The Business Of Adaptive Leadership (episode 1)
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This episode examines adaptive leadership through the lens of crisis recovery and the challenges business leaders now face because of COVID-19
Today’s leaders are required to be adaptable and resilient with a growth mindset that equips them to navigate complexity and lead people and organisations effectively during times of crisis. The unprecedented disruption of 2020 means leaders must look for opportunities to create new business models as they respond, reset, recover, and rebuild.
In this episode of the AGSM ‘Business Of…’ podcast we look at Adaptive Leadership, and turn our attention to the tourism industry, one of the hardest hit by the global pandemic. A global health crisis, travel restrictions, border closures, the cancellation of major events and a continent ravaged by summer bushfires have decimated the many Australian businesses relying on tourism this year.
For some first-hand perspective into how the country’s tourism sector is adapting during the crisis, host Emma Lo Russo is joined by Phillipa Harrison, managing director at Tourism Australia. We also hear from Quirin Schwaighofer, Co-CEO and Co Founder of Australian accommodation innovator, MadeComfy, who despite unprecedented disruption, uncovered growth opportunities for his business and a way to support essential workers during the early stages of the pandemic.
Finally, Richard Holden, professor of economics at UNSW Business School, shares his insights on how we, as leaders, can navigate the long and short term challenges on the road to recovery.
- Emma Lo Russo, (AGSM MBA Executive 2013), CEO and Co-founder of Digivizer
- Phillipa Harrison, (AGSM MBA Executive, 2007), Managing Director at Tourism Australia
- Quirin Schwaighofer, (AGSM MBA Executive, 2013), Co-CEO and Co Founder of MadeComfy,
- Professor Richard Holden, Professor of economics at UNSW Business School
Emma Lo Russo: Welcome to The Business Of…
I’m your host Emma Lo Russo, and this leadership podcast is brought to you by the Australian Graduate School of Management at UNSW Business School.
As we continue to cast a light on adaptive leadership and the ability to recover from a crisis, we turn our attention to the financial services sector.
For many in the industry, 2020 was to be a year focused on restoring public trust after the findings of the Hayne Royal Commission. Instead, a new crisis arrived in the form of COVID-19 – and supporting customers through the subsequent economic downturn and financial hardship became an all-embracing priority.
We begin this episode with Rob Adams, CEO and Managing Director at Perpetual, a leading Australian investment and financial advice firm. Rob explores how the core value of trust plays an invaluable role in adaptive leadership, internal and external relationships – and business success.
Also joining me is Suzana Ristevski, Chief Marketing Officer at National Australia Bank. Suzana shares her insights into how they’ve continued to support and serve their customers while navigating a strategic and cultural transformation, all in the midst of a pandemic.
Lastly, we’ll hear from Dan Peters , Chief Revenue Officer at fintech disruptor Limepay. I talk to Dan about the speed of decision-making in a startup and how that plays during a crisis.
First, let’s go to my conversation with Rob Adams.
Rob, Welcome to The Business Of.
Rob Adams: Thanks. It’s a pleasure to be here. Appreciate your invitation.
Emma Lo Russo: It has been challenging, the last six months, and trust sits at the core of Perpetual’s relationship with your customers. How have you managed this period through this volatile time?
Rob Adams: Yeah, you’re right. On all fronts there. I mean, it’s been a volatile time and trust does sit at the core of our relationships with our clients at Perpetual. To be honest, we make a bit of a noise of that. There’s an important phrase we use in Perpetual and that is trust is earned. We truly believe that, that we earn our trust of our clients, every day through every action.
We never assume that we have trust with our clients and we constantly want to retest that, and difficult, volatile investment market conditions and economic conditions provide that retesting moment, if you like. We remind our people at Perpetual that we do earn that trust every day, and that in particularly difficult times, when people are uncertain, when there is volatility around, that volatility creates information gaps. We have to fill those information gaps more in volatile times than in normal times.
One of our mantras we’ve added since the COVID-19 crisis really started to hit is to double down on communications with our clients. We’ve been doubling down both in shape and form, and accessing and emphasising different forms of communication, given we’re all so technologically led and digitally led these days.
Doubling down on comms, using technology wisely, and getting information to people in a timely and relevant manner. That helps reduce those information gaps that therefore hopefully helps us to maintain the trusted relationship with our clients.
Emma Lo Russo: Your purpose and that trust has guided that. but even for the best of leaders it challenges us. What did you look for in your leadership team to lead during this? And what were the most successful attributes that you saw?
Rob Adams: Yeah, I’d like to say it was exactly the same attributes that we would display as leaders in the normal course of business, but I think the difficult times can create different reactions from different people. I think it’s important and we’re fortunate that most of our leadership team have been through a crisis moment before. Unfortunately, in our own working careers, we’ve seen too many once in a hundred year events, haven’t we?
But I think to now experience maybe three or four one in a hundred year events, that positions us well as an experienced leadership team to know what really comes to the fore during these difficult times. Certainly for me, something I’ve been keen to impress upon our leadership team has been calmness is a really important thing. Leadership casts a pretty big shadow and people watch and learn, and even subliminally or in a subconscious sort of a manner. I think being calm, making sure you don’t overreact to the first piece of information, getting the fullness of information before you might make a decision. That’s been pretty important.
A big learning for me personally out of the GFC in particular, and something that I’ve been impressing upon our leadership team as much as I can, is that you need to really only focus on what you can control. There are plenty of important things in what we do, particularly in financial services, that impact our success or failure, but we can’t control them. The direction of investment markets is one of those things. That’s really easy to be obsessed by looking at screens and numbers. And I know people who want to be woken up every hour throughout the middle of the night to see how certain securities might be performing.
