Friday 7 February 2020 6:52 pm

Tidjane Thiam’s resignation signifies perfect PR storm for Credit Suisse

Paul Blanchard is founder of global reputation management practice Right Angles, host of the Media Masters podcast and author of Fast PR

The shock resignation of Tidjane Thiam is a leadership clusterbuster. Over the last three years, Credit Suisse have had numerous opportunities to move on from the embarrassing series of revelations that have dogged their leadership. The resignation of their CEO will do very little to dispel the image of a toxic culture at the top. Likewise, Thiam’s adversary – Credit Suisse chairman Urs Rohner, who the media are painting as the ‘winner’ from last night’s board meeting ‘showdown’ – has not emerged with the magnanimity beholden to his position.

The first thing that came to mind was trees. Yes, trees! Some of you may recall the story that Thiam and his colleague and neighbour Iqbal Khan had to be held back from each other at a cocktail party following a dispute over a row of trees in Thiam’s garden that blocked Khan’s view of the lake. So far, so childish.

Mr Khan then left Credit Suisse to join UBS and was subsequently followed by a private eye allegedly hired by Credit Suisse’s Pierre-Olivier Bouee and Remo Boccali, both of whom resigned last year. So far, so ridiculous. 

Mr Khan alleges he and his wife were chased through Zurich by three men and a car with whom they had a physical standoff. One of the private investigators hired then took his own life. 

I am incredulous as to how and why on earth this scandal escalated to this tragic level. It has given the impression that the secrecy of Swiss banking extends to clandestine espionage, threats and embittered millionaires seeking extrajudicial injustice to massage masochistic egos, and it needs calling out. 

Rather than emphasising a steady hand at the top of one of the world’s biggest managers of wealth, this crisis has highlighted the husk surrounding what they don’t have. 

Strong leadership

Where were the grown ups in the room when all this began? Where were the executives to make it clear that the spat between Thiam and Khan was beneath them and the bank, and to remind them of their ambassadorial roles? Had they pushed back, they should have been laughed out of their jobs.

Constructive and responsible work culture

Where were the reputation managers with the power to say, “Corporate espionage and intimidation is illegal and beyond any tolerance of risk”? I accept that one rogue employee could be acting alone, but that just shows you have a culture where individuals are motivated to act dangerously – either for personal gain, or to impress their seniors. 

A team work ethic

Perhaps the most toxic legacy of this sorry saga could be a return to the greedy, selfish banker image. All these individuals appear to have been out for themselves, with none of them considering the impact on them collectively or how the reputational damage might affect the bank’s share price – or the faith of investors. That should be front and centre for any financial leadership group.

Common sense

You can blame the lack of process, tunnel vision or toxic culture all you want, but the glaring omission is simple common sense. Why on earth did any of these individuals allow this crisis to reach such a damaging level? The question, “Is this really worth it?” just never seems to have been asked by any of the people who are paid hundreds of millions to ask exactly that.

In banking, the medium is the message. You want to show you are a safe, responsible pair of hands. Credit Suisse’s leadership has shown just how far away they are from that. No doubt there is information that has not yet come to light, but on the surface it could not look worse. Investors around the world will be asking, “Can I trust these people with my money?”

Were I tasked with this mess, I would make the leadership reapply for those roles and instigate a complete culture change, focusing on collective responsibility and personal development so that employees don’t see their role at the bank as simply a means to an end. Nothing is impossible, but the way Credit Suisse has managed to make an embarrassing reputational blemish become so critical questions whether that is the case.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.