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Illustration: Janne Iivonen

Marie-Huguette Cormier is about to step into a room filled with her company’s most valuable assets. It’s a Friday morning a few months into a new era at Mouvement Desjardins, and the co-operative is hosting a convention for the general managers of its caisse—or branch—network. The bank, headquartered in Lévis, Que., may have more than $250 billion in assets and over 300 caisses in Quebec and Ontario, but financial services is ultimately a people business. “It’s the people who give the service,” says the senior vice-president of HR and communications. “They have to be treated the same way we want them to treat customers.”

Size and employee happiness tend to have an inverse relationship. But though it’s Quebec’s largest employer, Desjardins has consistently won awards for the way it engages its 48,000 workers; it is a Platinum-status Aon Best Employers in Canada honouree this year, its sixth on the list. It’s not resting on those laurels, however. Desjardins recently came under new management, and freshly elected CEO Guy Cormier has made “investing in people first” the core of his mission for the company. It’s the kind of platitude you might expect from a new boss, but Cormier and his team are backing it up by refocusing the bank’s sprawling organizational structure so it empowers employees.

Desjardins is organized as a co-operative, meaning that each of its caisses has members rather than customers and maintains its own board. The CEO of Desjardins is chosen by an electoral college of regional representatives. Guy Cormier, a 24-year veteran of the company, succeeded Monique Leroux in the top job in March. (He also serves as president and chair of the board.) “It’s the employees who make the difference for members [through] the quality of service they provide and their ability to listen,” he told the Lévis Chamber of Commerce two months later, referencing his experiences as a caisse general manager.

To ensure “people first” becomes more than just a corporate catchphrase, Desjardins is working to update the tools and training available to employees, and to simplify the processes governing the giant organization’s operations. For example, front-line caisse workers have expressed irritation with having to juggle different protocols and technological systems for each of the company’s various service offerings—personal banking, credit cards, investment accounts, insurance and so on—while serving a single member. “Employees are getting really frustrated,” says Marc-André Malboeuf, Desjardins’ vice-president of HR solutions, “so we’re trying to simplify their experience.”

Simplification is a major theme for Guy Cormier’s Desjardins; it’s one of four core behaviours the company is trying to inculcate in all of its staff. Large organizations can often get tangled in red tape of their own making. An institution of Desjardins’ size would not function without codified processes, and while the co-operative has plenty—143 distinct ones when it counted a few years ago—it is now looking to give employees more leeway to act on the front lines by, say, allowing a caisse teller to offer an additional incentive at the counter. Such autonomy requires relaxing the rule book, but the thinking is that it will result in happier members, more empowered employees and, importantly, fewer bureaucratic bottlenecks. “We’re trying to stop [decisions] at the right level and make sure people have the autonomy to do their jobs correctly, without necessarily having to escalate everything,” explains Malboeuf, adding that staff have been asking for such freedom for a few years now. This change essentially enables agency without anarchy, the exact sort of motivation-boosting autonomy touted by author Daniel Pink in one of the most-watched TED Talks.

The idea is to keep good people in the fold, something Desjardins takes seriously. High turnover is common in financial services, and while the bank’s wide variety of products, and preponderance of business units offering them, give employees plenty of opportunity to move up (or sideways) instead of out, the company has learned not to leave loyalty to fate. Some technical hires—accountants, for example—are presented with set career paths, while employees with general business backgrounds are encouraged to apply for open positions and discuss their ambitions with their bosses. And if they do decide to pursue an upward move, they won’t be on their own. Desjardins is implementing a program to support workers stepping from the front lines into their first management roles. It teaches key skills, such as performance evaluation, and is meant to help employees see that Desjardins rewards loyalty. (Another indication? The nine executives Guy Cormier chose for his management committee have spent a total of 153 years at the company.) These measures will become even more important as the organization works to recruit and retain millennials. “We want our managers to always think about, What is the next challenge I’m going to give to that employee?” Marie-Huguette Cormier says.

To those ends, the company is pushing for employees and managers to spend more time talking with one another. Instead of a yearly meeting at which bosses simply tick goals off a checklist—“We found our [previous] performance management process very administrative,” Malboeuf says—Desjardins is moving toward a so-called “continuous loop” of feedback, in which people discuss challenges and opportunities as they arise. And the company holds focus groups of employees who come up with ideas that would improve their jobs—one recent suggestion, for a platform that allows workers to commend the efforts of their colleagues to their teams, is being seriously considered. Managers also ask staff what they think of its practices at what it calls “moments of truth,” such as during the onboarding process.

Desjardins’ efforts to engage and empower its people is not just an exercise in building a fuzzy, feel-good employer brand. There’s a strategic imperative at play, too. Founded in Lévis in 1900, the organization only truly became a single Desjardins in 1990, when a centralized federation was put in charge of the various divisions and business units. Significant acquisitions in recent years—including the 2014 takeover of State Farm’s Canadian business, which gave Desjardins a presence in the western provinces—and the autonomy enjoyed by individual branches have created the need to re-emphasize a common unifying philosophy. “You have a specific culture if you’re in a business unit [or] a caisse,” explains Marie-Huguette Cormier. At the same time as the company is putting its people first, she says, it also needs to get them pulling together. “We need to boost the Desjardins [culture]—one culture, one group.”


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