Setting the Right Tone Requires Action at the Top

Bad reputations start at the top. The crisis-damaged profile of financial services needs an overhaul. Trust, or the lack of it, drives reputations and relationships. It takes hard work and consistency to build trust – and seconds to destroy it.

”Trust arrives on foot and leaves on horseback,” supposedly an old Dutch saying, applies to personal and business relationships alike.

No one doubts the value of cultivating and protecting a good reputation. Yet many people—including some who lead large companies—seem to view such efforts as window dressing. According to numerous surveys, financial services firms in particular have managed to dig themselves a particularly deep reputational hole—especially when they put their firm’s interests ahead of their clients’ interests.

The crash of 2008 and the Great Recession went a long way toward shattering the already fragile reputations of banks, insurers, mortgage brokers, asset managers and rating agencies. Responding to public outrage, regulators and lawmakers rushed to identify what went wrong and adopt new rules to cut the risk of another meltdown. It’s pointless to argue whether the regulators overreacted. The tomes of added regulation aren’t going away, no matter which party rules.

Complying with the new requirements has been labor-intensive and costly. Firms have added tens of thousands of compliance professionals to help meet their regulators’ heightened expectations under the Dodd-Frank Act and other measures to restore confidence in the financial system.

Even with all the new rules and compliance efforts, whole new categories of reputation-damaging behavior emerged in rapid succession. Following the revelations of Libor manipulation in 2012 were massive losses on prop trading desks (even as the Volcker Rule was nearing completion), lapses in the oversight of money-laundering schemes and the manipulations of currency exchange. The drumbeat continued uninterrupted through the end of 2014.

Many firms have paid billions in fines and settlements. Each new headline on the latest eye-popping payment only reinforces the public’s presumption of institutional guilt and greed and drives regulators’ demands for firms to define and fix what’s wrong with their risk cultures.

At the heart of these demands are behaviors out of sync with the mission and values many corporations have toiled to champion and enforce, not that such statements alone can cure what ails a firm’s culture. So how does a firm change a culture that fails to prevent bad behavior and earns the public’s distrust?

In a word: leadership. In their language and their conduct, any company’s leadership team sets the tone for the rest of the company. If that tone is inconsistent with the values the company aspires to, it will be replicated by middle management and throughout the work force. If employees think management treats social responsibility as far more than a PR ploy, they will care much more about doing the right thing, and they will take pride in their organization.

In the financial services world, setting the right tone at the top requires more than just saying the right words. It requires action. Specifically, it requires taking to heart the spirit of all the new rules and using them to demonstrate a company’s commitment to not just check the box on compliance but to embed the point of it all in the fabric of how a company serves its customers’ needs and motivates its employees.

The reasons for working to restore public trust are compelling. Trust drives investor choices for many institutions as well as customer choice for products in highly competitive markets. Many investors in financial services companies now believe the best stocks to own are those of institutions that go above and beyond compliance to forge relationships of trust and cooperation with their regulators and therefore with the public.

After all, consumer protection and the expectation to be treated fairly drive regulatory expectations and enforcement actions. If a company can get this right, shareholders as well as consumers win, and employees feel better about their own efforts in the context of a company striving to put their values into action.

Here’s one way to help get it right: Reverse the process of designing and marketing financial products. The old way is shareholder driven:

  1. Determine what return on equity will make the company’s stock attractive to investors.

  2. Determine what profit margin will generate the desired return.

  3. Design a product to produce the needed margin and meet regulatory approval.

  4. Market the product to convince consumers they need it.

A better approach is consumer driven:

  1. Talk to consumers to learn what financial services they need but can’t get.

  2. Design the product to fulfill that need.

  3. Structure and market to win regulatory approval and produce a sustainable profit margin.

  4. Make sure the profit margin is adequate to support an attractive shareholder return.

“Companies should first focus on delivering genuine value by creating solutions that the marketplace demands,” wrote colleague Tom Hoog of Hill+Knowlton Strategies in a recent internal essay. “If their management is effective, profit will naturally flow as society rewards them for their efficiency in fulfilling the market’s needs.”

Companies are more likely to attract long-term investors if they maintain a culture focused on sustainably serving a social purpose and delivering real value—and not just a particular financial return. A good way to set the tone is for a company’s leadership to send a clear message to all stakeholders—employees, customers, business partners and investors—that the top priority is serving customers’ needs.

That message should dominate even investor conference calls. Take care of the client. The marketplace will reward the company that does this best. So will the investor. The bigger challenge of restoring public trust in financial institutions will require years of doing this consistently.

Chris Winans, General Manager H+K Strategies NYC and EVP Corporate.

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