With Purpose: Sally Tennant

Kleinwort Benson Bank CEO, Sally Tennant, talks with purpose to Stuart Crainer on taking over as a leader and building momentum.


The bookshelves of business leaders are often revealing. Some have impressive tomes on historical figures — Oliver Cromwell and Napoleon are favourites. Others surround themselves with books which suggest a cultural hinterland beyond the time-consuming demands of working life. They have coffee table volumes on architecture and artists, supplemented by gaudy modern abstracts on the walls.

In her glass corner office in the heart of the City of London, Sally Tennant’s books are well-thumbed, practically useful rather than decorative adornments. Among them is Michael Watkins’ bestseller, The First 90 Days. She read it before taking over as CEO of Kleinwort Benson Bank in January.

As we speak, it is a little more than 100 days since she took on the top job at the venerable bank which dates back to 1786. Tennant is not a newcomer to the CEO job. Previously she was CEO of the London-based private banking operation of the Swiss private bank, Lombard Odier Darier Hentsch, and before that CEO of Schroders Private Banking. So, how do you prepare and make an initial impression when you become a CEO? “I spent a lot of time before I came reading about the business, reading board reports, meeting some of the top team and thinking about the issues. And, in my first four weeks, I had around 70 one on one, or one on two, meetings in the UK and the Channel Islands, all lasting from an hour to an hour and a half. I pretty much asked everyone all the same questions so I then had a level playing field.”

At each meeting, the new CEO took handwritten notes. Her aim, she explains, was to better understand each individual, their responsibilities, and how she could support them. “I started off with the top team in the first couple of days, and then wanted to understand not just their business, but the bench strength of their team and their actual performance — two different things.”

Initially the conversation was restricted to individual areas of responsibility. Next it moved onto the business generally. Did they understand the strategy? Was it being pursued? Was it likely to get the organisation to where it wanted to be? Then Tennant went into the organisational culture. What was good and bad about the way things were done? Were there any skeletons in the organisational cupboard likely to come toppling out? And where were the quick wins, the immediate changes which could make a powerful difference?

“I asked everybody, if you were me, what would you focus on? What are the key issues?” says Tennant. “It’s very interesting, if you do that across the organisation. You start very, very quickly, building a picture of where the strengths and weaknesses are. So, my objective in the first four or five weeks was to get a picture as quickly as possible about what the key challenges were. I also wanted to get to meet as many people and gain their respect, because if you’re going to come in and change things, it’s easier to do so from the basis of people wanting to change. I also wanted to see where the talent lay, where the gaps were, in order to put together a plan.”

Grey areas

There is an irony in the most powerful figure in the organisation actually beginning by asking others how best to do their job. But it is an irony which is central to leadership in any organisation. As Richard Jolly points out on page 33, executive careers become less black-and-white as more senior positions are reached. The CEO is actually in the greyest and most ambiguous role in the organisation.

Bringing clarity and a sense of purpose are, therefore, high on any new CEO’s agenda. After consulting throughout the organisation, Tennant had an immediate action plan which she presented to the bank’s shareholder, RHJ International, and then announced to all staff. That was six weeks into her tenure. By 12 weeks, Kleinwort had a full strategy in place and, along the way, in March announced the acquisition of the Close Brothers Offshore Group for £26.4 million. This increased the size of the private wealth assets under the bank’s management to some £7 billion.

Sally Tennant arrived at Kleinwort Benson after a tumultuous and confusing few years in which the bank’s ownership changed from Dresdner Bank to Commerzbank and then to RHJ International. “When there are such changes, there are always issues in terms of which direction the organisation is going,” says Tennant. “So, it was a pleasant surprise to see how keen people were to have fresh leadership, to really get behind a new strategy, and at the amount of good people that there were.”

The temptation, of course, in such situations is to eschew contemplation for action. Tennant suggests that connecting directly with people actually creates its own momentum. There is a feeling of things changing simply by beginning a dialogue. “I have created momentum by spending time with people, but not just internally. I went to see some of our clients within the first five or six weeks. In a service business, particularly in financial services, I think it’s incredibly important for a CEO to have client contact, to understand client needs. Also, an acquisition creates momentum. Putting an action plan in and sticking to it also gives us a sense of purpose and direction. Already, we’ve started to deliver on it — acquiring a team and setting up a private investment office, for instance.”

There is, obviously, something slightly strange about talking about momentum and change when you are considering one of the City of London’s more venerable institutions. Kleinwort Benson comes with the baggage of more than 200 years. “Having a 200-year heritage is a huge benefit and privilege. There is a terrific opportunity to build on the values of quality and relationships,” says Tennant. “I look at it not as an albatross but as a fabulous asset. Does it mean culturally, that the organisation isn’t able to change? I think that there are some challenges if people have been used to doing things in a certain way for a long period of time, but nobody survives in any business unless they embrace change and look to the future.”

Chief Expectation Officer

Achieving change is the job of leadership. Leaders are rarely, if ever, recruited to maintain the status quo. Yet, there is no job description for the CEO; just the heavy weight of expectation. They have to deliver change. Tennant cuts to the chase: “I see the job as creating value for clients. If you create value for clients, you create value for your shareholders and provide purpose and an environment that is fulfilling to work in.”

Also on Tennant’s bookshelves is a copy of Henry Mintzberg’s Managing. Mintzberg’s research has looked at how managers spend their time. It makes for salutary reading. Managers find themselves pulled in a huge variety of different directions, rarely spending any concerted time on a particular task. Emails and BlackBerry smart phones have simply exacerbated this fragmented reality.

