August 10, 2016

Cüneyt Uenal: On comparing the culture of karate with financial services

Cuneyt Uenal

Cüneyt Uenal

We asked Cüneyt Uenal from our Frankfurt office and former karate champion what it is like to compete in this challenging sport at a national level representing two different countries, and what lessons he thinks the culture of sport could offer the culture of financial services. Cüneyt joined BNY Mellon in 2011.

Self-discipline, competitiveness and performance. I think these are three buzzwords we are as likely to hear in the financial districts of Frankfurt, New York and London, as trackside at international sporting events. They are terms I understand well having grown up competing at the highest level in karate and, for the past 23 years, having turned my hand to financial services.

As a child I represented my mother’s country, becoming the German champion in both the artistic (Kata) and freestyle (Kumite) versions of the sport. When I was 27, I was given the chance to represent my father’s homeland, helping Turkey to third place in the 2007 World Championship in Italy.

In both karate and in my role at BNY Mellon, I have learned to consider any setbacks as opportunities. Whether recovering from defeat in the dojo or rooting out inefficiency in the workplace, the key to improving performance is recognising your mistakes and wasting no time in confronting them.

Winning at the highest level in sport or finance requires the discipline to focus on a single goal, the competitiveness to work harder than your competitors, and the drive to improve performance. That being said, taken to the extremes these values have the potential to become corrosive. Both financial services and the world of sport have experienced damaging controversies when individuals seek to bend the rules in the blind pursuit of success.

The secret, for me, is culture. Karate is an ancient martial art which values tradition and moral virtue over the physical techniques it cultivates. Spectators watch the violence and competition in the arena but, for the competitors, the experience is one of collaboration and mutual respect.

When sparring, students of karate become teachers, helping each other to improve. Even during competition, every Kumite round starts with a bow and each Kata begins with a defensive technique. In karate, participants do not seek to improve their performance at the expense of others, but to maximise the positive impact they can have on the people around them.

It is this approach which typifies the brand of teamwork I have grown to love at BNY Mellon. Like many of my colleagues, I collaborate across borders to bring clients value. I act as the bridge between individuals with contrasting cultures and skill sets, helping German programmers, for example, see eye-to-eye with Italian system administrators to serve British clients. When we develop a new capability for one client it is my role to ensure everyone we work with feels the benefits.

These questions of culture come at an acutely sensitive time for my sport. In 2020, karate will join the list of sports for the first time in its long history.

The karate community is split on the issue. Tokyo will provide a new platform to expose karate’s values to the world but at a cost. With medals up for grabs and athletes eager to win at all costs, will the rituals and moral virtues which define karate be jeopardised? I sincerely hope not.

It is a question we must ask ourselves as financial services professionals every day. The financial structures which underpin the modern world have the power to bind people from around the world together, to bring security to businesses and fuel innovation. I think it is important we never lose sight of that potential.