Interview: Danielle Harmer, Chief People Officer, Metro Bank

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Danielle Harmer is Chief People Officer at Metro Bank. When Metro Bank launched in 2010, it was the first new high-street bank in 100 years, and spearheaded the start of what the company call the ‘banking revolution.’ For Danielle, their fresh and obsessive approach to customer service is underpinned by a laser focus on culture and employee engagement.

Danielle is Chief People Officer, not HR Director, a title she feels more accurately describes her role at Metro Bank.

“I think I was always a people director. It’s just other organisations want to call it HR. Being Chief People Officer is partly reinforcing how important our people are rather than treating them as a resource, but it’s also being really clear about the WHOLE person attitude.”

“My job isn’t just about colleagues, it’s about candidates, suppliers, customers and journalists. I am responsible for our reputation and brand as much as any other leader. It’s a much broader way of looking at ‘people.’”

“We want people to have an emotional attachment to Metro Bank and so we feel the same about everyone we touch.”

“Even if a candidate doesn’t join us or can’t, our aim is to leave them as a fan, so that they say to others “you know what, I went for a job at Metro Bank and I wasn’t suitable, but you’d be really good so you should apply” or “I opened an account anyway on my way out.”

The laser focus on people is clearly seen at the recruitment stage. Danielle says that Metro Bank hires ‘zesty’ people, but she differentiates between quietly and noisily zesty.

“Some people think zesty is waving pom-poms and cheerleading and for some people and in some situations it is. But if we said that was the only thing zest was about, we wouldn’t be able to hire or attract or keep or embrace people who are quietly zesty.”

But what is ‘zestiness’ and how do quietly zesty people differ from the pom-pom wavers?

“It’s about bringing positive energy to a situation. It doesn’t matter whether you are outwardly zesty or inwardly, either way you’re welcome here, but if you’re a mood hoover, we don’t want you. If you’re a dementor, if you suck energy and life out of a situation, you should not be here. We want bring who bring and add positive energy to a situation, customer or colleague.”

On the first day of work at Metro Bank, new hires go through Visions, which is the bank’s cultural training programme. By hiring people for attitude and then offering extensive training and development, Danielle ensures the workforce remains diverse but aligned to core vision.

“How you treat people is how they behave. If you’re kind to people they will be kind to others.”

“We do want different kinds of people and the best way to have great colleagues who engage in a brilliant way with customers is to hire different people who have a mix of ideas and a mix of approaches and experiences, in exactly the same way that all the customers who walk through the door have a mix of all these. This is the best way to look after customers.”

Being fanatical about language is a key part of this cultural strengthening and alignment. For Danielle, it’s not about being prescriptive, but about making the culture leap out of everything the bank does. When she was involved in writing a standard compliance policy, she said to her colleagues that once it’s written, if you can’t identify it’s a Metro Bank policy, they hadn’t done their job properly.

Brand reinforcement is a core part of everyday life at Metro Bank.

“We expect our colleagues to call them stores, because we want them to think like retailers.”

“Everywhere you look we reinforce the brand, so our room names are called Revolution, Vision, Game Change, Fans, Dogs Rule, Kids Rock.”

How would Danielle define the culture that is being reinforced every day?

“How we treat our customers is the difference.”

“We employ people who want to make people smile and that’s what we ask them to do all day. What I love about our stores is this amazing virtuous circle of customers who walk in and are greeted by someone who says ‘hi, how can I help?’ and the customer responds positively, which  makes the colleague happy.”

“And the stores buzz with a ‘this is a nice place to be’ feeling. We aren’t trying to sell you anything and none of our colleagues have sales or product targets. We don’t want anything clouding their judgement about how to get the right experience for the customer.”

“And we’ve got dogs, kids and bikes in the stores. We let people run networking events in the stores and we run kids events, it’s an interactive, enjoyable place to be, and that makes it great for colleagues.”

“Organisations talk about an external brand and an employee brand. We have one brand. We are with our customers how we are with our colleagues, because we want our colleagues to be like that with our customers.”

Once colleagues are in, they go through a development journey. Metro Bank has a university campus in Fulham and also various satellite training rooms across the store network. They run 60 class courses.

“Most of the people who join our customer service or contact centre roles are likely to be entry level jobs and we hire them for their attitude and we put them into our Metro Bank University and train them for skills.”

“So it doesn’t matter if you’ve never worked in a bank before, in fact most of our people haven’t. If you’ve got the right attitude and behaviours, the world is your oyster.”

“we moved over 30% of our people into other jobs last year and what that doesn’t take into account is the amount of people who look like they’re in the same job but their team size has doubled, or we’ve given them additional responsibilities.”

Career development opportunities are tackled in a simple way.

“Do you want it? Can you do it? Can you do it in the right way? This is how we talk to people about the next opportunity.”

As Metro Bank grows - they currently have 33 stores and would like to have up to 150 stores stores open by 2020 - strengthening their culture becomes both harder and more important. Does scaling the company keep her awake at night?

“If you’re working hard and building something, you sleep!”

“But if there’s anything that keeps me awake, it’s how to continue and strengthen and reinforce and deepen the culture. When we had 12 stores and 350 people, we [leadership team] could get out to all of them in a day. We couldn't do that now, so actually everyone who leads at Metro Bank must live and breathe the culture.”

“Growing a company and maintaining simplicity maintaining simplicity requires significant discipline. People want to create complexity. At Metro Bank I think we’re very good at encouraging people not to focus on that here.”

“Being fanatical about the culture, our leadership training is focused on our culture. It becomes more and more important as you scale. It must be stronger in a year than it is now., not as strong.”

Simplicity has always been at the heart of the Metro Bank experience for the customer.

“Creating simplicity for the many takes a lot of complexity in the background for the few. But we work really hard on that so it should just look seamless and clever.”

“If you came into one of our stores and wanted to open an account, we could have you out in around 20 minutes - with a fully-working debit card, with a PIN you’ve chosen, a cheque book, a welcome email on your phone, with full access to online banking and our mobile app.”

How would she sum up their approach to running a people-focused business?

“Hire the right people, immerse them in culture, train them in what they need to do, give them brilliant career opportunities, love them to death and give them an environment where they can do their best.”

Where does Danielle think HR is heading and what are the biggest issues on the agenda?

“People in HR are asking why HR isn’t on the agenda but they should be asking why HR isn’t supporting the business agenda. It’s totally upside down.”

“I hear HR saying “we need to be more commercial.” Too damn right, because you don’t have a job if the organisation doesn’t exist and doesn’t have customers.”

“When I sit at the leadership table you can’t tell what job I do or what jobs the other members of the board too. First and foremost I am a leader of the business.”

“Of course there are people governance and risk and control aspects, and systems and processes, that HR must build and make sure is great, of course, but if all I do is police the people stuff, you don’t need me. Systems would do a big chunk of it.”

“Come on - you’re either a business leader or not. And when you take that hat off, you can put another one on that says ‘I know about people and HR’ too but ultimately you are first a business leader.”

“HR is about enabling and supporting the business.”

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