Are boards fishing for digital talent in shallow pools?

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In pursuit of strategies to survive the relentless digitisation of financial services, are the pools in which boards fish for talent too shallow?
Major financial institutions began to truly grasp the magnitude of change required years after the iPad was introduced. Awareness comes not through regulatory mandate, but from customer behaviour and expectations which now evolve uncomfortably swiftly. Successful adaptation to this unpredictable environment requires a new mindset, new partners and new tactics. The mindset is now relatively easy to obtain. Finding the right people and partners is a conundrum.


The levels of activity, innovation and investment around FinTech indicate the value at stake. All participants – established and emerging – face huge challenges and opportunity. The incumbents must continue to manage their existing businesses whilst preparing (for) the future model. The challengers must achieve scale whilst maintaining security and trust.


The future is now a moving target. Digital introduces too many variables for existing strategic models to manage. With consumer behaviour and expectations evolving at such a pace, a target state is hard to define beyond a few fundamentals.

In the absence of clearly defined goals to aim for, existing strategy and delivery regimes may struggle to adapt and perform effectively.
The very organisational structures, partnerships and cultures which emerged successfully through years of oligopolistic stability prove entirely unsuitable in today’s dynamic environment.

Larger financial institutions still derive too much comfort from their ability thus far to withstand attacks on multiple fronts – the increased cost of regulatory compliance, the arrival of numerous, diverse challengers. This apparent success is temporary. Survival to date is a function of  scale – with today’s performance being reviewed through yesterday’s lens.

Historically acceptable measures of success – market share, revenue/FTE, RoRWA – cannot reliably predict the incumbents’ ability to adapt.

The huge infrastructure created and maintained by the large banks and payments providers should – in theory – be of significant advantage. The sheer complexity of the financial system once provided an almost insurmountable barrier to entry. Now, however, ongoing maintenance of the existing infrastructure is now impossibly expensive. Regulatory compliance absorbs most – if not all – available discretionary investment. Capacity which could otherwise be deployed to adapt the infrastructure to a new digital future.

The once advantageous barrier to entry now acts as an inflexible barrier to change for the incumbent.


We face an uncertain future with technology enabling global changes with astonishing impact. The rise of the collaborative economy, the shift away from physical-first to digital-only. Changes in the meaning of work, the role of education. Evolution of the shape of a career, the nature of retirement. Society is expecting – and digital is enabling – an entirely different future from the one the current financial systems can support.

A strategy that hopes to largely protect the status quo with mere incremental digitisation of balance sheet/customer relationship will fail.

Instead, the very nature of the relationship between institution and marketplace needs reconsideration.

“We need banking, we don’t need banks.” was said some time ago, but the definition of what ‘banking’ will even be remains an ill-defined target.

A viable strategy for an unforeseeable future is one which enables multiple possibilities.

Responsible participation in the global financial system requires providers defend the core fundamentals of security and stability.

Historically successful incumbents have long-embedded those principles into their organisational DNA and built ludicrously complex infrastructures to milk value from the system. But future success requires something fundamentally different – a new layer – transparent and free of friction – which adds value to the end user. An authentic, digitally-enabling proposition which adapts with customers to support their evolving goals on their terms.


As I mentioned in this recent post, I believe the momentum around ‘FinTech’ has already had an immeasurably positive impact by changing the nature and velocity of strategic discussions inside incumbents.

It’s worthwhile considering exactly what “FinTech” means:

“That new world is supporting, displacing and disintermediating the old world finance with technology.  It is recreating the world of finance with technology.  It is creating a 21st century world of finance based upon technology.  That to me is fintech.”  – Chris Skinner

New entrants like TransferWise and The Currency Cloud continue to raise the (unbundled) bar for how customer experience should be defined.

Simple, Moven, Fidor and others continue to provide living case studies on the merits of an entirely customer-centric approach to delivering finance.

The ongoing fascination with Bitcoin and blockchain technologies is reshaping  agendas inside institutions and with their regulators and stakeholders.


If you work in an incumbent – particularly as an enabler/partner – it can be uncomfortable to admit your own strategy or business relationship needs improvement. Over many years, you have crafted a reputation for reliable delivery. But the context has been changed radically by the end user and your stakeholders now deserve something more. It’s time to find new partners, new viewpoints, new tactics.

But if it’s true there are now enough influencers at some of the incumbents with the right mindset to truly begin to adapt, do they have the right teams and partners?

The boards of the major incumbents have started asking some of the right questions. They’ve exhausted internal searches and now look outside for digital solutions. Yet the briefs they are giving the search firms may be too narrow. I understand from the biggest firms that boards are still seeking lower-risk, lateral hires – people who already carry these business cards elsewhere.

  • The retail ‘Digital lead’ at a large UK clearer has apparently himself interviewed over 500 candidates in pursuit of the ‘right’ digital change agents;
  • A major payments provider searches for digital payments specialists with specific cards and payments experience. However their non-solicitation agreement with their leading competitors essentially dehydrates an already shallow pool in which the search firms can fish.

The FinTech community can obviously provide a natural source of talent and partnership. This can benefit challengers and incumbents alike. Rather than pursuing pure disintermediation, challengers may achieve scale faster and greater impact if they work with rather than strictly against the incumbents.

The accelerators – and particularly their mentor communities – can also act as mediators and translators – identifying commercially viable ways to share the practical benefits of the FinTech revolution back into the latent infrastructure (and vice versa).

But this type of partnership approach requires fundamental change inside and throughout the incumbents – it will be fascinating to see which ones adapt.


I believe the successful teams of today need a wide range of capabilities – in a combination not often seen in finance.

  • Commerciality
  • Technical capability
  • Data savviness
  • Design
  • Curiosity
  • Vision
  • Adaptability
  • Resilience
  • Humility
  • Empathy

In a forthcoming post I’ll expand on each of these and why I think they’re critical. Obviously there are many more and I’d appreciate comments on any I’ve missed.

There is much cause for optimism in the FS industry for providers and consumers. But until we consider parallel industries and build multi-disciplinary teams filled with passion and hope, the pools in which we fish in may prove too shallow.


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