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Opinion

Mergers weaken the glue that holds a firm together

What does it take for banks and investment banks to excel? Obviously they need customers, products, capital, technology, sound strategy, good people and leadership. That's tough enough to assemble, as is managing the balance between customer business and own-account trading. But the characteristic that bankers themselves talk about most as the one that distinguishes winning firms from the rest is even tougher to define and measure. It is culture.

Those with a strong, coherent culture tend to thrive, those without one to struggle.

What do bankers mean by culture? It's a hard concept to pin down but they tend to look for a sense of shared key values, a common understanding of the type of behaviour that will be expected and the work habits employees must develop in order to progress.

Is a firm dog-eat-dog or is it truly cooperative; is it highly entrepreneurial and risk-taking or does it emphasize adherence to procedure; is the work ethic all-consuming or more balanced; are senior management accessible and open to debate or is the hierarchy fairly rigid; does the company reward those maximizing profit today and hang the consequences; does the firm's own trading book take priority over customers' interests; how close to the edge is it prepared to tread with regulators and accountants; does it strive to look after its people or does it churn and burn?

Partnership model

Having a strong culture isn't the same as being nice to people.

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