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Empowering your business with a modern mindset

Published 9 February 2024 in Leadership • 6 min read

IMD’s Robert Hooijberg explains why empowerment should be integral to organizational design.

For more than 130 years, Swiss bank Julius Baer has served as a financial advisor and wealth management organization. In 2017, the bank underwent a drastic change after its CEO of ten years unexpectedly stepped down. During the preceding decade, the bank had undertaken a myriad of mergers and acquisitions and introduced a new advisory model that centralized investment decisions, rather than leaving them to the discretion of relationship managers. With a new leader at the helm, the organization started to explore how to integrate the different cultures it had acquired into a coherent, united business fit for the digital age.

Julius Baer’s senior leaders quickly realized that its workforce would be the facet of the business most heavily impacted by such a transformation, but also that it would be the key to unleashing the organization’s full potential. However, the bank’s employees needed to feel sufficiently empowered to take on the challenges they faced and to feel they were growing with the company. This required a new business culture.

To this end, in 2018 Julius Baer globally launched the Team Leader Program (TLP), which was designed to reposition the existing leadership training program as an empowerment initiative. The program, which is still going strong, combines face-to-face classes with six months of online learning and covers topics including industry trends, psychological bias, and new tools for managers.

From the start, the TLP was oversubscribed, and, to date, has reached around 750 of Julius Baer’s managers across departments and regions. The success of the program has encouraged the bank’s Learning and Leadership Development team to expand it to more senior roles. This has led to the creation of two new programs: one, for senior executives, and another, for the top leaders of functions and core business units.

Part of the TLP training involves encouraging and preparing line managers to become “leaders of leaders,” empowering themselves and others. Giving employees the agency to make their own decisions eliminates bottlenecks and makes all dependent processes more efficient. This new level of autonomy also makes space for innovation, feeding into growth. Moreover, the empowerment process fosters a sense of trust between managers and their teams, strengthening collaboration and teamwork.

What does ‘empowerment’ mean?

In the context of organizational design, empowerment is an inclusive strategy for bringing individuals into the decision-making process, offering them participatory roles that capitalize on their specific expertise and judgment. Empowerment should clarify their decision-making authority, increasing their sense of individual worth, and fueling their commitment to the organization.

Julius Baer’s TLP makes managers aware of these empowerment principles, helping them to start thinking about how best to empower each of their team members, based on the individual’s current level and growth aspirations and to reflect on their own growth and empowerment.

Empowerment unlocks leadership skills and innovation

Empowerment is often mislabeled as simple delegation. But, of course, tasks may be delegated without any empowerment, leading to a situation whereby employees feel simultaneously micromanaged and overburdened – and, inevitably, increasing the probability that they will start to look for an alternative position.

Delegation with empowerment, in contrast, enables employees to make their own decisions within the scope of the tasks to which their managers have assigned them. This increases their sense of self-worth while honing their decision-making skills, cutting bureaucracy and instilling a positive accountability mindset.

In the context of organizational design, empowerment is an inclusive strategy for bringing individuals into the decision-making process, offering them participatory roles that capitalize on their specific expertise and judgment

For Julius Baer, the empowerment initiative has fostered a self-motivated, collaborative and entrepreneurial spirit, in which employees are encouraged to take risks, provided that they can demonstrate that they have followed the right processes. This does require a new way of thinking on the part of managers, who have to ignore the knee-jerk impulse to relieve a team member of responsibility the first time they make a bad call.

The TLP trains managers to view such mistakes not as deficiencies to be punished with a reduction in responsibility, but, rather, as an opportunity for learning for the whole team, not only the team member who is leading the initiative. This encourages the workforce to view the empowerment program as an opportunity to develop, rather than a potential pitfall in their career progression.

Empowerment is based on trust

Empowerment isn’t a binary concept, but, rather, a sliding scale. Senior employees with years of expertise are more likely to be tasked with managing key accounts than are junior employees who have just joined the workforce; however, with time, the latter will become eligible for greater responsibility in the eyes of managers. Managers must set out an incremental scheme by which individuals take on greater responsibility over time and through which a sense of mutual trust develops.

For example, due to Julius Baer’s entrepreneurial and empowerment-led culture, one employee (we’ll call him John) was entrusted with the role of a senior change agent, a position he had largely designed himself. In that role, John built a team with specialized skills and developed innovative solutions (these weren’t always approved but were discussed and, where appropriate, adapted). His efforts brought positive results.

By taking on responsibility early, John made himself into someone who could be entrusted with larger project budgets, gaining full recognition from the executive board, who responded to his communications as they would to those from the C-suite. Through a process of active empowerment, John built trust, gained specialist experience, and became an invaluable member of the workforce in the eyes of senior management.

Empowerment is an ongoing process that must modulate depending on the individual’s role, level of experience, and level of trust attained within the organization. By instilling a culture of empowerment throughout the organization, HR leaders at Julius Baer have given every individual in the workforce the tools to shape their own professional future.

Key takeaways for HR leaders looking to empower their organization


Robert Hooijberg

Professor of Organizational Behaviour at IMD

Robert Hooijberg is Professor of Organizational Behavior at IMD. His areas of special interest are leadership, negotiations, team building, digital transformation, and organizational culture. Before joining IMD in September 2000, Professor Hooijberg taught at Rutgers University in their MBA and Executive MBA programs in New Jersey, Singapore, and Beijing. He is Program Director of the Breakthrough Program for Senior Executives and the Negotiating for Value Creation course.


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