In 1987 I joined a large banking group in South Africa as the Customer Communications and Training manager of their new electronic banking division. I knew I was in trouble when during the first week on the job I was told of a photo shoot with the then CEO. Apparently as the photographer was about to take the photograph and said “smile”, the CEO stood up with a serious face and said, “Young man, banking is a serious business, we do not smile around here”. Whether this story was true or not is unimportant. What is important that it was told and re-told many times and ultimately became part of the culture of the company. The corporate culture was harsh and militaristic, indeed a number of senior executives were former military officers. Some months into my new role, I was asked to do a presentation to a group of senior managers. After my presentation, one of the members of the audience approached me and pulled me aside. He said, “I know you are new here, so I’d like to offer some advice, and that is to remove the emotional words from your vocabulary. Emotional language does not go down well in this organization”. He was certainly correct – the organization was perhaps the most emotionally barren organization I have ever worked with. There were pockets of passion and energy—however these were exceptions and primarily the result of initiatives taken by specific individuals (including my immediate boss, a remarkable individual who was the only reason I continued to work in that environment).
My first exposure to large-scale organizational change came from a brief dialogue with Denzil Busse, [then Managing Director of Standard Bank of South Africa (SBSA), and a personal mentor to me]. Denzil was responsible for the retail bank and had been very concerned with the lack of improvement despite several efforts to improve. Along with the poorest service levels of any major bank, SBSA was also losing market share. But it was no wonder to me that this organization had the poorest customer satisfaction scores of all the major banking groups – great customer service requires passion and a high degree of positive energy and interest in people. “Smiling” and “emotional language” are basic requirements. Denzil had called me to his office to discuss this dilemma, and I expressed my concerns to him. Instead of the emotionally stunted response I had received from other executives, Denzil listened intently. What ensued was one of the largest change strategies I have been involved with. Under the leadership of this remarkable individual, Denzil and I jointly, along with the efforts of many others in the Retail Bank, developed and implemented a process that engaged 22,000 employees in improving business processes and work culture. Eventually SBSA went from being the worst performing bank in customer service and losing market share to the best customer service and improving market share over a six year period. This organizational change could not have been achieved without the positive work environment and energy that Denzil Busse created for this immense effort from these many thousands of employees. A remarkable achievement and a big win for positivity in the workplace.Download Article 500 Club