Operating committee

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The JC sounds off on Management

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An operating committee, so sayeth the website Chron.com, does not oversee day-to-day operations, but rather “deals with operational functions from a strategic level”.

As we know, a steering committee decides where to steer the car. The operating committee decides how it should be steered, by whom — usually by syndicating the task to a range of disinterested subject matter experts— those lucky few who have not been outsourced, robotised or made redundant — behind whom the operating committee will then hover, peering over their shoulders, making suggestions, seeking updates and compiling decks containing dashboard with traffic lights for submission to the steering committee which report on how the job of steering is going. But no-one on an operating committee touches the steering wheel, as such. That is left to the good old subject matter experts. There is a suspicion amongst those in the permafrost that steering wheels are somewhat contagious; vectors of vulnerability. Should the jalopy crash, it will be hard to resist the temptation to blame person at the wheel.

Yet, on the other hand, however grim employment conditions become, management cannot lay everyone off, because someone in the service line has to touch the steering wheel, and it sure as hell won’t be anyone on an opco or a steerco, because that is not in their service catalog.

Committee life

Imagine the scene: a monthly risk operating committee meeting with a standing agenda designed systemically and mechanically to identify minimise and manage risks to the business. Some snivelling COO functionary will have spent the preceding fortnight issuing progressively pointed warnings to “stakeholders” that their contributions to the 300-page deck that will serve as materials for the meeting — whose existence is mandated by the committee’s terms of reference — and whose target operating model demands be circulated 48 hours in advance.

Not a soul will have read these materials before the meeting — it wouldn’t be physically possible at the average adult reading speed — and nor would one be any wiser if she had: the COO’s muted threats are just the weft and warp of the financial services dominance display. It is all very performative. As, indeed, is the deck.

Each risk function will dispatch mid-ranking delegates to attend the meeting. These are essentially votive lambs. They are offered up to take a beating, if one is needed, without making things worse for those who sent them, so must be resilient not to break down in tears at the first sign of angst, and savvy enough not to throw her superiors under the bus they assuredly deserve to be under. The delegate must “talk to her slides” — though in practice she will understand very little about them — aiming to sound informed enough for her contribution to pass without remark, but not so informed as to prompt questions.

If the Opco chair got out of the wrong side of bed, or should a delegate’s attestations be too anaemic, or not anaemic enough, the chair may snap. She will give the delegate a five-minute shellacking in front of the assembled. This is the modern-day equivalent of a public stoning — not to the death, but “to the pain”: there are three hundred pages to get though, and eighteen risk groups presenting, after all. For most delegates, attendance is a 2-hour-long game of Russian Roulette where there are only a handful of bullets in what is quite a large chamber. Consolation takes the form of the private chat channels, alive with wincing wonderment while eviscerations happen.

In any case, should the opco chair come for you, her question will not be, “where is your risk”, but the far stupider one, “why are you displaying a risk”, as if “risk” is not an immutable function of commercial life. Such grumpiness is outdated in our compulsively empathetic times, and may soon pass into history, the same way bear-baiting, throwing Christians to lions and rucking with your studs all have. We think this is a pity: financial services ought to be a blood-sport: there should be some sense of jeopardy. We lose something important if everyone is kind, respectful of standpoint, mindful of lived experiences and inclined instead to passive-aggressively knifing people in the back in private.

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