The Outsider: Banking bosses aren't what they were

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Once upon a time, the people at the top of the banking hierarchy were nice, says ex-banker and author David Charters. Not any more.

What kind of people make it to the top in investment banking? As an industry it certainly produces great egos. Everyone who makes it to managing director is either a star or a super-star; if in doubt, just ask them. But are they good leaders?

The rewards in investment banking are so huge that the standards that work elsewhere don't necessarily apply. If your boss will be handing out a ten million pound bonus pool at year end and there are twenty of you in the department, you want to be his best friend. He may be arrogant, unpleasant, occasionally incompetent, a politician who smiles upwards and does something else downwards, but he's sitting on a pile of cash and you want your share. So you smile, nod and project warmth and happiness in his direction, regardless of what you really think.

As the industry has consolidated into a relatively small number of super-firms, so individual loyalty has declined. People look out for themselves because they have to. Firms no longer regard individuals as long-term fixtures, partly because they are extraordinarily mobile - moving firms is often the best way to get ahead, getting better paid and promoted at the same time, and avoiding the perceived 'loyalty discount' that lifers attract - and partly because in the big battalions people have become a commodity, rather like capital.

Senior managers very rarely need personal loyalty from the troops, so the functions that would have created it in the past are delegated or standardised. 'Town hall' meetings are held, where the troops can be patronised with blandly uninspiring corporate messages produced by PR and marketing; off-sites are organised by the corporate hospitality team, where officially-sanctioned fun can be had, and everyone dutifully sings the corporate song.

It was not always like this, and as boutique investment banking re-emerges as a force in the industry - partly as a response to the soullessness of the giant finance factories - the human element may be on the upswing.

I'm old enough to remember my boss inviting everyone to his house for a party and actually wanting us to enjoy it, rather than using it as a chance to display the visible signs of his success to those of us still with our noses pressed against the glass. In the days before political correctness, we had a drink together at lunchtimes, chatted about things not to do with work and shared a sense of humour. In the office, he had high expectations and was intensely demanding, but no-one worked harder than him. He was always available, especially for new team members, and backed his people if things went wrong.

And when the time came to leave for another firm, fifteen of us got up together and followed him out of the door. How many bosses could achieve that today?

ยท David Charters' latest book, Trust Me, I'm a Banker, is published by Elliott and Thompson, price 9.99.

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