The full story

‘Changing how we change’

Like many financial institutions, the global financial crisis and the economic turmoil that followed had a profound impact on KBC’s business – including its finances, culture and attitudes. Luc Rombouts, currently General Manager Marketing and Communication Services for Belgium and Sofie Blockx, currently Corporate Culture and Change Manager at KBC, were two members of a senior staff team tasked with devising and implementing an internal change programme to re-establish the identity, confidence and entrepreneurial dimension of the business, which it was felt had been lost in recent years.

Identifying the problem

Rombouts explains how this came about and how his work began to create the changes within the company. “It was really our former Belgian CEO, now KBC group CEO, Johan Thijs, who identified the problems and decided that we needed a specific programme and management input to address them. The financial crisis had hit our group badly and it was felt that a lot of staff had become very conservative, very risk-averse in their decision-making and had lost the entrepreneurial spirit that the company had built its success on. This had had serious repercussions throughout the business; processes had become over-complex and projects were often delayed through indecision or inertia.”

“The CEO wanted to re-energise the business and staff and put a new, more dynamic management organization in place to achieve this and galvanise the decision-making process. There was a belief that more common sense was needed in the business approach and that facilitating this would help the staff and organisation reassert itself in an increasingly competitive marketplace. He discussed and expanded his ideas with some of the academics in Vlerick but they were not directly involved after that as it was important that the change process came from within KBC.”

Created by the staff, for the staff

“From this the SLIM programme evolved,” confirms Rombouts. (‘Slim’ means ‘smart’ in Dutch). “It was an internal initiative, driven by and entirely developed by a few members of the KBC staff; no consultancy was used and all the tools were devised by personnel from the company. It was felt that change had to come from within and be natural and organic and that the staff themselves were the best placed to take a critical and honest look at the situation and come up with real, practical and radical answers.”

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Sofie Blockx has been with the company for six years; she too was part of the SLIM team for a year, and is now responsible for its successor – PEARL, standing for Performance, Empowerment, Accountability, Responsiveness, Local embeddedness She too was convinced that the change had to be initiated and owned from within. “It would have sent the wrong signal to staff if we had had to bring consultants in to tell us how to change. We know the business, we know what is needed, and we know what we are capable of. There are lots of very talented and experienced people in KBC – they just needed a different environment and an opportunity to express themselves.”

“If you take people away from their everyday environment and pressures and challenge them to think a little broader and question some of the habits they have acquired, it is amazing what can emerge,” Blockx confirms. “For example, there is a culture of over-meticulous recording at KBC. So we decided to do the exact opposite and had meetings with no minutes produced and no formal documents, so showing that things could still run smoothly without them.”

Rombouts agrees and adds, “The financial crisis just served to reinforce some of the company’s habits, for example just as the world became more complex so did our systems for dealing with it. The result was often very slow processes leading to eventual inertia when it came to making decisions. We needed to break through this and fast track some elements by simplifying and introducing some more common sense approaches instead of bureaucracy and process.”

Empowered decision-making

“The way we handled projects was a good example of this. In the past, our processes tended to privilege being 100% right over getting things done in a reasonable time frame. Now projects have to have an answer within six months – and if the result is only 85% there, then it’s better to go with that rather than spend another two years getting that final 15%,” says Blockx. “We also reduced the number of committees looking at decisions and empowered individuals to make them themselves. All this has speeded up the decision-making process and also motivated and rewarded staff with more job satisfaction and a feeling of accomplishment,” confirms Rombouts.

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Blockx picks up that thought, “It isn’t really about a change programme  – it is about changing people’s mind-sets and freeing them from rigid structures so they can use their own creativity, imagination and judgement. KBC needs to future-proof itself against existing and potential competition, and innovation is one means of doing this – but innovation needs the right atmosphere to thrive.”

