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A young boy in a business suit talks on the phone. (Photos.com)
A young boy in a business suit talks on the phone. (Photos.com)

Lucy Kellaway

Too many bosses fail the 10-year-old test Add to ...

Why do we need banks? It’s a good question; so good I wish I had thought of it myself. It comes from a sweet little girl with ringlets on the ING Careers Facebook page and is the first in a series to be put by schoolchildren to the bank’s aspiring employees.

Not since Bob Diamond, former group chief executive of British bank Barclays Plc.,walked the plank has such a heartwarming thing come out of the banking sector. All the wannabe bankers were last week busily writing answers that mostly went something like this: “We need banks to keep money safe and to lend it to people who need it.” If these are the bankers of the future, banking crises will be a thing of the past.

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However, I can think of two things that are wrong with the Facebook campaign – apart from the fact that it is sick-makingly cute.

The first is how the bank presents its new child-friendly approach. In two sentences it refers to such dreary things as “key values,” “a sustainable future,” “talent” and “reaching out.” The average 10-year-old hasn’t heard of the first two, and though she has certainly heard of the last two, she rightly thinks “talent” is something that sings and dances on primetime television and that “reaching out” is something you do when you help yourself to another Jammie Dodger cookie.

The other problem is that the questions are aimed at the wrong people. They shouldn’t be put to unemployed graduates trying to ingratiate themselves; they should be put to the bank’s bosses instead.

As the naked emperor found out long ago, the child is the best and the toughest inquisitor there is. If any chief executive is unable to say what he does in a way that a brightish 10-year-old can grasp, he either hasn’t thought about it carefully enough or he should stop doing it at once.

When I joined the board of an insurance company a few years ago, I was asked by my younger son what insurance was and what exactly we did during board meetings. Answering these questions in a way that he could follow was quite tricky. Though I tried very hard indeed, I’m not sure he was entirely satisfied. In all, it was a far tougher test than answering the more elaborate questions put to me subsequently by the Financial Services Authority – most of which could be dealt with by learning the corporate risk register by heart.

If you apply the 10-year-old test to business in general, it quickly becomes clear which practices should be kept and which eliminated. Why do the bosses of big U.S. companies earn almost 400 times more than the average worker? Try answering that in a way that a child would accept. It can’t be done.

Many of the things that most of us spend our days at work doing fail the test, too. Sifting through the e-mails that have arrived in my inbox in the past hour or so, I’ve found one from a management consultant telling me that “the next evolutionary change in business requires a paradigm shift in thinking, involving a grassroots revamp.”

A 10-year-old could never see the sense in that, so it deserves to be eradicated. As, perhaps, does the entire management consultancy industry. Just imagine the following Q and A:

10-year-old: Why do we need management consultants?

Consultant: To tell companies what to do.

10-year-old: Why can’t they work that out for themselves?

Consultant: Because we’re smarter.

10-year-old: Who says?

Game, set and match to the 10-year-old.

The next e-mail in my box is from an “HR professional” and is all about “optimizing the flow of talent.” My young inquisitor would surely not be impressed. The e-mail is for the chop, as is most of the HR profession.

Yet the sector that will fare worst under the unforgiving eye of the 10-year-old is investment banking. I only hope ING will be vetting the children’s future questions that flow into its Facebook page so as to avoid such devastating enquiries as “Why do we need investment bankers?” Or “Why are you so rich?” Or, worst of all, “Why are you so rich when my dad says he owns your bank?”

Before I get too indignant over bankers, I should perhaps consider my own position vis-a-vis the 10-year-old. A while ago I gave a talk to schoolchildren in which I told them what terrific fun it was being a columnist. At the end of which, a child put up her hand and asked: “So why do you get paid?”

It is a great question. It is one that the unhappy newspaper industry is currently struggling to answer. I hope it finds a good one quite soon.

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