Bank boss offers fresh take on business culture

With business culture under increasing scrutiny, one banking CEO has identified the disconnection between what a company says its culture is and how it actually behaves.

Speaking at a recent American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) lunch in Sydney, outgoing ING Direct CEO Vaughn Richtor said he realised back in 1999 when the Dutch lender entered the local market that the only sustainable competitive advantage the bank had was “culture and people”.

“Culture for me is really quite simple. It’s basically what we do every day, it’s what we do around here,” Mr Richtor said.

“What culture is not is when a management team goes into a room and they sit there and they come up with these values and they come out and put them on a card and distribute it to staff and culture is magically transformed,” he said.

“Nine times out of 10 – no, 10 times out of 10 – your staff figure out the difference between what you’re saying is your culture and what your culture actually is.”

Under Mr Richtor’s leadership, the bank has carved an enviable reputation for simplicity, culture and innovation in a highly competitive and increasingly complex market.

The group’s commitment to its customers is evident in its consistently high Net Promoter Score (NPS), a measure of customer advocacy, which is now the highest of any bank in the country.

“If you’re customer-centric, you should evaluate how every decision you make has an impact on the customer,” Mr Richtor said.

He explained that during his six-year stint in India he was given a giant office, which he shunned in favour of more modest quarters.

“People create big offices, they put up expensive paintings. That’s fine, that’s an individual’s choice, but if you are truly customer-centric, how does the customer benefit from that? I would argue that the customer pays for that. It has an impact on your staff as well.”

“In very simple terms,” he said, “if you start evaluating what you say is your culture and what you actually do, you will find some real disconnects.”

In one of his final speeches as ING Direct boss this week, delivered to a packed room at the Shangri-La, Mr Richtor shared a Hindi saying, which translated means, ‘It’s hard to do but you can do it’.

“The sense is nothing is impossible. What is the sense of achieving something that is easy to achieve?”

When it comes to culture within the bank, Mr Richtor explained that ING Direct has three specific behaviours that it wants to see in its organisation.

“The first one is ‘make it happen’. What that means is actually trying to move from an organisation that is based on hierarchy to giving empowerment to the people,” he said.

“The second thing is that we know we need to be a team. To me that means you help others to be successful.

“The third thing is, ‘always be one step ahead’. What that means is [to] look at the consequences in the future.”

Mr Richtor, who announced his retirement in January and will officially step down as CEO in a few weeks, has been with ING Direct for 24 years.

“When building a culture, I wish I could say that you just print a card and it’s magically done. We’ve been doing it for 20 years and we still haven’t got it right. It still continues to evolve,” he said.

“Culture is set from the top, by the actions of the senior people in an organisation. But culture is lived and preserved by the people in the organisation.”

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