Article

Welcome on the "Culture Carpet"

– from a hardcore financial heavyweight

Authors

Nordea is one of the largest companies in the Nordic region today, and we expected that their form of communication would be focused firmly on facts, figures and KPIs. It therefore came as quite a surprise to discover that Torsten Hagen Jørgensen, Bank Director and COO of the Nordea Group, took culture concepts, behavioural rules and the personal culture journeys of their employees as his starting point when we met him for a chat about the bank’s commercial development and execution power. We were expecting the discussion to circle around concepts such as market share, growth, costs and the like. Instead, Torsten took us on a surprising, refreshing and highly exciting walk-through of Nordea’s cultural transformation.

We arrived at Nordea’s new and impressive domicile in Ørestad, just a few minutes from the centre of Copenhagen, where we met Torsten. Having been welcomed inside, we eased into the interview with a cautious question about Nordea’s view on execution power. Torsten listened attentively and thought for a moment before launching into an hour-long presentation on company culture and the crucial importance of culture to Nordea’s leadership power and the organisation’s capacity for change and power to execute.

Nordea’s culture journey began back in 2014 in the wake of a challenging change project

Torsten made it clear that Nordea’s approach to management and execution power is firmly rooted in the bank’s long history, as well as in a number of extremely tangible, practical and current initiatives. “Here at Nordea, we don’t use the term ‘execution power’ that often; we prefer to refer to it as Nordea’s cultural transformation.”

Back in 2014, Nordea’s executive board and Board of Directors chose to push the big red transformation button, triggering an absolutely fundamental change process with the objective of becoming a full-blown digital bank. This decision forced Nordea to take on a remarkably large and complex assignment that required a fundamental change to the ways of working across the bank, as well as a highly disciplined and focused leadership across all management layers.

Nordea chose a rather unorthodox approach to this huge transformation challenge. The traditional, time-consuming planning and preparation work, which often consists of a long and detailed gap analysis followed by a highly detailed business case, was rejected in favour of an in-depth discussion of visions and objectives. This meant that Nordea could relatively quickly start the comprehensive change process itself, as the approach allowed the bank to skip – or significantly simplify – a number of process steps. Nordea’s Board of Directors thus chose to focus on the commercial objectives, while they were less interested in the process itself and all the numerous details, which they were happy to leave to the executive board.

The Board of Directors allocated the executive board a budget of around EUR 900 million for the transformation process (a figure that was also published in the annual report) on the basis of the commercial vision. With this mandate in its pocket, the executive board kicked off the transformation process. That is not to say that the executive board had completely free hands, of course. With a twinkle in his eye, Torsten emphasises that the management had been given freedom with responsibility; put another way, they were given free rein to do what they considered best – as long as they delivered the desired financial impact.

In this way, the cultural transformation must not be viewed as a replacement for tangible business impact, but as a catalyst to help achieve them

The transformation process was challenged by real life, which led to the idea of a culture programme

The overarching objective of the transformation programme was to allow the bank to tackle the decade-long “technical and operational heritage” stemming from the numerous merger banks. However, the programme was soon “affected” by a series of compliance requirements and challenges which, for obvious reasons, had to be given highest priority. “We could see that a large portion of our management power was actually being devoted to the operation and optimisation of processes, at the same time as our ‘change portfolio’ was simply growing bigger and bigger every day,” Torsten recalls.

Nordea found itself in a situation in which its commercial and compliance programmes had to be executed at one and the same time, and the management could not accept that the individual business areas launched their own change programmes without coordinating with the overarching structure. “We found that many of our projects were being run in silos, and that rivalries were arising between the different Nordea countries,” says Torsten. 

I think that happy employees make happy customers.

Torsten Hagen Jørgensen, Bank Director and COO of the Nordea Group

“We quickly recognised that a significant part of what we referred to as our technical and operational heritage was not exclusively technical,” he adds. “The challenges were arising to just as great an extent from the failure of the organisation to take decisions and to establish functioning working relationships across boundaries between organisational units.

We had to come up with a way to eliminate obstacles and reduce the anticipated opposition, which you inevitably encounter when you’re tasked with implementing silo-demolishing transformations across an organisation. As such, we had to find a way to coordinate resources and competences, but we were well aware that in reality it was a question of fundamentally altering governance – which is why we decided to start a highly focused culture programme.”

The cultural foundation for the business transformation is cast

When Nordea’s management decided to launch the cultural transformation, the intention was actually to make the commercial transformation possible. The ambition level was high, and around 5,000 employees were included in the programme. The executive board replicated the Board of Directors’ bottom-up approach to the culture programme, and the executive board and the senior management made the conscious decision not to get involved in the programme, committing instead to accept the suggestions agreed by the organisation and the programme management.