I think that can really get you wound up in a wrong sort of way. Really focus on what you can control, and try and be calm in your decision making process. Another really important thing I think for our leadership team has been to make sure that you trust your people. Sometimes in difficult times, volatility, charts going the wrong way, financials of the business going the wrong way, sometimes that trust can be tested. People start to second guess things a little bit more. But we’ve hired our people for a reason. They’re tried and tested individuals. Let’s trust them just as much as we would in ordinary times, in more difficult times.
I think through empowering people in that way, showing that you have confidence, showing that you trust them, I think becomes contagious in the business. That’s been a really important thing for us. Another thing I would say that we’ve tried to stress a lot throughout the last few months has been really having a deliberate and obvious pulse check on a regular basis. Recently we had R U OK Day but I think in this sort of environment, we need to be asking our people are they okay far more regularly.
I think retesting and re-asking that question. I had an interesting conversation with one of our senior people in Melbourne not so long ago, and of course, Melbourne has had their second lockdown and that’s really been a big issue for a lot of people from a mental health and wellbeing perspective. In conversations with this one particular senior person, I asked her how she was doing, and I got a pretty political response. She was trying to sound tough but I could just tell that I needed to ask the question a couple more times, which I did in that phone call, and then we spoke for 45 minutes.
I think it was important just to retest that initial answer. Those pulse checks with our people are really, really important. I’d maybe wrap up the answer to that important question by saying wrapping up all of those things is showing that you have a genuine care, that you really do care for the relationship with your customers, with your clients, and you really do care about how your people or how your clients are going. I think that aspect of just being genuine and fair dinkum about things makes a real difference.
Emma Lo Russo: How has technology been accelerated to help your organisation and do you see that being something that will continue to be as rapidly adopted? What are you thinking about that and change, and serving customers and employees?
Rob Adams: I’m sure you’ve seen the multiple choice question, Emma, that says who was most responsible for the technology revolution at your company? Was it the CIO, the CEO-
Emma Lo Russo: Or COVID.
Rob Adams: ... or COVID-19? I reckon we’re all ticking the third box, right? Good things come out of difficult times, and I think Perpetual, we’re no different to many other firms. To be totally frank, I would say with weeks until the shutdown, we had concerns about our ability to totally mobilise our workforce and to take 1000 people from the office and have them work remotely.
But our IT team worked incredibly well, incredibly hard, and with great partners, and we got it done, and it actually was really seamless. One of my personal reflections on that is that if absent a crisis, if we as a management team said, “Hey,” to our technology guys, “Hey guys, we’ve got a new project. We want to work out exactly how we can mobilise our workforce and have full functionality from 1000 different locations.” My guess is we probably would have called it a project. We would have given it a name, we would have appointed a project manager, we would have put all this shape and form around it, given it a budget, and in nine months time we might have come up with a reasonable response.
I guess a big learning for me and I think for our business is to say, “When you take away some of the bureaucracy of structure,” which is there for important reasons, but just have an attitude of getting something done because it has to, it’s remarkable what you can achieve.
Emma Lo Russo: What do you think the role for financial services in leading that type of change or transformation for customers?
Rob Adams: Yeah, I mean I think back to one of your opening questions, Emma, we were talking about trust and the need to provide information in a timely and relevant way, making it easier for people to access information. And making it easier for people to do business with you. I think they need to be themes that are at the forefront of people’s minds. Within that, really standing in the shoes of our clients, our customers, and our prospective clients and customers, and using their language and not our language.
I think this industry, financial services industry is obsessed with three letter acronyms and complications and jargon that actually just makes most people roll their eyes and say, “I just don’t know.” We can easily cut through, and I think about some of our most successful communications in the last six months have been when we’ve had senior people who are technically incredibly strong people, who are talking to their clients in a plain English, simple way. We’re open for Q&A, we’ll take any questions in any shape or form, and we’ll respond in a way that makes sense to people. I think financial services needs to be more relatable, I guess is what I’m saying.
I think we’ve learned through the requirement to be incredibly transparent that timely and relevant communications through different mediums, I think we as an industry have hopefully learned that we need to do more of that. That needs to be a permanent feature of our landscape. I think that’s a really critical aspect of our forward looking learnings.
Emma Lo Russo: What do you hope in terms of the shape of your organisation? How do you keep them ready? Who do you hire? How do you maybe reskill? What are you looking for when you imagine the perfect workforce to arm you and keep you-
Rob Adams: Perfect workforce? Wouldn’t that be nice.
Emma Lo Russo: I mean, what is it, right?
Rob Adams: We can all aspire to it. What do they say? Business would be great if you didn’t have to manage people. I don’t believe that at all. People are our business. I’m in business because of the people stories that you’re able to impact, right? And those people stories you can tell for the rest of your life, it’s immensely rewarding. From Perpetual’s perspective, again, one important thing that we’ve had front of mind is the old Churchillian phrase that you should never waste a good crisis. Within a crisis, if you have the courage and commitment and alignment, you can do good things.
Rob Adams: We’ve executed two offshore transactions. One of them is a transformational acquisition for Perpetual. By some margin, the largest transaction we’ve ever undertaken in our 130 year history. We’ve done that through pretty difficult times. I think when you’re able to show that sort of long term vision, that light at the hill, then it starts to attract the right sort of people I think. That’s important.
I think the behaviours we’ve shown as a management team in being able to do extremely positive and transformative things for our business during this time, I think gives people a feel for the sort of organisation we are becoming. Perpetual at its heart has a terrific brand, a terrific heritage, and we’re in the act of positively reinventing ourselves for the next 50 and 100 years. I think that attracts a certain sort of person. We’ve certainly seen that in recent weeks post the announcement of the larger transaction.
