By Gloria Lombardi

Building employee engagement during a period of massive change, lay offs and very low staff morale is a challenge that many corporates had to face after the recession, but often with no or little results. One of Ireland’s leading banks has done it and is already reaping the benefits.

Allied Irish Banks (AIB) has inspired around 1,000 staff in its UK offices and branches into believers of a brighter future while ‘realigning’ all its senior bankers. An internal communications initiative called ‘Banking on a Brighter Future’ played a key role in that.

The relationship bank

Steven Cochran (pictured right) is the Head of Customer Proposition at AIB GB. His responsibilities involve everything from strategy to running product sales across Great Britain. He is also one of the key players who helped the bank to build a new business proposition and communicate it to its staff.

After conducting a market research in 2013 it was clear to AIB that they had to take seriously into consideration the relationships with its customers. The good bit was that caring about relationships had always been into their DNA. “We are a small Owner Managed Businesses bank with a familial approach. We have been given praise for being a business that is very much customer-oriented and intimate in nature.”

But the credit-crunch crisis, which hit the bank in 2008, had destroyed the confidence of staff and created uncertainty. “We survived the recession and we were coming back. But people were made redundant, trust was very weak and confusion was skyrocketing. We had lost our touch during the tough times. We needed to bring it back.”

To move on and drive the business forward it became apparent that “we had to start from staff engagement.” This is precisely what happened last year.

The new business proposition

The new business proposition developed by AIB in the UK would mean staff spending more time with customers, provide them with faster and better services, as well as be real advisers. At the same time it was heavily centred on people and management. “You have to have your staff in the right place.”

Easier said than done. When Cochran started to plan the communication strategy in summer 2014 he knew that autumn “was going to be a very difficult time – we would have had some members of staff leaving. We knew we were going to do interviews with all our senior managers in September – some would be appointed to a higher position; others would go.”

But they had to end the year strongly. “We wanted to come out of it by forcing confidence back into our employees and show them that there was a future.”

They decided to focus on a couple of key initiatives to ensure that “the managers who were appointed could really understand the message: ‘You are the future of AIB GB'”

It is a journey

Cochran and the Heads of other departments, including HR and Internal Communications, decided to run a two-day conference in December with the 70 managers who ultimately went through the going through the programme. “It was really about getting the arm around them and making them feel good. Because remember, they would not be given a pay rise for being appointed. This was a sort of ‘being thankful that you still have a job’. Plus, we wanted to really get back on track in terms of the business competing in the market.”

The internal event had also to draw a line between the brutal past and the brighter future. As such it was all centred on the theme of being on a journey.

… let’s have a workshop first

Cochran and his team were advised by Charlie Irvine and Larraine Solomon from Questions of Difference (QoD) – a leadership and engagement consultancy that help people and teams to be the best they can be. Larraine Solomon, the senior consultant on the project, explains that:

“We did not think that the value of two days was best spent with the first day lingering in the past. We wanted to engage people in creating an exciting future. But it became clear that people needed the space to make sense of the changes they had experienced over the last few months so that they could effectively prepare for what was to come.”

Cochran agrees: “We wanted to have their heads in a good space for the event.”

For that to happen, Questions of Difference conducted preparatory workshops with small groups of delegates around the country soon after they were appointed and prior to the event, which was held on customers’ premises in London.

Solomon describes how important these were in the overall success of the project.

“You could feel the atmosphere change half way through these workshops. Once people were given the chance to have honest conversations about what had and had not worked in the past months, and what was important for senior leadership to hear going forward, the mood in the room began to shift. People were then able to provide input and create the organisation of the future that they wanted to be part of; immediately appreciating how important their voice was in shaping the next few months..

“One of the questions we asked was ‘what do you need to think and believe for the conference to be a success?’ At the start of the sessions they were quick to point to senior management, but by the end it was all about them as leaders and the actions they could take. The focus went from blame to them taking personal responsibility.”

Cochran agrees: “The workshop acted as a sort of ‘therapy’. It was a chance for anyone to raise their concerns, express their feelings and discuss the next steps that we need to take on our journey together.”

Among other activities, they used an interesting technique around mood cards. Employees were given a pack of cards and had to pick up three pictures that reflected how they felt about the future of the bank. Images were completely random.

The beauty of this exercise is that “different images meant different things to different people bringing in relevant discussions.

“I’ll give you an example,” says Cochran while holding one of those cards. “This image shows the scaffolding of an house. Some people would say: ‘I feel like we are building something.’ Others would comment: ‘We are falling apart’.

“From there you can start having meaningful conversations and tap into people’s feelings. And that is what we did.”

Moving on

The conference was designed to build an open an honest dialogue along with the mood of budding optimism that the workshops had begun to create.

It started with some very candid feedback from Charlie Irvine and Larraine Solomon from Questions of Difference to the Head of Business GB, Ger O’Keeffe and his management team. They shared the common themes they heard from the workshops in front of the whole conference which was followed by a punchy questions and answer session that explored the key issues in a very open and honest way.

