As one of the world’s largest global rural lenders, Rabobank wanted to equip its leaders with the skills to manage and thrive in a fast changing and ambiguous world. From increasing customer demands and competition, and technologies, to changing laws and regulation, and globalization.

“The way we work is also changing, and the expectations of leaders are changing,” says Gerri Binns, Head of People Development and Strategic Workforce Management at Rabobank. “Consultations around the importance of leadership skills and how they align with our business strategy highlighted the need to develop a pathway program for our leaders.”

Binns and Jason Sharpe Manager Learning & Leadership Development at Rabobank have been leading the program internally, from developing the initial concept to rolling it out across Australia and New Zealand. Looking for an evidence-based approach and access to research and thought leadership, they wanted to partner with a leading business school to design a bespoke program to suit their specific needs.

After a rigorous selection process, they decided to partner with AGSM @ UNSW Business School to develop the Rabobank Leadership Pathways. Multiple two-year pathways were co-designed by the two organisations and focused on supporting change efforts initially at the emerging and developing manager levels.

“Research indicates that a lot of change efforts are challenged within the middle management populations. We saw the Rabobank Leadership Pathways as an opportunity for us to really support change leadership within the organisation,” says Sharpe.

Sustainable leadership for a sustainable world

As a lender focused on the food and agriculture sector, sustainability is a critical focus for Rabobank. “Given the nature of our business in Australia and New Zealand, for us it’s really looking at how we develop and grow a better world and encouraging our leaders to lead within the rural communities they operate,” says Binns.

Part of this is nurturing, growing, and building the capabilities of their pipeline of talent for the future and ensuring they not only “lead self, lead others and across the bank but also lead into the community,” says Sharpe.

“Lifelong learning is a key component for us in building a pipeline of talent. We believe everyone is a leader, regardless of their position or title, at different stages of their development with different experiences and capabilities.” says Binns.

Rabobank was looking for a partner with aligned co-operative values to bring an external perspective to their leadership program.

“We are a co-operative bank, so we wanted to really bring that to light. We’re also a global bank so we needed that global lens where possible and local when necessary, because we have Australia and New Zealand participants. AGSM’s MBAX is ranked as one of the best online MBAs in the world, and their ability to have a global outlook was really beneficial for us,” Binns says.

AGSM’s evidence-based approach and rigorous academic research is backed by the program’s ability to be easily to adopted into a commercial environment - something that was crucial for the rural bank.

AGSM’s commitment to equip a new generation of leaders to make an impact in an accelerated world also aligned with Rabobank’s purpose to grow a better world together. “To make a difference for Australian communities and to develop our community leadership, so there were strong parallels in our values and practices as well,” says Sharpe.

Creating collaborative pathways for the future

The first step in designing Rabobank’s program was to review AGSM’s extensive range of Short Course offerings and align them with their business’s needs.

“For instance, we focused on the change lens that we wanted to echo across the pathways, and AGSM curated the modules from there. Then Karen Rodrigues, Adjunct Faculty Member for AGSM @ UNSW Business School and one of the facilitators for the Rabobank Leadership Pathways program, spent time with us to get up to speed with our leadership framework and specific course requirements,” recalls Sharpe.

Rabobank’s global leadership profile includes leading self, leading others, leading across the bank and leading in the community. The leadership profile is supported by 12 specific leaderships skills that were developed by an internal study on the Future of Work.

“The core skills and techniques taught across the modules were selected to build upon Rabobank’s internal frameworks and our beliefs around leadership. Being able to package the modules together really helped reinforce this for us,” says Sharpe. “The different pathways are designed to echo an element of this leadership profile, and each module speaks to different leadership skill requirements.”

As a lender that started as a rural co-operative over 120 years ago, bringing the organisation’s purpose to the forefront of their leaders is vital for Rabobank.

“Participants in each pathway finish on a module that focusses on what it means to be a truly purpose led organisation and the ethics around it. To think about the risk, compliance and governance aspects that are continually being played out in the media post the Hayne Royal Commission. The ability to curate this content together from the different AGSM modules has been a really powerful element for us,” Sharpe says.

And to bring course content to life, Rabobank has implemented some action learning projects between modules.

“For example, next year’s participants in the emerging leader pathway will be going out and facilitating workshops to bring our values and behaviours to life and explore what this looks like in the context of specific roles. And our developing leaders will be doing a critical piece of work around culture, and how we've been able to bring some of these modules to life,” says Sharpe.

A flexible approach to learning

The response to the program so far has been overwhelmingly positive for Rabobank, despite the disruption of COVID-19. The mode of delivery had to be adjusted from face-to-face to online and the structure of sessions altered from all-day, to a maximum of two hours.

“It’s leadership in practice, really. We have to be adaptable and flexible to the changing circumstances and look after the well-being of our individuals - length of screen time and ensuring they moved frequently. Those considerations are really important. Being in a healthy workspace helps you learn because you've got the energy to focus,” Binns says.

Creating a learning environment where people feel safe to be vulnerable and have open conversations is not easy online. But Binns says that’s exactly what AGSM created for the Rabobank leaders.

“People felt that they could speak openly. And that aligns to what we're trying to help our leaders do – to have the courage to speak up.”

It also provided a platform for leaders to test whether their efforts to support their teams through the challenges and opportunities during COVID were working.

“These are things they can take out of COVID and implement immediately into the way we operate and into the future as well. I think those rich conversations have helped leaders maintain a really good perspective of how they can lead within Rabobank and into the community,” says Binns.

Already, Rabobank can see these insights and skills from the Rabobank Leadership Pathways being put into practice.

“We're seeing our leaders display greater levels of emotional intelligence and support for their people's well-being in the current environment,” she says.

“We're tracking indicators like retention and promotion rates and engagement. We’ve seen greater trends in pride in the organisation and in our commitment to community.”

For a bank with over 40,000 employees around the world, the ability to bring people together to share insights, learn from others across Australian and New Zealand and from different functions across the organisation has been invaluable.

“One of our values is to bring out the best in each other and that's what we've been living and breathing over the past two years with AGSM. We bring best practices to the table and we look for the best outcome for our leaders.”

To find out more about AGSM @ UNSW Business School Custom Courses, click here.

To find out more about AGSM @ UNSW Business School, click here.