Over the last year, Questions of Difference and the Allied Irish Bank (AIB) have worked in partnership to drive an exciting and ambitious change agenda.

This case study examines some of the challenges that were faced in creating a strong alliance between the Bank

and theIBOA (the leading Trade Union representing staff in Ireland’s financial services), and looks at how the organisation continues to make the most of the opportunities that a new relationship brings.

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Challenging times – what was the issue?

The global recession hit AIB hard.

Arising from the global international banking crisis, coupled with inadequate corporate governance and inadequate capital controls, AIB, like many banks in Europe found itself financially vulnerable requiring the Irish Government to acquire 98% of the Bank.

The net result for the Bank was a major restructure and reform culminating in significant job reductions, changed work practices and a major restructure of the business including selling assets downsizing and outsourcing.

The speed and scale of the world events at the time were a challenge to the many proud employees who worked for the organisation as well as to the customers and communities that they served.

Against this backdrop, the Bank was compelled to make challenging decisions about pay, working hours and job security. With so much at stake for many employees, relations with the IBOA, the Finance Union in Ireland became increasingly strained.

Following intense negotiations between the Union and Management in AIB, assistance was required by the Labour Court to address these issues. As part of a series of recommendations to resolve these issues the Labour Court recommended that a much stronger partnership between the Bank and the Union needed to become established.  At a time when their agendas seemed to be conflicting and intractable, it felt like this was going to be easier said than done.

Orlagh Hunt, the AIB Group HR Director, together with Larry Broderick, General Secretary of the IBOA were determined to find a constructive way forward.  Questions of Difference were delighted to be appointed to help navigate the journey.

An unsurprising revelation

Early conversations with both the Bank and the IBOA revealed a common truth.  Behind the tough rhetoric was a strong desire by both organisations to do the right things for employees and customers alike.  In fact they had much more in common than they originally recognised.

With this realisation came a new desire to build a new and more meaningful relationship – but both parties knew that it would take significant work to undo a history of mistrust.

Through courageous and open leadership, Orlagh and Larry started to create an environment where new relationships could be cultivated and nurtured.

How did we resolve the issues together?

Questions of Difference brought leaders from both organisations together to address the issues they faced in the past and explore what the future could look like.

We created two teams:

1.    The ‘Navigation Team’ comprised of senior AIB Industrial Relations leaders, together with their IBOA counterparts.

2.    The ‘Engagement Team’ was made up of a broader group of 30 people including AIB senior leaders, their HR colleagues and IBOA reps.

The journey started in earnest in November 2013 with a two day workshop for the teams. High on the agenda was the need to reconnect people with their collective passion – to support a profitable bank, with a great reputation that cares deeply for its staff and customers.  With a compelling purpose established, the focus was on the human interactions between people in their organisations.

Encouraging people to show some vulnerability helped the group to appreciate that if they did not know all the answers and sometimes make mistakes, it is possible to use humility to resolve the issues together.

Equipped with a simple methodology to help underpin the relationships and enable them to navigate the conversations going forward, the teams were asked to explore ‘What does it mean to be an effective partner?’ and ‘What would a strong alliance look like?’

Larry Broderick, General Secretary of the IBOA described the event and said “Questions of Difference helped us navigate difficult conversations with a light hearted and pragmatic approach which has been key. They brought us a methodology that we could use to develop the relationship going forward and have been able to equip our key Union Representatives with the appropriate skills to engage professionally with their management peers with the HR touch.”

Statements of intent

Challenging initial assumptions that both parties held and learning from the detail of what works began to create a new relationship.  Helping people make different assumptions based on a premise of goodwill and good intent started to liberate them from an old and unhelpful dynamic and into a different way of working with each other.

The next step was to create Statements of Intent, a powerful articulation of how they were going to behave and work together.

“We create better solutions because we share ideas and challenges as they emerge” and “We assume good intent and use what is working as the basis for challenging conversations” were just two of the statements that the entire group signed up to.  A paradigm shift in the relationship had been created.

By the end of the event, it was impossible to tell who was on what side. The group had moved away from trying to catch each other out, to an open and honest dialogue and a new way of talking. The sense of excitement and determination was infectious and palpable.

One year on

With our help, both teams built on the dynamic created during that event, the Statements provided a helpful anchor for many subsequent constructive conversations.

The Engagement team members started to work hand in glove with each other, picking up the phone and resolving issues together as and when they arose.  With a great working relationship now established, they have recently been disbanded as a formal group…a powerful alliance is now simply ‘the way we do things round here’.

The Navigation team continues to work together and their alliance has become a powerful force to build and grow the business for customers, employees and their communities.

At a time of cost consciousness, AIB are paying for 12 time staff members to act as full time Union Reps so that the powerful and productive alliances can continue to bed in and add value at a local level.

Questions of Difference continue to work with the AIB and the IBOA to embed the new relationship in the business.

Did the outcomes meet expectations?

  • Trust levels have increased substantially and a foundation for genuine alliance has been built.
  • Leaders have been equipped with tools to help develop competencies at the same time as navigating the strategy.
  • A practical methodology for early engagement has been adopted.
  • Issues that were contentious and tricky previously have been addressed in a way that helps both organisations move forward.
  • The improved dynamics in the relationship have challenged both organisations to step up in the way that they work internally.

What lessons were learnt?

  • In situations of apparent conflict, it is often the case that there are more similarities than differences.
  • If you have fun and create an environment full of good humour, people often achieve amazing things.
  • Bringing people together, challenging assumptions, building on what works and establishing good ways of working can deliver outstanding results

Feedback from the AIB

“Previously our engagement was a bit haphazard now we know the value in talking to IBOA early and we have much more clarity on when and how to engage. We recognised that before we would go to them at the 11th hour with something that was fully baked presenting here is what we want to do and then asking them to respond. We see now that stifled their input. We are now able to approach them with more of a blank page and get input from them from the outset. This feels like more true engagement”    

Anthony Burrows, Global Head of Employee Engagement and Internal Communications

“Questions of Difference brought us to a place where we could jointly articulate statements of intent based on our Brand Values in a short space of time. In turn we began the process of equipping leaders with the tools they needed at the same time as having the conversations we needed to have in the  business.  That is the key thing we knew what we needed to do and now we have practical tools to help us with how we need to do it.”

Dave Keenan, Head of HR and Employees Relations

“The 3 most helpful ways that Questions of Difference have worked with us are:

  • Helping us see the power of investing time in the relationships
  • Encouraging us to focus on the commonalities and where we overlap rather than exploit divisive differences
  • Assuming goodwill and good intent and focus on what works – the basic ethos of Questions of Difference” 

Anthony Burrows, Global Head of Employee Engagement and Internal Communications

“Trust levels have increased substantially and a foundation for genuine partnership has been built.”

Katie Connolly, Head of Employee Relations

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