AS PLANS GO, STARTING UP A BANK IN A PANDEMIC AND A PROTRACTED RECESSION, SOUNDS CHALLENGING. ADD THE RATIONALE, TO SUPPORT ECONOMICALLY CHALLENGED PARTS OF THE UK’S NORTH AND MIDLANDS – DRIVEN BY A CULTURE OF CUSTOMER CONNECTIVITY AND TRUST – AND CLEARLY THE PEOPLE BEHIND GB BANK ARE UNUSUAL, IN A SECTOR THAT NOTORIOUSLY WORSHIPS PROFIT. THE HR STORY IS JUST AS INSPIRING, AS THIS COURAGEOUS STARTUP OPENS FOR BUSINESS.
CHIEF PEOPLE OFFICER , GB BANK
“To me, work is a human experience”
My formative years were spent moving around a good deal, because of my father’s job and so consequently, I often felt like an outsider. This was particularly acute as a teenager and it has made me extra sensitive to other people and making sure that they never feel excluded. If you’ve been in that situation, you realise how painful exclusion can be and how important acts of kindness and understanding are, however small. Those early experiences have contributed to my choice of career – that and what can only be described as a restless curiosity about human behaviour – what we do and why people make certain choices. All those early experiences kind of led me to University, where I decided that my future lay in psychology. I was excited about the prospect of exploring human behaviour on a deeper level, but I began to wonder how I was going to turn the theory and science of the subject into a viable career. So, about midpoint through my degree, I decided to make a shift to Human Resources, because I could see a closer correlation between practical application in a real-world setting. I knew that what I wanted to do was help people realise their full potential and set my sights on a career in HR.
In my first proper role in HR, I realised my expectations of a purpose-led field were probably not quite in tune with where the profession was at that point. I found myself in a very traditional HR team, carrying out very transactional work, in a world of compliance and very policy driven – it gave me a good grounding, but it became obvious the ‘human’ element of ‘human resources’ was sorely lacking. After that initial disappointment yet still with a desire to break the mold, I then went on to several different roles across a myriad of sectors – non-profit, private and public and I was beginning to become a bit disillusioned and began to question whether I really belonged in this profession. This was a bit of a turning point for me and I decided that I needed to look for a company that was truly purpose-driven, because, amongst other things, genuine purpose and entrepreneurial thinking seemed to be missing in all my prior role experiences. Finally, I was lucky enough to be introduced to a new role in a very early stage FinTech company, Nucleus Financial and I knew that this was what I had been looking for. I had an immediate affinity with the vision of the CEO David Ferguson, the people I met and the ethos. They wanted someone to set up a people team to match the dynamics of the business and the great foundations they had in place already. The CEO was authentically people-focused and, from that perspective, light years ahead of any business leader I had met to that date. I felt that what he wanted to build was something quite remarkable and I felt fortunate to be able to play a part in supporting his vision.
I think I was relatively naïve about what the challenges would be, but I instinctively knew that this was an almost unique opportunity and I was ready for the learning curve. I didn’t assume to have all the answers, but I was willing to experiment and find out. I remember my intentions were to do the right thing, to create a people strategy that enabled the business to progress and achieve its ambitions. As we grew, my role evolved and I became the Head of People Experience and I was fortunate to work alongside an inspirational CPO Kirsty Lynagh and her coaching approach helped tune in to my strengths. Kirsty challenged preconceptions and brought new models into the business, in areas such as coaching and leadership development. Being in a start-up really played to my mindset and strengths – and I was building on my experience sets, dealing with the interesting challenges and navigating the growing pains and dynamics of a new, fast-growing business. However, there are some commonalities with more established firms such as, how to attract and retain people and how having the right culture and shared values is fundamental to keeping a fast-moving business focused and stable. One common misconception is that culture is something to be protected and maintained, the trick is to recognise that it’s constantly evolving. It’s important to take the time to ask yourself if this a cultural ritual – something we want to keep and brings our values to life – or a cultural relic, something that worked for us when we were 50 people, but less so now that we’re at 150. One key aspect related to this is communication – remembering to communicate as though you are a team of 50, rather than 150 – goes a long way to creating a trusting environment.
There’s a staggering statistic that points to 70 percent of start-ups failing for reasons related to their culture. For the remainder of my time, we grew the business right through to an IPO – with the inevitable highs and lows along the way – and I decided that my focus would be to help start-ups from the grassroots create those strong cultural foundations from the get-go and make their purpose a key source of competitive advantage. So, I decided to step away from Nucleus Financial and become a startup specialist – and I launched The Good Work Project – building inclusive cultures and compassionate leadership. Fundamental to this is building the culture with people, not for them, which is a hugely important principle for me. I’ve since found a home at GB Bank where we’re doing just that, creating a culture to be proud of.
