Joining the culture club

Finance, Technology | Thu 7 Jul | Author – Business & Finance
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Culture is the key to attracting and retaining top fintech talent and critical for sustainable success, writes David Burke.

For banks and financial institutions, the challenge of fintech or start-up organisations is clearly apparent, with many of the leading lights in these large corporates having left for greener and more agile pastures in significant numbers.

Banks and corporates face stiff competition both in terms of attracting, and crucially, retaining their top technology talent. This is particularly the case in what is more and more a digital domain with a real dearth of talent.

And as the door closes on exit interviews, across the sector the word at the top of most peoples’ lists, and something that businesses are left to reflect upon, is ‘culture’.


What is the culture that the fintech space apparently can offer people that the corporate world cannot? Naturally the first thing that comes to mind is the free food, foosball tables, beanbags, jeans and perhaps the Irish holy grail – a beer fridge in the office!

Interestingly, though this narrow and misplaced assessment of fintech culture usually comes from people who are left behind. For people who have moved from the corporate world these are rightly considered superficial perks and not a statement of company culture.


So just what is it that makes fintechs and start-ups so attractive? Freedom of opinion, ideation, innovation and agility are important considerations, as is working in an environment that is more open to risk and not bogged down in compliance and red tape.

But the real attraction of leaving the financial services corporate environment for a lot of people is a shift in company focus, and an opportunity to work on problems that they genuinely feel passionate about.

For more and more people, working for a business that is trying to change the world for the better and disrupt existing business models, is the number one reason this space appeals to them. The ability to discuss a problem in the morning and be implementing product or process changes in the same afternoon, is something that they just can’t do in the traditional corporate space.


So what can the banks and corporate institutions do to combat this? We have been working with some very progressive brands in Ireland for many years who have worked hard to retain the very best of their corporate values but try to embrace the need for flexibility, innovation and change. Often this results in a separation of ‘run the business’ activities from ‘grow the business’ value led, innovative operations.

The smartest businesses we work with now on both sides of the cultural fence acknowledge that providing a meaningful environment where like-minded people can come together to connect and collaborate, is extremely important

The emergence of digital labs, innovation labs, and R+D centres in Ireland – within some global brands – has been highly successful and leverages a commercial opportunity out of the significant pool of technical talent that is based in Ireland.

These brands have created environments that go beyond jeans, beanbags and beards, but are focused on values and ethics. In doing so, they have created an environment that gives people a creative voice, and in doing so, have given their brands the intellectual muscle to engage with the market and external collaboration partners in a much more meaningful way.


So how about the fintech and start-up world – they must have it pretty easy right? Well the truth is of course that they are experiencing their own challenges in this highly competitive marketplace.

Firstly, there is a lot of competition in their own space from other tech firms, outside of fintech, as well as hot new brands popping up at ever increasing frequency. Also, as mentioned, some of the more established corporate businesses are making significant changes in response to the talent drain and people who have spent some time in the full on, demanding and process-light world of start-ups are moving back to this new corporate world where there has been an effort to bridge the culture gap between old and new, stiff and agile.

Life stage plays its part too. Often this return to pastures old coincides with lifestyle changes as people mature and perhaps start a family. However, in our experience, it tends to be more a case of people being lured by the greener pastures of the start-up world but realising a few years later that more structured, less all-encompassing environments work best for them.


Coupled with this are the general attrition trends we see in today’s modern workplace. A lot of people see their roles as projects rather than careers, a three-year shift in a business is ample time to learn and develop before moving on to new environments. Smarter companies are beginning to accept that the ‘job for life’ philosophy is almost at an end and people will inevitably leave.

Turning this into an opportunity, their activities are now focused on creating positive working experiences and building an alumni of past employees. These are the individuals who will take the brand to the market and spread their cultural message to potential new employees as well as creating a network of high achieving former employees, in key positions in other businesses, potentially creating collaboration opportunities further down the line.

As difficult as it might be to accept losing someone, the companies and leaders who really get this culture model, take great pride in creating futures for their people in other business. More aggressive retention activities are sharply focused on key individuals and ensuring that all team members feel they are being continually developed in a culture that fits their own personal values and ethics.


Dave Burke

Dave Burke, Harvey Nash Ireland

One of the other challenges facing the new fintech brands is the challenge of scale. It’s easy to have a clear culture and values manifesto when it’s a room of 10 people, with everyone having a voice and input into decisions.

What’s more challenging is when the business starts to grow and decisions begin to be made without your involvement. The business reaches a scale where processes need to be implemented more formally and everything that used to come naturally is now more challenging.

Along with all of this it now becomes more difficult to really retain the culture and values that made you attractive in the first place.

Some employees can become stuck in a cultural limbo, somewhere between the start-up they joined and the corporate the left. Retaining your culture through your move to scale can be done, but not by every company in every instance so its important to define the culture of your organisation from the start.


In truth, this is simply part of building great businesses. We all have the same basic problems but they manifest themselves in different ways. There is a belief in some organisations that the answer can be found by throwing money at your people problems but this is short-term and doesn’t work.

This is partly because, while remuneration is important, the vast majority of people we survey in our global tech and leadership reports tell us that they are not primarily motivated by money. They are motivated by culture, their experiences, the chance to do good work in the world, and to work with people who they can connect with in a meaningful way.


The smartest businesses we work with now on both sides of the cultural fence acknowledge that providing a meaningful environment where like-minded people can come together to connect and collaborate, is extremely important.

Today, businesses are focused primarily on defining and embracing their culture and they hire based on this assessment first and foremost. They are moving away from processes that solely rely on arbitrary competency assessments and place as much weight on culture fit and personality – values are innate, and skills can be developed.

For more and more people, working for a business that is trying to change the world for the better and disrupt existing business models, is the number one reason this space appeals to them

They ensure that their brand is known for the defining elements of their culture, and that it’s not all about perks and benefits. They ensure that employees’ personal values are matched by the company’s.

This culture-based model for hiring is integral to success in today’s fintech world, as talent acquisition is understandably high on people’s agenda but retaining your top talent is critical for sustainable success.