Looking back today, the warning signs were all there when John Flint got named CEO 18 months ago. The important new executive onboarding into HSBC was the new chairman, Mark Tucker, not Flint as CEO. Tucker was the outsider named to help the bank accelerate through a point of inflection. Flint was the “safe option” with a 28-year run at the bank across geographies and functions. But Flint missed the point of inflection and refused to move as fast towards the future as his new boss wanted him to move.
It’s almost the same story as John Flannery at GE who lasted only 14 months as CEO because of his lack of speed and decisiveness. Accelerating through a strategic point of inflection requires a change in strategy, culture, organization and operation all in sync and all at the same time. No one expected Flannery to turn the company around immediately. But they did expect him to lay the ground work for change.
Like Flannery, Flint inherited a mess. His predecessor, Stuart Gulliver had done a good job cleaning up most of the “stinking mess, the legacy of ill-conceived acquisitions and shoddy practice.” Gulliver had cut costs and gotten the business back on a relatively sound footing.
But there was much more to do even then. Everyone knew that. And Flint “said he will lay out his plans in a few months.” At the time, he “had been expected to ride a wave of improving profits as global interest rates started to rise and the world economy looked rosy. But those expectations were dashed as central banks began lowering rates again and geopolitical tensions roiled markets.”
Tucker was new as outside, non-executive Chairman. He didn’t want to change too much too fast then, choosing to converge before evolving the organization. He gave Flint a chance. But recently, as Ronit Ghose, bank analyst at Citi, said, “Mr. Tucker and HSBC’s directors had ‘clearly lost confidence in [Mr Flint’s] ability to navigate the tougher outlook faced by HSBC given the geopolitical and macro uncertainties, structural headwinds for global banks, and digital disruption challenges.’”
There was a clash of wills as each stubbornly dug into their world view. Flint thought the bank could continue its steady evolution. Tucker saw the need to accelerate through a point of inflection. When people clash with their bosses, the bosses tend to win.
Surving a new boss/change agent
We know most change agents don’t survive their own changes. The exception is when the change agent is the ultimate boss. In that case, those that won’t adapt to the change don’t survive the change. This is what happened to John Flint. He failed to adapt to his new boss’s direction.
- Foundation – Treat your new boss decently. Welcome them. Do your job, not theirs.
- Attitude – Choose to be optimistic. Assume positive intent. Focus on the positives.
- Approach – Tell your boss you want to be part of the team. Then act that way.
- Learning – Help your boss learn and then be open to their direction.
- Expectations – Move on your new boss’s agenda and priorities immediately.
- Implementation – Adjust to your new boss’s working style immediately.
- Delivery – Be present and on and deliver early wins. In a restart, the score is reset.
We know Flint failed on most of these points. He may have failed on all of them. The underlying issue was that Flint thought and acted like he was going to bring Tucker into the world of HSBC. Instead he should have been thinking and acting like he and Tucker were going to bring HSBC into the new “increasingly complex and global environment.” Future fit.
Implications for you
Pay attention to all the changes and especially a new boss. Map the stakeholders. Choose the right approach. Choose the right message. Build the complete team, up, across and down. Then deliver – especially if it’s a point of inflection.