November 10 2018

7 May 1912: The University of Cambridge grants Stephen Michael Barry-Walsh, a 31 year-old Irish doctor from Kilmallock, a certificate stating that he had proved himself by “his KNOWLEDGE and SKILL in SANITARY SCIENCE, to wit in Chemistry and Physics in the causes and prevention of Epidemic and Infectious Diseases and in the means of remedying or ameliorating those Circumstances and Conditions of life which are know to be injurious to health as well as in the Laws of the Realm relating to Public Health is CERTIFIED to be well qualified in respect of Knowledge and Skill aforesaid to fulfil the Duties of a Medical Officer of Health.”  With this certificate he became Dr S.M. Barry-Walsh, M.D., B.A. and D.P.H. (National University of Ireland), D.P.H (Cantab).

August 1914: His brother, Eugene, a Kilmallock farmer, sits on the sandy beach at Youghal, Ireland with his 15 month-old son, born in April 1913, between his legs.  Eugene is in his Sunday suit, crisp white shirt with wing collar and neatly knotted tie, a smart hat on his head.  Propped up against his knee stands a small boy in a white short and shorts with wide braces fixed with buttons, a sun hat on his head as he squints into the sun.  That boy, also named Stephen, later became a doctor.  There are 7 more brothers and sisters, the last of whom dies in 2013.

On this day, however, Ireland was still part of the British Empire, whose monarch had made a successful visit to the oldest and nearest part of their Empire three years earlier.  No-one could foresee the type or length of war that was about to start.  Nor that barely 6 years later in May 1920 Kilmallock Barracks would be the subject of one of the largest attacks by the IRA in ferocious fighting during an Irish civil war.


8 September 1915: Dr Stephen Michael Barry-Walsh, by now a Lieutenant 1st Cavalry, Field Ambulance, Royal Army Medical Corps, dies of his wounds aged 34.  He is buried in Calais Southern Cemetery.

The first entry in his war diary is on May 27th.  “12 noon. Message. “Send officer able to ride to report A-D.M 8 for service with 1st Cavalry Division.” Me.  Pack up. Send one box and one parcel of clothes home via Military Forwarding office Southampton.  Something will get there.” His first posting is in Rouen.

His last entry in his war diary is on July 26th 1915.  He has drawn a map of his camp near the Yser canal north of Ypres.  He writes: “Just before arriving…a motorcar overtook us and in it the D.A. DMS – to say that a note had been received from the General countermanding the previous day’s order.  It had rained very heavily all night and until about 6:30 in the morning.  So that we men had to strike camp in a deluge and of course got promptly soaked in the process.  We marched home on foot arriving shortly after nine.”

October – November 1917: Carlo d’Ayala Valva, a young engineer from Naples, fights in the battle of Caporetto, one of the bloodiest battles of WWI in the front between Italy and the Austrian Empire, a front at least as bloody as the trenches of Northern France.



1939 – 1945: Dr Stephen Barry-Walsh joins the RAF and becomes a Squadron Leader.                      


19 August 1944: It is the 17th birthday of Maria-Teresa d’Ayala Valva, the eldest daughter of Carlo d’Ayala Valva.  She, her 3 brothers and sisters, mother and grandmother, have been hiding in Rome (the family split up) to escape the bombing of Naples (the most bombed city in Italy) by the Allies.  Her father has remained in Naples in the family home; it too is bombed.  Her half-French mother, Jeanne, writes in a book (Ernest Daudet’s Jeunes Filles d’Autrefois”) she gives her daughter as a present: “A tes 17 ans qui fleurissent en un climat tragique de guerre, l’histoire de cette heroique jeune fille.” (For your 17th birthday which comes during a tragic time of war, this story of a heroic young girl.)

Many years later Maria-Teresa d’Ayala Valva and Dr Stephen Barry-Walsh marry.  They are my parents.  They have two children and three grand-children.

Those grand-children have a grand-father born before the start of WWI to parents who grew up during the Edwardian era.  But they will live the majority of their lives in the 21st century.  Both they and me and my brother have had the inestimable good fortune of living our lives without having had to fight or endure the agonies of war or its consequences. Our birthdays have not been against the background of tragic times.  We have been fortunate to live in a region and at a time when war in Europe has been unthinkable.

On this 100th anniversary of the Armistice which brought the First World War to an end, let us remember all those we have lost, all those who did not share our good fortune.  Let us remember our blessings.  And let us hope that the peace we enjoy now continues.




