Strategic Leadership for Financial Institutions

Strategic Leadership for Financial Institutions

The effectiveness of a Tavistock Institute systems psychodynamic approach to organisational development & culture change


2 October 2017

The effectiveness of a Tavistock Institute systems psychodynamic approach to organisational development and culture change.

Cross-organisational collaboration is a major challenge in any organisation. In the case of this client, weak collaboration was a block to the bank’s transformation from a regional to an international enterprise. Intervention by the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations involved establishing cross-business forums that were tasked with improving cross-business collaboration within the formal operating model structure. The forums, consisting of all the business heads, functioned as action learning sets that were central to learning how to take up corporate leadership roles and responsibilities across the bank as a whole and not just within their own ‘silos’.

The bank’s board later reported that working with the Tavistock Institute and enhancing cross-business collaboration increased the bank’s share value by 40%, leading the bank to becoming an attractive purchase proposition, thus moving from a national bank to an international one. The segment/products dynamics were shown to be negatively influenced by internal political dynamics. Exposing and discussing the political dynamics in open forum and increasing awareness of segments/products conflicts, allowed the matrix to work together instead of against one another.

The leadership forums/action learning sets provided a structure for business heads to examine collaborative behaviour and for their resistances to the change programme to be frequently revisited, until changes in cross-business relationships were firmly embedded. It was not uncommon for the business heads to fall back to the more comfortable ‘old and known’ ways of leadership functioning, usually in business unit silos.

The Tavistock intervention consisted of well-known cycles of planning, action, review and implementation involving interviews, workshops, group relations conferences, feedback and review meetings and executive coaching of business heads and group work with the bank’s executive board. These aimed at providing a business-focused learning context for taking up and expanding leadership roles by the business heads.

Design and philosophy

The leadership development intervention was based on action learning approaches using contemporary banking business issues so that leadership behaviour and culture could be examined and addressed in real time.

The key issues highlighted were:

  1. How to manage stability, consolidation and innovation during the CEO succession process.
  2. Moving from business ownership of the customer (silo) to shared ownership (corporate).
  3. Examining and working with the tension between business segments and products.
  4. Observing that large committees undermined the authority of business heads.
  5. Reducing the number of business units and arranging them into sensible clusters.
  6. Addressing the anxiety of business heads over losing their domains and their power.
  7. Learning that by relying on the more commonly known and familiar dynamics of race and gender – white male domination – the significant segment/product debate was being avoided.
  8. Increasing the business heads understanding of ‘whole-systems thinking’.
  9. Helping the business heads to avoid premature ‘jumping-to-solutions’-type leadership in favour of more thought-through, collaborative inclusive leadership.
  10. Addressing the abiding organisational myth that one business unit would bring down the rest of the bank.

The banks’ dominant leadership style relied on a ‘find-and-fix’ approach which was strongly solutions- and action-oriented; it valued tangibles above intangibles, disregarded the value of dialogue and informal social relationship-building; it relied on bullying and hyper-critical behaviour towards self and others. This type of leadership was not for good team playing, had low frustration tolerance levels, was opinionated, believed there was only one truth and was contemptuous of the views of others. But this type of leadership was also rational in its thinking, admired in banking circles, was highly visible and articulate, was unafraid, offered certainty and was intellectually intelligent.

But the bank also needed another type of leadership – one that searched for meaning in work roles, was inclusive, reflective and willing to learn from experience; one that emphasised cycles of evaluating, taking action, reviewing, planning, implementing, re-evaluating, re-implementing, etc. The senior leaders were helped to tolerate repetitive leadership and business cycles, to spend time attempting to understand problems before finalizing solutions, to accept that knowledge comes from several sources and to feel comfortable with dichotomies, paradoxes and ambiguities.

The work of the Tavistock Institute resulted in improved cross-business collaboration that followed from the senior leadership’s increased awareness of the complexity of their leadership roles. Senior leadership developed capacities for integrated working on ‘real’ business issues and on the intangible or ‘soft’ leadership issues. Improvements in key banking fundamentals led to a successful bid by an international bank to purchase a controlling share of the bank that gave it the international reach it needed for growth.

Dr Mannie Sher
Director, Group Relations programme
Principal Researcher & Consultant

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