I think people who can share in that vision, who are happy to be courageous within sensible parameters, who want to be empowered, but most of all who just want to make a difference. I often draw the metaphor in business of together, we’re building a structure and we’ve got mortar and we’ve got bricks, and we’re slapping a bit of mortar on the brick and building this structure. We might not know exactly what that structure looks like, but we know on every brick that we’ve put in, we’ve written our name and the date, and it’ll stand there forever more.
I think for people who want to have that feeling of positive relative impact, building something that will stand the test of time, when they see the actions of a group like ours through difficult times, then I think if they can be inspired by those things, then they’re the sorts of people we want.
Emma Lo Russo: You tell great stories, I’m hearing it already. Is that part of your secret in leadership, do you think? When you look at your own style of leadership, how do you describe it?
Rob Adams: That’s an embarrassing question. I don’t know. I don’t often like talking about myself, to be frank. I’m going to rephrase your question, Emma.
Emma Lo Russo: You can.
Rob Adams: What styles of leadership in others do I admire and aspire to? I think leadership by example is absolutely head and shoulders above anything else. I think you set the tone for the organisation or the tone of your team, and so I think setting the example in everything you do in terms of the way you communicate, the way you interact with people, that genuine care that I talked about earlier. Setting the tone is incredibly important, so leadership by example is a standout. I think transparency and openness come along with that.
I think about definitions of the way you work. It’s not about the hours that you spend, it’s about the output and the quality of the output and being focused on that output. Being able to bring people with you is really important. I’d say my standout quality that I seek in others is leadership by example.
Emma Lo Russo: For the benefit I guess of people who might not have done those types of acquisitions that you said, these big transactions that you’ve undertaken, how do you ensure when you’re doing that, the culture and what you set as your ultimate goal, how do you make that work?
Rob Adams: It’s a really important question. I mean, I think in looking at any acquisition opportunity, in financial services, and specifically in relation to the two transactions we’ve recently announced in asset management, but I think the same applies in any aspect of financial services. Because almost all financial services activities, the major asset you’re acquiring is people. Therefore, the cultural test that has to take place is the most important test. We can count the assets, we can count the revenue, we can have a best guess as to the opportunity in a forward looking sense, but if the people aren’t on the same page, then you’re fundamentally going to have a problem. I think in particular in asset management and probably advice, as well.
The cultural audit and we do actually do a formal cultural audit, is really important. That’s just a reflection of how you feel culturally about your interactions with the other side. That’s not to say that everybody’s the same and unless you think in a certain manner, it’s not going to work. Because the worst outcome you could have is groupthink. But I think just ensuring that fundamentally people are driven by similar things is important. I think secondly, it’s really important to think in a forward looking sense, to say, “If our businesses come together, here’s what we’re going to do and this is what the other side’s going to do, and this is how we’re going to come together.”
Agreeing the rules of the forward looking game upfront is really important. Understanding who’s going to do what, where the value’s going to be added. And then calling each other on that. And then the other thing I would throw into this, and this might sound almost trivial, but I think testing that in your business environment, through due diligence meetings, through countless meetings, face-to-face, is so important. But then it’s equally important to do things off-piste, to be in a social setting and to really understand what people’s drivers are on a personal basis, as well.
I think when you can tick all those boxes, I think you’re in good shape from a cultural foundation perspective, as you’re bringing teams together. Particularly disparate teams. The larger transaction we announced back on the 27th of July is 100 people based in Dallas. We won’t be able to get to Dallas for some time, and they won’t be able to get to Sydney for some time, but luckily we did all of that cultural pre-testing and analysis work, pre-COVID.
We can call each other on those cultural promises and commitments, albeit electronically, we have that base now. It is the most important thing.
Emma Lo Russo: And probably where also a lot of organisations could get it wrong, so it’s good. It sounds like the more you put upfront, the more likely the outcome will be a positive one.
So, if you don’t mind going back to technology and disruption and I mean FinTech in Australia has had an amazing investment, and there’s all sorts of companies popping up everywhere. Do you see innovation driving into Perpetual more so? Something you’ll look to some of those partnerships of acquisitions.
Rob Adams: It’s interesting. In Perpetual, we have three businesses and one of them is a corporate trust business, where we are trustee for effectively the securitisation industry in Australia. In that privileged position, we have access to line by line mortgage data of pretty much the entire Australian marketplace. Through an acquisition, we completed about 20 months ago, we acquired a lot of additional debt data, non-mortgage debt data.
We have this incredibly rich datasource, which is a privileged position to be in, because it’s through those provision of a trustee activities that you’re there, and we have been able to utilise that data in a manner that’s entirely secure, where we have created a whole bunch of analytical tools for financial services organisations to do a whole range of risk assessment and regulatory reporting.
Within a sleepy trustee business, we’ve developed this terrific little data as a service operation, that is now producing material revenue for us. You’ll actually an example within our corporate trust business that’s a combination of being born from within, because smart people invested in the right technology ahead of time, saw the potential for this to happen, which is now happening. We’ve augmented that through an acquisition, so that’s an example of both those things, thinking from within and without, coming together to produce something that we think over time will become quite material for the group.
Who’d have thought technology company and a sleepy trustee company that’s actually making money? That’s the thing in technology, actually making money. I think we’re on the constant search for that sort of I guess potential to unlock it from within our business. There are other parts of our business, say in our asset management functions, where I think we need to invest more in utilising data to improve our own decision making. We’re seeing some of the interesting FinTech startups, particularly out of Europe, where asset management businesses who rely solely on artificial intelligence, making active decisions and becoming competitors in the asset management space.
We need to be prepared for the shape and form of our competitors to be changing, and to ensure that we are using data in the same way, but with more human interaction to improve our decision making. I think there are loads of applications for technology, loads of application for data. I think we need to be a rich source of data, we need to be interrogating and utilising that in a secure and responsible manner, and using it to improve our own decision making, and using it to improve clients’ decision making, as well.
