Carsten Bittner (ABN Amro): ‘Do As The Dutch Do’

Carsten Bittner (ABN Amro): ‘Do As The Dutch Do’
The German CI&TO (Chief Information and Technology officer) of ABN AMRO needs to take cognizance of the differences between the Dutch and German cultures. His observation is that these are not that significant. ‘Nuances do exist, of course, and, as a director, it is important to take heed of these.’

Since Carsten Bittner’s joined ABN AMRO in January 2023, he lived by the motto of Do as the Dutch do. For this reason, he is taking a language course - and it shows. The German surprises with correctly formulated Dutch sentences and good pronunciation. The CI&TO finds it self-evident to learn the language as it strengthens his association with his fellow executives and allows him to connect with colleagues more easily.  ‘I am also more part of the conversation: in the end, you often hear things at the coffee machine which are never said during a meeting.’ Learning the Dutch language parallels his vision of leadership. ‘I do not want to be a distant leader with a pre-conceived idea on where we as an organization need to go. I want to excel together with my colleagues.’

Carsten Bittner was responsible for IT at the German Commerzbank before taking up the position as CI&TO at ABN AMRO, where he has been for 15 months now. Before that, he worked for media group Bertelsmann and consulting firm Accenture. Bittner feels at home at the Amsterdam Zuidas, where ABN AMRO’s headquarters are located. And where he and his wife live in walking distance of the bank. ‘It is a wonderful location; we can be in the city center in no time. We are visiting museums and are exploring the city thoroughly.’
Bittner has enthusiastically embraced another typically Dutch trait; he reveals in this conversation with Christian Tabois of process mining company Celonis. In his spare time, he regularly cycles. Not only is it the best way to get to Amsterdam city center, but he also enjoys cycling through the polders around Ouderkerk aan de Amstel. Only a few days ago, he discovered the scenic area de Ronde Hoep. And he finds that even on his fortnightly weekends in his hometown, a small town near Munster in Germany, he more often now prefers to use his bike.

Why did you say ‘yes’ to the CI&TO position at ABN AMRO?

‘ABN AMRO is an iconic Dutch brand, a bank with a 200-year history. I was drawn to the ambitious strategy: ABN AMRO wants to further digitalize but also remain a bank which its clients experience as personal. In addition, the bank’s sustainability ambitions appealed to me. During the application interviews, I noticed that these are not merely daydreams. The bank has already taken important steps and is working on progressive changes. Not unimportantly, I got along well with my fellow executives and with the supervisory board members. As CI&TO you are the spider in the web in an organization, hence it is important there is a good match.’

What is the biggest cultural difference between Germany and the Netherlands?
‘I am often asked that question. And I always need to think deeply. In fact, I do not think the differences are that significant. There are, of course, nuances, and for a non-Dutch executive, it is important to understand these. You need to be able to understand how people think and act. That is one of the reasons why I have been taking a Dutch language course since I took office.’

Why do you think it is important to learn Dutch?
‘It strengthens the bond with colleagues and allows people to approach me more easily. I do not want to be a distant executive who gives instruction on what needs to be done. Especially for a CI&TO it is important to get feedback from the organization. The lines of communication need to be short, and this is easier if you have at least a fundamental level of fluency in the language. The fact that I do my best is appreciated. When opening a conference last October with the first couple of sentences in Dutch, I received many positive reactions. I also notice that I have a better antenna for what is going on internally. The conversations at the coffee machine differ from those during meetings.’

The Dutch are often described as direct and open; do you see it that way too?
‘I notice that too, yes, both inside and outside the bank. But I find it positive. I feel very welcome. Also, it makes the corporate culture less hierarchical. I like that - it aligns with my own leadership style. For that reason, it took me little effort to adapt. I previously worked in China and America where I needed to adapt to a far greater extent.’

How would you describe your leadership style?
‘I strongly believe in reaching our long-term ambitions together. It starts with jointly formulating the strategic goals. I would never launch my own strategy because colleagues would not support it. Next, I work hard to ensure that everyone in the organization understands what the long-term goals are and how each colleague can contribute to our shared mission. I now know that this approach fits well within ABN AMRO. We are on this journey together.’

What advice do you have for international executives entering a Dutch company?
‘Do as the Dutch do. Do not be too quick to think you can implement your own ideas and plans. The Dutch like to build together. I think that has to do with the polder culture. In addition, I advise every executive to learn the Dutch language.’

Speaking of those long-term ambitions - ABN AMRO wants to be a futureproof bank and digitalize its operational processes. What work experience did you bring with you to achieve this ambition?
‘When years ago I worked at media company Bertelsmann, they were going through a digital transformation. That sector experienced early technological disruption. As Chief Technology Officer, I rolled out my first cloud-, data- and AI strategy there. I have always liked complex issues, though, so I went for it. In 2019, I switched to Commerzbank. I wanted to use my acquired knowledge and experience within the banking sector. As a CI&TO, you can make a huge impact at a bank. At ABN AMRO the challenges are not very different from those at Commerzbank - all big banks have the same challenges. My experience in shaping digital transformations comes in handy. I know how important it is to properly manage my own team of IT professionals, but also to get all the heads within the organization facing in the same direction. Everyone wants to contribute to the digital transformation at ABN AMRO. Our technology and data are the backbone and heart of the bank.’

