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Adapting to lead at Danske Bank

The world of hybrid work has created new challenges for leaders at all levels of business. Danske Bank’s head of organisational effectiveness Aileen McAvoy looks at how the bank is addressing these challenges by combining leadership development with a focus on connecting its people and improving wellbeing


Aileen McAvoy

Aileen McAvoy

Aileen McAvoy

When anyone talks about or writes about leadership, most of us immediately think what’s being discussed will only apply to those at the very top of organisations.

But in reality, organisations have leaders at every level, so it makes sense than some of the most successful global businesses focus on developing a coherent approach to leadership throughout their organisations.

That’s exactly what Danske Bank in Northern Ireland has been doing, driven by the belief that adapting to the new ways of working that have emerged out of the pandemic requires leaders to have new and different skills to the ones needed pre-Covid.

As Danske Bank’s head of organisational effectiveness, Aileen McAvoy has responsibility for learning and development, resourcing and wellbeing.

“We already have some amazing leaders at Danske Bank but like many organisations what we have learned through the pandemic is that we have to be able to change and adapt to be successful. Leadership will continue to evolve, so we need to invest in the skills for this future world of work,” she says.

Danske Bank has created an Adaptive Leadership programme for all its people managers, whether they are managing a very small team or an entire business unit. Working alongside world leading business school Hult Ashridge, the programme is built around the themes of purpose, people and pivot.

“The name Adaptive Leadership reflects that we want our leaders to be flexible and agile as our business and context continues to evolve, it encapsulates what we’re trying to achieve,” Aileen says.

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Danske has identified that if it wants to continue to be ranked as one of the UK’s ‘Best Places to Work’ then colleagues need to feel they are empowered and valued, which means equipping its leaders to manage people based on much more than just performance of their job.

“The focus for many people when they talk about leadership is how to elicit performance and manage talent, which is of course important. But today, leadership also has to be about giving people a sense of value, creating connections and prioritising their wellbeing. A much more holistic approach.

“It’s about how you get people to be the best version of themselves, creating an atmosphere of psychological safety, but marrying that with clear and coherent organisational goals. That’s a recipe for good leadership and will ultimately drive sustainable commercial success.”

The programme has largely been delivered virtually and began with two hackathons during which participants crowdsourced solutions to the biggest challenges people leaders said they faced. Those were followed by three workshops and action learning groups where smaller groups could challenge and coach one another.

As hybrid and flexible working continues to evolve, the bank has also identified that people have different views about what work will look like in the future. By being very clear on its commitment to flexibility, the bank has been able to source and attract talented people who might otherwise have been put off by distance and geography.

“To be an employer of choice, we have learned we need to meet people where they are not where we might want them to be,” Aileen says.

“We’ve learned people value flexibility, they value being part of a team and they value when their work has consequences.”

Aileen says that since the pandemic first hit, Danske has had more than 300 movers into new roles, both new hires and changes of job, and she believes this has created opportunities at all levels.

This movement of people has emphasised that career trajectories are no longer always linear, and that more people are embracing the idea of a “squiggly” career.

“A lot of people have transferable skills and when they ask themselves ‘what is my passion’ and ‘what do I draw my energy from’, there can be a realisation that it’s not always about a vertical move – sideways is very often a good opportunity. We have seen many fantastic leaders emerging after moves like this and I expect this type of squiggly career to become even more common in future.”

In the new world of hybrid work, making sure people are connected to the organisation’s purpose has become a key focus for the bank.

“People’s expectations of work have changed, it’s not just about having a job. People draw energy from having a purpose and knowing that their work makes a difference and a contribution beyond the role they do,” Aileen says.

In the current recruitment market, for certain roles Danske Bank finds it’s competing for the same talent that firms in Dublin or London are targeting, which has put the onus on identifying what makes the bank different as an employer.

“We believe that it is our culture which makes us special. We work hard to make everyone feels they have a place, that they belong, that they are valued. We regularly ask our colleagues what would make working at Danske Bank better, and respond as best we can,” Aileen says.

“When people from different teams are brought together for a reason – for example to volunteer in the local community – it creates energy and a connection that goes beyond the event itself.

“What people care about, matters. For some that will be our partnerships with charities like AWARE, for others it is having diversity and affinity groups and for others it will be because of our commitment to helping tackle climate change. It’s evidence of our principles in action, which speaks louder than words.”