Emma Lo Russo: I think to your point, it’s the questions you ask of it and maybe the courage to act on it, but be driven by your purpose. I’m hearing a strong learner profile in you. You talk a lot about your own learning and even the way you’re suggesting, the questions that you ask, how important is that ultimately to your organisation and to your leadership team?
Rob Adams: Having a learning attitude, if you like?
Emma Lo Russo: Yeah. I feel like I’m hearing it from you.
Rob Adams: No, you’re a good reader. That’s true. I think that’s one of the joys of this industry. I’ve been in the game, asset management game, or financial services broadly, I think this is my 33rd year. One third of a century, that’s frightening. And every day I’ve learned something. I think that’s inspiring. That’s terrific. How lucky are we to be in a position where you’ll never come close to knowing everything? One of my favourite phrases I use regularly throughout the business is nobody has the mortgage on knowledge. I think the minute that you assume you do, you get a bit too big for your boots. That creates a different set of problems down the track.
I’m glad you’ve picked up on that, that’s something that’s dear to my heart, is learning. From everybody around you, and it’s not as if I as a chief executive can only learn from other chief executives or my executive committee or my board. I’ll learn from anybody. I spent an hour today with one of our IT service desk guys on a particularly painful mobile phone problem, and I just learned so much about how these things operate that I didn’t know before.
Emma Lo Russo: Rob, because the listeners of The Business Of, they learn, you’ve given so many great insights into the way you lead and the opportunities and how fast I think Perpetual saw those opportunities to move fast, what else would you say to other organisations who are managing change or going through a crisis, to help them stay open to what may be, and be comfortable with it?
Rob Adams: Well, I guess whatever I might be about to say, just take with a grain of salt, because everybody will apply their own views and aspects of what I might say to their own situation. I think you’ve got to be open to change, prepared to change, and I think prepared to move quickly in order to get the best out of that change, which means you’re taking risk, generally. Whenever there is change, there’s risk, but you can’t be afraid of risk. You’ve got to embrace it, understand it, recognise it, and use it for good, not bad.
I think we’re very fortunate at Perpetual to have a chief risk officer who I bought into the business, who I’ve worked with before, who has had a serious impact on the way that I think about risk and risk management. It’s not to be avoided. It’s to be embraced. I think with the right dose of courage thrown in, as long as you’re certain of your long term direction, and when I say certain of your long term direction, it’s the old chart that says, “This is where we’re heading.” You can define where that is, but you know that your path is going to be a zigzag. It’s not going to be linear.
And accepting that it’s going to be a zigzag, and accepting that some of the things that happen in the short term might not align with that long term direction you have, but being prepared to respond accordingly. Reassess, take on risk, adjust, and within that, I think be totally prepared and comfortable with being wrong. I think that’s a big thing. I think sometimes people, particularly as they start to climb the leadership ranks, think that being wrong is a problem. And think that being wrong might stymie their success or their future potential.
I absolutely don’t believe that. I’m wrong every day. I think it’s really important to be able to say you’re wrong, explain why, and explain your learnings and to be better the next time. I remember an old adage from the 1970s when Canon was one of the most progressive companies on the planet and one of the management mantras was, “If you’re not making enough mistakes, you’re not making enough decisions.” I think that’s one of those things I think about quite regularly. Now, there’s obviously limits to that, and if you keep making the same mistake over and over, well that is a problem. Because you haven’t learned.
But I think showing a preparedness to back yourself, to back your people, being open to getting decisions wrong. I would say is that be prepared to make decisions when you think you are 75% or 80% of the way there. Trying to extract the last 20%, to be certain of a decision, generally takes a lot longer, will cost you a lot more, and it’ll mean you miss out on a lot in terms of the opportunity. Be prepared to gain in a risk adjusted way, make decisions when you’re about 80% of the way there.
Emma Lo Russo: Rob, you’ve given so many amazing insightsThank you for joining us today on The Business Of.
Rob Adams: It’s a pleasure, Emma. Thanks so much for your time.
Emma Lo Russo: A fantastic conversation with Rob Adams. His humility as a leader and that commitment to always be learning really shone through it’s something that’s proved to be so valuable for leading his teams and stakeholders throughout his career.
Next, let’s hear from Suzana Ristevksi, Chief Marketing Officer at National Australia Bank on how she’s built an organisational culture that adapts to change with a bias for action. Suzana, welcome to The Business Of.
Suzana Ristevski: Thank you for having me, I’m excited.
Emma Lo Russo: So, I should declare we’ve worked together many, many, many years ago, and it’s been wonderful to see just how far that you have grown and tell me how your leadership journey has gone and how do you define it today?
Suzana Ristevski: If I think about myself as a leader, I’d hope that I’d got better over the years. I have gotten better over the years with experience that does come, lots of learnings. But it’s interesting. There are some things that I’ve held true to from day one, when I first started my career, that really stick by me. And there’s things that I’ve learned along the way. What I would say is as a leader, I do feel like collaboration and context are probably the two most important things that I’ve carried through with me.
And why do I say that? Collaboration, goodness, whether you work in a big organisation or a small organisation, and no matter how many people you have got under your direct leadership, there is this constant need to be able to influence, understand and collaborate across the business. Particularly in the marketing sense. We can’t do what we do on our own. We have to be working with the technology teams, our people team, operations, the product teams. So that’s the first point. You’ve got to be able to gather context and collaborate across the value chain so that you can make the right business decisions. I had a previous boss who said to me context adds 100 points of IQ. And I really do think that is the case. And from a leadership perspective, that is something that I’ve carried with me. Just because I think a certain way, or I tackle a challenge or even the way I lead is the way I lead, it doesn’t mean that’s the way people want to be led or that’s the way other people lead.
