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Nordea's Cultural Journey from ego to eco

PA spoke to Tabitha Cooper of Nordea about transforming culture to embrace innovation and allow experimentation.

One of the first things you notice about Tabitha Cooper is her spikey haircut and the purple streak running through it. Dressed casually, with a sporty neck-warmer, she doesn’t look like a stereotypical banker. She neither speaks nor acts like a banker, giving her colleagues big hugs and calling them fond nicknames. But this unlikely figure has become a face of Nordea’s drive to innovate and change culture. Her mission is to foster an open atmosphere within the bank, one where people believe they’re part of the changes and are comfortable being authentic to themselves and the environment.

It’s clear from speaking to Tabitha that she draws on a huge range of influences to form her thoughts around change. She regularly peppers her explanations with descriptions of the latest research in neuroscience and psychology. She’s particularly inspired by the work of Otto Scharmer, a lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, author of “Leading from the Emerging Future; From Ego- System to Eco-System Economies.” To understand Tabitha’s perspective, it helps to understand Theory U, which suggests that to navigate a sane path in today’s world, we need to connect to our authentic selves. The theory proposes that “the quality of the results we create in any kind of social system is a function of the quality of awareness, attention or consciousness that the participants in the system operate from.” This also happens to be the method that Nordea has chosen to take on its group-wide transformation journey. This theory advocates moving from IQ to EQ; uniformity to diversity; talking to listening; thinking to sensing. Or as Tabitha succinctly says: “going from ego to eco.” This is not the typical language of finance, but it appears to be the foundation for a new kind of thinking that’s permeating Nordea’s culture today.

In Tabitha’s eyes, Nordea’s current position on the precipice of change driven by technology, regulations, customer demands and fintech competition, demands the company reach deeper into itself and redefine its purpose and existence. Tabitha explains: “You can’t just tell people to change, we need a wider context. We need the story, we need the Why. What we all do every day matters, so we must remind ourselves of the wider context in which we operate, i.e., what does all that is happening in the world mean for us?… It reminds us that everything we do is about serving society.”

Tabitha is echoing her CEO, Casper von Koskull, in recognizing change requires a new way of thinking. Casper has said: “We need to change the way we organize ourselves, to change the way we structure ourselves, but also to change our behaviour, how we interact. We need to move into more of a networked organization.”

Tabitha started working with Nordea in 2015 on the core banking simplification program. Nordea was trying to simplify itself, having previously been four separate banks, and Tabitha sensed more would be needed to change Nordea than just a new IT platform. She explains, “A colleague, Jonas Eneroth, and I spoke animatedly for hours one evening about how, while it’s critical for Nordea to undertake this enormous system and process simplification programme, we questioned whether it was a sufficient response given the significant activity that was going on outside the four walls of the bank. New companies were creating great new services and experiences for people, so simplification shouldn’t be all we were talking about.”

The pair found champions for their thinking in Nordea’s Transaction Banking management team. Nordea was considering how to focus its adaptability to meet the challenges it faced from the outside and identify opportunities that promoted long-term relationships and growth. As Tabitha sees it, the critical thing was not the idea itself, but speaking to leaders who were willing to listen and who had the courage to take action. Tabitha reflects: “…the next thing we knew, we were in an innovation lab!”

One of the first things that Tabitha and her colleague Torbjörn Ekroth were tasked with after establishing the lab, was to arrange an innovation week. The event needed to engage as much of the organization as possible and focus on a wider purpose that could both unite and excite Nordea. She explains: “That was the mandate: You are an innovation lab now, let’s have an innovation week! We had a blank sheet of paper and no budget to just come up with something in a few months!” Tabitha remembers: “We… focused on trying to give people a completely different experience, firstly of what coming into work could be like, while also providing a crowdsourcing challenge set in the wider context of society – using the UN Sustainable Development goals as inspiration.”

The innovation week brought together 40 people in the cash management area for five non-stop days. They included service design workshops, breathing exercises and presentations from many different organizations, including a cryptocurrency company and more established well known organisations. The talks focused on Nordea’s Transaction Banking mega-trends in combination with a purposely non-banking challenge: What ideas can we, as a Financial Service Company, come up with to ensure we play our part in the societal ecosystem in which we operate and benefit from?

We cannot afford to be disconnected from the broader ecological questions. I think we finally understand that we are fully dependent and linked to the environment, not only the urban environment but the rural environment and the planet we live on.”

Casper von Koskull

Tabitha laughs as she describes her thought process: “You could feel that people were just saying... Come on, what are you doing? Sitting up there in your white lab coats playing with test tubes and Bunsen burners? …to a few people it was kind of a joke having an innovation lab. So in some respects, it felt like it doesn’t matter what we do here, we have nothing to lose.”

While investigating new technologies like blockchain, big data, or artificial intelligence is undoubtedly important, to Tabitha it felt unrealistic. With only five people in the lab at the time, it would be impossible to only look at new tech and work on new ideas or uses. She recalls: “We would be hoping these ideas would get accepted in an organisation that didn’t entirely get what we were doing or why we were even there in the first place. If we were really going to have an impact… I felt we also needed to influence innovation as being part of our culture and how we collectively work, rather than only a place to find and do cool stuff.”

Tabitha felt that to harness the power within Nordea, everyone had to feel they were part of the innovation. She comments wryly: “Innovation is just like change; it is most often rejected from the system like a virus. You get this foreign body, innovation, coming in, and the system automatically sends out the white blood cells, to defend the status quo. So while it has been an amazing privilege to be in this position, it is also not without its challenges.”