Photo by James Wainscoat on Unsplash


Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

October 16 2018

Some 5 years after the Parliamentary Commission’s withering report on banking culture, it is the House of Commons itself – its MPs, senior management and staff – who face their own brutal and shocking appraisal.  The disgraceful and, in some cases, criminal conduct by some of them and their collective failure to deal, legally or adequately or at all, with bullying and harassment of junior staff, particularly women, by senior staff and MPs is laid bare in this report by retired judge, Dame Laura Cox.

It would perhaps not have been politic of those bankers – quizzed by the Parliamentary Commission about their failure to raise concerns about the misbehaviour of fellow traders and bankers – to have pointed out to their inquisitors that the number of MPs who blew the whistle on fellow MPs who broke the expenses rules and, in some cases, committed fraud was the grand total of zero.  (It would though have been hugely enjoyable for fans of sanctimonious humbug.) Those in the financial sector who had to take the MPs’ justified criticisms can perhaps now enjoy a touch of schadenfreude when they read Cox describe the omertà that many MPs practice in respect of bad conduct by one of their number” and that “Members turn a blind eye to dishonourable behaviour by others”. 

But the report goes further.   Despite the 1995 Nolan Committee report  on Standards in Public Life making it clear that MPs had to display the highest standards and that “it is essential for public confidence that they they should be seen to do so”, it seems – and who could possibly have foreseen this? – that self-regulation doesn’t work.   The Cox report describes an entrenched culture “cascading from the top down, of deference, subservience, acquiescence and silence, in which bullying and sexual harassment have been able to thrive and have long been tolerated and concealed.”  Processes and policies, no matter what fluffy names they are given (Cox is particularly critical of the “Valuing Others” policy) are described as not fit for purpose and not even compliant with existing laws on harassment and discrimination, let alone best practice.  Investigations are inadequate and carried out by amateurs.  Confidentiality is not respected, staff are fearful and unsupported and retaliation – or threats of it – are common.

The report makes for grim reading.  Even grimmer in the two days since its publication has been the defensive reaction of MPs and senior staff at the Commons at the very idea of having to take action beyond the token.  The House of Commons may consider itself a special case though, as Cox acidly points out, while “Members of Parliament are elected representatives…their mandate does not entitle them to bully or harass those who are employed….to support and assist them.”

But this report has much from which every employer, from senior managers down, and not just HR Departments, can learn.  In an era of #MeToo, of younger generations being unwilling (rightly) to put up with boorish (at best) and criminal (at worst) behaviour in the workplace, when an unhappy employee can create unwelcome publicity and force companies to take action, all organisations can learn from the failures so forensically dissected in this report.   It is not just Parliament which is a stressful workplace.  All workplaces are likely to face these problems to a greater or lesser extent and it is no easy task trying to handle matters which can range from someone being insensitive and impolite, via bullying, leering, insulting remarks all the way to actions which may amount to serious crimes.

Three points in particular are worth highlighting:

  • “devotion to process and language rather than to real effectiveness” is a waste of time.  Procedures and rules are necessary but never sufficient.  They are merely proof of the importance with which the issue is viewed.  But the real test of whether you have the right policies in place is whether your employees trust you to investigate properly and act on findings, no matter who is involved.  Without that trust even the best written procedures are mere will 0′ the wisps.
  • Those at the top have to lead by example.  In yesterday’s radio interview  Dame Laura posited three questions which those at the top should ask themselves when having to manage cultural change:
    • “Do I understand that radical change is needed?”
    • “Can I deliver that change?
    • “Will staff have confidence that I can deliver that change?”  Answering that third question honestly requires a level of self-knowledge and courage that is not as common as it should be.
  • Codes of Conduct are a fancy way of reminding people that good manners, politeness and civility matter.  At their heart, good manners are about being kind to others (and kindness is a much underrated virtue).   Employees, managers, colleagues, the temporary and contracting staff who do the myriad tasks which keep a workplace going, however senior or junior, are human beings, not simply resources.  Politeness and thoughtfulness to those around us cost nothing, can help mitigate even the most stressful of jobs and are the bare minimum which should be expected of – and for – all staff.