So gather context, listen, try and have some fun along the way. I’d like to think that people have got a sense of me as a human being as well as me in the workforce. And I do think as a leader, I do spend a significant amount of time trying to understand where my team are at personally, as well as professionally.
Emma Lo Russo: And then had that pandemic thrown in just to further challenge and including, particularly in Melbourne, not even being able to have your team in front of you. How has that changed or been different in driving change to then dealing with driving change, having to deliver and having these additional kind of challenges?
Suzana Ristevski: Let me give you some context because it’s not just the pandemic that’s been thrown at us in the last six months. So I’m at NAB at the moment. I run the marketing function. Just prior to COVID, we had our new CEO come in, Ross McEwen. We came on the back of the Royal Commission, strategic transformation within NAB, a cultural transformation all redesign, strategy refreshes and a pandemic. So overnight, literally 300 people in my team let alone, probably 20,000 people, were like, you’re now working from home. So none of this code or conversation or meetings in the office or the interactions that you get, we had to overnight do all of our business over zoom.
And what an extraordinary situation that was, because you go one, can we actually do this over zoom? And it was extraordinary to see the whole organisation tilt overnight. And I was so super proud of NAB to be able to do that. We had to make sure that we could continue running the operation from home. We were getting as many phone calls in three weeks as we did in a year.
650,000 inbound calls over a two week period, which is really what we expect to get over a year. So I think, be agile, flex, Be gutsy enough to be able to say, all right, this needs direction.
The clarity, if you think about leadership, there’s kind of three things that we should offer up our teams, clarity, make sure everyone understands what they need to do, where they fit. Train them capability, make sure that they’ve got the tools and the training to make sure they are capable to do their jobs, and motivation. We really tilt the clarity piece up front. Upfront I had to change the marketing plan overnight. We had bought our media 12 months in advance. We had our plan. Literally overnight we’re like go. So with that, that was fascinating because we said, right, let’s set some principles. We don’t have time here to review the marketing plan. Go deep into the media plans. Review our CVPs. What proof points have we got?
We gave principals. And we said, here are the five principles. Focus on customers first above prospects. Support our customers, make sure they understand what is available for them from our perspective, the business relief packages that the government’s offering, the work that the banks are doing to support them. Digital adoption, how do they actually keep safe? And then we let them go. We gave them a budget. We said, here are the things to do, off you go. And the team was extraordinary.
Emma Lo Russo: You had to adapt that style, that approach, maybe that empowerment. Fast decision-making, probably removal of some of the processes you said, normally you’d goes through that approval process around plans. Is there anything you think you’ve learned or you would take because it proved to be more effective moving forward?
Suzana Ristevski: Yeah. All of it. And it’s not like we didn’t know it before, but there are times in your career where you just like, it just hits you right in the face and you go of course, that’s what I should be doing. That’s what we should all be doing. So even before, and our CEO has been very public about this. We had over 400 projects in place and the backlog was huge. It was going to take us an extended period for time to get through this. Here are the top 20 guys. These are the ones that you’re accountable for. And then the pandemic. Once you have less things to do, and you’re really clear about those things. It’s amazing quickly you can get these things done.
But this real desire to kind of get out there, trial stuff, give it a go in a safe way, I want to hold onto that forever. That’s what you want to hold on to.
Emma Lo Russo: You’re still driving a massive digital transformation, customer empowerment, kind of a programme. How are you going to drive that change in that new way that you’re going to work?
Suzana Ristevski: So look, digital transformation is something that we’re always wanting to do and it’s because our customers want that from us.
We were really encouraged to do the right thing by our customers because what they wanted was help me bank online. And again, it went back to the focus. So we’ve already done that. If I think about some of the stats, our internet banking registrations were up 35% in the first month. The behavioural change we supported that with here is how you do it.
And behaviour really, I think customers now that they know how to use digital, the apps, and they’re doing more stuff online, it’s unlikely that they’re likely to go back to do the things that they used to do in the branch that can now do. So the journey has started. People are less likely to use cash. They’re more likely to use online and that’s really propelled us to just continue that journey.
Emma Lo Russo: So some feedback we’ve heard and the psychology behind customers is that they’re looking more to values and trust. Could they trust their organisation at time of crisis? What’s your view of that for what you’ve observed? Has it been different, are they challenge you in different ways or is it more the mindset of the organisation that’s adapting to that?
Suzana Ristevski: Well, our purpose as part of our strategic refresh, we had another look at our purpose and it was tilted, but I really loved the words. And the words are around serve our customers and our community. So it does start from the very top in terms of, our purpose as a bank is to serve our customers and our community. If you start there, the decisions you make around, well, how do you serve? You have to respond to what customers needs. And it was actually helpful for us, and it’s an awful thing to say, and no one wants a pandemic, but post the Royal Commission where trust was decreased significantly because we weren’t serving our customers. And that wasn’t because people were purposefully trying to destroy value, or we were trying to do the wrong thing, but you’ve got this huge organisation where the left hand needs to talk to the right hand, there’s technology platforms that have been there in years and processes and things. We have to navigate our way through that.
But you have COVID, it gave us the opportunity to go back to the say do ratio of 100%. We are going to be here to support you. We are going to serve you. We are going to help you get through this. And we are also going to do things like, and I don’t know if you’ve seen any of our recent activity, but helping you does not mean saying yes in every instance. There may be times actually where we will not be able to lend to you because you’re not in a position to be able to pay for it. And really encouraging our customers to come to us very early so that we can have those conversations, have a look at their cash flow before it’s too late.
