They sometimes fly at each other, Martijn Gribnau, CEO of the Volksbank, and Director of Corporate Communications Wendy Eelsing. They are two explosive characters. But they also respect each other’s qualities. A duo interview on individuality and leadership, on communication as a tool for behavior change. And why there is little to be gained from crisis communications.
Martijn Gribnau took office as CEO of Volksbank in June 2020. Wendy Eelsing had begun working on an interim basis a few months earlier, in February, and has been on permanent duty as Director of Corporate Communications since February 2022.
You have been working together for three years now. How is the match between you two?
The tone is set: Martijn Gribnau likes to allow himself a joke.
Wendy: “Martijn is a special man to work for because he is very atypical. Especially the fun factor is high. And therefore the favor factor as well. In our profession it is often about being in position. That is not an issue with Martijn. Statements like, “We’re demystifying the profession” – that’s a non-issue here. You just have to do your job well. And if you do that, it’s OK.’
Martijn: “Our cooperation is effective. We can both jump out of our skins, by the way – dramatizing things violently, going completely crazy. But I’m very grateful for Wendy, and for the whole department. The communications department is a very important tool for getting behavior change done. Anyone can write a communication story, but how does it lead to a change in behavior?
Wendy, how do you view the role of communication?
Wendy: “I think it’s a change tool. Communication an sich is nothing. Martijn says that well: it has to have a purpose, it has to contribute to something.’
Martijn: “The department had low employee satisfaction. Now it is one of the highest in the bank. I dare say I am very demanding, but at such times I also let it go. Everyone asks, “Martijn, what should the communication strategy be?” I then say: you shouldn’t ask me that, because I would have had to do Wendy’s job. Just tell me what to do, and I’ll do it.’
The financial world is quite atypical in terms of leadership. Martijn, I think you are very open, transparent, direct. That does represent a form of new leadership, something you see more and more.
Martijn: “I can only be a one-dimensional character. That is myself. In English: the most authentic change leader I can be. I find it far too exhausting not to be myself. Still too often you see people in leadership positions playing a role – that you think: be a little more yourself.’
Wendy: “I never see Martin playing a role. There is a click there, because we are both very authentic. What you see is what you get.’
Martijn: ‘… with all the misery that comes with it. We are both acquired taste. With high peaks and occasionally deep valleys. This also suits our bank. If you stand for human-centered banking, that includes being able to be yourself.
You indicate that communication is a management and change tool. What is the place of communications within the People’s Bank?
Wendy: “I think we have a good position. When I sometimes hear the struggles of peers … We are really at the table. I think you have to be helpful. Communication is not a tool an sich – it contributes to a change. It helps to inspire people to create movement, and to support leaders in that. We are in that position, and we are also taken very seriously in it. You’re talking to me now, but there really is a whole team behind it.’
Martijn: ‘I actually find it strange that there are communication departments. Everyone communicates, right?’
Wendy: “Yes, you say that beautifully.
Isn’t that the same as how you see the role of the CEO, Martijn? In the sense of: “I have to facilitate”?
Martijn: “Yes: the Chief Enabling Officer. But communication … Everyone communicates. We may have to invent another word for that after all.’
Wendy: “Everyone does it, but that doesn’t mean everyone does it as skillfully, or effectively. That’s where we come in. And when you communicate, you often take a side path and before you know it you forget: where was that dot again.’
Martijn: ‘It should actually be communication-advice. Communication-advíes, because everyone communicates.’
Wendy: “Yes, but it’s also inspirational advice.
Martijn: “Wendy, I’m going to make up another name for the Communications Department after all – that’s another great topic to argue about.
Wendy: “Is good, haha!
Where is your strength, Martijn?
Martijn: “I really believe that my primary role is to empower people. If things go wrong, it’s all on me – I’m responsible for everything, fine. But ultimately your role is to develop and make an organization better and make it less dependent on leaders.’
And that works well at the People’s Bank?
Martijn: ‘No, not everywhere yet. But that’s what you want to achieve.’
Wendy: “That’s also what we choose to do, to show where it’s not working so well yet. You can put on a slick show, but we don’t believe in that. I believe that it is precisely in communication that you have to show what is not yet going well. Because it’s very normal to struggle.’
What social challenges do you see communications playing a role in?
Wendy: “The economic climate is obviously a huge challenge. We also have to deal with customers who are going to find it difficult as a result. That ties in with our mission: banking on a human scale. We have an eight-point program where we approach customers proactively if they are in financial difficulty. So I think we do have a right to exist as a bank. The challenge lies much more in the fact that you have to have feelers for what is going on outside and what society needs.
Martijn: “I think that’s going to be one of our biggest challenges. We have to market even more clearly what that is, that social identity. That’s not just something for Communications; everyone has to think about that.’
Wendy: “It’s also about hard evidence. We are authentic. I’m not someone who puts a bow on something. There really has to be something underneath. I’m not a rock-hard marketer. When you talk about social impact; we really do make that, in impressive ways. But originally we are a very modest bank. So now it’s up to me and my department to whip that up.’
Where are the opportunities, looking at your strategy and proposition?
Martijn: “Our mission is banking with the human touch, based on shared values. Shared values means always looking for the right balance between society, customer, shareholder and employee – we don’t go for profit maximization nor for employee maximization. That’s what sets us apart. We want to be the bank with the highest customer-relationship score; that goes beyond the NPS, because it also measures whether you touch people’s hearts.’
That sounds like an excellent proposition for this era and the future.
Martijn: “We have the social movement with us. Now we still have to offer the products. We are originally a bank that has mono-savings products. We still have to expand that. We are a love brand, but also a lost brand. We are looking for that balance now; for us that means adjusting our earnings model.’
‘Our four labels – SNS, ASN Bank, RegioBank and BLG Wonen – all have their own customers. The toughest thing you can say as a kind of Chief Everything Officer is that everything must become one brand. But we looked at the data and there are almost no customers who purchase multiple brands. That means they are attracted to the different propositions. On the back end, we do provide the efficiency of one platform. The products are eighty percent the same; you also only have three forms in mortgages. You win it in how you approach the customer, how you fulfill your social role, and that someone can still go to a store if they have to. That’s where it differs – not in your products anymore.’
Wendy: “You can make it all very mystical, but if you flatten it out, a bank is all about: do I trust you enough to put my money with you? Or that I enter into a relationship for twenty or thirty years or so, to place my mortgage with you? And then how can you increase that trust and maybe use it as a product as well?’
So work for you to further load that proposition – the human touch?
Wendy: ‘You hear everyone say it: the banking sector has taken a dent – I don’t have to explain that. Reputation comes on foot and goes on horseback, and you have to keep working on that as a bank. It’s really about the trust factor.’
Martijn: “One more tip: yes, communication is a field, but don’t go making it overly important. Don’t go making it more complicated than it is. It’s fine to say that too.’
Wendy, in agreement: ‘It’s about logical thinking. It’s farm sense and underbelly.’
This interview is based on a podcast in which we speak at length with Martijn Gribnau and Wendy Eelsing. Want to listen to the whole conversation? That can here