Banking on Positive Culture Change in Societe Generale Americas


In May 2016, Societe Generale Americas made a bold move to create a Culture & Conduct Office and promoted Nancy Harrington Jones to Chief Culture & Conduct Officer, tasking her with a change management challenge aimed at achieving three objectives:

  1. Accelerating cultural transformation;
  2. Achieving the highest standards of quality of service;
  3. Making culture a key differentiating factor and a competitive advantage which ensures Societe Generale Americas operates a secure, sound and profitable business with a positive impact on our clients, employees and the communities we operate in.

As any change management expert knows, culture change takes time. Nearly three years into the job, Harrington Jones' three-person team has done deep dives with senior executives, gained inspiration from the G30's Banking Conduct and Culture report, and sat down with bankers at the Federal Reserve Bank's Annual Meetings on reforming industry culture and behavior.

The team has interviewed scores of Societe Generale Americas managers and staff to identify, define and explain the most meaningful and expected employee behaviors, and dug into why people make the choices they do. She has created structures and guidelines for committees, conducted engagement surveys and interviews, and introduced a new step into the hiring process at Societe Generale Americas.

"You can't be in business anymore and not think about the impact of culture. It's critical," said Harrington Jones, who led Societe Generale Americas human resources and served in senior roles in internal audit, office of the CFO and IT during her career with the bank.

At the start of the journey, the Culture & Conduct team identified every committee, each member, purpose and how decisions are made. "It's an underlying component," Harrington Jones said. "For people to succeed and behave in the way we as a firm value, we have to be clear, transparent and vocal about it. If it's foggy and opaque, it's very hard for people to be successful."

Focusing on Middle Management

Last year, a G30 Banking Conduct & Conduct report was issued with some new and revised guidelines. One of the areas of focus was on middle management, often thought of as the core of a bank's operations. As such, the G30 report recommended that firms help middle managers create an open environment where staff can express ideas, problems, solutions and challenges. That is a major shift for the general banking industry globally where much of the focus could historically be considered “top-down management.”

To help middle managers, the Culture & Conduct team set out to interview those managers and their teams to determine what makes a good manager at Societe Generale Americas. They came up with nine top attributes and are developing plans around those attributes to help managers.

The coming months will be about rolling out workshops to strengthen middle management managerial skills, providing accessible tool-kits, and introducing a training path so the system is clear for managers and staff.

"Banking used to be about connecting all the dots and control. But now the thinking is much broader," she said. "Now we ask, 'Is this a process people want to avoid and inherently something that cannot work?' "

Harrington Jones and her team are conducting surveys to measure progress. By looking at decision making and examining the question, "Why did you make that choice?" Harrington Jones believes they can affect positive changes in the organization.

Engaging Culture & Conduct from the Beginning

In addition to the actions of current employees, Harrington Jones also believes positive culture change can come from every new person hired. As part of the initiative, she asked for volunteers to interview candidates, with a specific emphasis on the bank’s key cultural and conduct standards.

The request attracted 60 volunteers from the firm’s highly engaged "Culture & Conduct Interviewers" group, and each was trained on the cultural interview process. A Champion now performs a 30-minute interview with each Societe Generale Americas job applicant to determine how well a candidate will fit in in terms of culture and conduct and to ensure they understand they are joining an organization that cares as much about how you do things as what you do. It's believed to be the first such program among the banking community.

Measuring Progress

With all these actions taking place, it's also important to measure progress. The most recent Societe Generale Americas employee survey indicates the work of the Culture & Conduct team, combined with many other efforts within the bank, is having a real impact.

The survey showed that 95% of employees responded positively to the question, "Your management encourages ethical and responsible behaviors." In a similar question, 89% responded positively to the question "Societe Generale Group behaves ethically in its activities." That exceeded the industry benchmark by a full 10 percentage points.

Harrington Jones summed up the efforts of Societe Generale Americas in a pragmatic fashion. "While every bank will always have products and services to offer clients, a firm's long-term sustainability and profitability ultimately rests on its reputation and the trust it instills."