I decided to learn more about human-centered design principles through studying UX design and design thinking. Taking the time to do this and becoming a coach helped me to develop my understanding on a deeper level and learn new tools and techniques to bring to life this way of thinking into people teams. For example, if we view the people within a team through the lens of being a customer, as opposed to an ‘employee’- and that what we’re providing is a set of products people are subscribing to – then it significantly shifts the mindset of what we are here to do. It becomes about continual, iterative improvement, learning and tweaking as you go. A shift for me was evolving my thinking beyond designing a ‘minimum viable product’ and instead considering a ‘minimum lovable product’, as the standard to be attained. This way, you’re considering not only the most basic elements required to solve the problem, but considering what could be included to delight the customer or team member from the outset. I had previously seen valuable time and budget used to design a fabulous looking suite of rewards that fell short in terms of meeting the needs of the team. The whole mission for the Good Work Project was to make work better, one experience at a time. I really do see the process as a series of steppingstones – such as the journey from the first time that person sees a job advert for a company, to the last interaction – each of those touchpoints should seamlessly connect. To me, work is a human experience and it’s about connecting people’s hearts and minds around a common purpose. That is very much my focus as CPO of GB Bank now.
I think it taught us that, fundamentally, focusing on the people experience is without question, non-negotiable. It really wasn’t a bolt out of the blue that the old way of working was broken, but it forced a reassessment and, whereas before there was reticence or even fear about thinking outside the box on work frameworks, now there was a unique opportunity to make the argument for real and meaningful change. This direction of travel was always inevitable, yet moving at a snail’s pace, what with future generations and the evolution of technology, but it’s become a reality quicker than anyone expected and that must be embraced, although hybrid working is still a work-in-progress for most. There’s much talk about “The Great Resignation”, but I agree with the sentiment of it feeling for most as a time to pause and re-evaluate. Likewise, there has been endless coverage of ‘quiet quitting’ which imagines people idling away in their PJs. But if you look beyond the headlines, it doesn’t mean people are giving up their responsibilities in droves and losing interest in their careers – it’s more of a response to the burnout we’ve seen when people’s lives and work blurred into a haze of being ‘always on’ during the pandemic. People now see that work isn’t just something that we should be singularly compensated for. It is, for most, a source of connection, purpose and humanity.
The concept around GB Bank came about five or six years ago, by brother and sister Stephen and Emma, along with Stephen Lancaster, who is now our CEO. Stephen and Emma Black had grown up in the Northeast and they saw that the access to property development funding just wasn’t there. And many areas which had been impacted by loss of local employment and opportunity, was not receiving the regeneration that they needed and the focus was very much on the Southeast. So, they wanted to do something about this and that’s the basis on which GB Bank went from plan to reality, with the focus being on providing much needed funding to property developers and investors, that were having difficulty gaining backing from the existing high street banks. Since then and during my time there, we have gone through the whole regulatory process to gain a banking license, which has made us the first regional bank in the UK for quite some time. So, we are the UK’s newest bank, which is a huge milestone for us, after a long journey, strewn with hurdles along the way. But the focus of building better futures for the communities that need it most has kept us going and while the focus is the northern and midlands regions initially, we very much want to drive support to other regions in the UK, that need support and access to investment. We’re all about being a force for good and that applies to our approach to people too.
No question, there are a lot of people that need support and areas that need regeneration, not just in the Northeast, but across the country. That’s what really drew me to GB Bank, because the business model is based on doing something about it. Government has long espoused a leveling up agenda, but is slow to see a tangible outcome and, when you walk around towns, the evidence is patently obvious, with boarded up shops in the high street and general decline. But we have a driving commitment to help breathe life back into communities again and help them to thrive, bringing services to locals and providing employment. We’re about changing people’s lives for the better and it’s about connection, support and sustainability. But the bottom-line reality is, it needs financial backing and that’s where GB Bank is positioned.