And, finally, not for the first – and certainly not for the last – time, if a problem happens, don’t ignore it.  “This cycle of repeatedly reacting to crises only after they have developed into crises, and sometimes only after unwelcome publicity, is a perilous approach to adopt for any organisation, but it is completely hopeless for a place of work.”

As for the House of Commons, if it really is serious about changing its culture, it needs to realise – as others have – that this is the work of years, not weeks or months, and is a task which is never finished.


Photo by Gabriel Matula on Unsplash

A Risky Business

September 16 2018

According to this survey (taken this August), only 3% of people had a very positive view of financial services, with 57% having a very or somewhat negative view.  And all this 11 years after the run on Northern Rock and a decade after the Lehman’s bankruptcy, the bailout of RBS, the Lloyds takeover of HBoS and the disappearance of venerable institutions redolent of Britain’s sober manufacturing past, such as the Bradford & Bingley Building Society.  One might have thought that a decade would have been enough for people to forget what happened.  But like an itch that continues to be scratched, banks have, right up to the present day, provided many more examples justifying customers’ perennial exasperation with financial services providers: closure of branches, endless IT problems, the continuing PPI mis-selling saga, interest rates for savers still at rock bottom, mis-selling and mis-advice over pensions.  Even the much vaunted culture change programmes embarked on by many banks don’t seem to have changed perceptions, possibly because some of the sector’s leaders have not fully appreciated that this applies to them too.

The 10-year anniversary has brought out two figures from the past to give their take on where we are now and, in so doing, they managed to compliment themselves (without seeming to, unless that was the point of the exercise) on their past successes.  The first was Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister in charge when the crisis struck and famous for having claimed in Parliament that his efforts “saved the world” or its banks, anyway.  Certainly, the efforts of his government in autumn 2008 prevented the failure of the entire British banking system.  Would it be uncharitable to consider what responsibility his government (and the previous government in which he served as Chancellor) had for the state in which banks found themselves that autumn?  Had earlier warning signals perhaps been ignored by regulators?  Still, his claim that a more fractured system of political governance might make it harder for governments to co-operate should another financial meltdown occur is well made.  It is not just within financial institutions that silos can prevent those at the top seeing the full picture; the same can happen at governmental and regulatory levels too.

And so to Bob Diamond, never shy about arguing the case for aggressive investment banks and the need to take risk, who popped up on the radio last week to tell us that we should view Barclays (which did not get government funding) very differently to RBS, which did.  Possibly a touch premature, given that the SFO trial of senior Barclays executives in relation to Barclays’ capital raising that autumn is not due to start until January 2019.  (Even Diamond’s previous arch-critic, Lord Mandelson, after his change of heart, has weighed in echoing his criticism.)  Far from being concerned about a breakdown of trust between governments (Brown’s concern) or, indeed, trust in banking, let alone the culture at Barclays or other banks in the period leading up to the crash, Diamond thinks that the changes made in the last decade have made banks “too risk averse”, that without risk, banks won’t lend, the economy won’t grow.

Both men have a point.  But they miss something which has not been much canvassed in the reams of commentary devoted to what happened a decade ago.  Regardless of how well risks are understood, regardless of how co-operative governments and regulators are, regardless of how good the rules are, regardless of how many wonderful AI developed risk management systems are used, there will never be a perfect financial system.  Or a perfect regulatory system.  Problems will always arise.  And there will be warning signs – about people, about institutions, about certain types of business.  They may not be obvious or easy to read.  As the haystack gets bigger, trying to find the needle in it becomes ever harder.  Identifying what needs to be followed up and what can be ignored takes skill and experience.  Sensing what might become serious and getting people to act before it does so takes persistence.  No-one wants to be a Cassandra, endlessly forecasting doom. Even fewer want to listen to her.

Being prepared for the next big meltdown is necessary.  But just as much effort – rather more, in fact – needs to be focused on listening to – and acting on – those warning signs, to catching problems (whether mistakes, incompetence or deliberate wrongdoing) early, when they are small, when they can be contained and resolved without too much pain or collateral damage, when they can become learning opportunities for all rather than crises to be managed.  Problems, however small, don’t just need fixing then forgetting.  They also tell you a story – about the institution, about the people in it, about how business is done.  If we are to avoid the inevitable recitation, after every scandal, of the numerous opportunities when the issue might have been identified, acted on and stopped – or mitigated, it is a story which needs to be listened to.

After all, Cassandra turned out to be right.



Photo by Lubo Minar on Unsplash