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Rabobank: a Leadership Transformation Journey

Rabobank: a Leadership Transformation Journey

Posted by Fannie Debussche
on May 12, 2020
in Insider, featured, Executive Education

Over the past decade, the banking landscape has undergone radical changes: different customer approaches, different expectations, different working methods. And logically, that also means different leaders. Two years ago, Rabobank decided to abandon its classic approach to talent programmes. The result? An experimental leadership journey, developed in collaboration with Vlerick. 

Change is in Rabobank’s blood, says leadership and talent manager Judith Sasburg. Over the years, the bank has invested a great deal of time and effort in constantly reinventing itself, also in the area of leadership. “As a cooperative bank, we have always found it very relevant to empower people personally. Although we used to focus primarily on individual leadership, today we consider it important for people to develop in a broader way. We want to help our employees and leaders move from ‘me’ to ‘we’ to ‘society’.”

A multidimensional framework

This ‘leadership of the future’ also formed the inspiration for the development of a completely new leadership process. And simplicity pays off: on a PowerPoint slide, the process looks very clear. Four interconnected balloons represent four base camps, organised around the various dimensions of leadership. “If I show this diagram during a presentation, I immediately get all kinds of questions,” smiles Judith. “What does the daily programme look like? What should I be reading? What business case should we prepare? My answer is always very honest: I can’t tell you at this stage. For now, it’s this.”

“Our fourth base camp will start in two weeks,” explains the L&D manager. “Only half the programme has been determined at this point. This can feel very uncomfortable, both for myself and for the participants, but in the current landscape it makes no sense to already determine what we are going to do in x-amount of time. If we ask our leaders to stand up and be brave, we must do the same ourselves as L&D experts.”

Beyond pigeonholes and functions

As a result, this leadership journey only provides a framework: a playground that allows people to learn from an outside-in perspective, but also the other way round. The only fixed element is the fact that the base camps last a week and are spread out over about a year. 48 people start the training each time.

Participants come from all domains and job levels. “Five years ago, only bankers took part in these kinds of programmes. Now the group also includes data analysts, econometrists, marketers and HR people. For some employees – we are still a fairly hierarchical company – this still feels a little uncomfortable. But our reasoning is that you can learn a lot from someone who is sitting on the other side of the desk.”

Tri-race

Apart from the day-to-day relationships, the participants also learn from each other in Tri-race, a business simulation developed by Vlerick for this programme. Each of the participants is assigned a role in a company called Tri-race. This is not a bank, but a company that produces triathlon equipment. “It’s a metaphor for agility,” explains Vlerick Professor of Leadership Katleen De Stobbeleir. “Triathlons are all about multidisciplinarity and adaptability, talents that naturally have a place in every organisation. The topics and dynamics that have been incorporated in the simulation are also very familiar to the participants.”

The role play comes with an assignment. As a company, Tri-race is facing various challenges. By the end of the day, the participants must come up with a transformation plan for the organisation. “They must present this plan to the facilitators who have been observing them all day – the ‘external board of directors’. However, the simulation is not so much about the content provided by the participants as the human interactions they go through.”

The lecturer points out that the participants forget surprisingly quickly that this is a simulation. “During this kind of exercise, we see that people quickly tend to fall back into their usual patterns. The coaches will then give them feedback about this. You can see that some participants view this as an opportunity to experiment with new behaviours. Often, the role players also discover what their coping mechanisms are when they come under pressure or are disappointed.”

Leading coalition

The core principle of this exercise, but also of the other workshops, is self-reflection. “For many people, Tri-race isn’t exactly pure fun,” says Katleen De Stobbeleir. “Participants sometimes get frustrated by their own limitations. But afterwards, they really feel like they've learned something. They realise that learning isn't always about making an impression or putting on a good show, it can also be a painful process.”

The new Rabobank leaders also dig deeper into themselves during a nature quest, a business challenge, various skilling labs or in the personal challenges they are given by the coaches. “Everything is connected and what you do during one component influences the content of another,” concludes Judith Sasburg. “In this way, the participants each follow their own path to a shared skill set, a shared mindset and a shared practice. Because it's nice to be inspired, but of course you also have to take action. We also really invest in our leaders as a group. In this way, we hope that our leading coalition will grow with each new intake.”   

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