Almost twice as many women in top positions at ABN AMRO

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The number of women in the senior ranks of business has declined for the second year in a row, according to the annual Female Board Index. ABN AMRO is bucking this trend, with the new senior management structure taking full account of the position of women. A flurry of new appointments has taken the percentage of women in senior positions from 23 percent to almost 40 percent.

The foundation, which campaigns for representation of women in board positions, held its annual event on Monday, 4 September 2017. ABN AMRO was showcased at the event in recognition of the major steps it has taken on gender diversity. ABN AMRO Supervisory Board chairman Olga Zoutendijk and CEO Kees van Dijkhuizen were there in the presence of King Willem-Alexander to talk about what they have done to increase the number of women in senior positions at the bank. 

The King was also presented with a book on gender diversity (Top! -Daadkrachtige topmannen en –vrouwen) by Among other things, the book contains a double interview with Olga Zoutendijk and Kees van Dijkhuizen, in which they explain the background to their decision and how it was put into practice. The interview was led by Nicole Gommers. 

"We deliberately didn’t broadcast our target figure"

"Doubling was a fantastic challenge" 

Would ABN AMRO, a bank which has made its senior management structure much more diverse within a short space of time, be willing to take part in an interview with Absolutely, and chairman of the Supervisory Board Olga Zoutendijk and CEO Kees van Dijkhuizen were adamant that they wanted to do so as a duo. "The tone at the top is crucial. Acting together decisively produces results." 

The interview took place in the late afternoon, but Van Dijkhuizen opened the conference call with a bright 'good morning': he was making time for the interview about the steps ABN AMRO has taken in recent months to increase diversity from his holiday address in San Francisco, where he had just finished breakfast. He was joined in the interview by Supervisory Board chairman Olga Zoutendijk, who rang in from Amsterdam. Van Dijkhuizen and Zoutendijk were the first to be interviewed by as a 'couple', and their desire to do so says a lot about the dynamic between the two, who confirm that they always look for common ground when exploring strategic issues. "We act as each other's sounding boards and enjoy making judgements together." Diversity, including gender diversity, is one such issue where they have a lot in common. "Both of us attach great importance to this and both of us wanted to restore the balance," says Zoutendijk. "We agreed on this right from the start, when Kees became CEO at the start of this year. A key topic such as diversity, which for me is less about gender or other specific characteristics than about 'diversity of thought', gave us both a strong sense of 'fighting for the same cause'. We ourselves are of course something of an embodiment of this diversity: Kees as a man, me as a woman and also as a 'foreigner', which is how I feel after living outside the Netherlands for three decades. On top of that, I'm convinced that putting on a joint front is a good thing: the tone at the top is crucial. The Executive Board and Supervisory Board go hand in hand in showing their sense of responsibility."

A gentle push

Zoutendijk's take on the importance of diversity dates all the way back to 1986, when she was a management trainee and she and another woman became the first two women to be admitted into the 'international class' of ABN. "You then want to make the best use of your opportunity to set an example." Since 1988 she has worked in places as far afield as America, Ireland, Australia, Portugal, Hong Kong and Singapore, and describes herself as a 'banker in heart and soul'. She only returned to the Netherlands in 2014, to join the ABN AMRO Supervisory Board, becoming chair in 2016. She brought her belief in diversity with her as a 'souvenir' from the countries where she had worked, and where diversity tends to be the rule rather than the exception. "You discover how incredibly effective it is to see things from different perspectives. In the Netherlands I still come across people who are anxious about diversity, fearing it will undermine the cohesion within the team." She is able to dismantle those fears from her own experience: "There are three women on our Supervisory Board, and everyone has a different background. It works very well. But it's important that you really spend quality time with each other, invest in getting to know each other and in understanding what has made everyone the person they are." 

Van Dijkhuizen, with a background as a senior civil servant and a banker (he made the transition to the Hague-based NIBC Bank in 2005, moving to ABN AMRO in 2013), still remembers precisely when diversity became important to him. "It was in 1997, when I returned to the Ministry of Finance. I saw so many women working at the Ministry who were so good, better than their male counterparts, that they deserved a chance. So I was happy to give them a gentle push - that was all they needed. The reality is that at that time it was even more unusual to choose a woman, so appointments generated quite a bit of discussion. Some colleagues asked 'haven't we got another candidate?', and you could tell that when they said 'another' they were really thinking 'a man'. The women were young and would want to have children at some point, was their reasoning. I ignored that. And it worked out really well. One of those women was Hanneke Schuiling, who's now Director-General for the National Budget; another was Angelique Berg, now Director of Public Health; and there was Manon Leijten, now Secretary-General of the Ministry of Finance." The fact that Van Dijkhuizen was and still is a staunch supporter of female appointments doesn't however mean that gender diversity has a separate status within his diversity policy. "I see it much more broadly," he says. "I'm happy that Tanja Cuppen will soon be joining our Executive Board, but Clifford Abrahams, who is British, brings just as much diversity to the Board. Only if we have a diverse profile on all fronts can we take an outside-in approach to tackling all the challenges we face as a bank in turbulent times." 

'Dijsselbloem-proof '? No, intrinsic motivation

And the times are certainly turbulent: like the two other major banks in the Netherlands, ABN AMRO is faced with far-reaching digitalisation and new regulation, including the Payment Services Directive (PSD-2), which will give non-bank operators access to payment data to enable them to generate new services. These developments are leading to an inevitable innovation race between banks and fintech firms. "On top of that, ABN AMRO is also going through major internal changes," says Van Dijkhuizen. "During the crisis years, when the government annexed the bank, our focus was more on ourselves." In the spring of 2017 it was announced that ABN AMRO had made 30% more profit in the first quarter than in the previous year, and that isn't the only break with the previous years: "We now have more of an external focus: we look outwards, at our clients' interests." Those clients are of course the most diverse group imaginable. "We want to see that diversity reflected at the top of our organisation and in the layers lower down. That's the only way you have a chance of understanding your client." "That's why it's so clear that you're shooting yourself in the foot if you don't try to bring in all the talent you can," adds Zoutendijk.

