Suzanne van Niekerk (ABN Amro): ‘Oversimplification Is Challenging’

Suzanne van Niekerk (ABN Amro): ‘Oversimplification Is Challenging’
ABN AMRO CHRO Suzanne van Niekerk wants to deal with employees in a sustainable way while also building a diverse workforce. This also means dealing with different generations, cultures and views in the company. So how does a company remain unified with an inclusive atmosphere? Van Niekerk listens, gets managers to listen and continuously engages in the conversation - with success. Yet even she sometimes runs up against the limits of psychological safety, as insensitivity from society does seep into companies. ‘The tone. The disparagement.’

The mood is exuberant at ABN AMRO’s headquarters at Zuidas in Amsterdam. On this very day it was announced that the bank is acquiring the Amsterdam investment platform Bux. This causes excitement and gives new energy, Suzanne Van Niekerk notes. ‘Everything is alive. We are going to do new things. Great fun to be part of,’ she tells Karst Bongers, Partner at LTP Executive Services.

Van Niekerk is, as she herself says, ‘a product of the bank.’ All her working life she has been loyal to ABN AMRO, the company where she started as Trainee over a quarter of a century ago and where she has been CHRO since late 2022, first ad interim and officially appointed since May 2023.

Do you compare today’s ABN AMRO with the company where you started more than 25 years ago?
‘The bank where I started was a totally different company than the one we are now. Just consider the size. There was a time when ABN AMRO operated in 90 countries, and we employed more than 100,000 people. It is a quarter of that now. I was part of many reorganizations. In all honesty, after every reorganization I asked myself the question: is this still the company I want to work for? Do I stay or do I not stay? Each time the answer was ultimately ‘yes.’ Every single time, at all those stages, there were plenty of interesting challenges.’

What kind of challenges were they?
‘I am especially triggered by change. That is what I enjoy. Routine or drudgery does not make me happy. We have now evolved into a company that perhaps suits me best. This ABN AMRO is where I feel most at home. Our purpose, Banking for better, for generations to come, gives direction to everything we do and inspires us to take our social responsibility and do the right thing. We have also become much more diverse. These are all things which I find particularly important, which I am proud of and happy to contribute to.’

How did it come about that you are in the role of CHRO?
‘It has been a journey of over 26 years. I started at this company as a trainee and moved on to various positions. Relationship management, international clients, credit analysis, talent manager. This last role was my introduction to the HR profession. In November 2022, I received a phone call from my predecessor, Gerard Penning. He announced his departure and immediately added that they were thinking of me as ad interim. I fell silent for a moment. It was quite unexpected to me. After various conversations in the organization, I got really excited and thought: I am going to do it. During my ad interim period I developed a taste for it. This is really a wonderful challenge, I thought. This is the opportunity to leave an even greater mark on HR and this bank.’

At the moment, what are your biggest challenges?
‘We are dealing with different generations in the company who view work in a totally different way. I grew up in a time when working 40 to 60 hours a week was very normal. You did not go home until the boss went home. Fortunately, that has changed. There is now a generation that looks more closely at work-life balance, a generation that has ambitions other than just work.
Another important theme is diversity. In 1990 we had only white men in our top 100. Fortunately, that too has changed. Now 31 percent are women, with a strict target of 35 percent by 2025. We steer firmly towards that. We also look broader: at cultural diversity and at the LGBTQ+ community, we have a target for attracting people with a distance to the labor market and we look at neurodiversity. All the things I mention automatically affect the workforce. With our strategic workforce team, we are therefore also working on ‘the image of the future’: what will our workforce look like in future? You have to consciously consider: who do we need, with what skills? What steps do we need to take? What interventions do we need to make?’

Looking at your own role in all these developments... what are you enthusiastic about?
‘I am very enthusiastic about working on a diverse workforce. What I am also enthusiastic about is data analytics. Why? Because I see how much both topics can bring to the organization. HR is increasingly developing into a field in which we can have a considerable impact based on the available data. Data helps us set our goals. We get an exact picture of what skills, qualities and characteristics colleagues should have in the future. How do we make sure we start helping people move in that direction now? That is very interesting. We also retrieve a considerable amount of data from our employee engagement surveys. How do people feel, where do they need help?
In addition, data also helps us with equal pay, for example. ABN AMRO has long been at the forefront of research into the pay gap between men and women in all layers of the organization. We are focusing on this. We have already made great strides, although men are still over-represented in the higher pay scales. We are still dealing with some historical imbalances. And you do not solve that overnight. But it is accelerating. We also see this in our top-100: you reach a critical point when one third are women. Then something has changed substantially, and it becomes easier. One is none: you can see the effect now.’

