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Leadership lessons from the lockdown

Why has Julius Baer navigated relatively well through the pandemic? What has made us so resilient? And what of our key lessons can we carry over into the post-covid world? Those and more questions are tackled in a video chat with our CEO Philipp Rickenbacher.

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How we return to work, what work we do there and how, as leaders, we manage those around us, are starting to loom large as companies grapple with a post-pandemic “new normal”. Most obviously, working out the right balance between colleagues being in the office and working from home is top of mind for many people, even as there is not yet broad consensus on what that balance looks like. Wall Street banks have recently made clear that they expect staff to be in the office most, if not all, the time, whereas in Europe banks are adopting a range of approaches.

For Julius Baer, COVID-19 threw up the same challenges. But Philipp Rickenbacher, who has been chief executive since 2019, says what has been really striking is the lesson in management and organizational behaviour that has come out of the experience.

First learnings
Philipp Rickenbacher: “We’ve learnt how resilient we are as a company. We’ve learnt how flexible our people are and how well they can manage in different situations. We’ve learnt how good actually our IT is. I think no one thought that we could go into a lockdown and remote mode just within a few weeks at the beginning of last year. And it was possible.”

The power of self-organisation
“When you’re running organisation, obviously you’re relying on your org chart, on the regular meetings, on the proximity, on the floor design that should bring certain functions together. And then you throw people into a completely different environment, and you find out that actually the organisation starts to self-organise. I’ve been amazed by the quality of our team heads, of our group heads, of our entire management cascade, where people have embraced this new setup just like that, and they’ve been making the best out of it.”

 

There was this implicit element of trust that was just woven through the organisation.

Philipp Rickenbacher

Success factors at Julius Baer
“Julius Baer always had a DNA, where people take responsibility, where people do not just fill their little boxes and try to do their job walking in at eight and walking out at five, but actually where job profiles are much larger, much deeper, are much more complex and interwoven. People are used to managing independence, but also enjoy that. Then I think it’s also a company where people still know each other. This also made it easier, because there was this implicit element of trust that was just woven through the organisation.”

The art of improvisation
“Had you asked me three years ago, where does Julius Baer have potential to evolve, one of the areas I would always have mentioned is, that we could professionalise or industrialise some of our processes, where sometimes we improvise, sometimes we reinvent the wheel. In normal times, obviously, this is a hindrance. In times like this, it is a strength, because people know how to improvise. We’ll have to find a balance moving forward.”

It is going to be a journey on which the organisation will discover what to make of the new freedoms, what to embrace and what not to embrace.

Philipp Rickenbacher

Keeping the spirit alive
Human beings always gravitate back to old habits. Our role right now as leaders is to bring in the right amount of energy and disruption, so that they can’t do that. One way of doing it, obviously, is by telling to all our people across the organisation that we want to give them a degree of flexibility moving forward, which will absolutely prevent any manager from having all of their people back in the office. Then we need to work very hard in finding the right way and finding the right new normal. It is going to be a journey on which the organisation will discover what to make of the new freedoms, what to embrace and what not to embrace.”

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