Engaging Leaders in Action!

by Didier Marlier on Sunday October 18th, 2009

Following last week’s blog, I received several mails challenging us to provide examples of “Engaging Leaders” in action, suggesting that there were areas such as banking, where it is impossible for such leaders to act.

I could have replied that Fabio Barbosa, the charismatic leader of Banco Real (which became ABN-Amro and is now Santander Brasil) is a long lasting proof that such engaging leaders exist in the banking field. But I prefer to share a highly inspiring moment I recently witnessed.

My partner Nick Mc Roberts and I were invited to the yearly gathering of the top 110 leaders of Switzerland’s undisputed jewel of Private Banking, Bank Julius Bär. The Bank’s young C.E.O. had invited his leaders to engage them and the whole company, into their new strategic intent, following the financial crisis and the subsequent attacks against Switzerland’s banking system. The meeting lasted a day and half. It was remarkable… Remarkable to see the respect and commitment demonstrated by the Chairman of the Board, who actively contributed to the meeting amongst the participants without particular privileges: during the whole time, this gentleman was approachable, seeking to enter discussions with anyone and curious about everyone… Remarkable to note how the CEO and Executive Board members were going towards their people rather than protecting themselves in an “elitist attitude”, showing a vivid example of “servant leadership” by actively listening, asking questions, supporting, challenging etc…

The meeting started by…the unavoidable powerpoint projection (the only one!) whereby the C.E.O. was explaining the new strategy which has been designed not by the traditional consultancies but by 26 of the bank’s leaders, coached, supported and challenged by the Exec Board. Imagine, other than the saving of astronomical consultancy fees, the fantastic investment this has represented in the “emotional bank account” in terms of showing trust and respect to the organization, as well as  in terms of ownership, meaning and clarity… Instead of the negativity of the  “mourning session” which generally follows the announcement of a new strategy, the questions, doubts and concerns which followed were of a remarkably constructive and mature level. To see the Exec Board engage into a clarifying dialogue with the audience (instead of the traditional justifying/selling pitch) was a proof that this process had worked well and that the new strategic intent was recognized as meaningful and “owned” by the leadership community of the bank.

The Chairman and another member of the Board actively contributed to increase the competence level of the whole audience not through politically correct, highly boring and totally previsible/pre-cooked Castro like speeches as usually delivered under such circumstances, but by sharing the fruit of their own homework and research about the industry (all this without powerpoint but in a true Story-Telling fashion). The messages sounded authentic. Both leaders took a personal risk and strong stand…

Following the principles of “Open Space technology”, the CEO then invited his leaders to reflect on the themes (blockers to be removed, enablers to be created) to implement the Strategic Intent. The energy went sky high as people could work on themes that were meaningful to them and… the management was delighted (and not surprised as one of their trademark is the trust and respect they have in the qualities of their people) to see that the themes their people had come up with, where matching what they would have hoped them to suggest… Action plans were established by each team and commitments made.

If we were to go away with one image, it was the one of the C.E.O. clarifying his eight critical expectations about his 110 leaders and immediately after stating the eight commitments he was making to them, the whole going into a “High Challenge/High Support” direction.

In one of his recent high quality comments, on this blog (“power of words”) Michael Newman details how leaders who balance the emphasis of their focus between the external (clients/markets/context) and internal factors (our people/our values/our leadership style), alternate between exploration/curiosity/openness and advocacy/conviction/decision and show a ratio of at least 3 times more “enabling” than “disabling” behaviours towards their followers, create the right emotional space for sustainable, high performance… This is what Nick Mc Roberts and I witnessed during that meeting in Zürich.

I may now confess to my adoptive fellow Swiss citizens that I was one of those who sadly believed that the Swiss Banking system has flourished, far more thanks to its banking secrecy than through the quality of its services to the clients. After having seen the competence, intelligence and energy unleashed by the leaders of Julius Bär, I am now convinced that such an organization will remain on top of the world’s private banking industry whatever comes its way.

On my way to Paris, have a good week all!

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