I am curious to hear about the more cultural side of diversity & inclusion. In my experience, it is not at all easy to reconcile clashing frames of reference or clashing visions…
‘It is not easy. We all have to deal with the norms and values that everyone is brought up with. But we try to take each other into account with small things. Based on their religion, for example, colleagues can get time off on public holidays. Every year we invite non-Muslims to participate in Ramadan for a day. But we also give some thought to Ketikoti. In 2022, our CEO Robert Swaak spoke out very explicitly about our slavery past and apologized. Things happened under the legal predecessors of this bank that we do not approve of when we look back on it now. These apologies show, among other things, that we are serious about inclusiveness.

We also have special mentoring programs to help people from different backgrounds move forward. For example, we see that many culturally diverse colleagues find it difficult to build a network within the bank. We try to help them with their network, because this is important for finding the next career step.’

Recently I was at a company employing both Israelis and Palestinians. That created tensions in the workplace. Do you also deal with that kind of intense emotions here?
‘Emotions, yes. But escalations, no. We also have Russian and Ukrainian colleagues on the floor. And in lesser numbers, we have Israeli and Palestinian colleagues. As soon as the conflicts broke out, we took action. First, of course, the most basic thing: Is everyone safe? We immediately recalled our people from the countries involved. Beyond that, we try to keep listening carefully to everyone. Our CEO pays keen attention to all colleagues in his weekly emails. The primary aim of the message is to keep fostering mutual understanding and be open to all points of view. He keeps insisting on our own values: care, courage and collaboration. We will always hold fast to that.’

Does the purpose of this company align with your own goals?
‘For me personally, Banking for better, for generations to come means that in my role as CHRO I choose a sustainable way of dealing with staff. That means, for example, that I think about sustainable employability of people. The labor market is incredibly tight. This means we will have to invest time, money and energy into retraining and reskilling people.
From an HR perspective, Banking for Better also means, for example, paying attention to the financial situation of our people. So not only for our customers, but also for our colleagues. We do internal research into the financial fitness of colleagues. And to be honest, it was quite a shock. Here, too, there are plenty of people who have trouble making ends meet at the end of the month. So, our financial care coaches for clients are also there for our colleagues.’

From the employee’s point of view, it takes courage to share this...
‘Certainly. It is indeed about courage - one of our core values. Then you come to the psychological safety we try to offer. I am convinced that psychological safety starts with an inclusive environment. In an inclusive environment, you are used to people also saying things that you might not have thought of yourself. In such an environment, you are allowed to look at things in a different way. In such an environment, other views are normal.’

Is psychological safety a specific concern for you and your colleagues?
‘Absolutely. There is considerable attention in the Netherlands - partly due to the scandal surrounding the TV show The Voice of Holland - to undesirable behavior. It got us thinking as well. How are we actually doing? And that meant, among other things, that we took another good look at all the channels we have. There is significant attention to behavior here. Everyone here takes the banking oath on day one. In this way behavior is addressed right from the start. We also have a code of conduct, we have speak-up programs, we have a desk for undesirable behavior, we have confidants, and we have arrangements for anonymous reporting of undesirable behavior. These are multiple channels, precisely because we hope that there would always be at least one channel that a reporter feels comfortable with.’

You are someone who advises the boardroom solicited and unsolicited. Are you then also the one who keeps the top focused on this subject?
‘I regularly draw attention to it. Especially because of their position as role models. But also, for other matters, for example concerning employee engagement. I find that very important. A study of the working climate last year showed that in some areas we were suddenly doing less well than the year before, there was a substantial drop in engagement. When we had a closer look at that survey, what emerged was that people did not feel sufficiently heard. From HR we then advised senior management to enter into conversation with colleagues and really listen to what was going on. We set up engagement circles: colleagues talked to management and management’s only instruction was to listen. This had tremendous effect and resulted in a significant increase in engagement this year.’

Do you feel you have a sufficient grip on the issue of psychological safety? Or is it an elusive phenomenon?
‘We are, I feel, doing what we can do, but it has many tricky facets. For example, what I find challenging is oversimplification. You see it in society and therefore also within this company. If you see how people sometimes react to messages on our intranet. Sometimes it gets quite intense. The tone. The bias. Look, on the one hand there is something positive: people dare to speak out and that information can be used to get to work. Identifying signals is also an important task for HR. But I find it quite difficult to deal with it properly. Are you going to address all the people personally? Ultimately, that is what we are trying to do. Always start the conversation. But it is difficult to find the right balance there. We pay a great deal of attention to many different groups. But you do find that there are always people who feel that they should be treated as something singular. And before you know it, you have a company filled with individuals. Even though we together form one bank, with one purpose and one strategy.’

This interview was published in Management Scope 02 2024.

This article was last changed on 06-02-2024