AIIB to create corporate culture of 'openness and candor,' bank chief says

Jin Liqun, president of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Photo by: Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

MUMBAI, India — With more than 150 staff members under its roof now, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is thinking critically about the corporate culture it wants to create for its growing workforce.

“We are developing a workplace environment free of corruption and harassment, with a culture of openness and candor underpinned by mutual respect for others,” AIIB President Jin Liqun said during an address at the bank’s third annual meeting in Mumbai.

Civil society sounds alarm on AIIB's latest 'hands-off' lending deal

AIIB on Monday announced a $100 million investment in India’s National Investment and Infrastructure Fund. Civil society actors worry about how social and environmental safeguards will reach NIIF’s downstream deals — but the bank has a different take.

The young bank invested $4.2 billion in projects and funds in 2017 in a huge surge from 2016, its first year of operations. This week’s meeting saw the bank invest $100 million in India’s National Investment and Infrastructure Fund, as well as sign a memorandum of understanding with the Islamic Development Bank to facilitate future co-financing. And in his address in Mumbai, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi called on the institution to do even more by expanding financing from $4 billion to $40 billion by 2020 — and $100 billion by 2025.

They are ambitious numbers for a bank that prides itself on its lean operations. Though it still operates much like a startup, AIIB’s continued recruitment calls for a deeper dive into identifying what kind of culture new employees will be met with, according to AIIB’s head of communications and development Laurel Ostfield.

The bank kicked off a culture project this year, to more systematically consider the ideas and values it wants to perpetuate within its walls, under the umbrella of “lean, clean, and green,” Ostfield told Devex in Mumbai.

Several themes have already emerged through surveys and focus groups conducted with staff: “We want to build a culture of accountability, a culture of innovation, a place where failure is not a dirty word,” Ostfield said.

The bank’s staff hails from all over the world, with backgrounds in both public and private sectors. But those who join AIIB from older, more established development banks will likely find the China-backed institution to be a completely different experience, especially in terms of sharing ideas and feeling comfortable speaking truth to power, Ostfield said.

Already, President Jin hosts monthly meetings with 10-12 staff members from across every level and department of the bank. Meeting attendees are encouraged to bring new ideas or issues to the table, in a practice the bank hopes helps to institutionalize a culture of open doors and transparency within its halls.

AIIB, which now counts 87 member states with Tuesday’s addition of Lebanon, never set out to model itself on other multilateral development banks — and this extends to the way it communicates, Ostfield said.

First, the bank doesn’t try to communicate everything it does, she explained. Instead of issuing reams of press releases, Ostfield and her team think critically about the means of communication delivery, whether it’s via a post on LinkedIn, a tweet, or perhaps not at all. More importantly is that recipients of releases from AIIB won’t get lost in the typical jargon, thanks to an internal push for “accessible communication.”

“So even the style and the language and what we write … whether it’s our press releases or information we’re sharing, it’s a much more accessible level of language,” she said. “It’s not written in academia, and that’s something we’re really trying to reinforce. I think that is a shift from what you would traditionally see in the MDB world.”

Throughout its culture research process, AIIB is looking to businesses regularly ranked the best places to work — and seeing where they can apply similar strategies. Google, for example, famously allots a large chunk of employees’ time to thinking and being creative. While earmarking 20 percent of staff time to being innovative might be unrealistic at AIIB, the bank is free to think about what could be pulled from this practice to work in Beijing, Ostfield said.

Companies that do well in staff retention credit much of that success to listening to their employees and valuing their feedback in practice — something reinforced by AIIB President Jin, Ostfield added.

“When he meets with his teams, he listens … you can challenge him, and he’s open to that challenge, and because he's living that value, then his managers can bring that in, and it trickles down,” she said.

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Bangkok, she covers disaster and crisis response, innovation, women’s rights, and development trends throughout Asia. Prior to her current post, she covered leadership, careers, and the USAID implementer community from Washington, D.C. Previously, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.