So COVID gave us a chance to improve our say, do ratio. It gave us a chance to rebuild trust. And we know, there’s lots of stats there that I think there was one stat that I saw the other day that two in three people say that the way a brand response during a crisis will impact their likelihood of transacting with that brand in the future. And we’re certainly seeing that. Our strategic NPS has improved significantly. Reputation’s improved.. So this isn’t just a bank thing. It’s those big brands that are really tilted to supporting customers that have seen an increasing reputation and trust,
Emma Lo Russo: Which is wonderful to hear. Actually just curious, how often are you testing that? Is that a monthly check that you’re keeping track of or quarterly?
Suzana Ristevski: Yeah, so we track trust and reputation. We track everything monthly. And there’s obviously levers, different organisations have got different ways of measuring. And what is it that you measure? The leavers into strategic NPS around trust and reputation. Service plays a significant part of that as well. So this desire to keep the simple things, the digital adoption, and being able to service them simply in an easy way also plays into that.
Emma Lo Russo: How do you view technology? Is that the cause for strategic change?
Suzana Ristevski: I mean, technology shouldn’t be an enabler. And I think sometimes we can get caught up in the shiny new technology and actually forget about what’s the business challenge that you’re trying to solve for. And again, I’m in marketing, I could spend hours and hours and hours thinking about what is the best marketing tech stack, but really I should be spending hours and hours, hours going, what is it that my customers need? What are our value propositions? How are we going to service them? Now there’s pros and cons of working in a big organisation versus a small organisation. And it’s always interesting talking to people because if I talk to someone that’s in a startup, they’re very envious of a big corporate who perceiving has more budgets, more funding, more people. And that’s true, but it’s never enough.
Whereas we look very fondly at startups and go goodness, they’re quick they can steer the ship really quickly. And I think the secret is to not be envious, but take advantage of what you have. If you’re in a startup, we want to act like a startup but have the scale and the infrastructure of a large organisation. That’s where the magic is. And with that, again, I think it goes back to be really clear on what business challenges you’re trying to solve in order of priority.
Emma Lo Russo: Has the way you’ve shaped your organisation changed over the years? And then how do you imagine that’s going to continue to change into the future?
Suzana Ristevski: it definitely has. We have access to new tools and those new tools are technology and data and artificial intelligence and bots. And of course we would take into account those things and try and take advantage of those things to build out differentiated and value propositions.
So my team, of course, 20 years ago, when we worked together, I remember setting up the first website. Whereas now we’ve got people in the team that are actually tech experts, marketing tech experts that know how to do programmatic buys, that are using bots that are looking at WhatsApp, messenger. We’re absolutely taking advantage of the new technology that is in place. But the way we approach it, some of that stuff doesn’t change. You get back to the fundamentals of marketing, what are your objectives? Who’s your target audience? What’s your value proposition and how are you going to execute? Maybe the how you execute has changed somewhat. Yeah.
Emma Lo Russo: But not necessarily how you want to make your customer feel, right? The empowerment. That’s been the same. It’s just different ways.
Suzana Ristevski: This is the thing. And almost you’ve got to be, marketing has always been about art and science. Some organisations try to go too far on the science end, and forget about the importance of emotional attachment to a brand, which I think always anchor yourself in what is it the customer wants? And what are you going to deliver to, what’s your strategic capabilities and your assessment of where do you want to play is a really good anchor that marketers and in fact business overall.
Emma Lo Russo: What are the characteristics, what do you look for? How do you probe around that to make sure that you do have someone that’s future-proofed maybe for want of a better word?
Suzana Ristevski: Curiosity, first and foremost and... So what I probe on is desire and evidence of, have you been learning along the way. Because we’re never not going to, we’re going to have to continue learning. And if I think about the things that I’ve had to learn in the last three or four that I’ve never covered off at university, In this day and age, right, you’ve almost got different types of CMOs and you can have depth and breadth. And it really depends on how you line up with the business strategy and the culture of the organisation.
I think cultural fit actually has a huge part to play and how does this person fit in, in an overall leadership team? So for instance, in financial services, there are a lot of people that know financial services, a lot of financial services experts. Now of course people will say, it’s wonderful to have financial services experience in marketing, but in this environment, I’m really open to new industry segments. Exposure to different kinds of customer segments. Because that will add something different to the organisation and allows you an expertise that can help lift the whole organisation. So I’m looking for, where does this person fit in, in the overall leadership team? Will they learn? And have they got a capacity to be thinking about teams? Not themselves, but evidences of have they been able to build up their team and push them through the system?
There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing someone that’s worked for you pop up somewhere 10 years later where their careers just phenomenally grown. And I think one of those common traits amongst people is their motivation and curiosity.
Emma Lo Russo: Another theme we talked to a lot is how you can pursue both goals of doing well and doing good. What’s your view and how are you keeping that in balance? how do you get that tension right to you want to serve the community, but you also need to deliver the results
Suzana Ristevski: Yeah, it is interesting. It’s an interesting question and I’m going to be controversial and say, why do we ask it? Because if you come back with, what is it that you are here for, if you don’t do well by your customers, you won’t do well by your financial performance.. It is okay in corporate to go, this is what customers want. And I do do that. I go in and we go, what is it the customer wants? And I’m completely agnostic to NAB to start with. Be very purest and democratise what is it that the customers are looking for? Start there.
Then you run your strategic capabilities on what can you deliver versus the competitors. And what can you deliver can be a what’s the cost. Can I actually deliver that? And that’s where I think that the magic is on well and good. The magic on well and good is find out what customers want. But be honest around what are your strategic capabilities and your ability to deliver on that. And one of the metrics can be, well if we can’t afford it, or it’s going to cost us too much and we’re not going to make any money out of it, then find something that you can do to service them.