The desire to bring in talent is the first step; but ensuring that you don't miss out on talent demands nothing less than a change of mindset. Van Dijkhuizen: "Traditionally, organisations have tended to select the usual suspects, in other words men who resemble other men within the organisation and in senior management. More of the same means less contradiction, so all those yes-men make the atmosphere stultifying." Zoutendijk adds: "People like to see lists of names that everyone feels comfortable with, so breaking that pattern takes perseverance. You have to genuinely believe in diversity to appoint someone who doesn't immediately fit the familiar picture, especially when you're appointing to key positions." After the appointment of Cuppen, the media constantly repeated a statement by outgoing Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who after the departure of Caroline Princen let it be known that he wanted to see another woman appointed at ABN AMRO. Dijsselbloem's wish wasn't the reason that a woman was actually appointed, says Zoutendijk: "That wish had been around for much longer. It was the result of intrinsic motivation and a conviction that only a genuinely diverse team keeps your organisation future-proof." 

And hey presto! A doubling

Clearly, then, both chairs believe in gender diversity. But how did they manage to get so many women into senior positions at the bank in such a short space of time? Caroline Princen, mentioned earlier, left the Executive Board just before Van Dijkhuizen took up office, leaving the Board without a female member. By appointing Tanja Cuppen to the new three-person Executive Board, the bank immediately ensured that it once again met the 30-percent rule. Van Dijkhuizen: "We also cut a third from the top 100 posts at the bank and at the same time almost doubled the percentage of women from 23 to 40 percent. The old percentage had stayed more or less unchanged for years, or increased by the odd half a percent. That was much too slow. So when I took up my post I got together with Olga and the other Supervisory Board members. Among other things we looked at how we could create a new management model. The Supervisory Board gave me a free hand in that, something for which I am very grateful." The reorganisation at the top of the bank was the ideal opportunity for Van Dijkhuizen and Zoutendijk to introduce more diversity. "Olga and I obviously had a clear view of where female talent was located within the bank. The fact that positions had to be refilled meant we were able to take really decisive action." The bank's top man is nothing if not practical. "I value deeds more than words, that's true. In consultation with the Supervisory Board, I had decided that 30 percent women, the government's target, was a bit on the low side. Olga and the others constantly prompted me by saying things like 'why don't we just go for 40 percent?'" "It was a challenge," says Zoutendijk. "Emboldened by Kees' strong views, we continually encouraged him to exceed that 30 percent threshold. In the end, we got the job done in no time." 

That 40 percent was never a hard KPI, according to Van Dijkhuizen. "We deliberately didn't say anything about 'our target', and it was never actually written down. We just got to work with that principle in our minds. If you start shouting about something like that too early, you run the risk of unintended consequences. It's important that you don't allow yourself to be driven by percentages. If you do, women could get the idea that they are being assessed on the basis of their gender rather than their merits. At the same time, while you want to become more diverse, you must never make concessions regarding quality." 

The two consequently got to work based on the 'unspoken idea' of 40 percent. And in complete harmony. "Our thinking was that if it turned out to be slightly less, that was still no bad achievement, and if it was slightly higher, that would be fantastic." Van Dijkhuizen: "As it turned out, we almost doubled the original figure of 23 percent." Their success naturally begs the question of whether it will stop here. "No," says Van Dijkhuizen resolutely. So does he already secretly have a figure of 50 percent in mind? He laughs enigmatically: "No, I don't secretly have any figures in mind. And even if I did, I wouldn't say so; broadcasting it can have unintended consequences." 


Now that the diverse senior management team is a done deal, there's one other area where it's time to turn the gaze outwards. ABN AMRO is the third organisation in the Netherlands (being preceded by Rabobank and KPN) to use a 'mass endorsement' to enter talented women in the database, a proven recipe for sharing knowledge with society. 30 women were approached. "We're very enthusiastic about the database," says Van Dijkhuizen. "Though to be perfectly honest, we had to think about it first: naturally, we don't want to lose our senior women. But ultimately, we want them to have the best career possible, inside or outside the bank. We also believe in our own strengths, including as an employer. The database could also lead them to interesting Supervisory Board memberships outside the bank, and they will bring the knowledge they gain from doing that back 'home'." "it is obviously an enormous fillip to see that our talent is also valued in the market," says Zoutendijk. "We expect positive reactions from the women who were approached. The database is a supertool, the best way of completely debunking the idea that 'they're not there yet'."

Know yourself

Each of the duo has a tip for all board-ready women in the database. Zoutendijk: "Above all, be clear about your ambitions and don't underestimate your own ability." Van Dijkhuizen agrees, but also stresses how important it is to be clear about where your strengths lie. "I was once approached for the position of Minister of Finance. I turned it down, and that caused some surprise. Women more often say 'no' because they doubt whether they have the ability or whether they really want to do it. By contrast, most men react quite differently to a telephone call like that, saying things like 'I'm amazed it's taken me this long to call me!'. I didn't want to be a Minister, so I said 'no'. Olga is right to say you mustn't underestimate yourself, but knowing what suits you is just as important." 

From the collection: 'Top! Daadkrachtige topmannen- en vrouwen over genderdiversity' - published by Stichting Topvrouwen, August 2017 


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