Making Room to Make a Difference

On occasion of his participation as keynote speaker at the 2nd Women in Business (WIB) Dialogue Series, Wim Mijs, Chief Executive of the European Banking Federation, spoke to Business Partners about the future of Greek banks, the impact of financial education and the importance—in life and in work—of overcoming biases.

With the end of the bailout program just around the corner, what are your thoughts on the efforts made so far to consolidate and revitalize the Greek economy?

The bailout program provided many positive lessons for the Greek government and banking sector, but also for European authorities. We have arrived at a moment where the hardest part of the work has been done. The close cooperation between European authorities has marked the positive steps forward and incentivized the completion of the Banking Union. The European Central Bank’s supervisory mechanism and macro-prudential supervision has become much stronger and efficient. This has led, for example, to the guidelines very recently published by the European Central Bank to avoid accumulation of non-performing-loans on banks’ balance sheets. When we look at the Greek economy now, the signs are looking good. The main priority for Greek banks is now to really push the pedal on reducing non-performing-loans, concretely meaning the improvement of credit underwriting terms and cleaning up the balance sheets. Because when you look at the capacities of Greek banks, there is clearly an outlook of profitability. There is just some more room needed to let banks step back into their original business, re-fund the local economy and trigger investor appetite. The agreement between banks and the European Central Bank is to diminish the bad loans portfolio by 40% by the end of 2019. New legislation that has come into force in Greece is making this possible but needs to be implemented strictly. In May, the European Central Bank will publish the results of the stress tests of the four largest banks in Greece.

One of the key issues banks are facing are non-performing loans, which are in part the result of an attitude that has long plagued the country. Could financial education cure these attitudes in the long-term?

I certainly believe in the potential of financial education and literacy, not only for young people but also for adults and employees. It is all about making healthy financial decisions that will protect you against any downfall and benefit you in the long-term. This certainly applies to financial professionals who have to estimate risk and make these kinds of decisions on a day-to-day basis. With our financial education initiatives such as the European Money Week and the European Money Quiz, we try to raise awareness on these topics. But we are not there yet. We are still working to get financial education on the agenda of European policy makers.

Speaking about attitudes, which are the key unconscious biases that hold back organizations and business, impeding change and productivity?

Unconscious biases are part of human perception and will be present in every work-related environment. The unconscious element is the tricky part. Many people have them without even knowing it, and therefore reminding people what actually is going on in their minds can be really confronting. When looking at research on this topic, the most common biases can be based on skin color, gender, age, height, weight, and much more. Biases that are part of a bigger problem in society are actually the ones that really hurt the productivity of a company. Gender biases, for example, are direct obstacles to the success of an organization. You want that female employees get the same opportunities to grow in their work as men, but as a leader you need create that room yourself. It requires strong leadership, because some biases are that strong, that they are embedded in company culture. If I may take a personal example, looking at the European Banking Federation in Brussels, I see that gender balance at top positions and more than ten nationalities working together really can set us apart from our counterparts. Even the transparent and equal office design is a physical representation of an open and enabling company culture.

What about the next generation of Greek entrepreneurs? With the right reforms and policies in place, could Greece be looking at a promising future in key growth areas such as fintech?

Every time I visit Greece and its neighboring countries, I see a strong spirit to make big steps ahead and a high-level of optimism—and not only in the financial sector. Besides the many banks that are actively looking for their momentum to regain their strengths in the digital space, we see many startups and venture capitalists flourishing with different projects around the country. I think there is definitely potential among the young population of Greeks, who are often highly motivated and possessing the right technical talent and skills to make a difference in the future economy of their country. The European Investment Fund and other initiatives have been very positive drivers of the startup and investment activities in Greece.

Wim Mijshas served as Chief Executive of the European Banking Federation since September 2014. He holds an LLM in Civil, International and European Law from the University of Leiden in the Netherlands and has worked at the International Court of Arbitration at the Peace Palace in The Hague. He has also served as Head of Government Affairs at ABN AMRO, Chairman of the International Banking Federation, Chairman of the Executive Committee of the European Banking Federation, President of the Board of Euribor (now known as the European Money Market Institute), and CEO of the Dutch banking association NVB.

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