And it sounds very purist, but if we always start with either be financially driven or either do what the customer wants, you never going to get to the right answer. You’ve got to meet somewhere in the middle and that somewhere in the middle is balanced scorecard. Are you meeting your customer’s needs? Have you got the strategic capabilities? Can you invest in that? Can you make money on that? I think it’s that middle part where the balance score card that actually helps you get to the right answers.
Emma Lo Russo: It sounds like you’re leading with the right questions and answers and potentially managing expectations. Do you think some organisations make their timelines too tight?
Suzana Ristevski: Leadership is very responsible for balancing short-term and long-term.And they get to drive what the objectives are and make sure that they are thinking about short-term and long-term without doubts. And it’s been fabulous at NAB to actually see our CEO come in. He’s very clear. It’s customers, it’s colleagues. And if we do that, right, we will meet our shareholder expectations. And that is driven very much from the top.
Emma Lo Russo: So Suzana, finally, what excites you about the future? What are you thinking about next?
Suzana Ristevski: I am actually proud of the organisation. I’m proud of my team. What we had was a real sense of joint purpose. There wasn’t one person that wasn’t aware of what we were trying to achieve. And that was actually for the good of the community and the good of our customers. I want to hold onto that. And again, we knew it, but just this sense of purpose and what people are doing can really help push through the changes that need to be changed, motivate our teams. So that would be the first thing, really making sure everyone is clear and aligned on the purpose.
Two. Just reminding each other that we’re human. We’re looking at people’s lounge rooms and kids running around in the back and the rest of it. I think being a leader and you’ve got to find your own style. Different people have got different styles, but it’s actually okay to be human. And it’s okay to say, I don’t know. And it’s okay to say I’m having a crappy day today. Because that all gives context.
Emma Lo Russo: Suzana, what an inspiration. I know our listeners are going to get so much out of this. Thank you for joining us today on the business of.
Suzana Ristevski: Pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Emma Lo Russo: What a transformative time for National Australia Bank. So valuable to hear those insights from Suzana on how the organisation is forging a way forward putting customers first. I loved hearing her reflect on that instinctive curiosity we have as leaders, and how it can play to our strengths during a crisis.
My final guest for this episode is Dan Peters, Chief Revenue Officer at Limepay. Let’s hear from Dan on what he’s learnt from the most disruptive period in recent history.
Welcome to The Business Of, Dan.
Dan Peters: Happy to be here.
Emma Lo Russo: Tell me about Limepay and what attracted you to the business?
Dan Peters: Look, I’d spent 12 years at Google, all in Australia and felt like I was ready to take a step back into startup.
We can get into some more of the principles of it, but effectively it’s just a really good disruption play and a very compelling proposition and the hotter the ‘buy now pay later’ space gets, the more compelling the disruption looks from something like Limepay. The combination of just getting back into startup and doing something with that energy was very appealing.
Emma Lo Russo: So you joined in January and then COVID hit, right?
Dan Peters: Yep.
Emma Lo Russo: So talk about that.
Dan Peters: You leave the security of one of the world’s most successful companies for a startup, just when a global pandemic hits, doesn’t necessarily strike you as the most sensible thing to do and your wife does ask you a few hard questions at night about whether or not that was the right decision, but it’s very much proving to be. We’ve been able to proceed unabated somewhat, which is great.. I think they’re countervailing factors, right? The slow down and the general business economy and general hesitancy is counterbalanced by the fact that we really specialise in e-commerce and online transactions, which obviously has boomed as a result of COVID.
Emma Lo Russo: What are the characteristics and what are you doing that drives that disruption? And what do we learn about disruption when we’re putting it into play?
Dan Peters: It’s been really interesting actually. I spent a lot of time talking to the C-suite and boards of the biggest retailers in the country. And retail has been under pressure for a very long time and I really got to get under the skin of that and what it means to try and to be running effectively. Those businesses under extreme pressure of all of the forces at play around digitalization, digital disruption and so on. Here at Limepay, we’re in the same space in that, we’re representing the digital disruption that’s taking place.
And what I’ve observed is the response from the market and from the brands that we’ve talked to, is that some look at the challenge and really embrace it and take it as an opportunity to move faster, do the things they know they need to do, to bite the bullet... And others don’t, others really feel paralysed by it and retreat and really try and defend and it’s... I come from the spirit of attack being the best form of defence and there’s one brand that we’d be working with, a brand called Aussie Strength, they’re an online gym equipment manufacturer.
And as your listeners may be aware, COVID has been a boom time for the home gym and Aussie Strength literally can’t get equipment fast enough. They’re virtually sold out almost immediately and things have gone pretty nuts, which is great for them. But they could have taken that very much as an opportunity to slow down other development works, certainly not to embrace a thing like Limepay, a new payment solution and a new payment platform. And they actually did the opposite and actually put their arms around it and really took it as an opportunity to change faster because they could see that this is going to represent an amazing opportunity going forward. And now is actually at the time to double down, now is the time to really... If not now, then when? And if not you then who?
Emma Lo Russo: Where do you see this going? What’s the opportunities right now and moving forward?
Dan Peters: From a Limepay perspective, what I would say is that we operate in the payment space, right? So for those who haven’t come across this yet, we’re an innovation in Australia and globally in that we’re the first buy now pay later and payment processing platform combined, and we’re a white label solution.We give big brands, a white label opportunity to own that solution. And where this originates from is, in terms of the opportunity, is that there’s still a lot of disruption at play in the payment space and payments itself is suddenly becoming a transformational consumer experience.
The one I love to cite is Uber in this space. One of the most transformational parts of the Uber experience is just getting out of the car and walking away. And there is no payment, it’s a completely frictionless payment experience. And that’s a magical moment. When you do that, you go, “Huh, that’s different.” And all of a sudden your whole experience of the idea of payments is transformed in that moment. When we talk to merchants and retailers, that’s the consumer value proposition that we start to talk about. You can actually truly make a transformational experience out of payments and it can be for a consumer completely... It can completely transform the way in which you do business with the brand. And so, I think a lot of brands are starting to think about that.