Letting go of power and authority

KBC Enjoys Change So what were the barriers or issues that the programme threw up? Rombouts has some definite views on this subject. “The desire of managers to hold onto power and not delegate decision-making was something we had to change. People won’t be accountable for their decisions unless they are given genuine and complete responsibility for them and innovation will be stifled as a result. They don’t want to be looking over their shoulders or waiting for approvals at every stage. It is a big culture change for managers to let this go and encourage new thinking – even if it sometimes goes wrong.”

“Empowerment can be a bit scary for everyone at first. No consultants telling you how to achieve things, managers taking a light touch, no committee overviews and direction, being thrown in and told to do your own thing. But ultimately it brings a sense of belonging, achievement and recognition when an idea comes to fruition. It wasn’t about forcing people to these new behaviours either. They were allowed to adopt and adapt at their own pace; find their own way, try things out and see how it felt, and to do the things that worked for them and the business.”

“We produced some simple and basic tools to help provide a framework. Short keyword messages on a card to keep the values to the forefront, theme months, and competitions for the smartest or SLIMmest teams - initiatives just to keep the impetus alive. And staff gradually began to feel more comfortable, engaged and motivated. We encouraged them to look for simple ideas rather than wide-ranging complex changes and when they emerged we would disseminate and promote them. It became a very powerful force for change from the ground up.”

Future-proofing the company

KBC Enjoys ChangeBlockx has some specific examples of simple ideas with great potential for the group. “The first batch is actually being implemented now. One relates to web-based investing and was inspired by a technique used on Amazon; another came from a branch suggestion for digitising papers. Ideas for new insurance products, operational efficiencies and cost-savings are also being considered. The initiative does seem to have rekindled the entrepreneurial, creative spark within the business,” she adds.

Rombouts agrees. “KBC – like all businesses in the sector – is going to face many challenges in the future; competitive, regulatory, societal, cultural. We need to be equipped to deal with them. I believe that companies who are geared for constant change will be in a better position to respond and that is what we are aiming for. Initial results have been dynamic and encouraging. We can’t wait for challenges to appear – we have to anticipate and get ahead of the game. When others discover the breadth of web marketing or the importance of customer engagement – we want to be there already, doing it and being successful.”

The new PEARL programme, which is the successor to SLIM, is designed to take this forward and embed it in the organisation’s culture. It is a group-wide initiative and looks to take the best ideas from around the organisation and roll them out. “We’ve still not got consultants involved,” Blockx explains, “And there are no wrong answers – just thinking outside the box and trying things out. If they work: great. If they don’t, then back to the drawing board to come up with something else. Oh, and we have whiteboards all round the place now so that people can do just that!”

A word from Vlerick

Professor Ralf Wetzel: How do you repair public trustworthiness and even increase momentum when the ‘public face’ of a whole industry is broken? KBC shows an intriguing way forward.

You don’t re-establish customer trust with a shiny rebranding campaign when the whole industry’s brand has gone. And you can’t stop the old scepticism of corporate anonymity by restructurings, when there have been endless programmes already. Instead, KBC relied upon something else: most notably the authenticity of the people who make and who are the company. That’s risky you think? Well, if employees can’t transmit the message of living the company, of trusting in the company and their products, for sure no one else can. And that’s what KBC did. They called the employees in, and challenged and relied upon their knowledge and energy instead of even more anonymous outsiders. The result? A stronger level of trust within the company.

A people-confident management increased the employees’ trust in their own energy, and strengthened the credibility of the management at the same time. In this way, overall insecurity could be turned into pragmatic but fast decision-making and into a quest for on-going learning. Consequently, the KBC story provides two key lessons.

First: you never get a trusting customer if you don’t trust yourself. Second: you only can enjoy change, when you provide space in the driving seat for others.

Giving away power is a precondition to taking advantage of the intelligence present in a crowd. Admittedly, that’s a tough job for alpha animals and it sometimes feels like falling backwards from a bridge. However, with a resilient tie between management and employees and with the managerial will to carefully let go, an expected risk can turn the whole endeavour into a thrilling bungee-jumping experience.

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