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Opinion: The importance of a culture club

The tone of voice of a company should come from the whole organisation, not just from the top downwards

Robert Sinclair MS blogIn the recent policy and supervisory work from both the PRA and the FCA, much has been made of the culture within a firm. There is a growing recognition that while a robust rule book and well-established principles alongside the senior managers regime provides a framework, it is how a firm thinks and operates that needs closer focus and attention.

In order to help firms consider these issues more deeply the FCA has issued a paper on transforming culture within financial services.

It comprises a collection of 28 essays from industry, academics, international regulators and change practitioners. Interestingly while many banks were asked to contribute, insurers, fund managers and distribution were not. However, on 19 March 2018 the FCA held a full day workshop on culture, at which Andrew Bailey spoke and external presentations were given with active participation from the wider industry.

What constitutes good health?

Responses to this paper are not invited but the FCA expects firms to consider the issues in the paper and to engage in the debate about what constitutes a healthy culture and how to promote it. Financial services leaders and practitioners are expected to consider how they effect change in their organisations, by:

  • using behavioural science to guide incentives and cultural change
  • looking beyond the role of leadership in effecting change
  • applying strategic focus to the continuous process for adapting culture
  • fostering environments of trust to encourage openness and learning, and
  • applying a systems perspective in assessing both internal culture and external influencers.

From the papers and discussions a number of key themes emerge that all firms, including the mortgage sector, need to consider as part of the way they do business and interact internally and externally. What was not in any way questioned was that there still needs to be significant change to the culture within the vast majority of financial services firms.

At the workshop, consensus was that cultural leadership must start in the boardroom. Firms need to consider how visible is their board, CEO and senior management team. They must demonstrate and own the culture. However while the tone of voice from leadership is key, top down implementation is not enough. There needs to be transparency, commitment and buy-in from all levels. It has to be woven into the firm’s governance framework. Many commentators see it as not about stopping bad things but promoting excellence.

Perhaps it is better to see culture as clarity of purpose, not just values; what do people actually think and do? What is it that drives and motivates them?

There will not be one good culture, but various approaches, dependent on size, style, product, consumer type and values. Good culture needs courageous leadership, direction, good decision making and authenticity. No one has all the answers, but to succeed firms need to build teams across traditional structures and ensure extensive participation and communication.

Ownership of culture must run like blood through the organisation – bottom up and top down, with the right tone of voice and people will have to want to do it. Transparency is thought by many to be all in culture – sunlight is the best disinfectant. As a core component there is a fundamental need for diversity in all its facets to provide good challenges and to match the society we operate within.

Robert Sinclair is chief executive of the Association of Mortgage Intermediaries

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