• Organizational

Leadership and Culture at Santander

How corporate culture and leadership are being developed at Banco Santander


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The difficulty with naming a bank after the city in which it was founded is that when that bank then builds its own city, it has to find another name for it. Banco Santander is the largest bank not just in Spain, but across the Eurozone and 16th globally by asset size; it has over 144 million clients worldwide. In 2004 it built its new corporate headquarters on a 250-hectare (615 acre) campus to the west of Madrid – called Ciudad Financiera, or Finance City.

Banco Santander was founded in 1857 in the city of Santander on the north coast of Spain by 32 local businessmen. Though not one of the founding families, the Botín family has since come to dominate the business, providing top management since 1920, with Ana Botín the current incumbent. In the last thirty years, mostly under the direction of Ana Botín’s father, Emilio, the bank has grown enormously through acquisition, both in Spain but also in Latin America and across Europe.

Ana Botín, Executive Chairman Banco Santander

When Ana Botín took over as Chairman in 2014, the bank had survived the recent banking crisis in remarkably good shape primarily due to its focus on retail over investment banking, however its rapid growth over the previous decades meant that the core culture of the business that had been manageable as a regional and domestic bank had become diluted and fragmented with the acquisition of multiple other institutions, many with equally long histories, in different countries around the globe. A strategic focus on strengthening and embedding the corporate culture was top of her ‘to do’ list with the triple objectives of better serving the customers, shoring-up the bank’s reputation post-economic crisis, and positioning it to manage the more collaborative interactions that digital transformation requires.

Though Banco Santander is clearly not a family business (the Botín family own less than 2% of the share capital), the Botín hegemony for the last 100 years gives the chairman a different perspective than most public corporations’ chairmen will have. The sense of connection and stewardship and the values and norms the company runs by, will be inevitably stronger if your father, grandfather and great-grandfather all held the same position before you. Ana Botín’s focus on strengthening and clarifying the corporate culture was therefore perhaps unsurprising when she took over – but it was clearly also an approach that had not been taken before. She slowed the pace of acquisitions, preferring organic growth (though did agree the purchase of the failing Spanish competitor, Banco Popular, for €1 in 2017, while adding much needed to liquidity to the new business). She introduced the use of first names, even for herself (in place of ‘El Presidente’ as her father was often addressed), and created an environment where the lack of ties is notable for a Spanish bank.

These are though just the outward, superficial symptoms of culture change. More profound and impactful change, in terms of both performance and well-being, takes time and results in less externally obvious transformations. Pere Torrens is the Head of HR Culture and Strategy at Banco Santander, a role he took on in mid-2017, having worked in Ana Botín’s office prior to that. Torrens reflects that “organizational culture was definitely one of the top priorities on her mandate when becoming group chairman…. We used to have culture before, of course, but it was not verbalized and since it was not verbalized it was difficult to communicate.”

Torrens’ move from the Chairman’s office to Head of HR Culture and Strategy indicates the level of significance the organization allocates to embedding the culture focus. He recalls that as soon as Botín took the top job in autumn 2014, “the first thing was to try and define the cultural framework”, and in the January 2015 board meeting the ‘Santander Way’ was approved. The Santander Way was really a values statement, “to be the best open financial services platform, by acting responsibly and earning the lasting loyalty of our people, customers, shareholders and communities” promoting Purpose (Mission: to help people and businesses prosper), Aim (Vision: to be the best retail and commercial bank, earning the lasting loyalty of employees, customers, shareholders and community)  and three core values: Simple, Personal, Fair. These in turn have evolved from that initial framework into eight core behaviours: truly listen, show respect, keep promises, talk straight, embrace change, support people, bring passion, actively collaborate.


Torrens explains that these behaviours are for everyone to follow, but not everyone has to be a champion of all of them. “Someone might be more on ‘embracing change’, for instance. But you need to take them all into account as this is how we want to behave. Because how we behave internally is going to be projected externally.” Though the impact on performance, particularly from the perspective of the internal operations conducted by the group functions, has been an important change. The idea of having internal customers and how to serve them, was a new mindset when this was introduced too.

It is an old sales rule that you should never try and go back to a potential client without having something new to tell them. This makes trying to sell new behaviours challenging, as repetition is the key to habit-making. How do you instil these concepts without them becoming boring? Consistency is cherished, and having the senior leadership constantly championing them is vital. Botín and her senior colleagues have been good at this, but as the world continues to become more connected and complex, and the drive for digital transformation more imperative, the behaviours have again been distilled to a further level of refinement.

In January 2019 these eight behaviours were progressed to four actionable ‘Leadership Commitments’: be open and inclusive, promoting diversity; inspire and execute transformation with a clear strategic vision, achieving sustainable results; lead by example, always in a simple, personal and fair manner; and support the team’s progress by promoting their professional development and making sure their work has impact.

