Marnix van Stiphout (ING): ‘The COO needs to be more assertive’

Marnix van Stiphout (ING): ‘The COO needs to be more assertive’
In the old days, the business end told the Operations department what to do, but today Operations has much more of a say. There is a good reason why the COO is often a member of the Executive Board. That also applies to ING’s COO, Marnix van Stiphout, who wants to make the bank's COO domain even more proactive and managerial. “The role has become much more strategic.”

When he became ING's COO in September 2021, Marnix van Stiphout was introduced to the outside world as a bridge builder and somebody who was in it for the long haul. He loves long-distance running and lengthy operas; he is not afraid to immerse himself in Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, in all its 16-hour splendor. Van Stiphout is not one for quick career moves. He has spent the lion's share of his career “in Operations” at ING, and he is determined to stay there for many years to come. He feels very at home here. “The position of COO is the best in the company. I am sure about that.” At ING's head office in Amsterdam, Van Stiphout welcomed Geert van den Goor, partner at consultancy firm Valcon, for an interview as part of a series on the COO's agenda.

You have just started your position as COO and are still in the infamous “first 100 days”. How are you finding it?
‘Needless to say, there is no traditional onboarding process involved. I have worked at ING for quite a long time now and I know my way around. I know the company and I know the people. I have not encountered anything here in my new role that has surprised me. I actually also think it is much easier to start as an internal candidate than as an external one, although I will never be able to confirm that based on personal experience. I think it is extremely challenging for a newcomer to a large company to start on an urgent assignment when you do not know anyone at all and you have to start completely from scratch.’

Which urgent assignment did you find at ING?
‘The most important job is to make the COO domain more proactive and managerial over the coming period. ING changed the structure not so long ago by separating tech and ops. The underlying idea is that we want to focus in a more targeted way on technology and operations. Those two areas had become too important, too big and too complex for one person to run them single-handedly. There is a huge amount of work required in both areas. The new structure was put in place last year, and I see it as my job to give Operations more attitude in the years to come.’

What do you mean by giving Operations attitude? What do you mean by that?
‘We need to define our territory better; we need to become more strict in what we do and do not do. In the banking world, it has long been customary to place everything that did not fall within the organization under Operations. Operations therefore turned into a kind of receptacle for lots of things. Over the years, a lot of non-automated work was also placed within Operations (although this has now been digitized). In addition, a large chunk of legislation has been added to Operations. I have resolved to make clearer decisions, for us as well as for the rest of the company. I want to clarify what we are and are not doing, what we expect from each other and our commitments for the coming years. The Operations department will therefore become a little more assertive.’

Is an assertive COO something new?
‘By definition, the role of COO stems from a supporting role. Anything that was ever in the back office soon became the responsibility of the Operations Manager. While this made sense back then, times have changed. The industry has become increasingly dependent on how you perform and how you do things. The COO has become a key figure in that environment.’

The COO has become more important?
‘Definitely. Before, it was basically a one-way street, with the business end telling Operations what to do. Today, Operations increasingly advises the broader organization on how to implement digitization, and we then often apply that advice ourselves. The know-how is within Operations. We now have a much more active role in discussions. There’s a good reason why the COO often sits on the Board of Directors nowadays. That was not the case when we had an Operations Manager. The role has become much more strategic.’

How do you explain that trend?
‘That has everything to do with a shift in priorities. In our industry, the "what" used to be important: What do you do and what kind of products you offer. But quality has become more and more important and the margins have become smaller; we now have to work more productively and effectively. As a result, the "how" has greatly increased in importance. The person responsible for establishing "how" has therefore automatically become more important and has the knowledge, experience and creativity to make processes run as efficiently as possible - effectively, safely, sustainably and for the best price.’

But a Financial Manager would also have this knowledge, surely?
‘Whereas the CFO perhaps has the strict role within the company, the COO is primarily the person who is required to use creativity in order to make the company operate differently: better and more efficiently. As far as the overall operating model is concerned, that creativity primarily comes from the COO.’

You said you want to be an assertive COO. What do you see as your biggest challenges at ING?
‘There are quite a few. Actually, the most important challenge is to retain operational talent within ING. Financial institutions are not necessarily at the top of the list of young people with potential; it is not a given that they want to work for a bank, so that is something we need to work hard on. One of my biggest challenges is to attract and retain in-house quality. The second challenge is to guarantee quality in an increasingly complex environment and to keep the costs at the right level.’

