Senior fintech recruitment specialists Dexter Cousins of Tier One People and Alex Chirica of Broadgate Search on when and why you should hire a banker.
For the first few weeks of the COVID-19 crisis, millions of people across the country found themselves subjected to a crash-course in epidemiology: viral r-rates, ‘the curve’, and dramatic graphs comparing death rates across the world.
Over the final few weeks of the same crisis, it’s to be expected we’ll be shown a different set of graphs; national debt, economic contraction, and the unemployment rate.
In the US, a report from the Federal Reserve has already predicted an 32.1 per cent of people will be without a job – a figure considerably higher than the 24.9 per cent at the height of the Great Depression. In the UK, state support websites crashed under the weight of tens of thousands of new Universal Credit claimants – the highest demand for unemployment benefits since 1996.
Against this backdrop, streamlined and innovative companies have coped best – happily adjusting to the ‘new normal’ of remote working while demand increased for their technological products. Among them, fintech firms – and particularly payments firms. If it wasn’t already accepted doctrine, COVID-19 appears to have underscored that the future – of both finance and workplace practices – is digital.
Indeed, there was already a rebalancing of the financial services job market as a result of digital activity rather than lockdown-related inactivity. In 2019, Deutsche Bank announced job losses of 18,000 – one-fifth of its staff. HSBC shed 17 per cent of its European workforce in the same year, while Barclays made 3,000 workers redundant in 2019. The decline of the bank branch, and the automation of banking processes – both precipitated by fintech innovation – are largely responsible.
You’d think any bank executive who unexpectedly found themselves on the golf course would be a target candidate for a fintech. But, according to recruiters who work specifically with the sector, that’s not necessarily the case.
“The main challenge I’ve had is trying to change the mentality of hiring managers in fintechs when it comes to hiring people from the big banks,” says Alex Chirica, fintech recruitment consultant at London-based Broadgate Search. “There’s this massive stereotype that, if you work in a big bank, you might not be hands-on enough, or might delegate too much. It’s my job to make sure those stereotypes are removed, helping fintechs understand that there are people who work in big banks who are very hands-on.”
Some, in fact, have famously rolled up their sleeves and started their own challengers – any fintech that rejected Anne Boden before she started Starling Bank might have kicked themselves.
Broadgate Search operates from offices in London, Dublin and Manchester, with a pan-European reach. It specialises in introducing talented professionals to growing fintechs across the UK and the EU. On the other side of the world, Sydney-based Tier One People specialises in matching C-suite and leadership talent with positions in Australia’s growing fintech sector. By concentrating solely on fintech skills-matching, Tier One People has gained the trust of big name partners like Revolut, Stripe, Klarna and TransferWise. The firm’s founder and director, Dexter Cousins, doesn’t like sterotypes either, but former banking execs aren’t always a neat fit, he says. It very much depends on where the fintech is in its growth.
“I keep getting these calls saying ‘hey, I’ve got 20 years’ experience in banking, I want to work in fintech’. But these companies are at the cutting edge of innovation, and the reality is that nobody’s excited by anybody who’s got five years’ experience in banking, never mind 20,” says Cousins. “The key thing is to be able to identify at what point somebody from a big bank can come in and have an impact. A startup of one to 50 people is a different business to one of 50 to 300, and different again to one of 300 to 2,000.”
Fintech founders themselves are not always the best person to make that call.
“I’ve interviewed more than 300 fintech leaders in Australia and overseas. We’ve tracked their businesses, watched some grow and others go bust. Less than one per cent of those founders or leaders had a background in HR or talent. But they were all experts in it!” says Cousins.
Recruiters to fintechs know which senior candidates will thrive in the startup environment.
“Sometimes I say to candidates, ‘look, it’s a mess, but this is why they need someone like you to come in’,” explains Chirica. “Those candidates who truly have a passion for their job will respond with ‘oh my god, that’s amazing. This is the perfect challenge’. It’s about finding out which candidates will really thrive in that environment, and which candidates are a bit more passive and won’t enjoy the challenge.”
“We always joke that, at these firms, it’s not about riding around on a skateboard, drinking kombucha, dreaming up how to solve world hunger with the blockchain; it’s serious work, it’s very stressful,” adds Cousins. “When somebody’s coming out from a big bank, we need to see they can handle that. You’ve got a very defined role in a big bank; in a smaller business, you’re a ‘specialist generalist’. You’ve got to do whatever it takes to get the job done.”
Meanwhile, the sheer pace at which fintechs scale – which is blisteringly quickly, as Monzo, Revolut et al have demonstrated – requires flexibility and patience from fintech-specialist recruiters.
“When we did the search for Revolut’s Australia Country CEO, I think the brief changed four times,” says Cousins. “In the six months that we were working on that search, the business had gone from four million users to 10 million, and 700 employees to 2,000. That’s a huge amount of complexity to deal with in a six-month timeframe, for any business. So I think these kinds of recruitment challenges are very symptomatic of high-growth, rapidly-scaling businesses.”
Often, recruiters need to be firm by setting expectations for fintech bosses, who expose their ignorance of HR and recruitment when they list specifications for an unrealistic, one-person role. “We call it the search for the blue-eyed unicorn,” laughs Cousins. “It’s about five different people in one.”
For Chirica, transparency and honesty are key to leaving her fintech partners satisfied with her candidate recommendations – and in tempering their sometimes inflated expectations.
“If a client is willing to treat me as a consultant – where they’re going to listen to the expert market mapping that I’m giving them – I know the quality of my delivery is going to be so much better,” she says. “In my experience, candidates can’t wear 20 different hats at once.”
But what about ambitious professionals looking to work their way into an exciting fintech? Right now, the recruitment market in non-critical roles is slow, but what do our recruiters have, by way of advice, to help find work, post-COVID?
“Recently, I’ve been a massive advocate on social engagement and networking,” says Chirica. “I’m telling my candidates to make a list of the 20 fintechs they find interesting, and to connect with the CEOs, the COOs, the CROs, and to drop them a message – because everyone’s online right now.
”Hiring managers want to see you be entrepreneurial, they want to see you have this commercial knowledge and, specifically in my sector, hiring and recruiting for financial crime and compliance, you know, if you’ve worked at HSBC for 20 years but you’ve been the ‘no’ person, they don’t want that. So, if you message someone about their business, make it about something they could improve on or you’re commercially aware about.”
Cousins’ advice is to focus on impact rather than experience. “Don’t tell me how many years’ experience you’ve got; show me what you achieved,” he urges. “Don’t tell me that you were a financial controller; show me where you’ve saved the business money, show me where you’ve made the business money.”
Both Broadgate Search and Tier One People share an ambivalence towards traditional recruitment processes, like interviews, resumes and professional profiles. Cousins and Chirica are clear that recruiting for fintechs is about more than candidates’ on-paper credentials – they need to show they can hit the ground running in the specific, fast-paced environment that is a financial startup
For Cousins, the current coronavirus crisis might just open the door to a new, savvier, and more bespoke recruitment tradition.
“What I’d love to see come out of COVID is that we truly start to assess people based on their potential to perform and deliver in specific environments,” he says.