How one of the world’s largest financial institutions got more than it bargained for in implementing purpose
When the operations division of a major global bank reflected on the aftermath of the banking crisis, two things were clear. It had survived. But its culture was in tatters and confidence and pride at an all time low.
The bank concluded that what it needed was a change in culture. In particular it sought a change in leadership style to one based more on coaching than control, more entrepreneurial and more compassionate. Contexis were recommended to the Bank as the ideal partner to deliver this change.
As the COO later commented “we wanted to shift from a culture of ‘tell’ to one of ‘ask’. When we first partnered with the Contexis team we could not have imagined the transformation that would take place”.
Glyn, who led the team from Contexis, recalls “It was clear from the start that what was needed was far more fundamental than a change of leadership style. It required a fundamental shift in how the bank saw itself; a change in what its people believed. Post the banking crisis, the bank knew it needed change. But it approached the challenge as a corporate would, starting with ‘how’ and not ‘why’. It conducted a massive strategy review which resulted in a weighty tome which was inaccessible and unclear to everyone – most particularly the leadership team.. The review was the opposite of how an agile entrepreneurial business would respond. Here was a golden opportunity to ignite the entire global workforce around a compelling idea of the bank – and from that build a strategy that everyone could own. That really would transform the culture. For ever”
Instead of starting with cultural ‘outputs’ such as leadership style, Contexis worked with the senior team on understanding their purpose. In our experience, all great entrepreneurial businesses hold a fundamental, compelling purpose that engages people’s passions and gives them something to emotionally own. It is the alchemy of their success. By owning a shared and common ‘why’ it also galvanises the culture, overcoming the stifling effect of fear and legacy thinking, and giving management a laser-clear focus to drive forward the ‘what’ of their strategy.
The first job, therefore, was to agree upon an empowering and engaging ‘why’. But entrepreneurial drive is not about having a purpose but about using it to drive strategic clarity and operational excellence. The senior team created a code of conduct and worked on a culture of openness so that the mistrustful and silo mentality of a traditional bank moved to a genuine team mentality. We showed leaders how to move from a fear-driven to a trust-based approach and mentored the senior exec team through the difficult transition. Building trust and placing purpose as the source of strategy allowed the exec team to transform their productivity. It helped them craft a clear strategic plan built on three key pillars, not 30. The huge volume of “business as usual” activity that had been an overwhelming challenge for years was swiftly prioritised and unproductive activities and projects stopped without egos and identity getting in the way.
The next task was to roll out the purpose, with its attendant culture of trust, and the strategic clarity right down the organisation. The purpose and strategy had been crafted at the top. But they had to be owned right down the organisation and across borders, languages and cultures.
Through an extensive process of consultation with people right down the organisation, key executives translated their key strategic pillars, rooted in their purpose, into actionable strategy plans – simple ‘what’ documents accessible to all. By taking a collaborative approach to strategy design, engagement and ownership was achieved across the business.
Teams across the bank were then empowered to take autonomy and responsibility for ‘how’ the purpose and the strategy would be executed in their own areas of business and success widely shared.
The operations division of this bank is now thinking and acting like an entrepreneurial company. The corporation that wanted leaders to be better coaches got a fundamental shift to a market- leading, trust-based approach to banking.
“This has changed everything. As a self proclaimed sceptic of anything that didn’t conform to logical decision making I now have to admit I have been shutting off a large part of the opportunities for me to build a better team and a better business.”