Like the Ciudad Financiera buildings the executive levels at the bank are also known by the same city of Santander landmarks. Elisabetta Galli explains that Santander Business School was originally set-up to support the Promontorio segment of executives, those 36 senior managers who report directly to the Chairman, and the Faros, the 233 or so who report to the Promontorios. The next level down from that, the Solarucos, the 1756 or so directors across the globe, were able to access the school only through their own department’s L&D function. However, over the years this strict boundary has been blurred and now various programs and elements of vertical training in different functional areas are delivered at Ciudad Financiera’s business school, often with the Global Head of that function delivering the central part of the program, while more local themes are explored regionally.

Elisabetta Galli joined Banco Santander in early 2017 from the Dutch information services business Wolters Kluwer, she is now Global Head of Knowledge, Development and Talent Management, and so de facto head of the corporate university. Since her arrival she has instigated several significant new programs, that are radically changing the corporate university’s delivery capability.

Recognising that the informal increase in activities with Solaruco-level managers has materially increased the population of participants for the school, Galli has begun to move a lot more development activity so it can be delivered digitally. The Leaders Academy Experience is a platform that was launched recently. “It completely reverses our old approach,” says Galli, “from push to pull; what we offer is a series of learning events, learning contents, learning tools, etc., combined with face-to-face events, virtual conferences, business insights and webinars. This is material that was developed with just the Faros in mind, but we have expanded it, and now Faros are able to invite their Solarucos to attend too. In the last 12-months we had over 1,200 executives attending the platform events.”

This is however, just the start of the new offer the Banco Santander corporate university is making available, and has evolved from the new structure put in place to shape the organizational learning. Galli along with her boss, the Global Head of HR, the General Secretary of the bank and some other Heads of departments such as Strategy and some CEOs, form the Global Knowledge Campus Steering Board, that validates the learning strategy objectives for the coming year, based upon the key challenges and strategic objectives of the bank. This way the learning, for the first time, is properly aligned with the bank’s strategic objectives. The Steering body will also meet on an ad hoc basis through the year if the need arises.

The objectives are then overseen by the Global Knowledge Campus Operating Body of around 40 senior representatives from the business and the countries around the world that meets four times a year. This body comes together using the new technology the business school has recently installed, the Wide Room, which allows everyone to appear on an individual screen on a wall and interact with each other in close to a virtual reality meeting. “The Wide Room is fantastic, because we can not only get connected in real time but we can run design-thinking sessions… to discuss issues and to make decisions together,” Galli enthuses, “everything we do is co-created, co-decided and recent continuous connections with this body.”

The Leaders’ Academy Experience was the first product of this structure, and has focused on the key set objectives of digital transformation and business transformation, in line with Botín’s strategy to make Santander an ‘open financial services platform’ by 2025, a significant move away from its traditional bank structure past.

The Experience is based heavily on these two pillars, digital and business transformation, and in the year since it was launched there have been only four F2F workshops for the Faros. These were ground-breaking in that they were not classroom-based, but much more interactive and dialogue sessions. 80% of the Leaders’ Academy Experience (LAEX) offer is composed of virtual and online elements. “So for the first time we were asking to these people two things, to put on the hat of digital pursuit and to interact with the platform and to be accountable. So sit in the driving seat and to decide what to do and when.” In addition, the platform has been gamified, so every participant interaction is logged and scored, and a table published weekly to show where the participants are, and encourage more interaction. No-one wants to be last! The top group of Faros have been rewarded with unique learning experiences delivered by top class institutions.

Galli is aware that gamification of content can trivialise it, so the focus is on gamifying participation – you do the courses, attend virtual conferences etc. and gain miles for doing so. The underlying concept is to encourage engagement and ensure people are learning ‘to lead themselves’ in their learning. “We want to teach our people to learn continuously, apply the continuous learning approach of philosophy” she observes.

The learning year, like the financial one, is split into quarters with a different theme each quarter. Each theme will have a wide range of different content for the participants to consume as noted, and the design team opened suggestions for different content elements up to the global regions, so there is engaged interaction with the Experience from all parts of the global business in the design too.

The second element of the Experience, is tailored to each participant, where they can choose personal development programs to match their individual needs, whether that be on public-speaking or managing or stress or any other of a range of topics; this also counts towards your learning miles.

The new approach being led by Galli, to implement Ana Botín’s cultural focus, is aided by the fact that all managers in the organization are now performance (and bonus) reviewed; 60% on business objectives and 40% on behaviour. This pushes the leadership mindset to the front of manager’s minds and so encourages them to participate in the ‘Leading by Example’ program, which is run by local L&D functions in face-to-face sessions around the world, with internal and external experts in workshops and conferences to embed the identified leadership behaviours.

