Marnix van Stiphout: 'ING is Not Your Usual Company'

Marnix van Stiphout: 'ING is Not Your Usual Company'
Marnix van Stiphout has been COO and member of the management Board of banking group ING for a year and a half. During this time, he mainly worked on the realization that operations form an extremely important part of the bank. 'We are now assisting in shaping the future of this bank.'

When he took office, COO Marnix van Stiphout announced he wanted to make the operation 'more assertive'. It is no longer 'you say jump and we ask how high'. As far as he is concerned, this change in mentality has already succeeded. The operation - or 'ops' as Van Stiphout himself prefers to call it - is partly in charge of ING's strategy. 'I  wanted to work primarily on the realization that ops forms an extremely important part of this bank. An essential part.' All this with 'the customer' as an important point of departure as well as arrival. 'We want to become the best digital bank. Why? Not to please the COO, but to serve our 40 million customers.'
Van Stiphout is punctual for his appointment with Jean-Pierre Boelen, partner financial services at Deloitte. At three o'clock sharp, he slides in for the interview, ’with military precision, as befits a true COO’, Boelen says. But Van Stiphout is amused; 'This must be a happy coincidence. You have, I suspect, too romantic an image of the COO.'

Are you romantic?
(Laughs). 'Yes, I am quite a bit of a romantic yes. Especially in my taste in music, by the way. In my daily life or in my work, it is not all that bad, although of course I do have romantic ideas of how things could be even better here, and although my image of what a COO does has also become more romantic. It is satisfying to find that in this position I can get things done. There are many challenges and social changes that are shaping banking, and it turns out to be just a little easier to achieve when you're a little higher up the tree. Then everything suddenly moves a little faster. I am not sure whether that is romantic, but at least it is gratifying.'

You have been COO of ING for about a year and a half. Truthfully: what is your assessment of how things are going?
'I am very satisfied with our progress this far. I think we took some impactful steps; made some clear choices and I think we had some important successes. What I am happy about is that there is a lot of trust in the organization, in each other. That trust has led to mobilization, to action in the right direction.
Moreover, there is still a lot in the pipeline. We are moving with the organization from a to b and my ambition is to increase the pace of that mobilization even more. But really, mostly I am  impressed by the way we got the organization moving.'

What movement or mobilization are you referring to in particular?
'Much has changed in the banking world in recent years. Over the past 25 years the industry has been characterized by a permanent flight to the front, with big words about operational excellence and all kinds of huge investments which did not necessarily yield many improvements. ING has become much more pragmatic and practical under CEO Steven van Rijswijk, who started in this role three years ago. We have a clear strategy where we strive for a superior experience for our customers and put sustainability at the heart of what we do. We want to become the best digital bank for our customers. All the choices we make are measured against that strategy. Everyone who works for this organization, anywhere in the world, knows what they are working on and what for. The changes at ING today are mainly in the quality and speed of change, not so much in the size of the change. In short, we have become much more practical and customer-oriented. We do not have as many abstract visions. Every small step we take serves this strategy. And we can also explain those steps.'

What do those small steps and that movement or mobilization mean to you as a COO?
'For today's ING, scalable technology and operations are very important. Not a large-scale, all-encompassing digital revolution, but clear and concrete steps. First of all, we defined which common technologies we wanted to work with and what should remain local, which operational activities we wanted to consolidate and which not. This means that we have the same agenda in operations as well, all over the world. First, this makes communication easier, and second, mobilization is faster.
Concretely, we recently spent much energy to improve the customer journey at ING. Every customer's customer journey must become as simple, clear and digital as possible. We do that with straight-through processing, or STP, which is entirely in the service of the customer. Last year we managed to improve 60 of the defined customer journeys. Small steps, big improvements. Our STP program covers the most important processes in banking, retail and wholesale, about 350 customer journeys. Over the next few years, we are going to STP all these as much as possible. Truly end-to-end!’

You mentioned earlier that you wanted to be an assertive COO. Has that intention come true?
'Above all, I wanted to work on the realization that ops is an extremely important part of this bank. An essential part. We are no longer the back office doing the work others have conceived. On the contrary: we now have a role in developing processes, we are part of shaping the future of this bank. So it is no longer ’you say jump and we ask how high.’

Are there also things you no longer do?
'That is inherent in making clear choices. In some countries we  still had various projects running with an above-average manual work component. I said: we should not be doing this anymore. Processes which are not efficient or convenient or not future-proof - we stopped doing them. We say no more often. But always with a reason.

When you took office as COO, the top structure at ING just changed: tech and ops were separated and placed under a CTO and a COO, respectively. Now your colleague, CTO Ron van Kemenade, recently announced that he will be leaving ING. Will this have consequences for the top structure?
'We are not going to change our structure because someone is leaving. There must be other reasons for that. The structure also works well for us. It makes sense to keep technology and operations apart, I think, on the understanding that tech & ops are of course incredibly collaborative. But I think that as COO I should concentrate on operational quality, also because that operational quality is essential for the success of the bank. That requires a lot of focus, and you should not want to combine that with technology or anything else. It is a profession and for that you need specific professionals.

