This week Delano starts “Lessons learned”, a new series where a financial executive shares what they learned from a particularly challenging experience during their career. The idea is to help both experienced peers and younger professionals if they encounter a similar situation at work.
Today Maaret Davey is a manager at a major bank in Luxembourg. The experience shared in this interview occurred with a previous employer.
Aaron Grunwald: When did this experience happen, where were you working and what was your role there?
Maaret Davey: It started in 2017. I was newly appointed team head for KYC [know your customer] and tax due diligence. The role was new for the bank. The target was to create a new team from scratch, and to respond to the latest legal and regulatory changes that were happening at the time. So I was the newly appointed team head and my job was to recruit a team of nine people. Once I recruited the team and we were ready to launch, we had the announcement that the bank would be acquired.
And that is the challenge that you want to share today?
Yes. So how do you motivate a team that you have sort of lured into a company, knowing that not everybody will be part of the acquisition? Obviously, at the time, when I was building up the team, I did not know that we were going to be acquired and that not everybody would make it to the shortlist of the people to be moved.
So the other people were made redundant?
Yes... so the biggest challenge was that when the acquisition notification came, we were then informed how many people would be moving over to the new place and how many people would not. Now irrespective of who was moving or not, we still had the whole period of running up to the actual acquisition date to cover. The challenge was how to keep a new team motivated, [with some] knowing that they will not have a job after, let’s say, one year or so, and [some knowing that they] would be moving to a different company altogether.
Did each team member know if they would be moving or not?
They did... a couple of weeks later, we were given a list of people who would be moving and the list of people who would not be moving. Then it was my job to inform my team members, one by one, whether they were to stay or to be made redundant. And obviously, having a new team, some of them had relocated to Luxembourg. It was challenging in terms of professional career, but it was also challenging on a human level. Because someone’s uprooted their life and would not be making the shortlist.
Was this the first time that you had to lay off staff like that?
It was, yes.
Tell me how you went about addressing this challenge. What did you do?
I rely a lot on transparency and honesty, so once I’d had the individual discussions with everybody, I called in a team meeting where I took the approach that we remain a team until the day we will go our separate ways and whether you are going to follow or whether you’re going to be made redundant, we will do the same work and help each other out. I also made a promise to those who were not going to the [new organisation] that I would help them to find new jobs and I would be giving them recommendations. I would be coaching them to do interviews and hone in their CVs. And as a team we agreed not to talk about who will go and who will stay. We decided to focus on what we have here and now, and obviously for some people it was easier to do than for others.
During the six to nine months period that followed, some of them found new jobs altogether and decided to leave earlier. Some of the people who were designated to move decided not to move over and wanted to seek other opportunities. So it was an emotionally hard journey, but a very, how shall I say, a great learning opportunity.
What particular bumps in the road stand out as being really difficult for you?
I think the hardest one was the making the announcement that we as a new team would not be sort of continuing our journey as I had envisaged. Because obviously people felt that you must have known these things, you know, ‘you must have known that this was going to happen so why did you recruit us?’ So the most challenging conversations were the ones where my team member would be blaming me for it and and sort of a saying that I, based on false promises, made them change their life and up their roots, and so on and so forth. And that particular individual decided to relocate back to their country of origin and I think that the hardest one was being able to support them in this journey and to help them to find a new job back in their home country.
How did you handle that? You knew that they were very upset and it probably didn’t make you feel good, but how did you respond to that?
I can’t remember exactly what I said, but for me, it was a question of putting myself, my own person, on the line and sort of putting yourself forward as a human, saying that you know, this is not something I was aware of. Had I been aware of that, I would have recruited differently. It was never my intention to lure anybody under false promises. Being genuine and honest helped in this process. It took quite a bit of work and and I also invested quite a bit of my own free time to help this individual and to take them out for dinner, for drinks, and to sort of make it a more humane experience.
This process went on for several months.
Was there something that you changed during this time or did you keep the same approach the whole time?
To begin with, I was trying to hold back certain uncomfortable realities. But as the process progressed, I decided to be sort of ‘full disclosure’. Initially, I tried to be the strong leader without any emotions of my own. And I realised that that was probably not the right approach because people would see this and they would say that ‘well, it’s okay for you because you will be moving, you knew about this’. Once you actually allow yourself to become human again, and you show your own emotions, then people sort of accept the reality easier.
If you had to summarise the experience, what is the lesson that you learned and what advice would you give to other managers who have to face the same kind of situation?
Bring your whole self to the table. Don’t try to separate you as a leader from you as a person. It’s as simple as that.
Is it any anything else you wanted to share about this experience?
I think it’s communication. Talk openly and honestly, and accept the fact that people are going to be upset with you, accept the fact that they will be disappointed in you, and accept the fact that not everybody will be your friend.
[It was an] awakening for me, to accept that people will need someone to blame for it. And so your job as the leader is to take that responsibility. It doesn’t mean that you should carry it home and feel responsible for everything, but it means that you need to give your staff the chance to take their frustration out on you, because you are the one person in front of them. So, that was quite hard, being the punching bag. But at the same time, it gave the chance and the opportunity for the staff to to vent their feelings, because obviously, they cannot go to the upper management, so that they saw me as the go-to person. It gave them the chance to clear out everything that they felt without any judgment. The first couple of discussions, I took them personally and I felt like I’d failed myself as a person. But then what was quite helpful was to distance [myself], to take my own emotions out of what the other person was feeling. And just think about it on sort of a human to human level.
They took their frustration out on you. Did things get better for them afterwards? I mean, did it really help them?
It did help. What was even better was that we had a very strong team, even though it was a very young team. So it was that the team spirit was already quite strong. So I encouraged the team members to go out for lunches together, go out for dinners and said that, if there was anything I could do, they could always reach out to me, but they should also discuss amongst themselves. And if they wanted to vent their anger, I was always going to be there [for the] bull’s eye exercise of throwing darts. Perhaps not in person, but I would lend them a picture of myself.