Importantly for Santander, to retain the close connection to the business and strategic objectives, they rely on a strong core of internal experts to help deliver these – and other – programs. Galli is instrumental in building this ’Scout Community’ of subject matter experts, that have both deep knowledge on particular topic areas, whether that be functional, sectoral or a soft skill, and also be digitally proficient. These ‘Scouts’ are then made readily accessible to the whole organization so they can share their knowledge and expertise widely. For instance, if someone in Argentina has deep-knowledge on loans for rural farmers, or working with government agencies or blockchain or something else entirely, they can share their insights and experiences with others elsewhere in the organization also engaging in these activities. The Scouts are also expected to deliver classes or webinars to distribute the knowledge more widely.

The Scouts concept has also led to the creation of a much wider knowledge dissemination process at the business school, opening it up to the entire Banco Santander population of almost 200,000 people. Galli is particularly excited with the imminent launch of the Dojo platform. ‘Dojo’ is a phrase increasingly tossed about in educational sectors and can mean a number of different things. It is best known as the training space for martial arts, but comes literally from a Japanese word meaning ‘place of the Way’ or as Galli puts it “the place in which I train myself to reach perfection”.

For Santander this is a huge new under-taking, and is driven by the shift that learning needs to be self-motivated and self-organised, but that the business will provide the resources for individuals to access that learning as effectively and simply as possible. “The concept we are using is to ‘box the knowledge’. We want to metaphorically open up the brains of these people [the Scouts], to distil the knowledge they have, and to make this knowledge available to everyone.”

Dojo will be an online platform with machine learning capabilities, so it will learn each user’s needs and preferences and be able to suggest to them relevant content and programs to participate in, but it will also suggest other areas to expand users horizons and increase their breadth of capabilities. Progress will be gamified too, in that users can gain different levels of ‘belts’, as in martial arts, until they become recognised experts in certain areas.

The key attraction for Galli and the business school, is that Dojo enables the existing knowledge in the organization to be pooled and shared, and also for key behaviours and values to be adopted, so that a ‘Santander’ approach becomes the norm across the global organization. This will be a significant change from the current structure where different approaches are promoted in different regions, and so the attachment to a global Santander institution is diluted.

The focus in Dojo is on the majority of learning being virtual. If the system sees that say 30 people are interested in Blockchain at the same level, they can arrange for a suitable program to be put on for them, or a webinar. At the higher levels of expertise, the green and blue belts, there may be opportunity to have more face-to-face events, such as workshops or business school programs. “When you become green or blue belt, it is very likely that you’ll be invited to participate in a course at IE Business School, or in a course that is delivered here in Boadilla with external and internal experts,” explains Galli.

Galli is excited about the Dojo platform for other reasons too. It is a fundamental element of creating a modern learning organization; previously in order to learn a new skill or behaviour would have probably meant enrolling on a course some weeks ahead and then being out of the office to do it; with Dojo the delivery is much more immediate and can mostly be done from the desk. “Every time I start [a traditional e-learning course] I say, ‘Ugh’. You know, I need to prepare myself, and I do it. And in the end, I say, "Cool, good that I did it". But the e-learning itself is very boring, is not natural. What we do in Google or what we will do in the Dojo, is that we will learn naturally. We will learn in the way our kids learn, so it will be in the flow of life”.

More critically for Galli however is the role it will play in managing the challenges of Strategic Workforce Planning, where she believes it will both highlight gaps and emerging needs and also enable people to start retraining for new roles and skills while still in their current positions.

Ultimately though Galli sees Dojo as being a ‘connector’, a connector of individuals to relevant content and to organizational expertise (the Scouts), a connector of like-minded individuals to each other across the organization, and a connector of data and information on emerging needs to management. It may also have a more explicit enterprise social network role, though that has still to be determined. As is the case in many large global organizations, particularly those that have been formed through multiple acquisitions, there is often no organization wide platforms; Galli and her team are mid-way through launching Work Day as a talent management tool which would be the first such all-encompassing platform at the bank, but Dojo will be close behind.

Related to the Strategic Workforce Planning aspect is Galli’s aspiration that when the platforms fully operational there will be an opportunity for the Scouts to become full-time; currently the Scout role is additional to their main jobs, and often people can be promoted on that expertise to management roles where that expertise is less relevant. With Scout roles, they can get increased visibility and kudos and remain in the job they love.

For the moment the Dojo platform is still in prototype, with research groups and pilot trials, however Elisabetta Galli is passionate about its evolution and what it can do for the organization. “If you have a mission it has to be grand…and my mission is to have 10,000 people enrolled by the end of the year” she hopes, with the MVP in place for Q2 this year, but the full roll-out for the whole organization may take three years to fully scale-up.

While there are many providers offering parts of the Dojo solution Galli sees it as being ‘a complex animal’ where 80-85% may be off -the-shelf platforms but the will need to be tied together with some bespoke development to make it fit Santander.

All this means that for Galli Dojo is her number one priority currently “Dojo, for us, is the future. It's the future for learning, for development, but it's the future for Santander” she asserts. Her core team of 15 people are fully stretched in delivering and promoting it across the whole bank.

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