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Retired Member

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You can't push shit uphill!

11 February 2009  |  4890 views  |  2


So ...

we have ourselves a load of bankers (Is the collective term a "wunch"?) who are all very sorry about the fine mess they have got us all in to.  

Perhaps they didn't know what was going on.  Perhaps no one had the decency to tell them they were all heading for the cliff top.  Perhaps they had more pressing things to think about.

My Grandad (a down-to-earth bricklayer from Yorkshire, by gum!) used to say that you can't push shit uphill.   I intended arguing that perhaps Fred and Andy didn't really know what was going on at the coal face because bad news rarely rises.  In an industry where bonuses are paid on performance, no one is going to let their manager know that there is pooh under their feet, and even if they do, their manager is likely to cover it up - the pooh shall not rise upwards.

Now bearing in mind that there are ten or more layers of management between the top tellers and the bottom doers, it is no surprise that news of pooh in the wind doesn't travel far.  I am pretty sure that Fred and Andy wouldn't concern themselves about things that their peers were also not concerned about, and no one is going to pass the concerns upwards as no one wants to be seen to passing the pooh.  So concerns wouldn't reach the top - only praise and associated bonus fodder.  

I would have left it at that, they weren't looking for it and it didn't appear to be heading their way.  But Hey!  What's going on now, we have a whistleblower at HBOS!  Paul Moore told them they were heading for trouble, and it looks like he was sacked by Jimmy the Chairman, which raises a couple of interesting points:

One of the reasons issues are not raised is their potential for bonus reduction; another reason is their potential for initiating the presentation of the sack.  My Grandad was right - there are many reasons why you can't push shit uphill - there are certainly no incentives for bad news.  It is no surprise that no one told them what was going on.

But ... the guys have surely been around long enough to know that you can't push shit uphill, and you would think that because of this, they would be practiced in the art of sniffing around.  Looks like they were well out of practice.

But ... when some geezer brought it to their attention (I'm only talking about HBOS now), he was told to take it away, and never to come back, as "some members of the board have lost confidence in you, Mr Moore".  "Here, Have some dosh!  We can spare it 'cos were making a fortune (we think), and we don't need people like you spoiling the fun."

And ... KPMG, apparently, according to the PM, reviewed Mr Moore's allegations, and concluded that they were unfounded.  KPMG effectively said that there were no issues, just before HBOS hit the deck.  Hmmm!

And ... Jimmy has now resigned from the FSA, and the PM has said that he is no longer a government adviser - so much for sorting out the mortgage market then.

So, was Paul Moore right?

I have had many conversations with HBOS branch people over the years (they are seconded to Copley to join in with systems and acceptance testing).  They all say that the banking job they used to enjoy has changed.  All the decisions are made in the regional centres, and the branch staff are employed to smile and sell insurance (interestingly, the RBS staff say the same thing).

And ... they appointed Charles Dunstone to complete the re-alignment: to help the Halifax turn its branch network into the financial equivalent of the Carphone Warehouse.  Out goes all of the people who know about banking, and in come all the Johnny Whitesocks, with an emphasis on selling and growing and expanding and selling ...

And ... Andy from Harvard knew what he was doing, he was clever, much cleverer than those simple Yorkshire folk who got together in the Cock Inn in 1853, they were history.  Andy was going to take the Building Society places it had never been before - he certainly has, and it didn't take him long, but at least he's sorry.

Paul Moore was right, my Grandad was right, and there may be an argument that says they didn't know.  But the fact is that they, Fred and Andy, lost sight of the purpose of their organisation.  They moved away from being lenders, and moved towards being shops.  There may have been an argument that says they didn't know, but there is a stronger one that says they didn't care.


TagsPaymentsRetail banking

Comments: (4)

Roy McPherson
Roy McPherson - Macroy Consulting - Maldon | 12 February, 2009, 10:24

David - an excellent article and one that I can only concur with. Having done 20 years working in various banks I recognise the model so very well and as testament I have a well worked thick paper down back of trousers routine for bringing bad news to senior levels; and as my bonus's never amounted to much it's clear that no matter how well parceled you can't push shit uphill.

Your grandad was a grand old chap.


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Steve Ellis
Steve Ellis - Metia - London | 12 February, 2009, 11:40

Great post.

It is interesting to reflect that it took a whistleblower's allegations and the public furore that was created, to make Mr Crosby think hard enough about the matter to consider perhaps he wasn't the ideal person to lead the FSA.

Without that whistleblower, presumably he'd have happily carried on certain in his knowledge that he had the ideal character and experience for the role...

Despite those apologies from Fred, Andy etc, the fact that Crosby had to be prised out shows the myopic attitude that still pervades the teflon coated upper echelons of the banking sector in the UK and the US. They simply don't see that they are fatally compromised and need to exit stage left.

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A Finextra member
A Finextra member | 25 February, 2009, 17:07

Good general sentiment which could also be applied more specifically to your own area of cards and payments expertise.

Not many people in the bank line want the uphill task of explaining to the head of cards & payments that a proposed migration/development program will take three times longer than budgeted.

Whilst no longer bothering to save examples of one year payments programs rolling into their third anniversary and the waste associated with them, I am now even more suspicious of development programs that claim to have been delivered on time. I suspect quite a few contemporary platforms, particularly those aimed at prepay, mobile, etc., may have avoided the uphill inconveniences you describe. 

Rising transaction volumes will amplify the leakage and apparent  security related fraud (often mis-categorised as "chip an PIN would have solved it" cases) on these platforms. and things will start to get smellier on the payments hill.

What is worse is that in these days of green thinking, those brave enough to have a go at pushing it up hill are likely to come across a wind turbine at the top. And you know what happens when the proverbial hits the fan. Perhaps its best to stagger on.

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A Finextra member
A Finextra member | 27 February, 2009, 12:31

You're right Lu, of course.  The principle can indeed be applied anywhere, as it's well known and well understood - so well known and understood that that one would expect all senior managers worth any salt at all to be aware of it too.  That being the case, and since we are all aware of the general success to failure ratios encountered in our daily efforts to do new stuff (as you seem to be saying), one would think that the lack of visible (or sniffable) poo would have begun to ring a few alarm bells.

Fred should have been thinking that there was something odd about the fact that everything smelt of roses.  His experience and his senior management nose should then have guided him towards the shit.

The same is true of Andy: why was he, with his cleverness and experience, not able to see that which was blatantly obvious to the branch grunts?

Ignorance is no defence. 

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