“It came over brilliantly” said Cochran. “Ger took some of the feedback, which was quite personal, very genuinely. He was very honest saying ‘I hear what you say’ to some of the most honest and heartfelt inputs. He acknowledged all of that and said what and how we were going to do with it.”

Never forget to be thankful

With a new tone for the event now firmly set, there was more to be done. “We wanted to ensure that our managers were recognised.”

Initially Cochran and the team thought about celebrating with awards. However, “that did not really fit with our culture…putting someone on a pedestal and doing a standing ovation is not for us.”

They decided instead to give every attendee a thank you note “recognising at a personal level something that they had done extremely well during the year.” This might have been reaching a mortgage target. But it might have been also something not strictly business related, “like doing a lot of travelling. Hence, an appreciation for the effort of being away from home and family frequently.”

Perhaps, the most interesting part of this ‘thank you’ initiative is the fact that O’Keefe himself literally wrote by hand every single note. “The impact that this act made on staff was incredible. Ger himself was quite emotional about it.”

Putting technology into the business

One of the main complaints received by staff was about the lack of tools for doing a proper job. In fact, AIB GB did not experience the same level of investment in technology as its HQ in Ireland. “We had neither a strong online banking offering nor a well functioning internal system. We basically relied on email and a poor website. Working on documents was not easy either.”

The conference was an opportunity to show that the bank was transforming itself for the digital age.

Cochran decided to order an iPad for every single manager attending the event. Those devices were given as a symbolic gift. Staff found them when checking into their rooms after the first day session. “It came as a nice surprise for all of them; everybody understood the rationale. We are moving toward a new type of bank, and we need to apply new ways of working.”

Through those iPads employees have access to email, online banking, business development presentations, demos and bank-related applications.

Flying high at dinner

Giving managers cocktails and taking them to dinner worked very well too. “There was a great atmosphere in the evening. It was a good way of getting back together as a family in an informal way.”

For the occasion the bank invited British Airways’ CEO Willie Walsh as guest speaker, a choice that was very popular. “He spoke about change, turnaround, customer service and the challenge of dealing with unions. He is Irish and a loyal customer of AIB, which means he could talk quite passionately about been served by us.” Plus, having someone like Walsh, who has been running a major part of the travel industry, played nicely with the theme of being on a journey.

Being on a cloud

So, at the end of the first day they managed to create an authentic dialogue, had the new piece of technology showing that the future was about innovating the bank, and had the personal recognition through the hand written notes. Plus, dinner and drinks. “And, a fantastic speech communicated without a dry script.”

Everyone was put in the good space for the next day, which was about the future and centred on the new business proposition. “We talked about how the bank was going to manage the relationships with customers from now on, what the new ways of working looked like, and the investments made in training.”

Another relevant topic of discussion was around social media, which had been rather unexplored by AIB until that moment. “We are not a big bank. AIB will never have an ad on TV in the gap between Coronation Street. Our business has always been about building connections by reaching out through our personal networks. In that sense, social media suits us very well. Small bank, narrow casting.”

AIB UK now have a team completely focused on LinkedIn and Twitter. “We set up training for managers – from basic knowledge on how to build a professional profile to building relationships on a network.”

This has been another impactful move, which leverages a new way of working, yet anchored to the core nature of organisation.

Towards the end of the second day, delegates were invited to participate in a business simulation game that was created by Questions of Difference and which involved running a number of airlines. Pitched against each other, the five teams battled for a bigger share of the market by providing a quality service, while at the same time maintaining a sharp focus on delivery and cost effectiveness.

In a short time, participants started to engage in a more profound thought process about ways to maximise business opportunities and their crucial role as leaders to enable success.

After the conference “everyone was on a cloud, showing enthusiasm about the future of the bank.”

But, Cochran and his team had to ensure to keep the engagement high and sustainable after the event and that could only be achieved through real and consistent action.

The Heartbeat app

Since the December event “it has been all about showing the real pace of change.” The bank has launched a new website, upgraded the online banking system, applied new work technology, and launched a media campaign around some specially-commissioned research into owner-managed businesses.

“We are delivering; and this is what keeps the energy levels high.”

Another relevant initiative has been the first ever Owner Managed Business Expo that Cochran’s team ran a few weeks ago. This interactive staff event was held at the Royal Aeronautical Society in London. It involved all the Relationship Managers showcasing the bank’s new products and services for this key target sector for the GB business. “While the event was internal, it was all about the customers and how we engage with them to build business.”

A live feedback app called ‘Heartbeat’ was used throughout the event to build dialogue and capture the thoughts of those attending. There was also an opinion booth so that relationship managers could vote on their preferred job titles and office names. Prizes and goodie bags were also handed out during the day.

The positive energy from the day was made clear by the results from Heartbeat. When asked “How do you feel about what you have heard and seen today?” 98% of attendees selected either positive, energised, inspired, excited or that they were curious to find out more.”

“The Expo showed how we’re progressing on our journey to build a platform for growth.” This is one of just steps that the bank is continuing to make. Early business results re very encouraging according to Cochran with new clients and jump in the Bank’s loan activity in January.