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“If there is one area in which we shall never have a finished project, it is people management” – Alexandra Brandão

A 21-year member of the Santander group, since September 1, Alexandra Brandão has led the bank's human resources management at a global level.

She was beginning the last year of her degree when she signed her first employment contract with Santander. The day will always remain in her memory: 1st January 2000. Alexandra Brandão, 42, has a degree in management from Nova SBE and a multinational master’s in business and administration from the Adolfo Ibañez School of Management, in Florida, USA, and the Deusto Business School, in Bilbao, Spain.

First, in her dream area, investment banking, she started with a part-time job, and at the end of that year, having already finished her degree, she was integrated full-time in the company. She worked in commercial banking as director of the products department, where she got to know the retail sector better, and accompanied the “change in vision, and also in the scope of what are the various important and relevant areas of the bank”. Today, between Lisbon and Madrid, she is – twenty-one years later – the Group’s Director of Global Human Resources. In her hands? Almost 200,000 people in over 20 countries around the world.

Twenty-one years later, what has the bank kept since your first day and what has changed in the meantime?

I started in my dream area, working in investment banking, at Santander Negócios, which at the time was the top bank in Portugal. It had the best management references, young, super-talented leaders, and it was a dream for me to be able to work at the bank.

I followed the changes in vision, and also in the scope of the various important and relevant areas of the bank. And… it did change a lot. There are areas I can say, from the way we work today, that there has been a profound transformation – even more, will come – but undoubtedly what we are today, the agility we have, the values, the company’s purpose, is very strong. I started here in a small bank with very talented people, we moved to a bigger bank, with a huge transformation until today.

On a personal level, it is a challenge: my foundations, my family is my fundamental pillar, without their support, my husband and my two children, this would not be possible. They manage to live well in this context, used to me travelling. I can’t help saying that it is a personal challenge, but I think it is breaking down barriers and myths. Sometimes we think that a woman, relatively young and with children cannot take on certain positions or family life does not allow her, and in a way you also break some myths around these restrictions that are often associated with women when they want to take on leadership positions, to grow professionally. Now, it is like everything else, it is also a personal, professional effort, and here the critical thing is that it makes sense as a whole.

The agility we have, the values, the company’s purpose, is very strong.”

You took on new responsibilities during the pandemic. Both in terms of procedures and vision, the bank has radically changed the way it looks at the world and the business. What are the main challenges in this professional change within the group, and in a world that is constantly changing and with such a high degree of uncertainty?

About the pandemic, I caught it when I was still in corporate functions in Portugal and now, of course, in my global human resources functions. The bank’s greater mission is to support people, our customers, employees and companies to prosper. And what I have witnessed is that our greater mission and vision as a company has never been so directly felt by the people who work in the bank as at this time. I remember, in the management and segments area that I led, who was in perfect daily contact with all the commercial and field teams, how the bank prepared and reinvented itself, broke down internal barriers, managed to create processes in record time, to be able to have, in time, in form, in hours, solutions for our customers.

I remember the moratoria, the credit lines, every day we were on top of the information released by the government, and thinking about how we could make it easier, faster, sometimes even communication that was not yet formal, but we were moving forward with the customer processes so that everything was prepared.

From a People Management point of view, the bank even created, in this pandemic, a special international taskforce, with global leaders meeting weekly, with a helicopter view of everything that was happening in the different countries, what the measures were, what the safety was, how our employees felt. We launched questionnaires to try to understand how safe they felt, to get them to give us some information on how they were living through the pandemic: interestingly I can say that 85% of the employees responded that the bank was up to the task and had taken the appropriate measures to deal with this pandemic.

When the pandemic was declared, we sent 130,000 employees to work from home, and this was unimaginable. We would not have been able to imagine if the pandemic had not existed, that we would be able to operate as a bank with 130,000 people working from home. And we were. And the truth is, in many cases, we had to work not on productivity, but on other issues like digital disconnection. Because this is so easy, immediate, efficient and productive that, at times, the discussion had to be centred around people having to disconnect, having to make the distinction between the personal space and the professional space, otherwise this whole situation would worsen because we couldn’t manage this immediacy, and the ease with which we can turn on the computer and not have time to close it. All these aspects were highly valued and analysed within the bank, we created measures, protocol rules.

When the pandemic was declared, we sent 130,000 employees to work from home, and this was unimaginable.”

