5 things we learned from Shayne Elliott

On March 27, 2018, we had the pleasure of hosting Shayne Elliott, CEO of ANZ Bank, in a rare and intimate interview. Here are the 5 things we learned:

1. Take advice from those you trust

Shayne Elliott’s upbringing was pretty normal. He grew up with his family in New Zealand, had a few good teachers and did fine in school.

When asked how he ended up leading Australia’s fourth largest company, he chalked it up to one good school teacher who told him: “Do commerce. Not teaching”. The woman was onto something.

Taking her advice obviously paid off, which leads us to Shayne’s second piece of advice…

2. Work for the right bosses

Every company has good leaders: people who will back you and believe in you; managers who will challenge you when you need to be challenged and let things slide when they know you’re at your limit. They’ll put you forward for opportunities and promotions and they’ll be happy for you if you find a new job that will offer you challenge and growth.

Shayne attributes his own success to finding good bosses.

He found his first good bosses at Citibank, where he started his career, discovering early on that his vocational fulfilment depended on culture. At Citibank, he felt connected to the values and culture of the organisation and found bosses that pushed him to discover new territory.

Literally. Shayne packed his bags many times for roles he knew little about, in places he’d never been, based on the advice of people he trusted immensely.

“Maybe I’ve been naïve, I never really asked too many questions. I just had bosses who I knew believed in me and had my best interests at heart, so I just said ‘yes’ to the opportunities they gave me.”

Shayne adopted the opportunities that were thrown his way, and when he finally became the big boss himself, he had fine-tuned what sort of leader he wanted to be and what sort of culture he wanted to set. And he knew that culture is dealt heavily in symbols.

3. Symbols matter

To show just how powerful symbols can be, Shayne explained some of the simple changes he made to ANZ Bank the day he was made its CEO.

One example was the parking lot. It had a steel bar gate around the 10 or so executive parking spots. Every executive had a remote control to get in and out.

“I’m still not sure whether the steel bars were supposed to protect us from everyone else or protect them from us, but I knew they had to go,” he says dryly.

“To be honest, many people didn’t even know that those bars were there, but everyone heard when they were removed and it sent a loud and clear message.”

These kinds of hierarchical symbols are common in large companies. Shayne understands what message they aim to send. By actively removing them, he reverses that message.

So, you step into a big role and you get to make big decisions about glossy, big picture things like culture and vision. Except, you also have to figure out what decisions not to make. Leading us to our fourth lesson …

4. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should

“Technology is changing and our capacity for doing things is growing. Now we need to think about the impacts this will have on the world,” Shayne starts.

He uses the example of new data collection mechanisms, which will help us to know who is at higher risk of a mortgage loan and therefore who should be paying higher premiums to cover that risk. This will help us to deliver more accurate loans, but it will directly impact poorer members of society who will find it harder and harder to afford property.

“We can do it, but should we? And what’s the cost society will pay?”

Which brings us to our final piece of advice.

5. Create a legacy

When asked what it means to lead one of the largest companies in the country, Shayne recalls an advertisement of Patek Philippe watches. The tag line is: “You never really own a Patek Philippe watch, you just get to look after it for the next generation.”

“That’s the same in my job. I don’t own ANZ. All I do is look after it for the next generation in this single, fleeting moment. No one will remember how many credit cards we sold - I just need to make sure that when I go, I have left it in better shape than when I found it. And that people will remember the impact we left on the community.”

When we encourage people to make decisions, part of it is about remembering the purpose or the bigger picture. When discussing the current Royal Commission on banking, Shayne explains that all you can do as a leader is take pause and question how the culture within a company can evolve to enable a group of people to deviate so far from what’s acceptable. In such cases, our role is not to “defend the indefensible. We don’t say that nicotine isn’t addictive,” but we can take responsibility for what’s been done and make changes for the future. “That’s ultimately the only thing we can do,” he says.

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