One of the more visible results of the work done by the programme was a “culture carpet” that was positioned in all Nordea offices in the Nordic region. The culture carpet has become a symbol of the cultural transformation as it reproduces Nordea’s new values and a completely new code of conduct. The carpet became a part of everyday life, where all Nordea employees were obliged daily to stand somewhere on the carpet (on one of the values, for instance) and explain to their colleagues and managers how they planned to ensure that Nordea became a better place from precisely that perspective. As mentioned previously, the “culture carpet” was introduced without the prior approval of the senior management in a move which, according to Torsten, demanded great courage and discipline from the management not to get involved, but simply to accept what was put forward and go along with it.

The culture carpet was “rolled out” in all parts of the organisation, and all managers were to invite their own teams to meetings during which they themselves were to stand on the carpet to “show and tell” how the carpet was to be used.

Of course, such a radical initiative is bound to have both positive and negative consequences. The immediate effect of the programme was that a relatively large number of good, dependable employees from the top 300 chose to leave the bank. “There was a group of managers who simply couldn’t see themselves in the new philosophy, and this was naturally a major loss for all of us,” recalls Torsten. “A number of our best employees and senior managers suddenly left us; this naturally diminished our execution power, but we were convinced the move was the right one for the bank in the long term. We therefore stuck to our guns, and everyone was obliged to take their turn on the culture carpet.

But, hey! I really had my doubts ...” he continues. “I remember one day when I was standing on the carpet down by the main entrance, greeting 1,500 IT staff. I guess about one in five couldn’t have cared less, and said something like ‘excuse me, I need to get by’ or ‘get out of the way, will you, I have to get to work’. So it took a lot of guts to stand there and say ‘hey, you just need to hear about this culture project’ when a lot of people were completely uninterested at that time,” says Torsten.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast, and the culture programme has proved its worth

This leads us to ask Torsten directly if he would do it all again. Without hesitation, he replies: “Absolutely! OK, there may have been a bit too much ‘fluff’, and we may have come on a little too strong, but if you want to have an impact, you have to take a gamble. And there has to be personal input, over and above all the money we invested,” he emphasises. Torsten continues: “Of course, there will be some who are less thrilled with it than others. We’re a big organisation, after all, and it’s impossible to get everyone to love it all. But as long as they are not actively working against it. Even though people are cynical, I don’t think there’s anyone who will claim that it hasn’t given us a boost. Personally, I’m absolutely convinced this has had a positive effect on our performance. But it’s hard to demonstrate or to measure. I think that happy employees make happy customers. The cultural transformation has helped us put our purpose and values into words – and then to change them. And I guess this is a precondition for being happy in your work.

However, it’s important to stress that the entire cultural transformation is no substitute for performance. The Board of Directors isn’t interested in hearing about the cultural transformation at all. They’re tough cookies and want to see tangible results. Some of them have asked ‘what’s this all about?’ and evidently think it sounds like a load of ‘fluff’. But it’s essential to emphasise that the Board of Directors won’t interfere in this area at all – as long as we deliver the goods. Likewise, it’s important to bear in mind that we carried out the cultural transformation for the sake of the business transformation, and not for the sake of the cultural transformation in and of itself.”

All’s well that ends well, and Nordea is on a culture journey

Nordea has sought to change both culture and behaviour. “It’s not technology that makes spaghetti,” says Torsten, “It’s people who do the work. And it’s people who hang on to it and keep on increasing the complexity. This often results in sub-optimisation, and problem-solving often risks becoming nothing but treatment of the symptoms unless you dig right down to the roots and work on changing behaviour.

In this context, it’s really easy to point your finger at other people when you’re asked what could be done better. So here, it’s important to ask, ‘what could you do if you were to be really brave?’ and then, after a bit of discussion, you drill right into the core of the problem.”

“Personally, I’m still completely rational,” says Torsten, with a smile. “But it was only when I realised that the cultural transformation was crucial in changing behaviour that I dared to let go and not only have technical discussions. Fortunately, we’re incredibly highly skilled at Nordea, so it’s not the technical problems that prevent us from finding a solution. When you can suddenly get people who have been with the bank for 25 years to stand up and tell the room they’re afraid of losing face – that’s when you really start getting somewhere. So, it wasn’t the 27 technical arguments after all,” says Torsten, who goes on to stress that if there is one thing that has really boosted their business transformation, then it’s the cultural transformation.

Fact

Nordea

Nordea is the result of a long series of mergers and acquisitions. Back in 1857, Carl Frederik Tietgen founded Privatbanken A/S, which became Unibank in 1990 before transforming into Nordea in 2001. During this process, around 300 banks were distilled down to approximately 80 in the 1970s. These were then reduced to about 30 banks over the course of the 1980s.

In the 1990s, there were only four relatively large banks left: NB Nordbanken, Unibank, Kreditkassen and Merita Bank, which were merged to form a single Nordic unit, and all activities have been run under the name of Nordea (Nordic ideas = Nordea) since 2001.

The bank’s infrastructure, including its IT systems and business processes, has therefore been extremely varied because the original starting points for it were different. “It became a greater and greater challenge for the bank in the years after the merger, due in no small part to the wave of digitalisation that is washing over us,” explains Torsten.