Being catalytic can be hugely exciting and rewarding but also lonely, frustrating and scary. The health and quality of colleague relationships makes a huge difference. With insights, wisdoms and useful tips, here we uncover the dynamic between two internal catalysts, their teams and their boss, in one of the UK’s biggest banks.
“If you want change, you can’t be afraid of the repercussions of failing. Otherwise you simply get more of the same.”
Some working relationships are special. For catalysts Sue Willis and Kirsty Lacey at Santander UK it goes deeper. “What one of us doesn’t think of, the other tends to,” says Kirsty.
Kirsty is Director of Transformation & Support – Customer Interactions at Santander UK. Sue is Director of Simplification, a role she describes simply as “helping the bank to simplify itself.” Together, they talk excitedly of their work in the contact centres, for cash machines and the branch network. You can imagine the human and technical elements involved in making change happen in an environment that has to handle people’s money with total security and within strict regulation. Things have to be safe, reliable, dependable, rigorous. And simple. And so for the realities behind the scenes that enable that, as the saying goes, ‘It’s complicated’.
But there’s no heaviness in the conversation with them. Their energy is infectious. And it’s clear that their relationship is important in their success. Sue describes how they have competitive spirits, but are not in competition with each other. Instead, “We bounce ideas off each other, and ask, ‘How else can we do this?’ “
The power of People-related Purpose
So what drives them? They talk excitedly of “the importance of getting things right for customers and colleagues.” I ask what makes that so important? The response is immediate. “It makes a difference to people’s lives.” Being connected to what’s fundamentally important is vital in getting things done. As Sue explains “We focus on the ‘Why?’, not the ‘What?’ “
To keep that connection, hearing from customers and colleagues is essential. They talk of the importance of the stories that come back, including customer feedback; how their work is saving people money, helping them manage their finances, and making things better. “It’s phenomenal, because you know it makes a difference. It’s worth the everyday challenges when you know you’re doing that.”
The effect for them is profound. “I don’t see my role as a job,” says Sue. Kirsty expands, “In fact for us, it’s not even a role, it’s a responsibility.”
What qualities do catalysts require?
The conversation turns to the qualities required for being catalytic. ‘Can anyone be catalytic?’ I ask. They describe the importance of people’s inherent behaviours and values, such as helping others. But there’s more. “I don’t think you can do a transformation programme of any size in a company our size without resilience, determination and a sense of purpose and vision.” Says Sue. They describe themselves as “Inclusive, direct, strong-willed, vocal, and accepting of the challenges we receive”. I wouldn’t argue. As Sue puts it in describing her projects, “I’m not afraid to say, ‘My baby’s ugly.’ “
“Patience is important too,” explains Kirsty. “Both of us want everything to happen now. But you have to take people on the journey rather than drag them. There’s no point being one million miles ahead of the rest.” She goes on to explain how people adapt at different paces, in different ways, and have different reservations and concerns. So you have to tailor things.
The culture of ‘being there for each other’ extends beyond their own dynamic. The way they lead their people is telling: “I don’t see people as working for me,” describes Sue. “We all work together as a genuine team.”
What do they look for when they have the opportunity to choose team members? “Value set,” says Sue. ‘Passion, drive,” says Kirsty. They make clear that passion is not an extrovert quality, and how you can be quiet and reflective and hugely passionate. For example, a colleague whose role is to look after the bank’s strategy towards vulnerable people: “If you cut her in half, all you’d find is ‘doing the right thing for vulnerable people’.” Kirsty describes this as the difference between passion and noise.
They also describe the importance of authenticity for the team and really believing in what they are doing.
And recognition. “When they’ve had a bad day, or a door has shut, or they’ve had the session where everyone has a different view, and they’ve got to come back and go again, and again, and again, then constantly recognising them and their efforts is huge.”
The Role of the Organisation
I ask what the bank is doing to help. Clearly, it supports their being catalytic: they describe how they see themselves as being ‘paid to disrupt’, how they are encouraged to not be afraid to think outside the box, to look at things from different angles, and to challenge the crowd. Kirsty tells of how they are empowered to run the teams the way they want to. And how they encourage the team to work on things they are passionate about, that they care about, that they have a connection with so that (again) it’s no longer a job.
They recognise the challenge this can give the bank. Sue puts it like this: “Sometimes I think that whilst they long for us to do it, they don’t always like it when we do do it…When you are the catalyst with the contradictory view it can feel uncomfortable.”
How you deal with it all makes a big difference. Sue and Kirsty explain how much experience there is in the bank, and so it’s OK for them to have the crazy idea because,”10 people will be telling us why we can’t do it. But that’s good. It allows us to bring the crazy idea back to something practical.” As Kirsty points out, “The thing is to not fight against it, but to think how you can utilise it to make the idea better. Then you are not getting frustrated by the feedback – you are using the power of it.”
The Role of the Boss
It’s also clear how the leadership of their boss makes a difference. “She (Susan Allen, then Head of Customer Interactions, Santander UK) is phenomenal. She gives you the bandwidth to do what you want and is a genuine sounding board.”
Trust is clearly important too. They describe the times they go in to meet Susan with a confession about how they’ve taken things forwards without telling her first. Sue shares an example of making a video that was, “Very different from anything the bank has done before.” It won a major award . And at that point hadn’t yet been shown to Susan. “She one hundred percent supports us and our teams,” describes Kirsty. “And continually ignites new ideas asking, ‘How can we…?’ and ‘What if…’ “This relationship and support is vital. As Kirsty makes clear, “If you want change, you can’t be afraid of the repercussions of failing. Otherwise you simply get more of the same.”
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