What?! This Bank WANTS its Employees to Break Rules?

Dave Mowat, CEO of ATB Financial, says in this week's interview that sometimes it's a good idea for employees to break rules!

Dave Mowat, CEO of ATB Financial, says in this week’s interview that sometimes it’s a good idea for employees to break rules!

It’s hard to find an industry much more risk averse than banking (especially these days), so it was startling to hear ATB Financial CEO, Dave Mowat, tell me that he’s trying to encourage employees to break rules!

The key, obviously, is common sense. But it’s still a huge transition for the 5,300 employees in a 78-year old government-owned bank with a tradition of stodginess.

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This is part 1 of a two-part episode where Mowat explains how he’s been changing the culture at the bank to make it more customer-focused.

Before Employees Break Rules, They Must Know The Story

If you want employees to feel comfortable using “common sense,” they need to know what that means in your organization’s context. It may not be common sense for a banker to write off a mortgage because a homeowner has lost their job, but allowing for a delayed payment or two may be.

For employees to be able to make those kinds of judgement calls and break rules wisely, there are a few key elements that must be in place first:

  1. Know The Story. Both your company’s story (i.e. Why do we exist? What’s our mission?) and the customer’s story (e.g. Do we have a history with them? How trustworthy are they?)
  2. Have Guiding Principles and Values. As I explain in the chapters about the first P — Promise — of the 3P Profit Formula in my book, PeopleShock, the promise should provide a set of principles that employees can use as guidance when they are considering straying outside the lines. If staff are all grounded in a common set of values, it becomes much easier to make good decisions at every level in an organization.
  3. Accept That Not Every Decision Will Be the Right One. If you punish employees for making the wrong call every now and then, no one will dare take the risk of making their own decisions again. If the judgement call makes no sense at all and didn’t make sense in light of the guiding principles, then it is fine to have disciplinary action. But try to avoid it for borderline cases. (I think it was Peter Druker who said, why would I fire an employee who just made a big mistake? I’ve invested so much in their education now!)
  4. Get the Right People on the Team. As you transition to a more autonomous style of management, some people simply won’t be able to adapt. They have to be eased out. And in hiring, look for those who have good judgement and share your corporate values naturally.
  5. Change the Rules. As employees make such judgment calls, you should be collecting the data. Where are problems occurring most often that cause employees to break rules? Maybe it is time to scrap or change that rule. By having made it acceptable for employees to take this risk (and report on having done so), you are getting fantastic information about where the customer pain points are and how you can change your processes to become more customer-friendly.

Get a Free copy of the book, PeopleShock: The Path To Profits When Customers Rule, thanks to ATB!

Thanks to ATB Financial for buying copies of PeopleShock for all attendees at the MRIA talks on Sept 27 & 29, 2016!

Thanks to ATB Financial for buying copies of PeopleShock for all attendees at the MRIA talks on Sept 27 & 29, 2016!

Next week’s podcast will continue the conversation, but in the meantime, I’d like to thank ATB which (quite independently of Dave’s agreeing to the interview) has sponsored two talks I’m giving this week, and is providing FREE copies of PeopleShock: The Path To Profits When Customers Rule to everyone who comes! So register now, before it is too late! Here are the details:


Date: Tuesday, September 27, 2016
Time: 11:30 am – 1:00 pm
Location: Art Gallery of Alberta, Ledcor Theatre Foyer, Lower Level
Registration: Through the MRIA Portal (You don’t have to be a member to use the portal.)


Date: Thursday, September 29, 2016
Time: 11:30 am – 1:00 pm
Location: SAIT Polytechnic, 1301 16 Ave NW, Aldred Centre, Room CA 415
Registration: Through the MRIA Portal

If you can’t make either of those, I will also be doing a book signing in Calgary on Friday, September 30 at the Indigo Signal Hill bookstore, and I’ll be giving another talk in Edmonton on October 5 to celebrate Customer Experience Day! (No free books at that one though, unless a sponsor steps forward!)

I hope to see you at one or all of these events!

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