In practice, what were the main changes in terms of structure?

We created the new normal taskforce: in every country, we appointed a new normal director, who is someone who has the responsibility of not only reporting and monitoring the initiatives at a local level to respond effectively to the pandemic but also looking at what’s happening across the board. One of the other new roles we have in the bank that reports to me is a global health & wellness director, dedicated to health and wellness. It’s a person who is with me, has just joined the group, and precisely so that we have a good dynamic here, not only in response to the pandemic but also to look at the organisation in a holistic way.

Are these positions a consequence of these new needs?

Yes, it is true that wellness initiatives were already very present in the organisation, like all health issues from a stricter point of view. But the need to go further did the rest. There is a lot of talk about mental health, and I am a believer that for our families and our context to be well, we have to start by being well ourselves. We have to have our teams and people at their best. These are not Santander’s issues, they are society’s issues, and Santander is concerned. And, more than concerned, it wants to be proactively involved in all issues related to the health and well-being of its employees.

How do you deal with the company’s culture when people are at home, when there is no physical space that aggregates?

In Chinese, it composed the word crisis of two different characters: one meaning danger and the other opportunity. And it is interesting because, frankly, I believe that we have the opportunity to put into practice something that was already in our plans but whose cultural transformation probably still came a bit late. This pandemic has brought immense opportunities. And it accelerated the objectives that we already had as a company.

Companies must now use everything they have learned to their advantage. The worst that can happen is that everything we have learned and lived through, when the health crisis is over, stays the same. This would be the worst outcome we could have: discovering that we are capable, that we are efficient, that greater conciliation is possible, and then not using any of this to our advantage.

We were very impregnated with the culture of presentism; for some leaders, probably their entire professional career has been lived according to a certain paradigm, a paradigm of success, of which an ever-present professional collaborator is a part. We have to realise that if we have already seen that the other world is possible, now let’s combine it. And, frankly, I believe that we will evolve in the hybrid model: using resources in such a way that we get the best out of them. And when I say all, I mean employees and company, the best for all as a whole. I believe in a hybrid model, not a model of extremes.

Alexandra Brandão, Global Head of HR at Santander.ECO/Hugo Amaral

The bank’s plan to adapt to its new business model included the closure of many branches. According to news reports, last year there were 60 in Portugal alone, and the plan is to close another 30 this year. What are the structural changes in this plan, and how has the group shielded the remaining workers, their motivation and follow-up?

If there is something that this pandemic has also done, it has been to accelerate trends, namely the way our customers relate to the bank and the way they want to be served. And that leads us to how we have to be concerned about the challenges of the future as a company and be in a competitive position to give the best solutions to our customers. As such, there is a trend here that is not new, but it is accelerating, and it is coming with greater impact: digitalisation and new service models.

What we have been able to observe is that there are certain skills that need to be strengthened: there are some types of work that will no longer exist, because we are having increasingly digital processes, because automation is increasing, the efficiency of processes. Regardless of whether it’s an area of innovation or more related to digital, any of us, in order to be prepared for the role we play, are going to have to expand our skills, to reach the level that our role is going to demand. I believe in this change, in people’s potential and in reinventing ourselves: I have reinvented myself several times in my professional life. I believe in making a leap towards what are the new trends and what the market is asking of us. And, probably, here the great challenge will be, in every move you make, a process of unlearning, learning, tasting, trying, unlearning again.

I believe that each experience will necessarily add to the next, but if there is a will – I always say that it is essential. And I think that we can support our people, our employees, to grow in their skills – reskill and upskill – so that they can perform other functions and be prepared to perform.

If there is something that this pandemic has also done, it has been to accelerate trends, namely the way our customers relate to the bank and the way they want to be served.”

What kind of structures do you have to support this continuous training?

We have a concept of open and continuous learning, so the resources are open and available to our employees. There are platforms where they can learn about various current topics and we believe very much in this growth mindset, that people are capable, and we work to make this possible within the group.

We have initiatives like the corporate university, local training academies. We’ve just launched a Bootcamp on code topics with Ironhack, and we’re doing it for employees from Portugal, Spain, Poland, UK, everyone can apply. This is based on the concept that we are able to train and prepare people who, not having that background, may come to perform other roles and be prepared for them.

