When Organizational Culture is near the Heart of the Business


September 4, 2018

Around four years ago, Santander Bank developed a strategy that focused on enhancing their organizational culture. It received an overwhelming employee response and far exceeded the expectations of advancing their corporate culture. We recently had the pleasure to speak with Daniel Strode from Santander Bank, he is responsible for Culture and HR Strategy Globally, about how they continue to evolve the organizational culture and strengthen their business performance, and the role that the StarMeUp Employee Experience Platform played in their success story of the impressive recent milestone they were able to achieve.

Santander Bank is a global banking group that originated in Spain and expanded through a number of acquisitions and operations across Europe, South America, North America, and Asia. In 2016, Santander was ranked as 37th in the Forbes Global 2000 list of the world’s biggest public companies and now employs over 202,000 employees across 32 countries. Over the past several years they have increasingly focused on strengthening their company culture which continues to help propel their business to new levels.


Sanja: Dan, we’ve had the pleasure of working with you for nearly two years now, and have seen you spearhead some really innovative cultural initiatives at Santander. Your company recently reached a very impressive milestone with the StarMeUp platform that you are calling “One Million Stars” so we thought this was a great opportunity to ask you to share some of the best practices you’ve used to continue to build a best in class culture. To kick us off, can you tell us a little bit about this milestone and what it means to Santander?

Dan:  Of course. After implementing the StarMeUp platform as a key enabler of our corporate culture, we are proud to announce that after only 18 months, our company has reached a milestone of one million recognition stars given and received through StarMeUp. We have always made a point to emphasize the importance of living and displaying our culture.  Our employees have been very receptive to the concept of recognizing others for a job well done, so much so that they have publicly shown their gratitude in the form of giving stars and feedback to colleagues over one million times.

Sanja: Wow, one million recognitions in a year and a half is impressive! It’s great to hear that the initiative really resonated with the employees.

Dan:  It was interesting to watch how this initiative was perceived and accepted among our employees. One thing to note about our use of StarMeUp is that we didn’t link the process to any type of monetary reward. We didn’t just give employees the technology and say go do it, we empowered them to want to give recognition and feedback not only for the joy of sending recognition to their peers and colleagues, but also to move our business forward. Every star given out had a meaning, and showed that the company and the employees value their peers, colleagues and teams, and care about helping our business prosper on a daily basis. Therefore,  to see this level of engagement reiterates that we are embedding a culture that resulted in one million instances of our employees engaging in our culture.

I’m sure we are going to talk about this in our annual report, I’m sure we are going to use this as a milestone for our investors as this is a way to show that we are a responsible bank, a bank that has values and that really cares about helping people and the business prosper on a daily basis. Our people really have embraced our culture challenge.


Sanja:  It sounds like you have a strong strategy in place for fostering an engaged environment within your departments and teams. What other types of initiatives were you able to launch or support with the StarMeUp platform?

Dan: We have a very strong corporate strategy that has been successful for the past six years and we do not deviate from it since it has been so successful. Our strategy revolves around our four main stakeholder groups which  include our people, customers, shareholders and communities. We feel very strongly that it is a virtuous circle and that if you improve one of these groups, you improve all of them. We start everything we do with our people, and by putting our people first we are able to do fantastic things. The usage statistics from StarMeUp have also been inspiring as 68% of our people are currently using it. There is no other thing within the bank that has a 68% traction, apart from mandatory training and performance appraisals. With this type of traction it only makes sense to utilize StarMeUp not only to encourage recognition but to expand our initiatives within our company.

For example,  we started using StarMeUp for recognition purposes and ended up linking new initiatives that are advancing our company such as our BeHealthy initiative, its our in house health and wellness programme, which aims to foster healthy colleagues. We believe that the health of our people is directly related to the health of our company, and we’ve invested a lot of time and effort into this program over the past two years. By launching a BeHealthy star within the StarMeUp platform, our people were able to recognize other colleagues for living healthy and having a wellness focus in the workplace or outside the company in their everyday lives.


Sanja: It’s great to see the importance you are placing on health, and a powerful example for how employees can support each other in making sure that this initiative is something that becomes long-lasting.

Switching gears a little bit, because I know we are both huge fans of data, can you share some examples of how you are measuring organizational culture, or what are some indicators you look at to make sure everything is progressing towards the goal you’ve established?

Dan:  In our culture if you look logically and compare the data you can see the contribution to our company. Each year we do a global engagement survey with all our employees and we’ve received a fantastic response on a variety of topics. Some key findings from these surveys show that 81% of our employees reported that the people they work with make an effort to behave in a simple, personal and fair (our three corporate values) way which is up 9% from the previous year. Additionally, 75% of employees responded that there are opportunities to adopt their own ideas for making life simple, personal and fair which is up 7% from the previous year.

You can see that we are continually building momentum throughout the organization.

Sanja: Those results are a really great way to validate that your strategy is being effective. Are your shareholders and investors on board with your focus on cultural initiatives?