Which issues have the highest priority?
‘Our teams must perform at a demanding level. I want IT professionals at ABN AMRO to get the best out of themselves so that their colleagues can use technology and data to make a difference for our customers. Besides building high performing teams, my job is to innovate based on technological developments and data. To do so, it is paramount that my teams and I work closely with my fellow executives and the senior management of all departments within the bank.’

How do you create high performing teams?
‘If you want to change an organization, you have to know where its strengths lie and also where it is less strong. I first had to understand how and where we could improve. I listened to ideas from my own team and our IT professionals. What I would like is to excel with the people who work here. By listening, I got a good picture of the potential of innovation and technology at ABN AMRO. We then worked on a new strategy and considered how we would reach our goal. We regularly reflect on progress towards our strategic goals and how we and our teams work together within innovation and technology.’

How do you succeed in attracting talent? How does a traditional bank compete with fast-paced fintech companies?
‘After my first few months, we internally figured out clearly where we wanted to go and what roles and responsibilities digital transformation entails for everyone in our organization. We often communicate the steps we are taking in terms of digitalization and innovation. That is motivating - we are making progress, and all colleagues want to contribute to that success.
Our mission is now known also outside the bank. Working at ABN AMRO within IT is more than just developing apps. We are looking for talent that will not settle for digital banking as we have it today.
Our services need to always be accessible and secure for our customers, and we want, with the use of data, to continue to innovate and enhance our sustainability. IT professionals want to work for us, as the ranking of Most attractive employers for IT professionals compiled each year by Computable magazine, shows. In the category non-ICT organizations we are in second place, after the Dutch web shop Bol. We expend huge amounts of energy in recruiting young talent as well as experienced IT professionals. At the same time, of course, we nurture our current colleagues by continuing to invest in new technology.’

Why is working at ABN AMRO attractive to IT professionals?
‘The bank needs to deal with several large and complex issues. There are many new technologies and innovative products that IT professionals can get their teeth into. In addition, they can have a real impact in society. We have moved beyond providing only financial services; banks now act as gatekeepers within society. We prevent our financial system from being abused for money laundering and terrorist financing. The bank also plays a significant role in the energy transition, providing clients with data to make informed sustainability decisions.’

What opportunities do you see for ABN AMRO?
‘We recently launched our new brand strategy For Every Beginning. The message is that we help people with every new start – a first home, a new job, a new business. I find that inspiring. ABN AMRO is 200 years old, yet the bank continually reinvents itself. With technology and data, we can assist customers more personally in achieving their goals with financial products and advice. Of course, we always ensure this is done responsibly, adhering to privacy guidelines. Cybersecurity is our highest priority. Today, banks operate on data and trust, both of which are crucial and interconnected. Handling our data with the utmost care is critical to maintain customer trust.’

What do you expect the bank will look like in three years?
‘First, our internal processes will be faster. Technology will automate and reduce manual administrative tasks, allowing our colleagues to focus on what matters to our customers. Second, our services will be more innovative and customer-friendly, using data and AI to make mobile banking easier and more personalized. Our IT professionals will continuously improve and monitor the functionality, security and integrity of the technology. Finally, our financial services will be further integrated and become part of other platforms, apps or products.  At the same time, we will remain attentive to our customers, including those who are somewhat less digitally savvy. We at ABN AMRO are going the extra mile to further improve accessibility for these customers. We now have 200 ‘assistance with banking’ advisors helping our clients who need that little extra support.’

Can you give an example of an innovative product of the future?
‘We are currently investigating whether it makes sense to expand our service with an avatar: a digital character that can assist customers with their questions at any time. We believe our customers will appreciate this form of technological innovation.’

What are the biggest challenges?
‘Like other banks, we also face a growing number of regulations. These rules are necessary and contribute to the stability and safety of the financial system, but implementing new laws and regulations and meeting additional reporting requirements is demanding. With the use of technology and data, these functions can be greatly optimized. Deciding where, when, and how to deploy technology and data is a responsibility not only for the CIO and IT professionals but increasingly requires coordination and intensive collaboration across many departments. This means IT professionals, beyond familiarizing themselves with new technologies, also need to have a solid understanding of the business to be able to develop the right solutions. Having a clear, organization-wide goal and constantly communicating progress helps. The cost of this transformation is significant, but it is what will enable ABN AMRO to differentiate itself in the future.’

Interview by Christian Tabois, Regional Leader Benelux at Celonis. Published in Management Scope 06 2024.

This article was last changed on 25-06-2024