Most people-focused CEO 2017: Craig Donaldson

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Donaldson (centre) collecting his HR Excellence award
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Metro Bank's Donaldson wanted to work somewhere he could be proud of. Now he's won 'Most people-focused CEO'

“I wanted to be proud of what I did, it was that simple.” So says Craig Donaldson, CEO of Metro Bank of why he left a career in traditional banking in 2009 to launch and head up this new challenger bank.

“I remember sitting with a chap who was celebrating 35 years in RBS and he had been spat at that day because [the financial crisis] was all ‘his fault.’ And it wasn’t his fault,” says Donaldson. “He had done 35 years trying to do the best job he could… I just didn’t want to be involved in that anymore. I wanted to do something I could be proud of.”

Cut to 2017, and there’s no doubt Metro Bank is certainly something to be proud of. It has grown to one million customer accounts and an underlying profit before tax of £2 million, entering the FTSE 250 last year. And it’s all down to the bank’s vision of providing excellent levels of customer service and convenience.

Such high levels of customer satisfaction can’t be achieved without a highly engaged workforce – something Donaldson has championed from the start.

Donaldson has been so decisive in creating a culture of engagement he was awarded Glassdoor’s highest-rated CEO of 2016. And then the Most people-focused CEO of the year award at this year’s HR Excellence Awards. HR magazine caught up with Donaldson to find out some of the secrets to his and Metro Bank’s success.

Progression for all

Donaldson’s own background growing up “in a pit village” in the North East, where he expected to work for the area’s major employer Nissan, has strongly informed his passion to ensure equal opportunities. “My fundamental view of life changed when I got a scholarship to Newcastle Royal Grammar school and every single person at that school wanted to go to university, and every single person did. I’d never thought of going to university before,” he says.

For Donaldson, championing diversity is about having clearly defined career paths that everyone can understand and aspire towards. “I was in the Wood Green store talking to a girl called Anthea. She’s the store manager and she wants to go on to be a regional operational manager. She joined us as a cashier…. So you need to show it to people. You need to bring to people paths they can tread. And engage them in treading them and seeing a difference.”

It’s not about ticking boxes, says Donaldson. Ensuring that those doing the recruiting are diverse and picking the best people for the job should naturally ward against bias and homogeny. “My leadership team, out of eight of them four are women. But I haven’t planned that,” he says.

Behaviours over performance

Recruiting on behaviours is part of this system of organically ensuring diversity, says Donaldson. “Behaviours are not about education and they’re not about background.”

He explains the importance of appraising people based on the ‘how’ of their work as much as the ‘what’, particularly in light of a financial crisis caused by too much focus on outputs.

“Every review I’ve had [before Metro Bank] was a performance review. You do 55 minutes of performance and five minutes at the end of ‘well done on behaviours’,” he says. “So at Metro Bank we make people talk about behaviours first. Because if you’ve got the right behaviours and you work hard normally you get the delivery. We don’t want a performance review… so we break out what the behaviours are we want to see.”

Language matters

The way behaviours are described, and the language used in assessing someone against them, is critical, explains Donaldson. Metro Bank has dispensed with the language typically used in performance appraisals to recognise that someone meeting expectations is to be celebrated.

“We celebrate heroes, pioneers, explorers and revolutionaries,” he says. “Heroes are people who want to do the jobs they’re in. They’re the people organisations are built on. They do a bloody good job. So we should call them heroes.”

Accessibility of language is key: “If you create that common language you create a common way of being challenged and having the right discussions. Whereas if everyone’s talking their own language, it doesn’t work.

“So we don’t have branches we have stores. Small things really matter… We don’t have contact centres we have Amaze Direct. So language is a way of creating engagement and energy.”

No stupid rules

Keeping things simple through language is part of a wider mission at Metro Bank to make banking much more straightforward. Notable examples of its drive to have ‘no stupid bank rules’ are allowing customers to choose gender-neutral titles on forms, and allowing mortgage customers to rent out their properties through Airbnb or similar sites without prior approval.

All of this is driven by a culture of shouting up with bright ideas, no matter your level of seniority. “The Mx box came from a complaint,” says Donaldson, explaining that all customer complaints come straight to him. “So I spoke with our COO and said ‘can we do this?’ She said ‘it’s a couple of days’ development and three days testing so why wouldn’t we?’ It’s that simple.”

All colleagues are encouraged to voice ideas over Yammer, explains Donaldson. “You have to create the environment where people feel comfortable raising issues,” he says.

Leadership visibility

Yammer is, for Donaldson, also a crucial way of staying in touch with colleagues and visible. He checks and posts on the social media platform half a dozen times a day. But nothing beats getting face to face with colleagues and listening to their challenges, feels Donaldson, who makes a point of picking up every visitor he receives from reception himself.

“I just go on my mischief and mayhem tours. I’ll walk a different way every time or go to the toilet on a different floor. I like to find things out, because my job is to make their job easier,” he says. “I think because most people know I believe in what we’re doing they’ll talk to me. That’s the key. If people think you’re doing it because you have to then you’ll get what you put in.

“I grew up in a pub; I didn’t live in a house until I left home so I’ve always been used to interacting with people,” he adds.

Donaldson stresses the importance of getting out of head office regularly. “I try and get out every Thursday. I normally try and get out from say half past six and be back around four in the afternoon, so you can get quite a lot done in that period,” he says, adding: “In the last couple of months I’ve been in 21 of the stores and three of our four contact centres. What I try and do is every six months I’m in every store, every contact centre and every operations area. You learn so much.”

Visibility is also for Donaldson about role modelling; work/life balance and the importance of men’s involvement in childcare in particular. “I love going to my kids’ school concerts, I go and watch my son play football, I go to my daughter’s street dance,” he says. “And I make sure people know when I’m off to do that because they boss watch. Therefore what you want them to see are the right things.”

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