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Too Big to Manage?

At the time of the banking crisis we were told that our banks were ‘too big to fail’. Now, in the latest of a seemingly unending series of scandals, as the spotlight is on HSBC’s Swiss division, it is being suggested that they are too big to manage. Chris Blackhurst, business correspondent of the Evening Standard interviewed Stephen Green when he was executive chairman of the bank and asked him whether HSBC was too big to manage. It was, he said, a question they asked themselves. ‘Does the ‘management stretch’ become a bridge too far?’ This prompted the thought – was the Roman Empire too big to manage? Or the East India Company? Or the Eighth Army? These organisations were successful because their members were united behind a common purpose and took pride in their achievements. Their leaders at every level shared a common process of induction and training which reinforced this sense of purpose at every stage. In a word, they relied not on management but on leadership; not on the rule book, but on a shared culture and ethos. Not so very long ago the banking profession had many of these qualities and being a member of the profession was to be highly respected within the community. This was before creating shareholder value became the sole focus of strategy and before the earnings of those at the top became astronomical. In his book, Serving God? Serving Mammon?, written in 1996, Stephen Green said ‘trading depends on an instinct for competitive needs to be fettered by law and regulation where appropriate, and it needs to be developed within a shared moral framework which places public value on integrity in commercial practice and on care for the weak’. Quite so!

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