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The finance sector continues to ride on the coattails of what started as a severe decline in trust, market performance and profits in 2008. And Royal Bank of Scotland [RBS] was no exception, facing its own share of customer distrust and instability as well as a government bailout.

However, in its most recent CSR Report, the bank – as compared to its contemporaries – makes a marked effort to address these concerns and makes a public promise to examine its “financial stability, our customers, the way we use the resources around and the practices that we have.”

What really piqued my interest was the press release issued by the bank, which right from the headline – Royal Bank of Scotland Extends Meetings with Biggest Critics – told me change was afoot.

I caught up with Duncan Young, Deputy Head of Sustainability who is also in charge of producing the bank’s annual CSR Report. We began with an obvious question – I couldn’t hesitate – about a specific statement in CEO Stephen Hester’s quote that highlighted the Report’s very first page: What will it take to “build a really good bank”?

Aspirational Goals: “Building a Really Good Bank”

“There’s been debate about how aspirational that statement is…and a recognition that the sector has had a difficult time in recent years. We want to regain the trust of our customers and wider stakeholders – and we’re not going to become a really good bank till we do that,” he explained, adding: “We’ve spent the last few years working to make the bank secure and stable again. And made fairly significant progress. But as we go through the process of regaining trust with wider society, we think we need to deliver the kind of solutions that equate with us being a good bank.”

Fair enough. But what does an overarching statement of “becoming good” involve for an organization that serves a cross sector of business and consumer populations?

“We have significantly enhanced the remit of our Group Sustainability Committee this year. They will now cover wider reputational issues, impact on customers as well as U.K. industry practices, where too often, in the past customers were taken for granted. Today, we want to put customers at the heart of what we do to make sure we don’t make those mistakes again,” he said.

As for the committee’s expanded remit, “The committee will operate at the board level with full  RBS_Report_Cover_Alternativesupport from our leadership. Members will meet six times a year to review its larger mandate, which now includes conduct, culture and reputation, a very current issue for the industry.”

Underlining this is of course a sense of loss. As Young put it, “We are well aware that we have suffered heavily since the financial crisis and need to rethink how we work with our customers.”

“After the crisis, we were bailed out by the taxpayer. Our fundamental goal since has been to make the bank safe and secure. We’re getting there. Our loan to deposit ratio – traditionally held as a good measure of a bank – was at 140 percent at one point. Now we’re down to 100 percent, which is deemed to be a measurable sign of a stable bank,” he said.

“We’ve also repaid key aspects of government support. But it’s important that we focus on maintaining a culture now that ensures past mistakes do not recur. We have a much stronger focus on conduct risk and our engagement efforts are making sure the bank’s leadership are much better placed to pick up on issues of market behavior, reputation risk and have an understanding of what customers’ expectations are from us. That’s another reason why we have significantly increased our disclosures,” Young emphasized.

Transparent Leadership: Engaging With Critics

So how does the company plan to address and interact with its critics?

“We have had a program where the sustainability committee meets with our biggest external critics where they can make the case about their interests in how we operate directly to the executive team. Last year, we held three engagement sessions with 14-15 separate groups attending. This year, we transparency at RBSwill have six more. In fact, even as we talk, committee members are meeting with a few organizations to discuss cyber security and its impact on the bank and our customers,” offered Young.

The leverage and stature of the committee has proven an important approach in increasing the bank’s stakeholder engagement, according to Young, because of the members’ ability to represent critical points of view and risks directly to the leadership. “This ensures that our top leadership does not lose sight of our key stakeholders and the dialogue informs their decision-making and specific business-related outcomes,” he added.

The CEO Speaks

Another first for the bank: Publishing a Q&A with its CEO that makes a mighty honest effort at addressing issues like trust, stability, its lending practices as well as the 2012 LIBOR rate-fixing scandal. Highlights:

On sustainability:

“Our long-term success will be determined by how well we understand our customers and communities, and how well we can service their needs in a responsible way. 2012 was a very challenging year for the sector, but it certainly served to underline that point.”

Lending to small businesses:

“It’s a difficult environment at the moment. Ongoing economic uncertainty has unsurprisingly driven down demand from businesses. SME loan applications were down 19% from 2011. Nonetheless, we continue to provide significant support to customers. RBS advanced more than £74 billion to UK businesses and homeowners in 2012. We’re approving a higher proportion of loan applications than ever – 93% in the last quarter of 2012.”

Royal Bank of Scotland CSR Report

The impact of the LIBOR rate-fixing scandal:

“There is no place at RBS for such behavior. That’s why we’re determined to correct the control and risk management failures that originated in RBS during the financial boom years, of which attempted LIBOR manipulation is an example. This is a painstaking task, that’s been undertaken over several years and we can’t detect and solve every problem as fast as we would like. The aim is to create a safe and secure RBS that serves customers well and that, in the right way, creates value for those who rely on us.”

On customer trust:

“Staff don’t set out to serve customers poorly, but banks too often had other priorities before the crisis. They saw customers as a means of making money.”

On executive pay:

“The investment banking bonus pool has gone down by 20% on last year, despite operating profits in the markets division being up by nearly 70%. In fact, since 2009 our investment banking bonus pool has shrunk by more than 70%. We’ve also increased transparency around pay. But there’s a balance – we need high quality people if we are to achieve the goals we set out in 2008. So we must deliver reform, while not making the business unmanageable.”

Regaining Trust with External Stakeholders…

The report’s materiality map, worth a look by anyone interested in disclosure and how it can increase shareholder value and business performance, shows customer trust as the bank’s number one material risk. I asked Young how his team was planning to address this:

“Stakeholder engagement is one piece. We make our senior leaders available to the media, release quarterly disclosure and take advantage of public forums to explain where we’re taking the company, how we’re working on renewing customer trust and engaging with enterprise,” he said.

Other efforts include programs like “Working with You” where relationship managers spend a minimum of two days a year working with their clients to get a real understanding of those businesses, an accreditation scheme to ensure our bankers are suitably skilled and qualified, and simplifying our product range to make life easier for our High Street customers.

“It’s not just about the products but also how we offer them. We have to acknowledge that we’re operating against the backdrop of a tough regulatory landscape and immense pressure. The repercussions of offering the wrong products in the past continue to be felt across the organization and we have to get this right,” he added.

…And Employees

What about the bank’s internal culture? With massive layoffs having made headlines not too long ago, Employee retention at RBSwhat is Young’s team doing to retain and attract top talent? “Despite all the changes and the restructuring, our employee engagement measurements stack up very well. We’re quite pleased, for example, with our ongoing commitment to demo gender diversity at the executive level. We’re not at the optimum point but we’re getting much better at employing more women,” said Young.

Take a look at the report and you see Young’s sentiments reflected right from Page 1. It is commendable that the bank, despite its difficult regulatory environment and consumer marketplace, is facing up to its critics, shifting its cultural rotunda and putting programs in place that can ensure 2008 does not repeat itself. As Young put it, the report manages to “strike a realistic tone and successfully acknowledges that we did have a difficult year.”

After all, we’ve gone hoarse advocating to reporters that they mustn’t view CSR/sustainability Reports as yet another marketing document but as a piece of disclosure that is tied to materiality, engagement and business performance.

Final words? “If people read nothing more than the first 15 pages, they would get a good oversight of our challenges and how we’re responding. That’s mission accomplished for us,” offered Young.

Originally written for and published on CSRwire’s Commentary section Talkback on May 15, 2013.