Canaries in the Coal Mine

How your leadership development programs can serve as more than an introduction to corporate life

Most corporate leadership development programs serve one purpose: attract top students and acclimate them into the processes and constructs of your existing hierarchy, career progression, and process.  It’s not a bad model if you want to maintain the firm’s status quo with perfection:  pull a bunch of type A kids into a room and give them a roadmap for “success”.  They’re going corner every turn perfectly.

But it’s no secret that large corporations are facing increased competition from smaller, more nimble companies that adopt new internal processes and operations continuously.  Perpetuating corporate status quo, in other words, is a losing strategy.  Codifying your “Business As Usual” with your newest, most flexible employees wastes an amazing opportunity to bring new thinking into the firm and spot problems that may seem the norm to veterans.

I’ll cover how large companies can structure their corporate development programs to leverage the creative minds of young employees soon, but for now I want to highlight a relatively low-cost, high reward vehicle for insight into your company.  New employees can be your canaries in the coal mine – they may not understand the history, nuance, and complexity of “why things are the way they are”, but they can sniff out the consequences of bad practices pretty quickly.

Take for example, junior investment bankers.

Tenure in the most prized position (for compulsive finance majors) of investment bank “Analyst” is dropping steadily.  The most commonly held grief is sheer time investment, mounting up to around 90 hours a week for a first year employee.  In response, many banks have introduced policies that limit working on weekends or offering a guaranteed work reprieve every month.

But are HR partners addressing the core conflict?  Every junior banker is prepared for weeks from hell, in fact, being able to take the heat is a point of pride (assuming they keep getting their paycheck).  So if they’re prepared to sacrifice their first years out of college to make a lot of money and get great exposure and experience in the field – what’s the problem?

While they’re getting great exposure to clients and executives it isn’t the sort of challenging analytic work they imagined walking in the door.  Managing Directors, Chairmen, and anyone else with a potential client uses the “Analyst” ranks to push out deck after deck of the same verbiage, comps, and graphs regardless of client or context.  Turning comments on endless iterations of documents used as excuses for meetings with clients are the sort of unnecessary processes that serve as symptoms for a broken business model. 

More lean investment banks like Evercore have gained considerable market share for their ability to provide relevant and meaningful insight. Clients have left “bulge bracket” advisors for more niche expertise in smaller outfits. The market has spoken against the larger banks who are known for offering either “never in a million year” scenarios or boilerplate financials. Throwing copy to get in the door has marginal returns.

In sum, junior investment bankers are leaving their well paid, high exposure jobs because they know their work isn’t as meaningful or insightful for themselves or the consumer. They leave for jobs at smaller funds, start-ups, or higher-impact roles at other companies with a hope for using more of their brain.

The recent college grad may not be able to pinpoint why a dangerous practice exists – much like the canary has no idea why rocks seep poisonous gas – but they’re much more sensitive to slights of internal policy, process inefficiencies, gaps in workplace technology, and dissonance between outputs and market demand.  Middle management tends to absorb and rationalize these small issues and thus cloud the symptoms of fundamental problems.  VPs in banking don’t tell their bosses that the decks they provide lack innovative analysis. 

Core problems arise on the front line of execution – which is conveniently where your corporate development program resides.  Grabbing unadulterated perspectives on your business model might involve speaking with your newest cohort of 22 year old college grads.  They don’t have the biases and crystallized interests that come with years of climbing the ladder.  Given a safe outlet where their views are not punished or stored on record – they could be more than willing to open up about what they really see.