Nobody will be surprised that, starting up a bank from scratch is hard going and from a talent perspective it’s no different. We’ve always known from the start that the goal wasn’t just to build a bank, but to build a bank with a culture to be proud of. As we progress, the rigours and pressures will intensify, particularly as the economy is stressed. So, we have to keep challenging ourselves to think about how we can build sustainability, be better at what we do and to keep evolving, trialing and, above all, listening. We must also challenge the status quo as well as traditions and legacies. Take recruitment, in the past it was very much a case of attracting “our type of people”, focusing on culture fit, which is probably one of the reasons the financial sector ended up in trouble. But to achieve diversity of thought and background represents new opportunities and challenges and we need to embrace and celebrate ‘values fit’ instead and thinking about the best person for the team, rather than simply the best person for the role. You can tick as many boxes as you like, but unless DEI is a genuine and authentic objective, based on shared values, it will always be a case of one step forward, two step back. If you don’t have an inclusive culture, then it’s quite meaningless. We know that we still have work to do, particularly on gender diversity and we intend to correct our gender pay gap, ahead of being required to report on it. Then, looking ahead, my vision is that DEI must inform our decision-making and direction, as we run our bank and start to scale.
I don’t think it is ever a destination – a fixed culture is where companies can go wrong – believing they must ‘protect’ their culture. Instead, they must evolve and inform the behaviours and day-to-day experience of everyone within the company, as the business goes forward. Keeping your purpose and values at the heart of what you do and how you do it, is key. Culture design is part art, part science. There are the structured aspects of it and there is creativity, interpretation and intuition. Vision is important, but it must be tangible and, most importantly, the tone has to be set at the top. Today, more than ever, this requires a heightened commitment to people-first principles – it’s a balance between creating the conditions for high performance and a compassionate and empathetic leadership style. It’s less about command and control and more about trusting and inspiring. It’s about realising the shadow you cast as a leader and considering why people would opt to follow you – establishing those relationships, genuinely caring and taking time to build trust and psychological safety to forge deeper connections.
Likewise, when we consider purpose, if you’re set on the creation of values being a top-down endeavor it’s pretty much dead on arrival. Understanding the value in bringing to life GB Bank’s strong societal purpose we set about creating a unifying message for the whole team. We listened to the team and involved everyone in the refreshing of our purpose, vision, mission and values.This has been invaluable in making sure these are authentic to who we are. We formed a group of ‘Culture Activists’ who represent their teams and take a lead role in shaping the direction of our culture and people strategy. A practical suggestion to find out how people are really feeling is to complete ‘stay interviews’ with your team. This is the equivalent of a reverse exit interview, instead of waiting until people leave to find out what had been bothering them, taking the time to listen, learn and understand their perspectives in a one-to-one can be an invaluable source of insights about the opportunities you have to make their experience better. Your culture can look and feel fantastic on the surface, but taking the time to really ask helps you to find out what’s lurking beneath the surface – and take action.
Agreed and it will take time, pragmatism and focus to move the equality and inclusion dial in the right direction, to break down stigmas and that begins with the first books that children read, the toys they play with and the family, friends, teachers and peers that they learn and develop with. I believe as both a parent and a leader in HR, that I have a responsibility to challenge that status quo and push boundaries, to help encourage kindness and empathy. What makes a difference is whether you have a humancentric culture or you just say you have a human-centric culture. I recall there was one American tech company that effectively banned freedom of speech in their internal comms networks, referring to the Black Lives Matter movement. As a cultural signal, that was very damaging, because that was taking away the right to discuss, to speak out and, in that instance, it did prompt an exodus of some of the more senior members of the team from that business. If you do want to create connections with your team you have to make space for people to embrace the more negative emotions we all feel, rather than wear a mask of optimism when they come to work. You have to give the space for diversity-of-thought and give people the confidence to speak out. Unless we take a hard look in the mirror and ask; “are we really diverse and do we represent our customer base and the community at large? It’s incredibly important to be very clear about what you stand for, as well as what you stand against. It’s about having that North Star to navigate towards and have the anchor of values to help make those difficult decisions. Above all else, it’s important to have a culture, not a cult, which is a danger if you bring on board people who are just like you.
Sometimes, it can seem like that the important yards won can easily be lost. But you only have to look at women’s football to see that progress can and is being made. The way the Lionesses captivated hearts and minds in the Euro 2022 was incredible and yet clearly long overdue. There is no doubt that the role modelling in the England team will inspire girls to join football teams and for schools to treat children equally and, in the fullness of time, those lived experiences and values will travel and change societal norms and the world of work. It’s about capitalising on success, role modelling, trailblazing and having the confidence to champion change. I also believe that the media has a responsibility in the way that it reports on news. A case in point – and staying with sport – the way that Emma Raducanu was heralded for winning the US Open and then vilified for withdrawing from Wimbledon was pretty appalling. She is a teenager and I think it is this sort of treatment that doesn’t help women in any line of work.
