For years I felt lonely with this story in my head, until I joined the Semco Style Consultants program and met others who invested in Ricardo Semler’s principles. Finally, I’d found people who believed my story and knew it was possible.

So without further ado, here’s the story about a bank’s employees who saved it from going bankrupt and metamorphosed it into a highly successful organization with an enviable work culture.

While working for a big bank in Holland, I became involved in the affairs of one of its local banks: There was great anxiety among the employees of this bank because they’d been forced to swallow changes without the right to question the management.

It culminated in a sit-in protest and I was assigned to advise the then-CEO about handling the crisis. But, I realized my suggestions were falling on deaf ears and before a year, he quit without doing anything to revive the bank.

His departure, however, signaled the beginning of that bank’s transformation, under a new CEO who not only listened to his employees, but was willing to wait until they solved their problems on their own.

The Problem

Two weeks after I first met the new CEO and briefed him about the bank’s history, he reached out to me for help. The full extent of the bank’s financial disarray hadn’t been revealed to him until then and he feared the bank was headed to bankruptcy.

He had also realized, after a meeting with the managers, that they were apathetic, undermotivated and even under qualified. And it wasn’t just his personal opinion about the managers either - the newly appointed financial control advisor agreed with him and together they decided that drastic change was in order.

However, the two new men weren’t sure where to begin and that’s when they asked me to pitch in and help change the way things were done. With that, I found myself witnessing the unfolding of a fantastic transformation, spearheaded by the very employees who were protesting then.

The Disconnect

The underlying issue was a disconnect between the employees and the management: Nobody took it upon themselves to motivate employees to put forth their best efforts.

Practices and mindsets had to change but first people needed to acknowledge there was a problem. The CEO made sure of that by being entirely transparent about the massive problem the bank faced.

"When we earn as little as we do, it’s better if we put our money in a bank, earned some interest, headed to the south of France and lay in the sand with everybody else because that would still be better than what we’re doing everyday here at the bank," he joked, trying to infuse his sober message with some dry humor. Although people became apprehensive, they also realized that it was the first time that someone from the top had been transparent with them.

The CEO had managed to build a bridge when he asked the employees - not the managers- what they felt were the bank’s main problems. The feedback he received showed that while many people wanted to perform better, they were thwarted by managers. The employees inherently distrusted their managers.

The Change In Order

After another meeting with the managers, the CEO realized that they viewed the employees as being the root cause for all the problems in the bank. Now, there was no denying the disconnect between the employees and the management and he made his move.

He chose to take the employees’ problems seriously and almost dismantled the entire old regime. The new team consisted of himself, the new financial control advisor and three employees who stepped up into coordinating roles.

It was the second time the CEO had proved that he was listening to their voices - as individuals and as a group - and this move became the turning point in the bank’s history. People who were completely disengaged at work, gradually began acknowledging that change was in the air and that they wanted to be a part of it.

The Strategy

About 25-30 people from the bank’s 200 employees were split into five groups and assigned a problem to solve - problems raised by the employees themselves. The teams were a mixed bag - members who knew everything and nothing about a problem were teamed up.

It not only encouraged learning between team members but also brought in a fresh perspective to their problem-solving. The teams were given coaching, money and freedom to come up with a great solution.

Here again, the CEO had shown everyone that he trusted his employees to come up with best solutions for their problems.

The Ripple Effect

The energy from these teams was infectious and soon employees who weren’t part of the exercise started getting inquisitive. The teams were generating a healthy sense of expectation in the bank and in the span of a few months they were raring to present and implement their plans.

An evening get-together was organized for the groups to not just present their ideas but to also sell them to their coworkers and managers. That evening, the CEO presented something too: A vision statement for the next three-five years, which was passed around the gathering.

He invited all employees to question, understand and add their own ideas to the vision, encouraging them to question if it would work, how they could contribute and what purpose they could derive from their work and so on.

The presentations and the open discussions made that evening the moment when the bank’s new fundamentals were chalked up. Almost all the ideas put forth by the teams were adapted and implemented.

We knew it was possible as long as we tapped into the potential of employees to solve their own problems. We just needed to stimulate and nourish that potential, instead of dumpling our own plans and solutions on them.

The Transformation

Thanks to the new CEO’s interventions, the employees felt a newfound loyalty and engagement towards their work. The work culture at the bank simply transformed.

People now helped and consulted with each other; were smarter in their work; shared information and learned from one another.

People from the service and retail industries were hired at the bank because they knew how to walk up to a customer and offer help instead of sitting behind their desks and expecting customers to make the first move.

The idea was to mix people who knew a lot about banking with those who knew how to handle customers.

And it worked wonderfully. It took about a year for all these efforts to come to fruition but the hike in customer satisfaction was unmistakable.

The Secret Ingredient

It was phenomenal how the same employees, who had once reacted negatively to changes at work, were now willing to learn and adapt to the changes being implemented. The secret ingredient was their approval of those changes and it made all the difference.

It took just over three years to turn the bank’s situation on its head and make it one of the most financially successful banks in the Bank Organization. Besides that, the bank’s work culture became hugely popular and customer satisfaction went through the roof.

Of course, there were a few who couldn’t come to terms with these radical changes. But those who stayed on were truly inspired by the changes they had helped bring about.

In a nutshell, this is a story about how it is possible for ordinary people to do extraordinary things when given the right kind of facilitation.

Unfortunately, it’s also a story about how the same organization fell back on old habits, the moment the leadership changed and the new leader didn’t subscribe to a management philosophy that put people ahead of profits.


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About the author

Karin van Noort is an independent consultant who helps organizations during transformation processes. As HR manager, project leader or team coach she guides the implementation of bottom-up processes that lead to ownership, increased quality and revenue/service, trust, self-management, transparency and happiness for employees and customers. Karin has experience in many industries including healthcare, banks, housing corporations, schools, conference organizations and technology. She is a Semco Style Certified Consultant and member of Go4People