Dan: We’re really proud of our strategy and we know that culture is in the center of it. We went to New York in October last year to speak to our investors and culture was on the agenda. For an industry that is typically only interested in financials, investors are becoming increasingly more interested in our cultural initiatives and how we are using them to help people and businesses prosper.


Sanja:  With a global company such as Santander Bank, what are some ways you were be able to unify corporate culture across so many countries and locations?

Dan: Having an international platform like StarMeUp has been fantastic from a global perspective and the countries have done an excellent job promoting and executing this initiative. We have a presence in 32 countries with 202,000 employees, and seeing the cross geography communication, engagement and recognition occurring is amazing. When someone in Spain recognizes someone in Argentina for the great work and collaboration that they are doing not only increases the geographical diversity, but offers opportunities to share best practices and synergies between countries that directly affects our bottom line.  That gives us the lowest cost ratio of any European bank of this scale. It gives us the best and most agile operating model in IT systems, and this is thanks to employees in different geographic locations collaborating. When you see that in the StarMeUp analytics it is fantastic because you see it’s happening and you see it’s true.

Sanja:  With a company as large as Santander, how do you make decisions on culture and cultural initiatives for each country?  

Dan:  Since we are such a large company, it is more important than ever to keep the lines of communication open. To do this, we have a Common Culture Meeting for two days in Madrid where we invite the people that are responsible for driving our culture. We discuss many cultural topics, listen to speakers and have workshops to really dive into each country at a granular level and work with them on their specific ideas and issues. We also ask the countries to prioritize their most important topics for the upcoming year which is a great way to get feedback from our people and our business partners to drive a unified culture without losing sight of the local needs of each country.

We also have fantastic analysts in all our geographies that comb through the data and pick up trends. For example, we would include the data from StarMeUp in our agendas with our chairman every month to show the results on a country by country level. By doing this we were able to move this initiative along in two ways. First, it created awareness of StarMeUp, and second, it created awareness of the importance of culture in the workplace. We were really fortunate that our chairman was sponsoring the StarMeUp project and by talking about it every month showed the importance and relevance to our organization.


Sanja: That is so great that your chairman is so involved and such a huge champion of your cultural initiatives.

Dan: We are very fortunate to have a leader that leads by example and lives and breathes the culture and values of Santander Bank every day. A prime example of this is her involvement in the StarMeUp platform. Our chairman launched StarMeUp publicly in December 2016, on a stage in front of Santander employees by explaining how important this platform would be to our company. Instead of just telling employees to use it, she uses it herself to send stars to employees when they go above and beyond. Actually, in previous weeks she has personally recognized forty seven employees with the BeHealthy Star. If the people that are trying to enforce the initiatives aren’t actively participating, the rest of the team probably won’t participate as much either.

There is another example I want to share. Within the banking industry the bonus culture is an important topic, and we are extremely proud to measure not only what people delivered, but also how they delivered as well. So a minimum of 40% of people´s variable remuneration is based on how they deliver, or how they live the eight corporate behaviors within the culture.  We are very proud of that. We’ve seen fantastic results in previous years.

Sanja: What a motivator that must be to receive a recognition star from the chairman of your company! With all this activity and focus on culture, what is next for Santander Bank?

Dan:  Over the next 12 months, there are two topics that are going to be a focus in order to keep our culture moving forward and progressing. The first is flexi-working and the second is leadership. To focus on these initiatives, we are working towards something we are calling the Santander Way of Working.  This will combine the BeHealthy program alongside flexi-working and other items so that we can support our employees in their careers and aspirations with flexible work options. Regarding leadership we want to improve the capabilities of our leaders by giving them the tools they need to discharge their responsibilities and will be setting out a common framework and guidance for this.


Sanja: It’s very clear that you have seen very positive changes in your organizational culture. What would you say to companies who don’t think they can make culture a strategic priority next year?

Dan: I believe that it is safe to say that we are living in a time of huge change and the war for talent has never been greater. By focusing on culture you can create an environment that is so attractive that other people want to come and work for you. The culture is vital to the success of the organization and if we aren’t living and embracing a great culture people will not be attracted to our bank. If you can’t attract the best talent, you can’t have the best company. You need to start digging deeper as this has an effect on business performance.

Sanja: Any final thoughts that you’d like to share with us regarding your thoughts on company culture?

Dan: When it comes to culture, it is an ongoing process that is never done. The world changes so fast as does culture within organizations, and HR needs to lead the charge. We live in a digital and social environment that allows us access to unique platforms. These platforms can change the way we do business and we need to take advantage of opportunities to increase productivity, implement new ideas and gain valuable insight into ways to make the organization the best place for both employees and customers.

Sanja: Dan, to hear about what you’ve been able to accomplish and see the data that supports your success makes us proud to be part of  this journey. We’d like to thank you for taking the time to talk to us about your company, your initiatives and the results you’ve achieved over the past 18 months since you started using the StarMeUp platform. What your company has accomplished is truly inspiring.

StarMeUp empowers employees to become the best versions of themselves, and become even more significant contributors to the Organization, by helping them overcome natural human limitations through technology and AI. Start the digital transformation journey: Request a Live Demo Today!


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