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Agile Leadership at RaboBank signifies a revolutionary shift in management practices tailored to meet the fast-paced, ever-evolving demands of the financial industry. Having operated for more than 125 years, Rabobank saw itself as a client­ centered cooperative bank with roots in the food and agriculture sector. By the 2010s, the landscape of financial services had evolved significantly. A mix of persistently low interest rates, the rapid advancement of digital technologies, aggressive competition from fintech companies, rising expectations among consumers and employees, and economic instability posed challenges for traditional banks. To thrive under these conditions, banks required increased adaptability, a stronger focus on customer needs, and quicker responsiveness. For Rabobank, adopting agile methodologies was key to enhancing organizational capabilities, improving decision-making, and accelerating delivery processes.

RaboBank’s Agile Journey

The leadership at the bank recognized the transformative era ahead early on, foreseeing that the traditional concept of banking was due for a strategic revamp. As they entered the 2020s, it became apparent that a modern bank is essentially a conglomerate of services, each navigating its own intense competitive arena against not only other banks but fintech and Big Tech adversaries as well. This recognition spurred Rabobank on a journey of relentless improvement and innovation to ensure that banking was not just secure but also remarkably easy for customers, accessible anytime, anywhere without glitches.

Despite the formidable rise of digital banking services, the bank fearlessly committed to a vision of “100% digital convenience in everything.” This goal was not just a statement but a commitment to transforming the bank into an agile, future-proof technology powerhouse, and a data-driven entity that continually innovates within and beyond traditional banking boundaries. The bank reoriented from being product-centric—focused on mortgages, insurance, and checking accounts—to being wholly customer-centric, making the smartphone the nexus of banking interactions and embedding banking seamlessly into everyday apps. With swift moves to cloud technology and microservices, the bank redefined itself as “an IT company with a banking license.”

This proactive vision has materialized spectacularly. Today, Rabobank stands as a paragon in the digital banking landscape, recognized for its comprehensive adoption of BizDevOps, exceptional applications, and an accelerated pace in innovation and enhancements. This strategy not only advances banking technology but also elevates its stature as an employer of choice, inspiring others in the industry towards similar heights of innovation and service excellence.

Organizing Agile at Scale

By 2022, Rabobank had transformed the way it manages its IT systems, using a method called Simplify@Scale within teams known as BizDevOps squads. These squads are small, versatile teams of 7-10 people from different specialties—like tech, design, and marketing—who work together on specific goals. This approach marked a significant change from older methods where different specialists rarely worked closely with one another.

The structure at Rabobank includes groups called “areas” and “tribes.” Each area consists of around 8-10 squads focused on a common objective, and several areas together form a tribe. This organization helps keep everyone on the same page and makes it easier to manage projects effectively. Product owners guide these teams, setting goals and keeping the work transparent, so everyone understands the priorities.

Moreover, the organization has “chapters” focused on particular skills like technology or marketing. These chapters establish standards and ensure that tribes have the right experts. While chapters focus on how to do things right, tribes decide what projects to work on next.

The inclusion of Risk & Finance into this agile framework was planned for late 2022, aiming to add more tribes and chapters, making the organization even larger. The agile method at Rabobank also emphasizes continuous improvement and keeping the customer’s needs at the heart of everything they do.

In Rabobank’s agile setup, teams of product managers, tech staff, and architects work closely to develop products efficiently. They are supported by agile coaches who help them adopt best practices and make smart decisions quickly. Projects are completed in short bursts called “sprints,” which last about two weeks. This allows the bank to develop and refine their services quickly based on user feedback, delivering improvements in manageable, bite-sized pieces.

Traditional progress reports and steering committees were entirely off the table. Instead, teams had to share their progress during Sprint Reviews held every two weeks and decide on conflicting priorities during the Quarterly Business Review (QBR). In aggregate, these regular touchpoints – planning sessions, standup meetings (around a scrum or Kanban boardv), retrospectives and QBR – had been firmly instituted as the bank’s Simplify@Scale Heartbeat. The Heartbeat punctuated and facilitated the continuous flow of collaboration, delivery, improvement and learning.

What is Agile Leadership?

