Going forward together

For over 30 years, Wolfgang Essing has been involved in the restructuring and reorganization of a vast number of businesses. In this interview, the Senior Partner talks about the challenges, opportunities and obstacles that companies in the financial services sector are currently confronting – with a focus on upcoming changes and transformations. What are the criteria for success? Which hurdles have to be overcome? And what are the CEOs’ chief concerns?


Never before has transformation expertise been as important as it is today. In this regard, what are the most pressing issues for the financial services industry?

Transformation is currently a key topic in the financial services sector. It has increased in significance even more due to the coronavirus pandemic. Regardless of the topic’s major importance, it is nevertheless crucial to approach the necessary transformations with a sense of proportion. In many companies, when major changes are initiated, the organization is subsequently overwhelmed by them. In some cases, the actual purpose of the transformation, i.e. to bring about a change in the company’s culture and improve its high performance ethos, is reversed. As a result, employees become confused and insecure. We have to conceive of transformations cognizant of personnel and not exclusively of methodology and processes.

What are CEOs and decision makers concerned about as regards transformation and change?

By the end of each project, the interaction among people, the framework and the processes should have improved. This means that the cooperation among different people in the organization becomes much more efficient and profitability increases. “Improvement” in this context also means that employees enjoy their work more. Traditional models are brought into question because requirements have changed. Pursuing the above goals while keeping the core of the business model in mind is a great challenge.

Sustained project success is strongly determined by the quality of the transformation – this holds true especially for banks and insurers. What is important in this respect? 

In transformation processes, it is essential to assess the situation with a healthy sense of proportion and ask: at what speed can this organization be expected to achieve change? At certain speeds, some upset to the balance of an organization can be tolerated at times. But this must not go so far that the organization falls to pieces. An essential factor is the quality and setup of the change management team who support this transformation. A realistic self-assessment of the organization is the starting point together with identifying those employees who play an important role in the envisioned change. They must be supported in this process in the optimal way.

Ultimately, people, and not just processes, are always at the heart of transformation and change. In this context, a key question is: as an organization can we manage this change on our own, or can external partners help? Most importantly: how do you get the management board to fully support the transformation process? This support implies commitment. The entire workforce, including, and perhaps especially, the top executives, need to change.

What are the biggest obstacles confronting companies in this journey?

The biggest obstacle in such a restructuring is many people’s fear of change. Routines, often developed over many years, provide a sense of security. Those who are fearful try to prevent change. This once again illustrates the importance of going forward together. But it also involves admitting to yourself: there is no alternative to this process. However, transformation does not happen overnight. The organization and especially its staff must be given the opportunity to develop within this process. To achieve this, it is imperative to incorporate qualification measures, i.e. training and coaching, into any transformation process.

Where is the financial services sector heading?

Profitability continues to come under pressure across the entire financial services industry. The interest rate level will not change significantly. The number of competitors targeting the core business model of established financial services providers is growing. The challenges remain. But there are also many opportunities lurking in these times of change – provided that you ask yourself the right questions now: how can I make areas which are already successful even more profitable? In which areas of my organization are customer experience and satisfaction already first-rate? Which levers can I still change in order to optimize them? 

How can established financial services providers, banks and insurance companies attract young talent? Are the up-and-coming companies not at a clear advantage in the struggle for the best graduates?

The answer is both simple and difficult. If I put customer service excellence at the center of my business model, then not only do I have to question many established things, but actually change them. The company is rapidly transitioning to agile teams. It is no longer as hierarchical as it once was; it is getting more modern and more appealing to young people, who in turn say: being a part of this working culture motivates me to make things happen. Here, even as a young person, I can introduce innovative ideas and put them into practice without being constrained. All of the features that contribute to customer service excellence also make a company more attractive as an employer. 

Find out more about our consulting services in the areas of cultural, organizational and personnel transformation - bundled under the zeb.move.