Thursday, May 10, 2012

Flying below the radar! Or Why we are destroying initiative in this country!

I was talking to a friend the other day, and we were discussing how hard it becomes to get a job commensurate with one's skills, experience and qualifications when you are over 60.
I have been trying for over 12 months now to get a job in Anti-Money Laundering compliance, and I must have applied to well over 80+ jobs advertised by recruitment consultants (how else do you get to know what's going on?), but without any success at all. Most of them don't even bother to reply, and those that do tell me that I am over-qualified, or too experienced. I have now learned that this is shorthand for 'you are too fucking old', except of course they are not supposed to say the 'O' word.
Anyway, I was asking my friend who is a very experienced City character, whether I was not presenting my cv properly, was I not making the most of my skills and experience?
'On the contrary' he said. 'You have a cv which would frighten any City recruiter to death'.
I was very surprised, indeed, and not a little shocked.
'You've done things', he explained. 'When you were a detective, you arrested bad people and put them in prison. When you were a regulator, you sought to keep the real crooks out of the financial sector. You've worked with foreign investigative agencies, you have studied with foreign regulators, you have advanced degrees in financial crime management and interdiction, and you have written books on the topic. You have edited journals, you have spoken at international conferences, you're on Google and Yahoo, you know stuff!
I asked him 'But isn't that what all recruiters want, don't they keep insisting that the applicant has to have all these skills and knowledge?'
He looked at me with a kind of benign pity.
'Don't be stupid, no City bank, financial institution or regulatory agency wants someone like you in their compliance department. In a way those worthless recruiters are telling you the truth, you've got real experience, you're a leader and you know how to do things. And nobody wants that kind of experience in their office. You attract attention, people are interested in what you do and what you know. No bank wants a personality in their compliance division, because they don't want to have any attention paid to them. They want bland, boring, ersatz, vanilla, beige, but they don't want anyone who will actually want to do anything. You don't have to do anything to be a successful compliance officer in the vast majority of banks, just shuffle the paper, tick the boxes, don't make waves, don't fuck up, and keep your head down below the horizon. Your problem is that you don't know how to fly below the radar.'
After he had gone, I thought about his words, and I quickly came to the belated realisation that he was right, particularly about my personality. I started to review the situation more generally and I quickly realised that the leitmotif for our times is to be 'anonymous, grey, and unaccountable'. No-one wants to do anything remotely unusual, no-one wants to take responsibility for their actions, no-one wants to accept liability for their cock-ups. When was the last time you saw a politician resign because his department had screwed up badly, making him look foolish and not in control of his brief?
I started to think about smaller issues. Our local Park User Group badly needs a new Chair, I have done the job for too long, and it needs new blood and new ideas. The role involves chairing 3-4 meetings a year and liaising with the local authorities from time to time. It is not a time-consuming role, but can we find someone who will accept the challenge? No way, the people are happy to use the Park and its fantastic facilities, but no-one wants to step up and say 'I'll take on this simple role'. They all claim they are too busy, that they have too many demands on their time. I suspect that the real reason is that none of them know how to manage a meeting, how to speak in public, how to control a simple debate, and are too frightened to try, because they don't have the skills, and don't want to learn.
It's the same in business. Anyone who has ever worked for an American corporation knows that the way to get along in the corporate sphere, is to agree with everything the boss wants, and the boss, by definition, is the person above you. It is now the same in the UK, both in business and the Civil Service,  no-one wants to hear unusual ideas, no-one is interested in innovation, initiative, or out-of-the-box thinking, and no-one produces any, because they are all too frightened about what the person above them in the food-chain might think. In the financial regulatory sphere, it's not a good idea to do anything too dynamic about putting some bad guy out of business, because you will almost certainly get into trouble.
That's why our criminogenic banks get away with so much wrong-doing. They employ people who won't challenge the status-quo. They employ them young, pay them a salary well in excess of anything they could get elsewhere, and then, like the Devil when he tempted Jesus, they show the young employee all the financial benefits and bonuses he or she can realise, as long as they toe the line, don't rock the boat, do as they are told and never do anything to attract publicity or bring the bank to public notice.
When I was a youngster at school, we were always being told to show initiative, to think for ourselves, to demonstrate independence of thought and to be able to back it up with reasoned evidence if challenged, which we were, all the time. I can remember periods where someone would say something challenging, but then would not be able to support the argument with reason and rationality and evidence. He would be shot down in flames by both master and the rest of the class. It taught you to be focused, and to get your facts right, and to use logic.
As a probationer police constable, we were taught that the first job of the policeman at any scene of public disturbance or anything out of the ordinary, was to take control of the situation, and to be the person to whom the other persons present looked to for a lead. We were expected to engage in exercises where the instructors would play the bad-guy roles, and while we hapless recruits were trying to instil order, the other instructors would be screaming in our ears and faces, 'take control, officer, get a grip, assert your authority.'
From this background and training, I have found it easy to form my own point of view, to rationalise my thoughts, to be comfortable in my beliefs, and to be willing to step up and provide an opinion if asked for one. In my own writing, I have no qualm in saying what I think and what I believe, and I don't give a damn what anyone else thinks of my ideas or point of view, and I am only too delighted if they want to take the chance to take me to task, and counter my arguments with ideas of their own, because this is how a democracy works.
The fact is that very few people do or are willing to do so, and that causes me huge concern.
I think it explains why there is such a dearth of new thinking in business generally, because no-one is encouraged to think laterally, or to come up with ideas or use their initiative. I think young people particularly are so frightened about losing the job they have so painstakingly sought for, that they have decided it is better to be a cipher, rather than bring yourself to notice. Some have called the culture which encourages this lack of enterprise 'the tall poppy' syndrome , meaning that any poppy which grows higher than any other is to be chopped down, because no-one wants a tall poppy. They want them all the same size, all the same shape, all the same colour. It is much easier to control people when they all look, think and behave the same, individuals who stand out above the rest are the problem. That is why kids at some Primary Schools are not permitted to engage in competitive games, because someone might win, and our modern society does not want to identify winners!
I think this is very sad. I also think it is bad for business generally. I further think it explains why so many bad things are taking place within our discredited banking system, because no-one has the initiative or the willingness to put themselves forward and say 'this is wrong' when they see wrong-doing or outright criminality being proposed.
I used to work for a major US company at a time when  things were not going well for them. At the end of one particular quarter, one of the senior directors came round and offered inducements to all the sales teams to write 'ghost' business, which management wouldn't chase too obviously in the following quarter, but it would make the quarter's figures look good, and keep the financial analysts off their case. I pointed out that this was a criminal offence under both the Companies Act and the Theft Act, and that I would not be instructing my team to adopt this practice.
Two months later I was made redundant!
So, I guess the message in financial compliance is, walk softly, don't make waves, push the papers around, tick all the boxes, don't fuck up, and be a safe pair of hands, and whatever you do, don't fly above the radar!
As Tom Paxton once said, 'there is safety in obscurity'.

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