As we move forward with our recruitment plans, like all businesses, we are trying to attract and retain brilliant people and there is no doubt that top talent will dictate what the world of work is going to look like in the future. It is encouraging that companies are taking the stance that people are important and making steps towards enabling people to have choice. A move to a four-day week would have been considered impossible in the past and this is changing boundaries about where we work and when and the work/life blend in our lives. One thing is clear, the expectations of work are much higher, in the sense of feeling empowered to take control, rather than being dictated to. The future is about being able to work when you work best, rather than work within a designated set of hours. I think if any company doesn’t meet those expectations, the companies that do will win the day when it comes to talent. The competition for people is ever-greater, but I just think that expectations, in terms of being treated like an individual, having the space to speak up about something and being in an environment that is safe and inclusive, is much more important than it ever has been. These are significant shifts that we are witnessing and we need to be able to meet expectations.
It’s also clearly a topic that comes from a point of privilege as it applies to knowledge workers, whereas a significant proportion of people simply don’t have the option to log-on from home to fulfil their roles. However, for those it does apply to it is not without challenges for organisations, big or small. We must be careful not to confuse equity of experience with the equality of experience, that is, in my opinion where there can be a misconception. The terms are often used interchangeably but they mean different things. Equality is about giving everyone fair treatment and equal rights to pursue opportunities, but it alone cannot be enough. It doesn’t cover the fact that all workers do not come from the same starting position. By treating everyone the same, equality can fall short of addressing the specific needs of every person and doesn’t help address issues related to unconscious bias. Equity on the other hand refers to fairness in outcomes, rather than providing everyone with exactly the same resources. That means the goal for equity is for all members of the team to feel they are able to do their best work.
Everyone has a different set of circumstances, differing sources of motivation and rhythm to their lives. A one-size-fits-all solution does not take account of that. For example, with GB Bank, we don’t have fixed daily hours, it’s very much, about being self-aware and accountable for ‘owning the way you work’, being trusted to do a fantastic job and feeling empowered to make choices that enable that. Personally, being able to walk my son to school every morning is so valuable to me – I never did that before the pandemic – I always rushed to drop him off before 8:00am to make it to the office on time. Now, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that time with him and I wouldn’t give it up for anything. I think that’s the line in the sand now, people have made certain choices that they don’t want to have to compromise on, because only by living through the past few years have they perhaps realised what they had taken for granted and that life is fragile. But it must not descend into a sort of tug-of-war over a territory between employees and employers, about where this is going to settle and what is right and wrong. It’s about individualism and synchronisation, but it’s not quite as easy as that. There are certain things that companies have tried and trialed, while others have refused to budge and we’re now in a position where we can call on some qualitative data from research studies that can inform us. But all of that is pointless, unless you have that cultural core of trust. If you’re trying to gild the lily or follow a trend, it’s not going to work. You have to really think deeply about, what is the operating model that is going to deliver the best outcomes for your customers and our people and work back from there. I think we should have the mindset of ‘why not’, to not accept the status quo and be very open-minded about how we find solutions and ways forward, rather than seeing everything as a problem. There will always be obstacles in the way of progress, but we have to remember that what we had in the past was not working, so this is a chance to start again and build the place you’ve always wanted to work. All of those rigid structures and draconian practices that we all used to hate about work can change, we don’t need to inherit working practices from previous generations. So, my call is, let’s take the positives from these testing times and create a new era of work with people at its centre. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity we have now – not just for us, but for future generations – to come to re-shape what the working world entails.
A little bit of everything! We have big ambitions at GB Bank and our people strategy is no different. We’re a very small team of two in HR, so are working closely with our culture activists and leadership team to achieve a great deal. We want to really land our objectives on DEI, create a compelling reward strategy, make sure of our approach to flexible working are meeting the needs of the business and our team. We always take the time to understand what really matters to people, acknowledging the direction they want to go in and creating a roadmap, making sure everyone is part of the navigation process of that journey. We’re also looking at performance and we’ve just completed a piece of work to define what performance means for us in this human-centric culture, which is obviously more progressive, development-focused and coaching-focused. We have just refreshed our values, so we’ll be activating these throughout the people experience journey. We’ll be raising awareness about our purpose externally and making sure we have that group of people who know what we stand for and want to join us. There is always so much to do in a start-up dynamic and almost every conceivable HR consideration is in play, as we work towards creating those foundations as our launch pad. We’re really going for it and that makes it a very exciting place to be.
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