The City’s secret insecurities revealed in Radio 4 documentary

Programme draws on Professor Laura Empson's research to examine 'insecure overachievers'

Even some of the most brilliant and successful professionals in the City of London privately have a constant fear of failure, a feeling intensified and exploited by the internal competition and high-performance environment of the top firms, a Radio 4 documentary reveals. This fuels the long-hours culture which, taken to extremes, can lead to physical and mental health problems – damaging in a sector which makes up around 17% of the UK’s economy.

Speaking to Professor Laura Empson of Cass Business School in Insecure Overachievers, broadcasting at 8pm on Monday 24 September, current and former leaders in elite professional firms and financial institutions pull back the curtain on a secretive world which tens of thousands of bright, eager graduates apply to join every year in the hope of developing a glittering career.

The programme highlights the fact that many of the professionals in this world are ‘insecure overachievers’: exceptionally capable and fiercely ambitious, but driven by a profound belief in their own inadequacy. Their ability and relentless drive to excel make them likely to succeed in the competitive environment of elite professional and financial firms, but the work culture is also taking advantage of their vulnerabilities.

Sir Gerry Grimstone, Chairman of Barclays PLC and Standard Life Aberdeen, argues that recruits who ‘don’t have a significant sense of self deliver better service to clients because they will always put the client first.’ Despite reaching the very top of several of the UK’s leading financial and professional firms, he describes himself as an insecure overachiever:  ‘[you] never feel that you’ve got there, there is always the element of “if only I tried a bit harder perhaps I could get to the next step”.’

Although successful City careers are associated with high salaries and eye-watering bonuses, the work culture can place excessive demands on many workers, and lead to break-downs, health problems and serious social damage for a significant number every year.

But, as Empson’s research reveals, this culture has not been ‘designed’ or enforced from above: it is largely unconscious and self-reinforcing.

David Morley, until recently the Global Senior Partner at magic circle law firm Allen and Overy, tells how only a tiny fraction of new recruits ever achieve their goal of becoming a partner at the firm. And that it’s hard to accommodate the needs of those unable or unwilling to work excessively long hours without risking damage to the firms themselves: ‘if you can’t do it then others will. You can find yourself toppled from the top if you try to adopt a more lifestyle approach to how you practise the law.’

The chair of the City Mental Health Alliance, Nigel Jones, until recently a partner at Linklaters law firm, says that unless these City firms change radically and soon, the position of the City itself will be seriously damaged. He insists the work culture ‘…has to change …because clients increasingly recognise that to achieve [the best service] people have to operate at the best of their ability… And that is why I think that there is an existential issue here to the future of the City.’

Speaking about the documentary, Professor Empson said:

‘During my research into leadership and professional service firms over the past 25 years, leaders have often spoken to me about their insecurities – but only ever in confidence. I was surprised and pleased that people were willing to talk so openly to me for this documentary; disturbed by some of the stories that I heard; and full of admiration for individuals and groups such as the City Mental Health Alliance who are breaking what has for so long been the last taboo of working life.’

Insecure Overachievers is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Monday 24 September 2018, at 2000 hrs.

The programme is presented by Professor Laura Empson of Cass Business School.

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