Interview with Jim Cowan, head of benefits at Royal Bank of Scotland

Jim Cowan, head of benefits at the Royal Bank of Scotland Group, values face-to-face communication as a professional tool which has enabled him to help develop other people

The art of communication is a key ingredient for a successful career in reward and benefits. That is a lesson that has served Jim Cowan, head of benefits at the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) Group, well during a career that has spanned more than three decades with RBS, 20 years of which he has spent in reward and benefits.

“Never, ever underestimate the importance of communication,” he says. “I am a firm believer that you can design the best plan, solution, intervention, or whatever you are working on, but if the communication doesn’t engage the recipient, your well-designed plan will fall. It will not deliver what you are looking for it to deliver.”

Cowan also values regular, face-to-face communication with his team, which is divided between London and Edinburgh. “I try to ensure some regular one-to-one time with the team to the extent that different geographic locations will allow,” he says. “So every Thursday afternoon, we have our team audio call. Each of the team attends a formal one-to-one every month to six weeks, which reflects their personal preference. I have a weekly one-to-one with my own boss on a Friday morning.”

Kick out of helping others

Cowan’s focus on team communications has inevitably played a part in one of his greatest achievements. “One of the things I personally get quite a kick out of is helping other people develop as reward professionals,” he says. “There are a number of people, some of whom have stayed with the organisation, others who have moved on, who I have directed, tutored, or been heavily involved in their recruitment and then managed and/or coached. When I see people who I’ve played a big part in their development going on to do a lot of good things, that’s something that gives me a substantial sense of achievement.”

Cowan began his career path in banking before moving across to work on HR and benefits projects within RBS. “I was looking for a change of role and direction,” he says. “By coincidence, HR was putting a project team together, there was a vacancy and they were looking for somebody that broadly met my profile, with my work in a number of roles.”

He initially signed up to work on an 18-month job evaluation project, but this role led to another and he soon realised he was keen to remain in this area. “About three or four jobs down the line, I suddenly realised pay and benefits was something I really enjoyed,” he says. “My mindset gradually changed from it being an area that was a stepping stone to something else that might have seen me go back into mainstream banking, to working out that there was a career I could carve out here.”

Racking up 35 years’ service with one employer is no small achievement. Yet RBS today is very different from the company Cowan joined. “It has gone through three or four reincarnations in the time I’ve been here,” he says. “It is significantly bigger than the organisation I joined and will settle as a smaller organisation than the one that sailed into troubled waters in 2008.”


2010-present head of benefi ts, Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) Group
2008-2010 senior consultant in the RBS reward practice
2000-2008 reward technical partner for different divisions in RBS Group
1996-2000 project roles in RBS reward, supporting the roll-out of total reward and benefi ts choice
1993-1995 job evaluation manager
1990-1993 project roles in job evaluation and remuneration policy
1977-1989 various roles in retail banking, sterling deposit-taking and internal audit


What is your favourite benefit?
My overall favourite benefit is bikes for work. It’s one of the few benefits I’ve seen that really does what it says on the tin, to the extent that we have seen a shift in behaviour in a number of our locations. We go into the underground car park and it’s almost jaw-dropping the number of bikes you see in there. If the powers behind this legislation are serious about trying to reduce damage to the environment, then I think we are seeing evidence it is beginning to tick that box.

Do you have a role model?
I go through life trying to be myself. There are certain things I approach in ways that have been influenced by people I have worked with or worked for over the years. The person I am now has been shaped by a number of people.

What is your ambition?
I would like to think that when the time comes to hang up my boots, people will look back and say “that guy Jim Cowan, he was pretty good at that stuff” or “I wish we could still go and speak to Jim Cowan about that because he would know what to do”.