Today’s pandemic has asked hard questions of the legitimacy of companies’ purpose statements. Can they turn statements about their ‘reason for being’ into concrete actions that actually benefit their stakeholders, from customers to employees? For Alison Rose, Group CEO of NatWest Group – one of the oldest financial institutions in the UK, with brands that include Royal Bank of Scotland, Coutts and NatWest – the answer is a resounding ‘yes’.

At NatWest, one of the major customer brands under her leadership, Alison Rose outlines how the organization has certainly lived up to its commitments to customers and communities. “Purpose means listening really carefully to what customers are going through and ensuring we’re giving them the right support and being responsible lenders,” she says. “We put dedicated phone lines in for vulnerable customers and NHS (National Health Service) workers so that we can offer our help. We have a proactive calling program that reaches out to our most vulnerable customers, contacting over 300,000 of them.”

In terms of employee-focus, this has meant ensuring that operational continuity efforts also take account of people’s wellbeing. “On the operational side, we moved to 50,000 people working from home, while making sure that continuity wasn’t disrupted,” she explains. “But I'm also putting the safety and wellbeing of my colleagues at the forefront of everything that we’re doing. This means strong communication and lots of support around wellbeing and mental health.”

She believes that delivering on these people goals – and leading in a virtual environment – demands a new approach to leadership. “One of the impacts of lots of people moving to work-from-home is that you have to change how you lead,” she explains. “For leaders, there’s a greater obligation to be more visible, empathetic, and engaged, because you need to show you understand the impact on everybody’s life. Everyone is dealing with challenges, not just in their work environment but also in their personal life.”

This means questioning traditional thinking on many fronts: data, digitization, business models, and leadership style. “The use of data is allowing us to respond more rapidly to the needs of customers,” she says. “Digital and automation has accelerated. In terms of our business model, there will be some long-term changes as we move into the new normal. And in leadership terms, it’s about moving away from the top-down approach, with much greater collaboration and visibility, and more emphasis on a one-team philosophy.”

Alison Rose does point out that being empathetic does not preclude being realistic about the challenges that lie ahead for many businesses as a result of today’s economic distress. “I think, frankly, that some businesses won’t survive, and we need to make sure we’re having honest and practical conversations with businesses as we help navigate through this,” she says. “Compared to the global financial crisis, banks are in a very strong capital and liquidity position to support the economy through this time. Our role is to make sure we continue to lend, so that we allow the economy to grow and support businesses, and we are doing all we can to ensure as many businesses survive the crisis as possible. However, I do think we have to accept that not every business will survive this period in our history.”