CISI CEO Simon Culhane, Chartered FCSI, reflects on his career and the transformations he has witnessed over the past 40 years
by Len Williams
In February 2022, Simon announced he would be stepping down as chief executive officer of the Institute in September after 18 years in the role. We caught up with him to chat about his four-decades-long career in finance.
Simon grew up in London and completed a BSc in Economics and Statistics at the University of Surrey before landing a trainee role at Lloyds Bank in the London borough of Richmond. He was drawn to a career in finance because of his interest in numbers and people. “In those days new entrants did all the jobs” he says, “from cashiering to encoding cheques to security work and lending”. He found the world of retail banking to be “hard work” but “really rewarding”.
Memories of Black Monday
His time at Lloyds also saw him sent to Chicago for two years in his late twenties. One of the most striking memories he has of this time is Black Monday (a severe stock market crash on 19 October 1987). “We heard that Wall Street was diving so a few of us from the bank went to the viewing gallery of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and watched absolute chaos as everything just fell apart,” he says. “People were screaming and crying, there were histrionics with people throwing paper in the air”. He recalls “these great big screens” showing the market “just a sea of red and arrows plummeting south by hundreds of points … we were watching history”.
Simon Culhane, Chartered FCSI
2004–2022: Chief executive, CISI
2003–2004: UCLH NHS Foundation Trust project director
1998–2002: Director, Deutsche Bank
1995–1998: Deputy director in the UK government’s Cabinet Office
1981–1995: Senior manager, Lloyds TSB
1981: Graduated from University of Surrey with degree in Economics, Statistics
Quality is in the eye of the beholder
Returning to the UK, he was promoted to branch manager in Sloane Square in 1993, before taking responsibility for several banks in the Kensington area. One of the first big lessons of his career was that “quality is very much in the eye of the beholder”. The first bank he managed would often “have the distinction of being at the bottom of Lloyds’ customer satisfaction rankings” he recalls. This was despite the fact that, when measured on tangibles such as average time queuing, the bank was often one of the best performing in the country. He explains that customers in well-heeled Kensington would tolerate queueing for little more than 30 seconds, whereas in branches in other parts of the country, customers could wait up to four minutes before losing patience.
‘Dumb’ questions at the Cabinet Office
Simon later took up a secondment as a deputy director in the UK government’s Cabinet Office from 1995 to 1998 (the Cabinet Office coordinates delivery of government objectives via other departments). “One particular benefit of being on secondment is that you can also ask the dumb questions” says Simon with a smile. One day, for instance, he was asked to attend a Ministerial meeting at the Ministry of Defence when there was a presentation by a brigadier about the military’s plan to change its fuel sourcing strategy – going from securing its own self-managed supply to buying it on the open market – something they proposed to do over two years. “I asked, ‘If its such a good idea, why don't you just stop buying the fuel tomorrow and complete the task in 30 days?’” This was met with “total silence” then, says Simon, “the minister who was chairing the group said, ‘That's a bloody good question!’”
For Simon, this story highlights the difference between the public and private sectors. “Change is very difficult in government because people never have the incentive to make a risky decision themselves. There's no upside to doing this; only a downside of being pilloried in the press or in Parliament”. Allocating two years to a transition that could have been done in weeks was influenced by the need to balance many competing interests and ensure that everyone was in agreement – a classic sub-optimal decision. In the private sector, by contrast, “you can make a decision today and it's done an hour later”.
After leaving the Cabinet Office, Simon spent time working at Deutsche Bank then moved back to the public sector in 2003. There, he worked as a project director, helping UCLH, a National Health Service hospital in London, to become a Foundation Trust (think a halfway house between public and private management). “That taught me a lot about the good parts of the NHS as well as the difficult parts. Everybody has a say in the NHS. There are so many interest groups, so bringing about any change in the NHS is so difficult.”
Driving change at the CISI
In late 2003, Simon made the most important move of his career when he was invited to work for a few weeks at the CISI as a strategic adviser. He was appointed chief executive officer of the Institute the following year. At the time the Institute was just over ten years old, and it only offered exams in the UK.
“Today our exams are recognised in 73 different jurisdictions and 16,000 exams come from outside the UK. And that number grows every year”
The UK was going through an economic downturn. As is often the case during recessions, corporate budgets for training – and by extension, exams – dries up. Unfortunately, the Institute had just invested heavily in setting up its own training facility which was suddenly in very low demand.
Simon quickly identified problems with the strategy, including the inherent conflict of interest in providing training for exams provided by the Institute. This approach also put the Institute in direct competition with independent training providers. “Your trainers need to be your friends, your partners and your distributors. They're the ones that sell your products for you and promote them.” Simon recommended shutting down the training facility and worked to build relationships with external training partners.
He also spotted the opportunity for the Institute to expand internationally. “Today our exams are recognised in 73 different jurisdictions and 16,000 exams come from outside the UK. And that number grows every year,” he says. During Simon’s time at the helm, staff numbers have grown from 65 to 200, of whom 95 live outside the UK. “We are now a genuinely global body.”
He has also driven the focus on integrity in finance. Under his leadership, the CISI began providing scenario-based integrity tests for its members. “We don't just talk about integrity, we do it” he says.
Technology has emerged as an important feature of every aspect of business too, and this is reflected in the CISI’s investments. As an example of the body’s tech adoption, he points to the MyCISI app, which offers an easy-access hub to member benefits and to date has been downloaded by over 13,000 members.
Simon explains that several factors have influenced demand for financial accreditation provided by the CISI. One key trend is that, globally, people are living longer. This means there's a greater need for pensions and savings – and Chartered and certified professionals to sell them. He also notes that many countries want to develop their own financial hubs and for that they need skilled people.
Simon has observed other “significant social changes” during his 40-year career. One is the “sheer internationalisation of the UK”. He believes “the country is incredibly welcoming and tolerant. When I look back at my first days at Lloyds Bank, everyone had an incredibly British name. But today, things are totally international. We welcome different cultures and ideas”.
Advances in gender equality have also been momentous. When Simon first started his career, almost all management positions were held by white middle class men, he says. While he acknowledges that things are not yet perfect, “when it comes to appointing people to jobs [nowadays], we don't even look at what sex the person is, we just take the best person for the job”. Over 60% of CISI’s senior management is now women.
After leaving the CISI, Simon is looking forward to gaining his skipper certificate and will keep playing tennis. He’ll also be found attending football matches at his beloved AFC Wimbledon, where he has a family season ticket shared amongst his family, his wife Sarah and their four adult children. There will also be plenty of time for a whole “bucket list of things” he and Sarah have planned.
It is perhaps fitting that after a career that has seen so much societal change, one of Simon’s key insights is that “it’s always easy to say no”. He believes that “you need to push yourself to do things, to take the initiative, and to try things out. You won’t necessarily lose by saying ‘no’, but you won’t gain anything unless you say ‘yes’”.