Why french bank Societe Generale designed and deployed a unique Management Training program for the 400+ managers of one of its biggest IT Division
Our agility coaches were having a hard time. As Société Générale’s investment banking IT branch ITEC jumped in 2014 into agile & continuous delivery methods, the need for a bigger transformation was quite consensual. We needed speed. We needed experimentation. We needed continual pivoting. The practical consequences for our corporate culture were way more challenging.
Agility at scale, a feature- team Spotify-style organization, the last step in the agility transformation made the cracks in our managerial habits too obvious to go on unaddressed. Some flaws we suspected we had: human blind spots, tech innovation ‘only’ and aversion to risk. Others we thought we knew: how to make rational, data-driven decision; how to build compelling demonstrations; how to attract the best talents.
ITEC’s ExCo felt the agile transformation would be an empty shell if not met with some complementary human skills training. Worse: it would kill any further attempt to reorganize by providing a scary narrative to conservatives. That was not an acceptable risk in a context of growing technological competition on investment banking.
With Greenworking’s experts in managerial innovation, we designed the UpMind training program to steer the huge cultural, historical inertia of ITEC towards the new priorities of a flat, agile and innovative organization.
Autonomy, the oxygen of feature teams
ITEC may have weaknesses, but technological expertise in not one of them. We recruit and train top-notch engineers to look after a comprehensive set of cut-edge technologies. I think we underinvested in equipping them to face growing constraints and pace of change while coping disruptive digitalization and younger generations
Our top objective was to shift managers efforts from over-control and over-planning towards the host-leadership stance, a prerequisite to fully implement feature teams and foster innovation. That change is a particularly hard one to make. You have to convince people that have successfully used their style for years that it might not be totally adapted anymore. It would require all the emotional intelligence our managers could muster. And of course, the ExCo itself should follow that very same regimen, or no real change would happen.
Emotional intelligence as a groundwork for change
Our managers are generally highly graduated engineers, who developed through business experience and practical work a special ability to motivate, evaluate and listen to others. Many never had any formal education on the human skills necessary to correctly assess oneself and others, and some would be reluctant to even attend such a training on the weaknesses of reasons. That a big part of their daily decision-making was influenced by the dark forces of cognitive biases, emotions and empathic mistakes is no pleasant lesson to an engineer!
The challenge was one to accept though, since we feared the program would finish as so many before: brushing the picture of a perfect manager that no one would be able to emulate. Assessing what could be your blind spots, increasing your ability to regulate your emotions and measuring your impact on others with more finesse is possible – very well documented by the way – but requires a methodology that our engineering background had rarely provided.
From Hero-Manager to Host leadership
When ITEC engaged in agility at scale, we heard more and more anxious questions about managers’ future. “Have we done a poor job?”; “What are we to become?”; “Are our role disappearing?”.
In front of such a misunderstanding of the transformation engaged the Upmind Program answer was simple. More autonomy in feature teams would indeed decrease the amount of micromanagement and coordination work necessary; or, more precisely, it would spread it on more levels and individuals. But the qualities that had earned our managers their rank would be more necessary than ever: commitment, technical expertise, human coordination. As long as they would keep them sharp, they would be de facto leaders in the organization. It is of course less comfortable to owe your influence, day after day, to your ongoing skill. But we strongly believed that it would free managers to do what they really like: experimenting, training others, motivating and protecting the teams.
They had to see those roles more clearly, though. Influence is subtler than titles and medals. Through host leadership, we explored the many new challenges they would have to face: how do you create a game others want to play? How do you help the team frame common values and objectives? How do you help others to detect opportunities for innovation? For learning? Can you create an environment where identified regular little losses are tolerable to achieve unpredictable big progress?
When hierarchy gets more fluid, so must communication. One of the major handicaps we suffered from was our inability to cut through technical precision, cautious political verbiage and overdetailed Powerpoints. Our flaws in that matter were both visible inside the value chain -in those endless coordination meetings- and, more painfully, at the end of it: when we showed our work to our client. We learned the hard way that in complex environments long term, risk and innovation are hard to sell.
Developing communication habits compatible with the supershort span of attention of investment banking fellows was a real challenge, but it would also ease the agile transformation. We had to protect from client micromanagement; and we had to help tomorrow’s leaders to better prepare their communication. When you do not have a title anymore, the ability to convince becomes a basic survival skill.
How we built UpMind
Emotional intelligence, empowerment and innovation sandboxes are not completely new; but the pressure to make them real is. Our job was to fill the gap between what managers already heard is good, and the moment they make it a priority. This is how we did it:
- Collective construction: an absolute must for such a transversal initiative. Risk was high that people perceived here a negative judgment from top management on their aptitudes. We needed every level opinion, including team members to define needs, cultural targets and create momentum
- Understanding new constraints: partners expect straight-to-the-point communication, clients want to understand the value creation process, engineers want what people now value above all: sense, well-being, transparency, immediacy and flexibility
- Broadening perspective: what are other organizations doing? What are startups ecosystems, B-form companies or platforms offering that could inspire us?
- Sound scientific ground: what are organizational sciences telling us on top performance conditions? On the objectivity of decision making in high information environment? On the effect of managerial beliefs on the workforce?
- Training room awareness moments: as often as possible, we created small scale sociological experiments with the interns, from learned helplessness to cognitive or emotional bias
- Digital exercise in between training: to increase training-over-time efficiency, we designed self-assessments and customized managerial exercises delivered through our platform, the Digital Gymnasium. We made sure trainees came knowing what they should focus on, and practiced on the long-run.
UpMind was not an easy ride for everyone. A few managers came aware of serious personal flaws; some had awkward moments and conversations with their teams; all had to find extra time and energy in their very busy schedule for soft-skill exercises. The Exco itself was challenged at every corner. Would we incarnate the autonomy, risk-tolerance and innovation mindset we promoted? The main success of the program, to my mind, was to create a common cultural referential. We heard more and more “this is not very UpMind”, when someone was caught micromanaging or showing an endless dull Powerpoint. It is just the beginning of the road but we successfully shifted a huge organization towards it.
Societe General is a leading Universal French Bank - The Upmind program was implemented for the IT group of the GBIS division of the group (ITEC)
Greeworking is a consulting and training firm specialized in innovative way of working, homeworking and new work environments