Agile leadership refers to a management style that prioritizes adaptability, employee empowerment, and a proactive response to change. Unlike traditional leadership frameworks that emphasize top-down directives and rigid structures, Agile leadership at RaboBank focuses on fluid team dynamics, collaboration, and decentralization of decision-making.

The Role of an Agile Leader

As Rabobank transitioned to its agile structure, recruiting new individuals became about more than filling roles—it was about shaping the future. Leadership within this new framework was redefined to encompass the ability to transform the work environment and plant the seeds for a new organizational culture. This meant that the incoming leaders were tasked with a significant responsibility: to turn the traditional hierarchy upside down and make the new system function effectively.

In this pivotal phase, selecting tribe leads was crucial. Some candidates, previously earmarked for senior positions, found that their paths diverged from this new direction; they did not fit the evolving vision of leadership. Others, however, rapidly advanced to prominent roles in this fresh landscape. Under the guidance of the Managing Board, each tribe lead was chosen for their unique blend of skills and qualities: experience, a knack for IT, deep knowledge of their content area, the ability to manage relationships with key stakeholders, strong execution capabilities, and the capacity to guide the many members of their tribe.

This strategic selection process was not just about staffing but about inspiring and equipping leaders who could drive change and foster a vibrant, forward-thinking culture at Rabobank. These leaders were expected to not only manage but also motivate, pointing the way forward for their teams and setting the tone for innovation and excellence in the agile era.

Key Responsibilities of an Agile Leader

Understanding the impact of agile on the team, customers, and the entire organization is crucial. Leaders at Rabobank faced the significant challenge of easing the workforce’s anxiety as they moved away from a traditional hierarchical structure. For many years, the staff was accustomed to a top-down, bureaucratic approach where decisions were handed down from above. Changing this mindset would require time and patience.

Leaders were tasked with the vital role of nurturing the organization with their enthusiasm and belief in the agile methodology. They needed to engage continuously with their teams, clarifying why these changes were necessary in the face of Rabobank’s competitive environment and long-term goals. They had to communicate effectively how adopting agile practices was not just a new strategy but a crucial vehicle for achieving these objectives.

In doing so, leaders were not just managers; they became educators and motivators. They had to instill a new cultural ethos that encouraged initiative and collaboration at all levels, helping everyone in the organization see that through agile, they could all contribute to the bank’s success more dynamically and creatively.

Key Characteristics of an Agile Leader

Many traits that define great business leaders fit perfectly into the agile framework. Skills like setting a clear vision and strategy, establishing accountability, and developing self-awareness remained crucial. Building trust with employees, sometimes through difficult conversations, and focusing on performance and results also continued to be key drivers of agile transformation.

However, while some traditional leadership behaviors remained important, their application changed. With agile’s flatter hierarchy, there were fewer formal leaders, but those in place wielded broader influence. This shift meant leaders were not just overseeing but also actively engaging in the work alongside their teams. For example, Alexander Zwart, a key figure in the agile transformation and CTO, also took on the role of tribe lead for digital platforms, blending leadership with direct involvement in projects.

Moreover, agile leaders needed to be exceptional communicators, capable of inspiring their teams by highlighting the deeper meaning and purpose behind the shift to agile. The aim was to foster a shared understanding of the agile process—not just how it works, but why it matters and the value it brings. This approach helps everyone in the organization see how embracing agile can lead to better outcomes and a more dynamic, responsive work environment.

Transitioning from How to What in Leadership Behavior

What saw a significant shift—almost turning things upside down—was the focus of leadership, moving from micromanaging processes (the inputs) to driving results, like enhancing customer satisfaction, reducing costs, and boosting revenues. Leaders transitioned from detailing every “how” to empowering their teams by concentrating on the “what.” This meant providing guidance and support to employees rather than issuing directives. The new style of leadership was about connecting with and nurturing people, rather than making demands.

With the integration of IT-focused performance indicators (KPIs) into various business areas—and the other way around—leaders increasingly found themselves in roles that required them to act as bridges and interpreters, even with parts of the bank that hadn’t adopted the Simplify@Scale approach. Consequently, leaders couldn’t always have all the answers.

