Leading with purpose through COVID-19: ATB’s journey
By ATB Financial 14 September 2020 6 min read
On Monday, March 13, 2020, Carol Shmygol, senior vice president of Brand at ATB, carried her coffee cup to the kitchen of ATB’s office space in Eighth Avenue Place, downtown Calgary. She’d had a meeting with an external partner in the office and it was impossible not to notice how empty it was.
“No one else was there,” she recalls. “I was packing up my things not knowing when I’d be back.”
Turns out it would be five months before Shmygol would set foot in an ATB office again. For her and 5,000+ ATB employees, the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning to change everything about how and where work was done, the types of services customers needed and the speed of communications. With the first presumptive case of COVID-19 in Alberta being an ATB employee—who has since fully recovered—the senior leadership team (SLT) at ATB knew they had to act fast and with purpose to protect the well being and livelihoods of employees and customers.
Acting fast in action
As COVID-19 arrived in Alberta, ATB’s President & CEO Curtis Stange called together the SLT to develop an approach to shepherd the organization through this uncertain period. Shmygol says that began with aligning on three key principles that would guide decisions from the top to the bottom of the organization:
- Keep people safe
- Support Alberta safety
- Protect profitability
With those principles as a foundation, 10 sub-groups were formed to identify and manage risk in different areas of the business, including one for Shmygol’s area of Brand. Then those teams worked on solutions to rapidly respond to the growing pandemic.
Shmygol recalls how quickly this response came together: “We heard about the pillars on a Friday and the teams for the 10 subgroups were in place by Monday. It was inspiring to see the speed at which we can recognize, focus and deploy as an organization.”
As the teams came together, it was time to dig in. Shmygol and her team were responsible for Brand, Marketing, Sponsorships and Corporate Social Responsibility. They had to pause all existing marketing efforts to ensure ATB wasn't insensitive to what Albertans were going through. They had to understand the new—and urgent—needs of customers and develop ways to communicate that were effective, sensitive and clear.
"My team was meeting daily at 7:30 am. It was like changing the engine while we were flying the plane. Everyday things were happening that impacted our work significantly."
Senior Vice President, Brand, ATB
Supporting team members
In those early weeks of the pandemic, as the 10 teams executed on their mandates, ATB made the call to send all employees home to work.
“ATB was in a fortunate position because we had the infrastructure and policies in place to support work from home. Sending more than 5,000 employees home was easier for us,” says Shmygol. The transition to work from home for employees was pretty seamless. Using the suite of Google tools before the pandemic made connecting virtually to do the work that mattered in the pandemic more familiar and less disruptive.
Supporting employees extended beyond solving their technical needs. It involved recognizing the personal toll of the pandemic by extending deep empathy for employees as they did critical work for ATB while managing their health, children, parents, finances and more, says Shmygol adding: “ATB is a flexible and empathetic company.”
In a Brand meeting, she made a point of assuring team members that “it’s okay if you’re not okay,” and “if you can only show up at 10 per cent, then show up at 10 per cent. If you can show up today at 120 per cent and tomorrow you can only show up at 30 per cent, then that’s how it is.” It was this clear demonstration of commitment to well-being that really empowered team members to lean into their own personal journeys, experiences and vulnerabilities through the crisis—which in turn, they extended to customers on the front line.
Clear, consistent communication was—and continues to be—a core part of supporting the team during the disruption of COVID-19, says Shmygol. In the early weeks, Stange increased his weekly 15-minute company-wide video update to a “daily download” video update. He would share with all employees how the company was responding to COVID-19, changes taking place and customer success stories. “It was really important to have that single source of truth,” she says.
The other key pillar of the COVID-19 response was to support ATB’s customers. Shmygol is particularly proud of three key initiatives for customers during this period: tech to support the relief programs, developing critical resources needed by customers and launching Goodness Grows.
ATB worked closely with the Canadian government and Canada Revenue Agency to build the web and digital technology needed to get financial support into the hands of customers in a matter of days.
“We were one of the first financial institutions to do it,” she says.
Within Brand, Shmygol’s team accelerated the creation of resources ATB customers needed most, such as information on how to defer a payment or what the pandemic means for investments. They also worked fast to build out good advice, up-to-date resources and key tutorials for the website. Then they leveraged every communication channel available to reach ATB customers with this highly relevant, practical and critical information.
Given sponsorships and marketing messages had been paused, Shmygol and her team directed some of those resources to creating Goodness Grows. It’s an initiative that motivates Albertans to bring joyful moments to others, whether through providing immediate support and relief during the pandemic—like these three Alberta-based companies—or simply doing good.
Shmygol says these efforts have had a noticeable impact on customers.
“Customers that have had to reach out to us for support are even more positive to ATB than they were before. We have a lot of indicators that show focusing on our principles is increasing affinity for our brand,” she says.
On leading through a crisis
Reflecting on this period, Shmygol says it’s taught her two key things about leading through a crisis. First, removing silos from your organization by creating cross-functional teams and providing them each a really clear mandate unlocks a tremendous ability to get things done.
“A matrixed organization sounds messy, but from what I’ve seen, these teams can do things much faster and more effectively than teams in individual silos,” she says.
Second, tapping into the power of focus.
“It’s easy to focus when there is a pandemic at hand, but the power we can yield when the organization is focused is something we shouldn’t lose sight of once we are through this period,” she says.
To navigate both its employees and customers through the initial phase of the COVID-19 crisis, ATB maintained a constant state of reflection and embraced continual learning about how it can truly deliver as a brand with purpose. Shmygol believes it’s those guiding principles combined with ATB’s core values that laid the foundation for success.
“One of the things that has impressed me the most is seeing how the values of our organization helped our team members navigate this new reality. I'm extremely proud to work for a company with a purpose that I believe in and I know will continue to expand on that purpose to address the needs in our community,” says Shmygol.
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