becomes accustomed to a degree of change onset by crises. On the heels of the most recent one, it’s clear our industry is under the microscope in a way it’s never been, not even after the 2008 financial crisis. I don’t want to go so far as to say that it’s under attack because of some bulge bracket players suffering from culture chaos, but it’s most certainly at a fork in the road as we learn to live and work in a world with Covid.

Leaders should assume change to be a given, whether or not the plates shift beneath our feet without warning, when we’re suddenly forced to question every method and every approach. We find ourselves asking: Should we go back to the way it was and once this is over, leave well enough alone? Should we rethink investment banking mores? Where do we go from here?

I think now we know.

Toss out the old ways, but not all the way. We don’t have to have a physical office presence every day, even in banking, but there is something to be said about the efficacy of balancing the virtual with real life client and prospect encounters as it pertains to the art of the deal. I think we’ve struck that balance.

To wit: our team has grown 40% since March 2020 and revenue is up 50%-70%. I attribute these numbers to how we have committed to change. To be sure, the investment banking industry has experienced a swell of success through the pandemic and I say with confidence that to do this while working together at a distance requires a special workplace culture. I’m glad we’re not the only ones, but I know that what we’ve done is fairly unique in this business.

We’ve always fostered a culture of collaboration and that’s never been more the case as senior leaders have engaged junior talent in such a way that has elevated the mentorship experience. You’ve heard me say for younger bankers who are trying to make their way, they’ll have to be out there, pressing the flesh and meeting people to get the most out of their professional experience. Yet, with the pandemic’s obstacles, it was our job to reinvent and redefine what “face-time” meant for them. We put in the necessary work to find the right digital and in-person cadence that not only allowed junior team members to flourish, but also feel supported.

In this way, putting the needs of the next generation first, talent recruitment should mirror talent retention. Simply put, don’t hire toxic rainmakers to the detriment of culture. On NPR recently, I came across the words of the well-regarded Robert Wolf, former chairman and CEO of UBS Americas. He said, “Happiness means a lot right now,” and added, “I never understood, even when I was running UBS, why we had to be in an environment where you would be working associates 24/7, looking for that 25th hour.” In so many words, stop over-working your people and start listening to them.

We’ve done a lot of listening and based on feedback and research, we’ve created a hybrid model. Investment banking is an apprenticeship model, and our approach ensures that we are focused on training and developing our junior talent while providing more flexibility for both junior and senior employees.

For senior bankers who are out on the road and meeting with clients, coming to the office is guided by intention and purpose, coming in to collaborate with others and provide training and development to their teams. For juniors, it is not only about learning from senior bankers but also peer-to-peer learning and the opportunity to connect with colleagues and network internally. While junior staff are primarily office-based to absorb the benefits that provides, collaboration, mentorship, training, etc., when that part of the work is done, they have the flexibility to work from home or wherever they choose.

For new employees, we’ve established “Class Cohorts” to help them get to know one another as well as move together through onboarding and development programs. For me, it was also important to establish relationships through smaller group lunches between myself and analysts/associates, while also hosting separate quarterly MD coffee or lunch meetings, weekly office meetings and various offsites.

You know that phrase: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” It was coined in the 1970s and its overuse has led to a fear of, and aversion to, change in the financial services industry unless it’s thrust upon us. While I don’t manage according to the book of break anything and everything, there is something to be said about inviting disruption into a process if it means it makes your people happier and more productive. This belief is at the root of our culture, which is why we were able to implement meaningful and significant changes as we adjusted to working conditions that stodgy stalwarts would argue are unfavorable.

In these last several months and in those that lie ahead we evoke, albeit in a different context, the sentiment of Winston Churchill post World War II: we will not let a serious crisis go to waste.