Success is a People Story

 

The following is an excerpt from The 50: HR Leaders Reimagining the Filipino Organization. Authored by Pancho Dizon, “Success is a People Story.” In it, Michelle Rubio, the Human Resource Director of Unionbank of the Philippines, is interviewed about how the organization executes its strategy in strengthening their organizational culture.

When a company wins several Employer of the Year Awards and gains recognition as one of the best employers to work for in all of Asia, it’s no exaggeration to say that they must be doing something right, particularly when it comes to human resources.


The company in question is none other than UnionBank, one of the Philippines' largest universal banks. Headquartered in Pasig and founded in 1968, the company has evolved from simple savings and mortgage bank in its early years to one of the most digitally forward-looking financial institutions in the country today.

Though there are thousands of employees all over the country that keep UnionBank afloat, it would be primarily criminal to neglect the contributions of Michelle Rubio. Rubio has spent almost 17 years as UnionBank’s Human Resources Director and has a hand in everything from organizational development to product management.

When it comes to UnionBank’s success, one of the first things that Rubio credits is the organization’s propensity towards cultural transformation, which is enabled by storytelling. “Storytelling is crucial for us here at UnionBank,” she said, “It’s the way we cascade to the employees our values, who we are, and our story.”

To further illustrate the central role of storytelling in strengthening UnionBank’s organizational culture, Rubio recalled when the company hired a Palanca awardee to help employees express their positive experiences with UnionBank. “We believe articulation puts these experiences and the culture in their hands,” Rubio explained, “When they can tell their stories, they realign with the company’s values.”

This is why the stories that employees would share were required to show how they’ve embodied the UnionBank DNA―another term for living up to the company’s values and beliefs. Some of the stories even have nothing to do with bank transactions.

“There was one story about a customer who went to one of our branches and had one of their slippers break,” Rubio said, “One of our tellers offered a replacement pair, showing how UnionBank always goes above and beyond for their clientele. Another popular story recounted how one of our sales representatives helped push a client’s car to a nearby repair shop when it broke down on the road.”

These stories would sometimes even make it as far as the company’s CEO, who would sometimes go around the UnionBank main office and congratulate the individual storytellers. At times, a workplace caravan would go around and read out loud the best stories collected in front of both employees and even some bank customers.

“What happened there was a cultural revolution of sorts,” Rubio said, “We were able to develop social capital among the employees, keeping them engaged, and believing in the organization they work for.”

This helped significantly in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic when 75% to 80% of their workforce shifted to a work-from-home setup. Having a strong cultural foundation allowed them to weather the disruption of a sudden digital shift, enabling them to quickly develop a work-from-home playbook that covered everything from proper goal setting to the best ways to lead teams virtually. This shows that UnionBank’s cultural transformation went hand-in-hand with its digital transformation.

“Change has to do with developing certain behavior,” Rubio said, “As operations become almost exclusively digital, we need more people to be driven by collaboration.”

One of the distinguishing beliefs of UnionBank, forward thinking, gave its leaders foresight of the need to future-proof the organization. This is why four years prior to being shaken by the COVID-19 pandemic, UnionBank formed cross-functional teams known as “squads”. Each squad consists of employees from different departments―such as product development, HR, finance, and marketing―all work together to develop a new product or service slated for release about every two weeks.

This has two main benefits. First, UnionBank can become genuinely agile, where they can innovate faster and continuously improve the end product/service they can offer their customers. This is opposed to the “waterfall method” of innovation, where it can even take years to test an idea, only for it to fail once it enters the market.

Second, this constant innovation allows employees to upskill beyond their wildest imagination. “I have some people in my HR team who can code and are working on their certification with blockchain,” Rubio said, “Even I have been certified as a Scrum master, which gives me better insights into what makes an organization agile. So you see at UnionBank, HR plays a huge role in where the organization is headed.”

Finally, this constant upskilling also serves to engage UnionBank employees better, allowing them to better serve their customers. “Only an engaged employee can engage customers,” Rubio said. There may be something to this logic, as UnionBank has been consistently named the country’s best digital bank.

While UnionBank has proven itself to be successful as a digitally transformed financial institution and tech company, Rubio concludes by bringing it back to what matters: the people. “This is what makes the cultural transformation through storytelling work, what sustains a digital transformation,” she said, “As I’ve always said, you can buy tech, you can buy processes, but at the end of the day, it's the people that propels a successful transformation.”

 

To get more insights from other HR leaders like Michelle Rubio, please check out the full book, available for purchase here


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