• CIPD Scotland: ‘We lost our way’ admits RBS HR chief

  • 7 Mar 2016
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Elaine Arden tells delegates HR has been central to cultural shift at the troubled bank

RBS returned unexpectedly positive financial results in 2015 and believes it can face the future with confidence after its near-implosion at the height of the financial crisis. But if anyone thought turning around the £60bn bank had been easy, chief HR officer Elaine Arden is adamant that the job isn’t anywhere near finished yet.

“We lost our way,” Arden told delegates during a keynote speech at the CIPD Scotland Conference in Edinburgh, before outlining some of the bank’s key failings, and the remedies she has been putting in place during its HR-led revival.

“We treated chartered institutes more as training bodies than organisations connected to the banking industry… The stench of bad bankers lingers long, and we’re still paying fines for business we did 10 years ago,” she admitted.

“We want to become ‘one bank’ again. We’ve agreed future pay principles, removed sales incentives from front-line staff and reduced bonuses to 10 per cent of the salary bill."

New cultural pillars, added Arden, were key to changing behaviours: “‘Determined to lead’ is our new common plan for leading teams – and so far we’ve trained 15,000 people on it. It captures who we are and what we stand for, but it’s not something I want to share. It probably resembles what many of you already have in your own organisations. To me, the point is not what these statements are, but the meaning they have internally, and the power they have among our people.”

During a talk that was at times disarmingly frank, Arden said HR had collectively taken a decision to roll up its sleeves, get involved and do the right thing to support the business in its recovery – especially when it came to redundancies.

“People really wanted to dig in and stay to do the task at hand,” she said. “We had to lose thousands of people, but we made sure we treated people well, and we even brought in competitors like Barclays to see if there was exiting talent in our business that they could employ. If anyone didn’t ‘get’ the new regime, they had to go, but it was a process I feel we’ve done right.”

According to Arden, proof that the new leadership principles are working is provided by the fact leadership scores are now at ‘global high-performing’ level.

“This process has been transformative for HR,” said Arden, who has been with the bank since she graduated. “Everyone is now focused on culture. We even have a so-called ‘Yes Check’ that runs right through the business – you hear people saying ‘does X idea pass the ‘Yes Check?’ It’s great to see.”

But she concluded by issuing a rallying cry to her fellow HR leaders. “We’ve done a hell of a lot – but we had to. HR had to define what was needed, and HR had to measure it too, because, if we didn’t, someone else would.

“HR has to be bold. If you’ve got a CEO who doesn’t want to listen to you, you’ve got the wrong CEO. HR needs a point of view, and needs to front up to that point of view without waiting for leaders to do it for them.”

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  • Very good outline - fully agree that HR has to take the lead.

    Very insightful is the comment that if the CEO does not listen to HR he likely has his own personal agenda.