Leadership in Swiss Banks

How do leadership styles develop in Swiss banks – basically known are the traditional Lewin leadership styles such as authoritarian/patriarchal, cooperative, etc.?[1]

In my view, a distinction is made today between transactional and transformational leadership styles, the first of which has parallels to the authoritarian leadership style. Transactional leadership is characterized by clear rules and structures, whereby it is up to the manager to decide whether or not to involve employees. There is a clear input-output relationship – the employee gives their labor in exchange for pay and title and is extrinsically motivated. Examples of this in the past have certainly been bonuses such as at Credit Suisse, where CHF 32 billion in bonuses were paid over the last ten years with a cumulative loss of CHF 3.2. billion.[2] Transformational leadership is similar to the collaborative leadership style and focuses on the shared vision. Here, the focus is more on the charisma, the role model function and motivation by the manager as well as the individual advancement of the employees. The shared vision or the overarching purpose[3] was propagated at UBS, for example, by R. Hamers in particular.[4] Transformational leadership can be understood as an introduction to agile structures, which I would like to present briefly below.[5]

But first, why is the leadership style in banks changing? Changes are evident, even if they may not be as strong as in other industries. Companies are confronted with an ever faster flow of information in an increasingly complex environment. As a result of digitalization & globalization, companies interact more and more in network-like structures and have to react more and more quickly to changing framework parameters. In addition, there is the occurrence of black swans[6], i.e. events whose occurrence can hardly be predicted. These certainly include the Corona crisis, but also the Ukraine war. Last but not least, customers want integrated solutions to be made available quickly. The development of a perfect product over a longer period of time, pushed into the market by the push principle, is obsolete. In such a VUCA world (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity)[7], waterfall project planning has partly had its day. These are characterized by the fact that the objectives defined before the start of the project (scope) should be achieved while adhering to the planned use of resources and the specified time. Today, agile approaches and methods from IT are often used. Within sprints, the scope is made more and more precise, but without accepting losses in the quality requirements, in the planned use of resources and in the time planning. At the same time, the customer is involved much earlier in such agile approaches – this also explains the boom in Family & Friends projects, which enable the testing and (final) development of products and services.

So what characterizes agile organizational forms like the Spotify model?[8] Basically, the attempt is made to delegate the decision to a group of employees who are working specifically on the topic and have all the relevant information and also skills to act successfully on the topic. This also requires that the employees want to take responsibility and are or will be empowered accordingly.

Another argument in favor of agile organizational forms is the recruitment and retention of employees. In the war of talents, it must be taken into account that younger people tend to want flatter hierarchies or, in some cases, aspire to a purely technical career instead of a management career.[9] This separation of technical and management responsibilities is an achievement of agile organizational forms, based on the introduction of tribe and people leads.[10]

Where can we now observe the implementation of agile structures in Swiss banks? At UBS, around 18,500 of the approximately 70,000 employees work in agile structures.[11] Vontobel also uses agile methods to satisfy customer needs more quickly.[12] The traditionally technology-focused Hypothekarbank Lenzburg also emphasizes agility, personal responsibility, and a positive team culture.[13]

Another point of discussion regarding the type of leadership is also what role the office should play in the future. Will it be more of a place for communication and co-creation, while the home office will be used as a space for deep work? Here, the opinions of the banks differ. ZKB, for example, assumes that the home office will have no relevance for it in the long term.[14] However, this will make it difficult to recruit employees in the future, because this is particularly demanded by Gen Z (born 1996 – 2010) [15][16]

In conclusion, it remains to be said that an increasingly complex corporate environment requires agile structures in order to create customer-centric solutions – often also through cross-industry cooperation in networks or business ecosystems. At the same time, employees also want flatter and flatter hierarchies and more flexible settings such as the possibility of using home offices – at least to a limited extent. Transformational leadership can be seen as an entry point into the establishment of agile organizational structures.


[1] Leadership: The model of the three leadership styles according to Kurt Lewin – Business Insider

[2] Possible Credit Suisse takeover by UBS: Who will lead the new Swiss super-bank? | Tages-Anzeiger (tagesanzeiger.ch)

[3] Purpose, Vision And Mission: Do We Really Need Them All? – THE WORD DEPOT

[4] UBS CEO Ralph Hamers: What he contributed to the success of the big bank (nzz.ch)

[5] How transformational leadership paves the way to the agile enterprise (hr-pioneers.com)

[6] Black Swan – Definition | Gabler Wirtschaftslexikon

[7] VUCA – Definition | Gabler Wirtschaftslexikon

[8] Why Spotify did not use the Spotify Model | ccecosystems.news

[9] Generation Z in the world of work: 5 tips for employers | Staffbase

[10] When the employee chooses his boss (humanresourcesmanager.de)

[11] Agile@UBS, our unified agile way of working | UBS Global

[12] Banking and agile – a contradiction? (vontobel.com)

[13] Working in the spirit of empowerment and new work – Hypothekarbank Lenzburg AG (hbl.ch)

[14] ZKB CEO Scholl: “In 2 years, no one will be talking about the home office anymore” (nzz.ch)

[15] Generation Management – Definition | Gabler Wirtschaftslexikon

[16] Study shows: Generation Z makes home office a requirement (t3n.de)

Stefanie Auge-Dickhut

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