en English
December 2022

When I asked Mr. Denhof if he was an avid reader, there was a long pause. Thinking back, that might have been the only one in our interview (you will see why from a fairly stereotypical observation later on). After the delay, there was a yes, followed by a but. Do you want to know more?

Speed reading is a survival skill of a top manager

Denhof explained that while he reads a lot, it is not necessarily the topics he wants to read [all the time]. Namely, in his position as the President of the Management Board of Nova KBM, the second-biggest Slovenian bank, he spends most of his time reading emails, reports, and policy documents. The company has around 400 policies, rulebooks, and strategies, some of them ranging up to two hundred pages. On top of this, other internal documentation, like board documents, can easily reach a thousand pages. So it can come to tens of thousands of pages per week to be digested!

Where does he find the time to go through all of this? Denhof emphasizes the importance of speed reading; otherwise, it would be impossible to keep up with the chaotic pace of changes. However, it is not merely enough to read through these papers. Denhof: “To approve them, you also have to understand them. So speed reading and speed comprehension are essentially key survival skills, particularly in highly regulated industries.”

And while reading is important, he stresses that gathering information through verbal communication with people is crucial to stay in front because not everything important gets written down! He routinely, twice or three times each week, interviews people from outside the bank (from regulators, business people, and artists to government officials and sportspeople), which gives him a better understanding of the economy and where it is heading.

When I prod further on the last non-work related book he read, he mentions a physics book on the Origins of the Universe that he picked up at an antique bookstore because it looked different (The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene, one of the world’s leading string theorists). And while Denhof’s all-time favorite books come from the Tolkien trilogy Lord of the Rings, he is not the kind of person that would bring a bunch of books on his holiday and lay on the beach with a drink in one hand and a Sci-Fi book in the other hand for hours on end. He is much too active for that – it only takes him a day to relax before he is off scuba diving, biking, or trekking in some mountains. And just from his travels in recent months, locations like Belaire, Curaçao, Jordan, Turkey, and Qatar slip off his tongue.

Diversity is key

Unsurprisingly, travel comes as second nature to Denhof, who, before joining Nova KBM, had a very international career in finance. He spent the first 30 years working for Citigroup in seven different countries, moving a total of thirteen times (!) during his tenure at the global bank. Citi bank had a culture of extreme diversity, and it was a huge positive; he has worked with all religions and races and in cultures and locations that could not be more different. He is a firm believer in the importance of diversity when building great teams. “The best teams,” he emphasizes, “are without any doubt diverse and mixed.” When moving to Slovenia, there was an element of shock – Denhof sees us as a very homogeneous society where you typically don’t encounter a lot of minorities. Furthermore, there might even exist a subconscious reactionary concern when putting foreigners in top management positions, particularly for state-owned or local-only companies.

This did not deter Denhof, who brought in only eight foreigners (two at the board level and the others elsewhere in the company, which had more than 2,000 employees). He intentionally chose some very diverse personalities with particular expert skill sets in which he felt the company was not strong enough (e.g., business analytics, IT, risk analytics, and client centricity). The importance of these highly qualified people was not only in their top-notch expertise but also in their catalyst and coaching mindset. They were, in short, a force for positive change, educating their colleagues who often have not worked outside Slovenia or the Balkans about how the best practices might look from wherever they can be found across the globe, e.g., Turkey, China, and America. Through their incentives and mentoring on the ground, the impact on Nova KBM was times a thousand, Denhof states. They significantly contributed to the company’s successful transformation over a relatively short time span (five years). Interestingly, most of these eight catalysts want to stay and continue their career here long-term. At the same time, it’s important to say that the entire bank worked together to achieve an impressive transformation. “And that,” says Denhof, “is the power of Diversity: Stealing shamelessly the best ideas, and implementing them better than the rest.”

Championing diversity has to come from the top

Continuing the topic of diversity, before our interview Denhof was gifted Caroline Criado Perez’s book Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed by Men. This title was suggested by our previous interviewee Barbara Domicelj of Microsoft Slovenia. Despite Denhof’s busy schedule, he managed to read the book before our interview in December. The author focuses primarily on gender diversity and how subconscious data biases affect the position of women across the world, giving various compelling examples. Denhof agreed that gender data bias had been perpetuated in many ways throughout history. When our discussion veered toward how this topic relates to his company and Slovenians in general, he pointed out that diversity is a huge topic for both Nova KBM and the European Central Bank. The ECB sets concrete targets for the underrepresented gender, which is not always women – the ratios vary significantly across industries and even between departments within the same company. Additionally, the European Commission and Parliament have already passed clear directives on diversity quotas (more here), requiring the underrepresented gender to have at least 40% on the non-executive boards and 33% among all directors by 2026, a rule that will apply to all large, public companies. All EU member states will thus have to implement this legislation in the near future.

Nova KBM embraces diversity but is aware that there is still a very long way to go here (today, only one of seven supervisory board members and only one of four management board members are female). The bank has just updated its DEIB (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and B stands for Belonging) policy to favor not just the underrepresented gender when there is a choice between two equally skilled candidates but even more to champion principles of Equality in treatment and compensation, for example. Also, they have in place a People Strategy, which lays out the strategy and action plans and tracks progress via the most important indicators of Equality and Diversity. Denhof proudly states that a recent salary comparison among senior bank managers showed no pay gap between the genders in Nova KBM. The data is in line with the European statistics, where Slovenia is already one of the leaders in this aspect.

Book clubs & Americans

As you have undoubtedly figured out by the length of this text, which came from a mere half-hour interview, Mr. Denhof is a very talkative American. The US is famous for its culture of book clubs. While the concept of gathering to discuss literature and philosophy can be traced back to the Socratic circles, one of the earliest reported book clubs, as we know them today, was organized in the 17thcentury in Massachusetts by a women’s group who gathered to discuss weekly sermons. When I confronted Denhof with this fact and asked him which culture he lived in, including Slovenia, appreciates/promotes reading the most, he said that Anglo-Saxon countries seem to have the strongest book culture. In Europe, perhaps Germany has the strongest culture of books and book clubs. It is also easier in these places to get good recommendations (published lists, but also from friends and relatives) and inspirations for his next book of choice.

Inspiration is a critical word here, as Denhof emphasizes there is no one specific book he would gift to his mentee, peer, or his children. He would never recommend a book with a title like “50 ways to succeed in…” as there is no simple recipe. Firstly, there are endless inspirations to be found in the classic works of literature. Secondly, he thinks reading and learning about how to have a great work-life balance is essential these days. And thirdly, for people only starting in business, like myself, it is imperative to talk to people who have done it and to get a good mentor [AmCham Slovenia runs some fantastic programs – AmCham Mentor, Prvi mentor]. Someone who you can bounce your perspectives off, which Denhof explains with an example: “It is much better to have a mirror with two reflections than a mirror with just one.”

Are we ready for the brave new world?

The book Denhof recommends for the next “Business Leaders are Readers” interviewee is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The book was initially published in 1932 but rings very topical today with everything happening in Russia and Ukraine and the Turkish media suppression. It talks about tyranny and where our world could develop if we are not careful. It is also relevant because of hot topics like data protection, the intrusiveness of government, and tracking people through mobile devices and apps. The book is an enjoyable read and a creative, albeit terrifying, warning for the future.

Maybe Denhof’s suggestion to go back to the classics will invigorate our readers’ “To read” lists and arm us with an arsenal of knowledge (not bullets) to face the brave new world/year. One of my New Year’s resolutions would definitely be to carve out more time for reading. Will you join me?