There is a branch of psychology which studies human behaviour in the workplace. It is called Industrial and Organisational Psychology. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis a handful of psychologists from that field were handpicked by a consortium of bulge-bracket investment banks to fulfil an important mission: to create the Comprehensive Banker Fitness (CBF) programme.
Like many radical ideas found in the world of finance, the CBF was born outside of the office.
A mischievous hotbed of ideas
The setting was the Grand Royal Hotel in Mayfair. A landmark in its own right, it was owned by one of Asia’s largest real estate investors and has served for some time now as a rendezvous for the rich, famous and occasionally infamous.
From the opening of private bank accounts by dodgy nominee middlemen representing prominent African politicians and up-and-coming A-list actors sharing beds for the night with casting agents, directors or producers to high-level discussions surrounding the Qatar Investment Authority’s next trophy acquisition, the hotel was where centres of power met.
Each year executives from the world’s leading investment banks secretly gathered there for their annual “collaboration for survival” meeting. The point of these meetings was to share experiences and exchange ideas on how to keep staff motivated and hungry. Remember, pyramids can only be built on the back, sweat and blood of slaves.
The year CBF was born was a rather tumultuous period, which saw record-level firings and job losses in the finance sector. Overall negative sentiment in the market, coupled with the rising possibility that bonuses would fall far below previous years, led many bankers to question their career. According to several independent surveys, talk of leaving the industry was rife and at its highest in years.
Naturally, bank executives were scared. Very scared.
The annual meeting took place in one of the hotel suites the execs stayed in. The whole affair generally lasted two days. The first day was more of an open discussion around challenges each of the banks faced while the second day was used to identify practical solutions.
Despite enduring an eight-hour-long meeting the first day, attendees stepped out of the suite feeling pessimistic about the future of the business. Much of the heavy mood was a result of the economic crisis, which saw no end in sight. Everyone said their goodbyes and agreed to meet again the next day to try and figure out a roadmap of hope.
One of the senior bankers present was David, known to be one the highest earners in the business. The first day had gone so bad that he decided he needed some relaxation. He took out his phone and dialled none other than Madame Shireen, London’s most exclusive procurer. I bloody well damn need a distraction, he thought to himself.
What I know of Madame Shireen’s club, or the “house” as it is known by its members, was imparted to me one summer evening in Monaco by the youngest son a real estate billionaire whose Family Office eventually became a client of mine.
Though she went by the pseudonym Madame Shireen, nobody knew her real name. What little was known was that she was a half-Iranian, half-French woman of timeless beauty who ran what was essentially a network of female and male escorts catering to the most powerful and influential individuals from around the globe.
The “house” was located in London yet the company which owned and ran the entity was offshore. A far cry from the standard escort service you saw advertised in public phone booths or the yellow pages, Madame Shireen’s was in a league of its own. The mean and women selected to join the house not only possessed superior physical beauty but great mental aptitude. All “boys” and “girls”, as they were called, were trained for a minimum of two years before meeting a single client. Their training was not limited to acts and rituals which aimed to satisfy the clientele – all done in-house – but also involved completing coursework at leading business schools, auction houses, social sciences institutions, language learning schools and other organisations which enabled them to relate to the “guests” of the house. All of them also underwent drama training, the purpose of which is not relevant here and I will leave that to your imagination. For the duration of their residency in the house, they, for all intents and purposes, belonged to the house and their every move was monitored and scrutinised. On paper they were hired by, and worked for, one of several companies owned by the house. Most, if not all, were real estate holding companies. Naturally the boys and girls also came to learn nearly everything about that sector be it residential, commercial or hospitality. When you ran into them in a restaurant or cafe they’d hand you a business card and you simply assumed they worked as high-end estate agents. They were compensated through salary and bonus. What’s more, they were also trained in money management and were generally able to sustain a perfectly comfortable life going forward after leaving the house, managing the money they will have earned over the years. Most walked away owning at least two nice flats or houses, fully paid. What they learned during their tenure gave them tremendous power.
That night, David decided to share a nice meal in the hotel room with one of Madame Shireen’s girls, Noor. He had a strong attraction for Middle Eastern women and Noor was a rare Lebanese beauty.
The power of seduction was but one of the girls’ exceptional abilities; they also made perfect dinnertime companions.
David went on to describe the dilemma that plagued him and other executives who spent the day with him.
“Many of our boys are unable to handle the stress of the job,” sighed David. “They claim all that pressure has even caused marital problems, deteriorating health and all sorts of other crap.”
A black and white roasted Chilean sea bass fillets dish with Rakkyo sat there beckoning Noor, yet she listened attentively and with genuine interest to the guest. “Well, it seems normal,” she said. “It is a very high-pressured industry after all. And times are, how shall I say it, tough. For the world.”
“It’s getting out of control, darling. Out of fucking control,” said David.
Noor tasted the fish then took a sip from her wine glass. “Why not study this whole phenomenon? Not just workplace happiness but the underlying motivations of your staff and their ability to cope with day-to-day pressure. You can take a scientific approach.”
“We do. We have a massive team of HR personnel taking up over two floors. This is one of the things they’re supposed to do,” shaking his head in frustration.
“No, I mean properly study it. From a psychological standpoint. A programme to study ways of increasing your workers resilience to stress so they don’t quit and leave to become yoga instructors.”
David started paying closer attention to her.
Noor continued. “So they work harder and longer.”
David poured more wine into her glass and his. Noor took a little sip, got up and slowly headed toward the bedroom.
“The military does it,” said Noor, her voice growing distant as she disappeared into the bedroom. “They’ve had to help soldiers cope after battle.” She emerged from the bedroom dressed in a black silk robe.
David’s eyes grew wide.
“You want to know why you keep asking for me after all these years, David?” she chuckled. “I understand how your mind works and what motivates you. I know what relaxes you. I know the things that preoccupy you. I know about your upbringing and schooling. That’s why I can make sure you will never stop seeing me.”
Her words struck a chord with David, who appeared to be on the verge of receiving a revelation. “Go on.”
“Commission a group of psychologists and make it their sole purpose to find ways of keeping bankers on the job and hungrier than ever.” She lit a cigarette. “Oh, and it’s time for desert,” she said as her robe fell to the ground.
The following day the blueprint for the CBF was formed.