Banking and politics: Fat chance for the fat cats

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A grilling from politicians can be murder for a bank chief executive. Your only hope is to get the murder board right in advance.

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Imagine for a moment that you’re the CEO of a global financial institution.

All of your relationships flow in a very particular way. The people who work directly for you are for the most part obedient and deferential. The rest of the staff typically holds you in awe. The only relationships you have to work at with any energy are with your Chairman and members of the board of directors.

In short, when you are top of the tree, everyone else is looking up at you.

And then along comes a scandal -- let’s use the discovery that your Swiss Private Bank has been working on behalf of clients to avoid taxes as a hypothetical example.

As the ugly headlines pile up all around you comes the invitation you’ve been dreading. In the US, it’s to appear before a Congressional committee; in the UK, it comes from one of the numerous Select Committees.

Wherever that invitation originates from, you are about to enter a world very much unlike the one in which you normally operate.

The ability to respond in these kind of settings is predicated on two things -- a mastery of the substance of the allegations; and, more importantly, the adoption of striking the right style in front of your interrogators.

The substance bit is dealt with by empaneling what’s come to be known as a "murder board"  -- the aim of which is to pepper the senior executive with the kind of questions they will ultimately be asked before the committee.

The typical composition is the senior comms person, a senior lawyer and the head of the area that’s caused the car crash in the first place.

I’ve sat in dozens of these kind of meetings over the years and am proud to say it’s usually the comms person who takes the brief most seriously. It’s not enough to simply raise the issues in an anodyne way. The real value comes when you take on a political persona and raise questions that might not have a great deal of insight to them, but play well on a populist basis.

Take the most recent appearance of HSBC CEO Stuart Gulliver before the UK Treasury Select Committee.

Gulliver was incredibly well briefed on the accusations of tax avoidance in his Swiss private bank 10 years ago. He offered an apology and promised that everyone was working as hard as possible to clear up the bank’s sullied reputation.

So far so good.

Then out of the blue comes the question a finance specialist could never think of: "Do you consider yourself a fatcat?"

If you could script an answer to that question, it would be along the following lines:  "I realize I make a great deal of money, but I feel I work very hard for it. I’m responsible for a large global organization that provides a good livelihood to thousands of people who work for us and we seek to make life better for the millions of individuals and corporations who rely upon us for their banking needs."

Further reading
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Gulliver and Flint face prisoner’s dilemma at HSBC

Gulliver decided to take a different approach and it was the only flaw – albeit a minor one -- in his performance.  He answered a question with a question when he replied. "You would have to define 'fat cat’ for me to be able to comment more meaningfully."

The good news from HSBC’s point of view is that only the Daily Mirror picked up on the exchange.

Then there’s your demeanour. You need to be reverent without being cloying; cooperative without going far afield; apologetic where necessary; and resolute when you feel you’re being taken advantage of.

Unlike the "murder room", there isn’t a great deal you can do to prepare yourself stylistically -- you either have it or you don’t. Gulliver, who is known to be prickly in private, managed to stay calm and respectful amid the interrogation.

The poster boy for how not to do something like this is Bob Diamond, former CEO of Barclays and now head of Atlas Merchant Capital.

Shortly after stepping down as the head of Barclays, Diamond appeared before the UK Treasury Select Committee to discuss a range of issues, including the rigging of Libor rates and the Financial Service Authority’s qualms around him taking the helm of the bank.

To be fair, the setting for Diamond’s appearance was sullied before he sat down in the chair. An aggressive American who was tabloid fodder because of his huge pay packet was coming before the panel after being turfed out of his job.

But instead of playing the part of the deferential banker willing to acknowledge his mistakes with huge portions of humble pie, Diamond saw his role as defending the large banks. He spoke down to the committee members and was a rather evasive when it came down to who knew what and when.