For the CEO the fragmentation is potentially far greater. The sheer number of voices seeking their attention is greater, their volume ever louder. How can you manage your time and energy? Tennant insists that she has meetings with clients every week in her diary as a reminder of why she is in the job. But, she concedes, managing time is a challenge: “It’s very easy, when you’re CEO, for people just to bring you the problems and hope that you’ll solve them all. You have to learn to push back and ask what do you think the solution is? How you allocate your time sends a great signal to the organisation. Delegating is also incredibly important, allowing other people to make certain decisions.

“And one of the things I do is to block out periods of time in my diary which are set aside for what I call prime time, to think through issues and to plan ahead, so that you are never in a position of always putting out fires and always reacting to situations. I have learned over the years to try and plan ahead and put time aside so that you anticipate issues, and think things through, and have time to set the pace and the direction.”

Metaphorically speaking

The balance between fire fighting and identifying tomorrow’s fires is a difficult one and one which needs to be constantly borne in mind by CEOs. This adds to the physical and emotional demands of the job. It is tiring. Some leaders fall and the rate of CEO churn appears to rise year by year.

Even so, some leaders function hugely successfully along this leadership high wire for many years. “I think it completely depends on the business and the individual,” contends Tennant. “If you are learning, growing, driving the business forward, still have the energy, you can be effective for a long period of time, and there are wonderful examples of people who’ve continued to grow and develop organisations and haven’t got stale. If I look at where my career started and where I’ve moved to, I’ve always been in financial services, but I’ve actually developed into different fields; and so as long as there’s always a new challenge, if the business is growing and you’re growing with it, you can continue to be effective.”

In her presentations, Tennant sometimes puts an image of a pair of platform shoes on the screen. “Think how uncomfortable these are when you get up and put them on, when you’re not used to wearing platforms. That’s what you’ve got to think in life and work; you’ve got to be prepared to take risks, not be totally comfortable in what you’re doing and, if you’re happy doing that, I think it helps you drive a business forward.”

Tennant’s own career has taken her to some of the biggest names in finance. After reading politics at Durham University, she became the first female graduate trainee at SG Warburg & Company. From there she became a European funds analyst at Morgan Grenfell Asset Management; and was one of the founding partners of Beaumont Capital Management, before joining Gartmore in 1991 to eventually become a board director and head of its institutional division. “When I started in the City and I was an analyst and a fund manager, I was always analysing businesses and looking to see which ones were the good investments and where one would make money, and I always said to myself, when I grew up, I’d be out there running those businesses in the real world. I didn’t connect that I would be doing it in the same industry.”

Musical interlude

Tennant’s husband is a classical music agent. I asked if there were parallels between the worlds of business leadership and leading an orchestra. After all, the CEO as a conductor is a classic metaphor. But does it really apply? “What you have to be able to do as a conductor is to understand every single instrument to try and get the player to do something with that instrument which is in your head; you have to read a score, understand it, and say something original about that piece of music. You’ve also got to be able to speak a number of languages and you’ve got to have a communication style, so that people respect you. Pleasing an orchestra is a big challenge, but the conductors who do have great careers do so because they inspire their players, like any leader, people want to play for you and follow you.”

So how does this apply in a business setting? “It is about getting all the players to play together. I think teamwork is something which is incredibly important, because the only way you can get two plus two to equal six is through teamwork. When you’re in private banking the world is a complex place; we want people to work together to think about the client at the centre. You end up with bigger and better solutions than if you work individually. And it’s the same with an orchestra; it’s getting people to play together as a team, and not compete with each other.”

Sally Tennant on Leadership

My leadership style

It has energy, it’s empowering and it’s leading from the front, setting the example. I don’t see how anyone can be successful in any field unless they love what they do. You can be talented at something, but to really get to the top and change and drive things forward, you have to have an absolute passion for what you do.

The soft stuff

In my twenties I remember being passed over for a promotion and thinking how grossly unfair it was. I thought I was the right person for the job, but learned that being the right person doesn’t mean that you’re ready for a promotion. How you communicate and how you get people on side is more important than being right. So I developed some, what would be called EQ, developing more empathy, listening better, going to discuss things with people ahead of time, not just expecting that they would follow.


Listening is a very important skill. To begin with, you’ve got to hear. Your own ideas aren’t that relevant, really. It is the people who know the business well who are going to come up with the solutions and with the ideas. If you’re doing all the talking you won’t capture those ideas.


Feedback is incredibly important. You can’t surround yourself with yes people who are only going to tell you what they think you want to hear. One of the skills I have is that I’m not bad at picking people who keep me straight and are able to challenge me in a constructive manner.


Ambiguity is one of the big challenges of being a CEO. It’s not all clear-cut and ambiguity will arise, but how you deal with it can be fulfilling.


If you have a good team around you, it’s about setting the direction, and other people work around that. You can’t solve and do everything yourself.


If you are constantly running your business around the client, constantly thinking about what it is that you need to do to provide value, gain their trust; and if you’re delivering that, the profitability of the organisation will grow and people will enjoy working there. My job is to create that environment, to get the right people in place, get the right strategy, and to deliver on it.

What success looks like

Creating shareholder value, having a larger client base where you’ve delivered and your clients are satisfied. You measure that partly by being one of the places where people want to come and work. And having a top quality team, so that you could fall under a bus and the place wouldn’t collapse. I don’t think it’s success if it’s down to an individual.

Why I get out of bed

The world is never the same. You’re constantly being challenged. And no two clients are the same. It’s always great to be able to think whether and how you can make a difference for clients. That’s very energising.

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