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A Woodstock attendee and financial services pro reflects on moving on ​

Aug 16, 2019 / Technology

Fifty years ago this week, I hitchhiked to Bethel, New York to join 400,000 others at Woodstock. Eventually I landed on Day Two of the three-day event—and unlike countless others who in subsequent years embellished their memories or created them out of whole tie-dye cloth, yes, I was indeed there.

I remember mud, lots of mud; the security fencing crashed; Sly and the Family Stone grinding out their soul-funk grooves; Grace Slick singing as the sun rose behind her. The final morning Jimmy Hendrix greeted sleepyheads with his feedback-drenched version of “The Star Spangled Banner.”  I witnessed all that musical history and more but also lamented what I missed. I slept soundly through Janice Joplin’s 2 a.m., hour-long performance.

Tempus fugit. Today I find myself working on several banking projects while one of my sons attends an electronic music concert in Vancouver, featuring not a single act I’ve ever heard of. At the same time Woodstock 50—meant to be an ambitious revival but somehow settling on pop-lite acts such as Miley Cyrus—was cancelled.

What’s this got to do with banking? Good question. The answer lies in change—or the consequences if we remained mired in the mud of a romanticized past.

Command and control: What a drag

Now more than ever, bankers cannot imagine where the fates may take them in the decades to come. In 1969, the ATM was a mere two years old, and a mobile phone in your pocket—let alone one that could deposit a check in 60 seconds—was the stuff of science fiction.

Fast forward to 2019. On the career front, I see bankers leaving traditional employers for fintechs and credit unions. In the face of broader possibilities and progress, myopic vision and nostalgia are more dangerous than ever.  Many banks, or at least certain units within them, cling to a “command and control” structure that predates Flower Power. In fact, it may have more to do with Vietnam than Woodstock, as the philosophy has its roots in the military.

Perhaps you’ve encountered command and control in your financial services career. Employees do what they’re told and no more; passive-aggressive managers call the shots; everyone who tows the company line imagines success or at least job security. Meanwhile, the exit doors are jammed. Some leave their workplaces in dismay over a stodgy, stuck mindset; others pay the price for speaking up to change it. (Beware the manager who “encourages” total honesty.)

But command and control management practices are declining—and will die out within five years as the last Baby Boomers retire and a new generation of leaders takes over. Simply stated, our knowledge-based economy rewards innovation and speed to market. Agility has taken center stage as an operating philosophy in a bank’s culture, and a guiding principle for how individual bankers pursue their jobs. 

Digital transformation: Can you dig it?

Recently we’ve asked bankers, “What is the impact of digitalization on your employees? Do you need the same type of employees or the same number?” The good news is that many banks wish to avoid unwanted disruption—and want to retrain their employees. One banker stressed the goal of taking low-value tasks away from employees and thereby allowing them to focus on customer-facing activities and create value. As artificial intelligence and machine learning drive these changes, some employees are understandably resistant, mostly due to fear about job security. No one wants to be replaced by a robot.

Yet the best professionals operate with flexibility and respond well to change. As a consultant, I encounter bank employees intensely focused on providing excellent service to customers—and others taking a purely careerist bent. Ultimately, the self-absorbed people will fail.

A decade ago Jack Welch, then the CEO of GE, said something surprising: that no one should expect to work their entire career at GE. That is true for today’s bankers as well. Neither careers nor lives move forward in a straight line. While our fathers and grandfathers may have worked at one company their entire careers, that option is neither possible for—nor desired by—the overwhelming majority of bankers. Almost everyone I know has worked at multiple banks by default, as mergers and acquisitions gobbled up one entity, then another.

And getting fired, once considered a disgrace, is simply a banking rite of passage today. In fact, a long tenure at one company may be viewed as a negative: pointing to a possible of lack of ambition.

Banking’s next generation: Groovy, man

The Woodstock of 1969 can never be recreated because it was never intentionally created to become a cultural, musical and historical monolith. The organizers never prepared for or imagined the turnout. Or the mud. Or the mass nudity. Or the media attention. For a few days it dominated as the world’s biggest news story. When I arrived, no tickets were being taken. Security was light and unnecessary. There were no prominent corporate sponsors. No selfies. No Tweets. We lived in the moment, undistracted by technology and yes, responsibility.

But that moment was fleeting. Fifty years have transformed Woodstock’s Age of Aquarius from fact to artifact. And the banking world we knew then—both from the career and technological angles—is just as much a museum piece. In some ways that’s a relief, because we live in exciting times where, for example, fintechs are redefining what’s possible in banking. To borrow from those Sixties labels, many have workplace values that tip more towards Hippie than Establishment. But they still have serious goals of removing every bit of friction from financial services—with young, smart, visionary entrepreneurs leading the way.

Why would we want to live in the past? Woodstock 50 turned into a fiasco of corporate jockeying, music biz glitz and pale imitation. By contrast, my son may have had just as much fun as I did, maybe more, at his Vancouver concert.

And lest we forget, even in 1969, people looked forward to the future. Just a year previous, filmgoers watched astronauts converse with the computer HAL 9000 in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Back on Earth in 2019, you can talk to a chatbot name Alexa and get much of your banking done.

Let’s face it: None among us would glamorize a banking past marked by dead-end career prospects, rotary phones and command and control. That is so 1969.  

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The president of Financial Institutions Consulting (FIC), Charles Wendel is a regular contributor to BAI. He can be reached at [email protected].

Listen to Charles Wendel on his recent BAI Banking Strategies podcast, “Aiming to please SMBs