Do you get enough rebuttal in your current position?
'I think so, although of course it is somewhat ridiculous that I have to answer that question myself. My colleagues actually have to do that. But I work with a diverse team with people with extensive experience. These are people with clear opinions and strong vision. That gives rise to sufficient discussion.'

What are those discussions predominantly about?
'Actually, most discussions are about prioritization, about the order of things. What do we do when and where. Where do we start and what do we leave aside for a while. Sometimes you do not have enough people in a location to generate traction, sometimes people have to step in. The discussions are always about the milestones and never really about the underlying, larger plan, it is not our priority to consider the strategy or the greater philosophical issues.'

Many companies face the challenge of keeping operational talent. How do you deal with that challenge?
'I am not too disturbed with that. The world has not in recent years become any easier in this respect, but I notice that ING is a desirable place to work. We are a broad network organization which offers challenging, high-quality positions in the most fantastic places in the world. You can work with us in operations on artificial intelligence, business operations, anti-money laundering, straight-through processing, know your customers and much more. You can do this in the Netherlands, but also in Brussels, Frankfurt, Manila or Sydney, among other locations. International challenges in an international environment. That is of course remarkably interesting for young talent.'

That is indeed the recruiting corporate story, but what does COO Marnix van Stiphout personally have to offer his young operational talents?
'Well, I am not under the illusion that talent will choose ING because I am in this position. ING is quite an atypical company. We are different from other companies; for example, we put slightly different people in senior positions, less standard. We are open, positive, progressive and very international. I think those are also terms that apply to me. I am very comfortable with our culture. It is reflected in the way I work with my team and how I want to steer the rest of the company.'

Do you also personally spend time with the young potentials in the operation?
'Definitely. One way I do that is through my mentorship. I have about six people I meet with at least once a month. I also organize walk-in sessions, have lunch with young talents everywhere I go, hold discussions about innovation – a fair amount of time goes into young talent, and rightly so. I find this energizing. Last week I was in Manila. In the Philippines, 3,500 people work for ING. The average age there is 26. Those are all young potentials.'

What do these young talents ask of you as a leader?
‘They mainly want to hear a clear story. They want to know the reason we are doing it for, and they want to know what they can contribute and how they can grow with ING. I convey the strategy and show the opportunities. I think you need to do this to a lesser extent with an older population. A young population provides a lot of opportunities to accelerate an organization. But you need to continually emphasize what the strategy means and what their participation in it can be. But I notice an enormous appetite to participate.'

The world of operations is also a world which needs dealing with, where - at least that is the impression ¬- one cannot simply wait for better prospects....
'I can understand that it is confusing, yet I do think that that is the reality. I like to use the words "practical" and "decisive" myself, but nobody gets moving without a reason. I myself do not want to act without purpose. So yes, we want to be very clear about strategy. And then we want to be well organized to achieve those goals. Without strategy, no movement.'

A COO can be on the go 24/7.... can you still find time for relaxation and reflection?
'Tomorrow I'll be at the opera again. That is quite wonderful. I love music. And I make time to exercise, often getting up at six o'clock. I do not necessarily want to make time to think about big issues. I make time to relax. If I can run and occasionally listen to some music, the balance is pretty okay. Fortunately not every glitch or upheaval ends up on my desk. We have a team of highly efficient people who can pick up the phone and know how to deal with situations.'

Can you estimate in percentages what tasks your workday consists of?
'I suspect that 20 percent of my time is spent troubleshooting - fires, breakdowns, woes. Then I spend 40 percent on the operation itself: looking at how the operation is running and could be better, making site visits, talking to colleagues. The other 40 percent goes into Board business, long-term conversations, reflection. I find it a good balance, which offers its own form of relaxation. I get much energy from both the first and second 40 percent, for example. It is fun and also relaxing to talk about the long term, to exchange ideas about opportunities and possibilities. I also enjoy immersing myself in the operation, which is often about craftsmanship and being able to do things better. The 20 percent is the most stressful, but as I make sure it does not become more than that 20 percent, it remains doable.'

Was there something which made you really happy as new COO in the past period?
'That would be the collaboration with the people around me. I have a wonderful team with incredibly good people. And the second is the thrill of running such a big machine. We come from a time when banks were making double digit returns on equity. The operation was the last thing people worried about. In today's era, it is totally different. Now the operation is essential to the survival of the company. We add essential value for the customer and play an important role in managing the bank's risks. And that, of course, is the most important thing. We want to become the best digital bank in the world. Why? Not to please the COO, but to serve our 40 million customers.'

This article is published in Management Scope 03 2023.

This article was last changed on 07-03-2023