Which parties can ING learn something from on an Operations level?
‘We have lots of sources of inspiration. A number of banks are very progressive in terms of technological and operational developments, which is of course very interesting to me. Let us be honest, though: most of our inspiration comes from outside of the financial industry, for example from the technology industry and the retail world. It is interesting to see how their service centers and operational hubs are set up, and how they use chatbots. In all those things, the financial sector is generally not the trendsetter.’

Regulations – which have increased dramatically since the 2008 financial crisis – will also affect your work. Do you think these strict regulations inhibit efficiency and effectiveness?
‘To be honest, I do not feel that we are overwhelmed by regulations. In fact, the regulations actually provide more structure, which is a good thing. The regulations that we all have to comply with are crystal clear. We just have to factor them into what we do, and we can do that. The rules have helped us progress on an operational level. Traditionally, banks were not the best operational parties, but it is partly due to the rules that we have managed to catch up. All of that has helped immensely. A lot of progress has been made since the 2008 financial crisis. Of course, we have to organize ourselves correctly in order to meet the requirements. It is important that we also attract the right people for that.’

A familiar downside for any COO is that, as the person ultimately responsible for Operations, they can be running to the rescue 24/7. How do you deal with that, and how do you ensure that you are also involved in strategic matters?
‘I suspect that this is very much related to the organizational structure. If a COO does not sit on the Board of Directors and is not allowed to contribute to strategic decisions, they are likely to start running to the rescue automatically. At ING, I am supposed to be actively involved in working on and discussing the strategy. Operations then adapt to that strategy. Of course, there are small emergencies to remedy every single day, but I am also working on the investment agenda or the transformation agenda. A COO is doomed to fail if they have to run Operations but have no responsibility in terms of transformation. The two should go hand in hand.’

You have always been hands-on. Is it difficult to let go of some of that in your new role?
‘The risk of someone progressing is that they just keep doing what they have always done. That is definitely not how it should work. At the same time, I do not want to become completely detached from the shop floor and act purely as a manager, so I have to find that balance.’

‘By clearly defining things and setting priorities. By clearly establishing who I want to be in direct contact with, which issues I always want to make the decisions on and which we can leave to others, for example. I want to make all of the transformation-related decisions myself, just like I want to be closely involved in attracting candidates for key positions within Operations. You could probably choose to delegate those things, but I think it is important to be involved in them.’

What is the most significant change for you in your new role?
‘The most important change is that I have gone from a more individual role to a collective role that oversees the entire bank. I am now a Board member; part of a team that runs the bank as a whole. That is a very different perspective than in my previous roles. I now have to take a broader view of things, and I need to put a lot more time and effort into learning to understand what other business units are doing. It is a very different experience, but a lot of fun at the same time.’

Does this different role also affect your leadership style?
‘I think I have changed as a leader over the years. I have come to believe in being in it for the long haul a bit more. Speed is great, but sometimes a certain amount of delay and depth ultimately result in better decisions. And, in turn, more speed. Furthermore, I think I have become more of a balanced thinker. I devote much more time and energy to processes than I did five or ten years ago. I am also convinced that this leads to better results. I take more time for consultation and reflection. I have also come to have a greater appreciation for diversity of opinion. After all, other ideas are always valuable. As I say, I have become someone who is in it for the long haul.’

Somebody who is in it for the long haul... that presumably means you will be doing this job for a while. You have obviously just started your position as COO, but how do you see your future? What is your next step?
‘I actually think I will always be a COO. I might not stay at ING forever, but this role suits me very well. The position of COO is the best in the company... I am convinced of that. You see a huge part of the company: All the products, all the processes, all the locations. The COO really does play the leading role, so I actually think I want to be a COO forever. Maybe if I dream out loud... I am a lover of classical music, opera, Wagner... I love to immerse myself in Der Ring des Nibelungen for 16 hours... So who knows, perhaps one day I may become the Operations Manager of the Metropolitan Opera in New York? But now I'm getting ahead of myself. First things first: Let us really get down to work here and now.’

This article was published in Management Scope 10 2021.

This article was last changed on 24-11-2021