On a personal level, this balance of maintaining oversight while relinquishing direct control represented a major change and was often uncomfortable. However, embracing this new approach was essential for fostering a more agile and responsive organization. This leadership style not only encouraged autonomy and growth among teams but also aligned closely with the bank’s broader goals of agility and innovation.

Leadership Motivational Models:

  • The SCARF Model of human behaviour is useful to understand how people respond to the world through the lenses of Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness. In our case, we focus on how the model explains behaviour of people in the world of Agile work. The model is based on three major findings: 1. Social threats and rewards are treated with the same intensity as physical threats and rewards, 2. Our ability to solve problems and make decisions is diminished when we’re in a threat state, and increases when in a reward state. , 3. People are more easily placed into Threat than Reward, so in our work we need to minimize the things that create Threat. Source:
  • The Geek Way: Companies driven by Science, Openness, Ownership and Speed of Learning tend to do well. These characteristics are encouraged from the top leadership
  • ARC Motivational model is part of Self Determination Theory, which shows there are two kinds of motivation: Intrinsic and Extrinsic. Intrinsic motivations are ones that come from the person themselves — they enjoy completing the task. For example, in my own case, I enjoy writing glossary entries. Extrinsic motivation comes from outside the person — perhaps someone else imposes a deadline on you for a task. If we’re already intrinsically motivated for a task and then extrinsic motivation is applied, it may diminish the individual’s intrinsic motivation over time. This is a word of caution, but not all extrinsic motivation is bad. We simply need to be aware of what is affecting people and why. – Source:
  • The surprising truth about what motivates us: Purpose, Autonomy and Mastery

Evolution of Leadership Behavior

Between 2019 and 2020, Rabobank made significant strides in adopting agile methodologies by transitioning 3,000 staff across 10 tribes and 300 squads. The expectation was clear: these agile teams were to continuously deliver real business value and results. This shift also demanded a new leadership approach, focused not just on granting teams the autonomy to self-organize and innovate, but also on guiding them to stay focused on common goals and business needs.

Leaders at Rabobank had to carefully balance this autonomy with alignment. The idea was not just to free teams from unnecessary bureaucracy but to ensure they understood that freedom came with the responsibility to align their efforts with the team’s goals. This was crucial in avoiding the misperception that autonomy meant pursuing creative ideas at the expense of essential tasks.

The new mantra for managing in this agile environment was “freedom within a frame.” This framework was rooted in collaboration and clear accountability rules. Accountability was strictly maintained through formal processes like Quarterly Business Reviews (QBR), enhancing transparency and early identification of issues.

In this agile setting, every team member needed to recognize how their actions affected others and the broader organization. Leaders shifted their focus from merely analyzing outcomes to actively removing any impediments that could block the team’s progress. This required leaders to refine their listening skills, empathize deeply, and engage in meaningful dialogues without prematurely imposing decisions.

Feedback became a cornerstone of this culture. It was encouraged to be frequent, involving insights from various team functions and even across teams and the organization, promoting a learning atmosphere that continuously powered Rabobank’s evolution from a knowledge-based to a learning-based organization.

Learning was emphasized as a vital tool for individual and team growth. Product owners, for instance, were encouraged to become thought leaders by deepening their expertise, which in turn enriched the team’s collective knowledge. Teams excelling in particular areas were motivated to share their insights, fostering a culture of cross-pollination.

Moreover, agile leaders played a crucial role in enhancing the employee experience, which directly impacted customer satisfaction. The philosophy was clear: happy employees lead to happy customers. This approach wasn’t just about personal growth but also about appreciating and recognizing individual contributions in a sector where traditional monetary rewards were often limited.

Ultimately, the leadership focus was on shaping journeys, content, and processes that engage and develop people, reinforced by a culture of robust feedback, close collaboration within and across teams, and regular evaluations of workplace dynamics through tools like the Engagement Scan. This comprehensive approach ensured that leadership and collaboration quality were continually assessed and improved, aligning with the overarching goals of the organization.

Transforming Leadership for the Future

Agile leadership continues to play a critical role in shaping how RaboBank adapts to future challenges and opportunities in the financial sector.

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