If people have that potential internally to be able to make that change, we are able to have some capacity here to reinvent and make some professional changes, to work on what I call the employability of our people, regardless of whether they are in the bank or outside the bank.

The bank has invested in greater proximity, despite a greater physical distance. Does this operational change involve new people? What skills are you looking for in new recruits?

I strongly believe that certain skills are essential to building the bank’s future. In technical terms, we characterise these new people as a mix of banker and technology. That is, skills that bring together the more traditional ones – which are also our strength – combined with these skills of technology, data analysis, innovation themes. And the beauty of it all is when we have all these skills combined.

One person doesn’t have to have them all, but we need to create a context in which we can get the best out of all this diversity of experiences. Diverse teams bring more valuable information to the table. This means that when we know we have to interact with a group of people who do not have the same background as us, we usually prepare better. By preparing better, we bring richer information and the debate is much more interesting. And when the debate is more interesting and the nature of the inputs is greater, the richness of the decisions taken is certainly much greater.

Above all, there are three types of softer skills: empathy – understanding the other -, understanding diversity and creating a good context so that the strengths of diversity are obtained, because diversity is not only about having diverse teams: it is about ensuring that those teams have the best conditions so that the advantage of diversity is actually realised and fully obtained. And, as I was saying, collaboration, empathy and creativity/agility in general. This ability to basically live in a panorama where things are no longer so certain, the rhythms are different, decisions are faster, but there is more of that interconnection between teams, the level of empathy, collaboration. These have to be unquestionable skills for any professional who wants to work at Santander.

Diverse teams bring more valuable information to the table.”

You have spoken a lot about the diversity aspect. How is the Santander Group working on this issue?

Diversity is a very strong theme for us, and a very important one. Starting with gender diversity, we are a company whose chairman is a woman, Ana Botín. And a woman who, in all these areas of strategy, culture and values, of what we want to achieve as a company, has a very strong influence on the management.

Santander has been a leader in the Bloomberg Gender-Equality Index for three consecutive years, and this is a very strong recognition that also gives us an enormous responsibility. We are fully aware that we are doing a lot, but we know there is a long way to go and we are not yet at the level we would like. Speaking of gender diversity, we have very concrete goals and some levers to be able to achieve these results. First, we want women in leadership positions within the group: it is a challenge and a public commitment to have 30% women in our top positions worldwide within a few years. We also have to reach, in the group boards, between 40% and 60% (at the moment we have 40%).
Another fundamental objective is to work on the equal pay gap, which means the pay gap that may exist between men and women with the same level of responsibility. At this moment, the equal pay gap is a value of less than 2% difference for men and women in the same positions.

In order to work on all aspects of diversity, we believe that there are several initiatives we can invest in, at various levels of the organisation and not only at the top: we have to create the conditions for the progression of women to happen and, in a certain way, we have to work on the pipeline, getting more women to assume middle leadership positions so that then more women can be prepared for the next functions, and so on. I believe that these movements are very important. If we want our people to assume certain functions and have a more diverse profile, we also have to work on the process itself, to ensure that we always have a woman on the shortlist (this is something we consider mandatory). Only in this way, with this set of initiatives, will we be capable.

How is diversity materialised in the companies’ purpose?

There is a lot of evidence that there is a social cost for women in transparently addressing their ambition compared to men. That is one issue that has to be improved: society has to take some steps and companies can help on that path. But it exists, it is a fact.

The example is fundamental, and it is very important to work in all areas: having women in important areas not only in support but in relevant business areas, there is a big path here. And this is women empowering other women, but once again I like to put the diversity theme: above all we need good professionals, women and men, and of all profiles. What we have to guarantee, our big goal is to have the best talent. Male, female, more technological profile, more traditional profile, we have to have the right skills for our organisation. And if there is any of them that we are not achieving their full potential, we have to work on that. But we cannot get out of this big goal: the best talent, the best for our people, the best for our company, and of course, to be aligned with society.

The new generations do not accept inequality and, therefore, companies, even to be attractive in terms of recruitment and talent, and bring the best people into their organisation, have to use the expression “walk the talk”. They have to be aligned with society, committed. And this is a theme that, even in the company, we take care of within and with our partners: we care that companies that work with us, also have diversity strategies, inclusion, correct treatment with the teams. As a large organisation, we have to worry about our direct and indirect impact on society. This is an issue that, for Santander, is at the core of its strategy.

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