Everyone wants power. You will tell me that it is not always true. Agreed, but I have noticed that the reverse is always right: nobody wants less power.
Private Banking is evolving in a very fast manner and there are a lot of good (and bad) write-ups in the press often by people who have never practiced this trade and hence do not understand it. It is a game of constant duplicity, one that resembles most to the art of war with its violent power moves, with the added perk of extreme refinement.
The story I tell is from memory and the argument I make could help many people, not necessarily bankers, in their career.
Places and people may differ but it will bring light into a system, and if it helps even one person, then I will have reached my objective.
Please not that I am not making a moral statement on an industry that I found fascinating and which employs thousands and thousands of very good people.
So the story takes place at the height of Private Banking and it is an allegory of visions, fallacies and foresight of the fabulous banker who won wars only to lose them.
The year was two thousand and…
Never mind the year, it is completely irrelevant. Let us just say that the year was a good one for banks and financial companies. The markets were doing well and Private Banking was racking revenues. The clients were confident that there was no end in sight, trading was good and risk taking was the norm. I was managing the offshore branch of a large bank, and had to beef-up the team through the recruitment of relationship managers.
I hired ST, a young man with a modest bourgeois background but who carried himself extremely well.
I questioned his background to my satisfaction. As hard as it might be to believe in today’s environment, he did not really have a lot of credentials, in terms of his client base.
He was ambitious, extremely hard working and he had an immense dislike for failure. I became his most fervent supporter and admirer.
He rapidly converted into an amazing asset gatherer and brought-in massive revenues. During our weekly meetings, he resented the fact that anyone could be better than him.
Within a year he made three times as much as our best producer.
He had a formidable weapon that became the source of his power, the ability to detect prospects’ needs and to use words and actions that matched their inmost desires.
In my coaching role I accompanied him in his meetings and could witness first-hand his influence over his entourage. I was sometimes almost intoxicated by his ability, his virtuosity to mirror clients’ types, from the most sophisticated institutional investor to the ultra-high net worth European merchant or aristocratic family.
They all fell under his spell and he soon became an unstoppable profit machine, the Ferrari of Bankers. His shelling spree never seemed to stop.
Colleagues respected him. They all wanted to be like him, behave like ST, talk like ST, achieve like ST.
The Firm eventually considered him their greatest ambassador. Not surprising as he had an uncanny ability to tune in to top management, all the way to the CEO.
There was limitless glory for him. He soon short-circuited the labyrinth of management and became the regional head.
The magician deceptively outplayed his enemies. Did he have any? I think that he let those around him only see what he wanted them to see. He spoke well, although he used words of abundant resonance, sometimes very crude ones. But when you open a fifty millions’ account every week, language does not matter. At least it did not then.
He had attracted massive attention (even from the competition); he had created a cult.
He had bought a large house, transformed it to make it palatial, like a Byzantine temple with a large garage for his collection of cars. His dinner parties were like royal celebrations.
But one or two things did not fall into place. Once at the top, it was a different game, he had to manage people, enthuse them. Somehow, he could not recreate himself. He did not see the need or could not manage to forge a new identity, one that commands more seriousness.
The idol he had created stuck to his skin.
I have a vivid memory of this period because I was leaving the firm. I was not sad, I had worked for the best company in its field, hired top people, and built an important franchise. Remember in banking: “Our assets are our people”.
I was proud of my achievements. And I could not be prouder of hiring the man who would replace me. I still had a couple of things to do, and I waited until the last moment to speak to ST. My goal was to use my experiences, my career, my age to give him some insight.
So on my last day in the office, I gave him some advice: “Be careful. Even Napoleon Bonaparte became a target!”
With so much deception and manipulation afoot, I thought that it was essential for him to keep people from seeing how easy it was, how much money he made, how lavishly he lived. So I spoke about codified manners, elaborate behaviors for a manager..…
I told him all that and encouraged him to make some alliances rather than keeping others in suspended terror.
Perhaps that I advised a certain nonchalance, a less upfront attitude. He did not really have to call his clients idiots, his colleagues muppets.
At that time he was controlling assets of more than three or four billion dollars. When he smiled, I got the feeling that I was totally offline. The man was surrounded by an unbelievable aura of power. One that I had not seen very often.
It was like if I had tried to teach the great escape artist Houdini how to disappear. Did I see something he didn’t? How could I even dare teach anything to a man who had outwitted the sales force of a whole industry?
A few flashes of lighting in the sky, a few years passed. And I followed his success, one smattering of applause after the other.
Contrary to many bankers, he did not have to return to square one, to reinvent himself, emotionally and psychologically. The man could get out of any situation.
Even when the markets crashed, he continued to give the impression of being superior to anyone else. He did not feel he had to manage his clients, the masses or listen to the analysts; in fact, he liked to joke at the generals’ expense for being so worried, and was not subtle enough to avoid inadvertent mistakes.
Assets dropped, they dropped a lot, and he was left alone, with no supporters. His enemies did not forget that he had been digging-up dirt on them. He had not applied the utmost attention to covering his tracks. Many of his colleagues’ fabricated charges against him. He did not realize that he was hated by his rivals and that they were gaining power, getting ready to execute him.
Words are perilous instruments and frequently go astray. Yet he never changed his repertoire. He was profoundly wrong.
Even in the peak of his misfortune, it was all a game for him until he became a goat that had to be forfeited.
When the role of finance and banking in society is questioned, it is important to learn from other people’s experiences.