The innovation week was a catalyst for immersing a wider group of people in the experiment and experience of innovation. Within the organization, the week was well received. Joakim Bredahl, Cash Management Advisor at Nordea, said: “At the end of the day we had created something that was far better and far more relevant than any of us thought we could. A learning experience in how good methodology can help you develop an idea and make it into something that is pitchable.”

The week also received attention from higher management, and it was then that Tabitha and her colleagues in the innovation lab felt something within Nordea had shifted. Tabitha says that to institute change “We need role modelling, we need support from the very top, and that’s what we got. If we want people to be courageous, to take risks in an environment that traditionally is not supposed to take risks – we are managing other people’s money and livelihoods after all – we need to have an environment where people are given permission and feel safe to do that.”

This support from the top came from Casper, who said during the planning of the initiative: “We need to push the boundaries. We need to experiment. Let loose. If we don’t give it a go, then we will not know. This will not be the only way to break all barriers but it is a good way to start.”

Tabitha believes we have to tap into more than our intelligence at work. She explains: “Neuroscience says that we are made up of thoughts, emotions, and our behaviour. If the underlying message of most corporate cultures is saying that emotions are not okay, when we know that emotions are the body’s prediction mechanism, then as conditioned and widespread as it may still be, we are in fact collectively distorting our behaviour and the potential in every outcome. What kind of decisions are we then making from that perspective?”

It turns out that Tabitha’s non-conformist appearance is part of her quest to change behaviour at Nordea. Tabitha laughs: “I am not the clothes that I wear or my crazy purple hair. I do it for a reason, partly to challenge myself and because it’s fun, but also because putting yourself way out there gives leeway for people to dare a bit more.” In this too, Tabitha is reflecting a message from Casper when he encouraged Nordea to “lean in” during his first speech as Nordea CEO, a reference to the book written by Sheryl Sandburg. Tabitha continues, “People absolutely don’t need to come out as far as I do and I am not suggesting that everyone should have purple hair. But it’s about taking the risk to try something different, finding and connecting with other people who also recognise the need to change... But you have to open your heart. You have to go to that place of caring and have that courage to actually care in an environment where doing so has traditionally been seen as fluffy, soft and unstructured.” She clarifies, “When people see that someone like me is working here, they feel like oh, maybe Nordea is changing.”

“We need to push the boundaries. We need to experiment. Let loose. If we don’t give it a go, then we will not know. This will not be the only way to break all barriers but it is a good way
to start."

Casper von Koskull
CEO of Nordea

While Tabitha rejects the notion that she is a symbol of change for Nordea, saying that there are many people involved to enable this kind of transformation, she does remember once identifying with a YouTube video of a “lone nut” dancing on the side of a hill. After a painful moment, a second person joins. And then a third. By the end of the video, all the people on that hill are dancing. Derek Sivers, an American entrepreneur who narrates the video, says: “…it was really the first follower that transformed the lone nut into a leader… If you really care about starting a movement, have the courage to follow and show others how to follow. And when you find a lone nut doing something great, have the guts to be the first one to stand up and join in.”

Tabitha feels a responsibility to create, continue and encourage this momentum. She says: “So the innovation week was great and full-on for everyone. We were all, including Torbjörn and I, leaning in. We also felt it was not sufficient to just host the event. We wanted the effects of the event to be a talking point via Nordea’s intranet to educate and influence those who had not been there.”

She adds: “I guess unconsciously at the time, we wanted the people at the innovation week to be the first followers to considering a new way of working. That way, the story, the momentum, the movement grows. We also wanted to celebrate the people who leaned in and took the risk to feel uncomfortable.”

Nordea’s transformation journey has been about trying to find their true purpose in this new technology-driven landscape. Tabitha states: “Prior to this, it was like, we want to be best, we want to be number one. But that is not truly inspiring for most people. We needed to find out who we are… So if Nordea is a collective person, the challenge was to answer the questions of who do we feel we are, why are we here, how do we need to change? We needed to identify our collective sense of values and purpose...”

According to Tabitha, Nordea has taken the journey articulated in Theory U, and from that journey, has been able to re-evaluate its purpose. She describes Nordea’s new mission as: “Leading the way together to enable the dreams and aspirations for a greater good. With four key values that would enable the change: courage, collaboration, passion, and ownership.”

One of Tabitha’s key messages, and one that may be difficult to articulate in a financial organization, is harmony with the environment, an essential part of Theory U. She’s not alone in this thinking. Casper said to his employees in their internal video about innovation week: “We cannot afford to be disconnected from the broader ecological questions. I think we finally understand that we are fully dependent and linked to the environment, not only the urban environment but the rural environment and the planet we live on.”

Åse Bergstedt, Nordea’s Chief Sustainability Strategist, echoes this thinking: “We need to get sustainability into everything we do. Sustainability is not something separate, it needs to be integrated.”

Nordea appears to be well on its way to fulfilling its cultural transformation. It has a new purpose that moves beyond the narrow role of a financial intermediary. Instead, new Nordea wants to see itself as a fulfiller of dreams. Casper describes Nordea’s ethos in this journey to the future: “It is not only about your mind and your brain but also your heart. You need heart, mind, and will to really navigate. We are living in a new environment which requires new ways of operating, behaving and thinking.”

As for Tabitha, she sums up the future for Nordea saying: “We need to create the space strategically and emotionally to continue to innovate and partner with new players previously not considered in our financial scope, while recognizing the accelerating speed, mindset shift and dynamics of living in a networked technology-enabled world. We need to lean into possibility. Our challenge and potential is to navigate the need for speed with the wisdom of calm.”

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  • Lan-Ling Fredell

    Lan-Ling Fredell

    PA financial services expert

    Lan-Ling brings a diverse skill set and breadth to help financial institutions tackle strategy, innovation and implementation.

    Insights by Lan-Ling Fredell

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