Leadership Q&A: Peter Aceto

The CEO of ING Canada on being headstrong, working without a script and how a visit to a mechanic can build a career.

Peter Aceto was the eighth employee to stake out a desk when ING Direct opened it’s Canadian offices in 1996. He was a practicing lawyer, but felt something was missing in his career. Aceto signed on as ING’s general counsel, but the size of the group meant he was able to explore multiple facets of the business. Soon, his responsibilities became more focused on finance and management, and less on law. He went on to help launch ING Direct in the U.S. before becoming CEO of the Canadian division in 2008.

Now it’s Canada’s largest direct bank, and ING has become the largest banking, financial services and insurance group in the world by revenue. Aceto leads a team of over 1,100 staff in Canada and the bank has grown to serve over 1.8 million customers in this country.

Aceto became known as “The Tweeting CEO” for his regular, personal twitter updates that detail his ideas and ask for feedback from his over 6,500 followers. After tweeting “Enjoying quick breakfast w. group of our fantastic employees in our cafeteria,” Aceto spoke to associate editor Jacqueline Nelson about luck, giving people what they want and how leadership sometimes means taking a step back.

CB: You were hired as the eighth employee at ING Canada when the company first started. How did you find that role?

PA: Well, a lot of it had to do with luck. I had an accidental meeting with Arkadi Kuhlmann [Chairman and CEO of ING Direct Bancorp, the parent company of ING DIRECT in the United States] when I was 28. I went with my father to the mechanics’ and Kuhlmann just happened to be sitting there. While we were waiting for our cars, we started talking and he told me the story of ING, his vision for the bank and the great savers, technology, marketing and services that would help the company be a winner in Canada, where people were already great savers.

When I left the auto shop that day something in my heart told me I had to be a part of this work, so I found his contact information and asked for another meeting. When I arrived at ING’s temporary office space with the seven other employees who were working there I was further taken by [Kuhlmann] and his ideas and vision for the company. I told him I wanted to work for him. After a few more interviews he agreed. So, I guess luck played a major role in the process.

CB: Now that you’ve worked your way up to the CEO position how do you foster leadership at your company?

PA: Some time ago we did some employee-engagement survey work at ING and one questions we asked was whether the company was a “career place”—that is, somewhere people felt they could grow and have a full career. It turned out many employees didn’t see it that way. Since we bring a lot of fantastic employees in and they are our strongest assets we’ve been working to change that perception. We create our own leaders internally here and they make up a large portion of our management. The company is always looking to create career and development opportunities. Mentorship is fundamental to that.

CB: What’s the biggest challenge facing your business today?

PA: There’s a bit of luck in everything. If we launched five years earlier, or later, we could have died. We’re only 15 years old. We see how other banks are doing and we know we’re proven, but we’re also still an adolescent, and we have a long way to go in our development as a company. But we’re excited about the next phase in our evolution. Canadians are leaders in online trust when it comes to banking, and internet banking is growing rapidly here too. The growth in mobile is great as well. We know Canadians are concerned about their debt levels, but we have a vision to help them, and we know we’re going to have the financial products that they want. We know this because of our research and crowd-sourcing. A lot for these products were built for Canadians by Canadians.

CB: What’s the toughest thing about being a leader?

PA: When you’re trying to blaze your own space sometimes your most trusted people doubt your vision, and sometimes competitors criticize you. For ING, many people felt that until we had branches, there would be a lot of doubt surrounding the company. But when you’re doing something entrepreneurial—as I like to think we are—being strong and resolved that your direction is important. We’ve made tough decisions to focus on long-term growth and sacrificed easier ways to make money off thinks like offering more mutual funds or mortgages. But when you know something’s wrong for your company you have to be firm about it.

That said, you can’t be so headstrong that you’re unwilling to change your plan if someone provided you with a good reason. For example, I wanted to create a bank account that was completely paperless. It was not a chequing account because there was no paper allowed—no cheques. My team had a big debate about it and they said, “Peter, we get your vision, but if we don’t have some cheques people won’t be able to pay for their kids’ soccer, or school lunch days. But we promise to tell people there are smarter ways to pay.” I said, “You know what guys? I think you’re right.” My wife may have had some influence there too. But the thrill of those the challenges is the reason I do this job.

CB: What quality do you value most in an employee?

PA: I really value the energy and vision our employees have here. We don’t do scripting on the telephones—that doesn’t exist and it doesn’t need to. Our employees speak to clients on the phone as they would speak to their neighbors and we know they will work better and be more personable without a script. We find we get a lot more out of people when they have some control over their work and understand the company direction. Sometimes ING is challenging because it’s not traditional and hierarchical the way a lot of banks are run, but I trust our employees.

CB: That’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

PA: There was one thing Arkadi Kuhlmann said to me early in my career that had a great impact on me. I was young and had all these ideas about how you’re supposed to behave and talk and dress and send emails at work. Archadi said, “I know what you’re good at, and what you’re not good at. I know who you are, I know about your family issues. But to others you look like you’re perfect and you’re trying to achieve perfection all the time. No one wants to follow someone who’s perfect; they want a leader who is real. Just be yourself, and people will love to be with the real you.” I thought about it for a few nights, and then I felt really liberated. It’s easier to focus on the work when you feel like you can just be yourself.