How could this work for my fashion brand? How could this work for my in store experience? How could this work online in a completely frictionless way? What additional value might we give in that experience? Could we roll loyalty into this, in some new and innovative way? And all these kinds of things can be innovated on. There’s so much opportunity there. And we’ve really only scratched the surface, I think. Payments has been a pretty commoditized space for a long time. And then we’re now starting to really knock the top off of that and discover what’s underneath.
Emma Lo Russo: You hold the title of Chief Revenue Officer.
First of all, describe what that role means. And then, what does leadership in this time of change also need to look at?
Dan Peters: To me, it just encapsulates in my head, sales and marketing combined. Top line growth, oversight over the top line revenue, is how I generally think about it. But given we’re a relatively small startup and I’m partnering with the founder, CEO and COO we’re all knee deep in everything right now. I can’t absolve myself at the bottom line either.
I suppose it means all of those things, but I think over time it will evolve to a greater focus on just deals, partnerships, sales, marketing, revenue, anything that’s driving top line growth is how I see it. And then what does it mean to leadership? I don’t think it means anything different to what leadership means anywhere else. I firmly believe that the leadership is not a thing, it’s a practise, it’s a behaviour. And it’s taking responsibility for the way which you show up every day. And it’s a deep understanding that your attitude, behaviours, process impacts others in both the positive and negative way and really being super mindful and aware of that.
There are many different styles of leadership everyone knows. But I think for me, it’s much more a mindfulness thing. It’s much more about the awareness that every time you get out of the lift and walk through the doors, into your office in the morning, that’s leadership. People look at you and decide whether or not you’re pumped today or you’re flat today or you’re stressed today or you’re relaxed. All of those things and you can feel that in others and you feel that in yourself and that to me is leadership.
Emma Lo Russo: What do you think you’re taking from a larger organisation into the environment you’re in today? Into startup, into this need to operate quickly without that big team and structure behind you?
Dan Peters: If you’ve been inside the organisation for a very long time, that’s how you think business is done. And so you just get exposed to that and it’s incredibly normalising. And then you get outside it for the first time and you get into another business and you go, “Wow, I actually know a few things. I know stuff that other people don’t know,” that’s the best news, “And I’ve operated at a pretty reasonable level.” That’s quite valuable. We can put this to work, whether it be legal negotiation, whether it be awareness of commercial environment, whether it be understanding of how product development’s done.
The watch out for me, which everyone calls out as, can you still operate without a big team under you and all that stuff. And so that you wake up every day and go... Metaphorically roll the sleeves up and just think, okay, there isn’t anyone else to do those edits to that document? No one’s cooking me lunch in the canteen, but let’s just park all that, it doesn’t matter. And it’s time to do it for yourself. And that’s actually been great fun. I think within a couple of weeks here, we were moving into an office and I was building this cubicle a soundproof cubicle. I was busy putting the pieces together and you know what? I loved it. It was great. That sense of getting back to being on the tools and actually really being useful, it can be...
One of the downsides of being in big corporate, I know a lot of people I think would identify with this. You get further and further away from the manufacture of things. From the tools, whatever it is you’re doing, from the product itself, from the decisions themselves. And it’s incredibly empowering to suddenly be in a place where, if you want to go and build the cubicle, you build the cubicle. If you want to edit the legal document before you send it to the lawyers, you edit the document and all of a sudden you’re empowered to do all this stuff. I found it incredibly energising, reinvigorating, all the things I wanted from my move.
Emma Lo Russo: I think the other thing which you commented on is, as Chief Revenue Officer typically plays at the top line, but in the startup, you’re considering every dollar because, part of strategy is staying in the game to win.
Dan Peters: Correct, yeah.
Emma Lo Russo: What else have you seen? What are you doing that you think is different now that you’re seven months in, to maybe what you would have done before? Because the smarts you’re bringing, that experience? How are you operating differently?
Dan Peters: We are all owners of this business. Both literally, we’re all shareholders, but very much in terms of attitude and so on. And so to your point, while I may be a Revenue Officer looking after revenue, I’m just as bothered by whether or not we buy the expensive coffee beans or the cheaper coffee beans for the machine and everything in between.
And everyone else should be too for now, because that’s the only way we’re going to make it. And I think that’s a really powerful thought.
I genuinely feel like this is my business and that’s a really powerful thing. If you can turn up every day and feel like I don’t just have a share in this business, but actually, I’m an owner in this business. It’s quite a different mental attitude. And I think, with all the hyper awareness of mental health and other things, I think is a really important part of the way in which people can actually show up well to work and feel passionate and an energy and excitement in connection to what they’re doing. And I think a lot of the challenges people feel at work... I know I certainly did, is when you start to feel that divorce from the purpose. Divorce from the organisation, and it’s really feeling a sense of ownership over it. It’s very hard to stop, but if you can hold onto it, it’s incredibly valuable.
Emma Lo Russo: I’m sure you’re going to be very successful and I wish you all the success. Thank you for taking the time to share with us.
Dan Peters: No problem. It’s been great. Thank you for having us.
Emma Lo Russo: Those insights shared by Dan Peters are a timely reminder about how the speed and agility of decision making in a startup can provide a mandate for a nimble, action-oriented approach to growth, and create a resilient culture in the future.
It’s clear Financial Services Investment firms are learning valuable lessons in adaptive leadership from leading through successive crises. The capacity to lead with trust, humanity, and humility came to light in each of my conversations with today’s guests, and it’s an approach we can all apply to our own endeavours.
I’m Emma Lo Russo, I’ll talk to you next time on, The Business Of.