Q&A: Elliott on the choice to shape the future

Social issues are shareholder issues. The community is demanding more of business leaders. These are inescapable truths in modern business life – and research continually suggests companies which put purpose at their centre succeed more than others.   

But where does purpose come from? bluenotes recently sat down with ANZ CEO Shayne Elliott at a Williamson Leadership Group forum to ask about purpose, leadership and more. We started by asking the leadership role business plays in the community around social issues. 

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Pic: Shayne Elliott and Carina Parisella

Shayne Elliott: It's about asking questions. I think it's about holding society or the community to account to make sure these things are not dropped off the agenda, that they get debated and talked about. 

"We have a philosophy that says living with purpose is ultimately profitable because our customers and community notice that.” – ElliottOne of the challenges - and it’s global - is the tendency to boil everything down to an economic statistic. Everything needs to be about GDP or something or other. And as we know that's not the world we all live in or what we all care about.

I think keeping people, companies, government and the broader community on track and reminding them about other issues is an important role for all leaders, irrespective of which part of the community they represent. 

Carina Parisella: Increasing evidence shows companies with a really strong and articulated purpose are performing better on all fronts. Can you tell me about the ANZ purpose and why that was introduced?

SE: I hear people sometimes try to rationalise purpose as ‘Oh it's good for shareholders, therefore that's why they do it’. I understand it's an outcome but that's not why we do it at ANZ.

Purpose was not a ‘Hey, we’ve noticed companies with a strong sense of purpose outperform others, let's go and get a purpose’ thing for us - that was not in any way part of the discussion at all.

It was actually a bit of a grassroots movement, part of a leadership program which came back from a trip and said ‘what we found was the companies we responded to had strategies and visions and objectives and goals and all those other things, but they all had a strong sense of purpose’.

This was really inspiring for them and they felt that there was (something) lacking at ANZ.  So that exploration for a purpose, it’s not something you sit in a room with a whiteboard and make up. Essentially it’s an archaeological dig?  

So it was really about engaging with staff and shareholders and customers. At the end, after a lot of wordsmithing, what it said was our purpose has been and continues to be ‘to shape a world where people and communities thrive’.

It took a long time because we did it organically. We wanted it to be real, not just this gimmicky thing. It's been a bit of a slow-burn approach.

The most-difficult part of the statement was the word ‘shape’ which we had endless debates about. The issue was - shouldn’t it be more that we ‘helped’ shape? To say ANZ shapes the future - isn’t that arrogant? To assume we shape the future?

At the end of the day the argument which prevailed said, at ANZ, we are in every nook and cranny of Australia. We touch almost every community geographically, we touch almost every socioeconomic group - not necessarily all but pretty much - so what we do actually does have an impact, whether we like it or not. We are shaping the future of Australia New Zealand because of our size and scale.

So you have a choice: you can either do it consciously or unconsciously. And we decided to do it consciously.

CP: So what influences that purpose and how does it play our practically?

SE: There's really three parts to that - who we bank, how we behave and what we care about.

What we said was we should make sure the people we bank are aligned with our values and our purpose.

We should make sure we support companies also in the business of shaping a world where people and communities thrive. If our customers are somehow not on that journey we should think twice about banking them. That's really important.

There’s no rulebook, we just expect our people to think about that consciously. It’s easy to think of a few black and white examples but of course, most of it is grey.

How we behave is really important. How we behave in the community when we make decisions, how we explain products to people, those sorts of things need to meet our standards.

The last piece is things we care about. One is housing, one's financial wellbeing and the third one is the environment. These are very fundamental and they’re broad reaching, which is important for us because of our scale - but more importantly because we can actually do something about them.

That includes our decisions around social housing, environmentally sound housing, liveable cities, sustainability, all of that stuff - our day to day actions as we go about doing our business.

The environment is because we bank a lot of industry and so we look at our indirect as well as our direct footprint. It's really about choosing who we bank and what standards we hold our industrial customers to in particular.

The last one is financial well-being. Everybody should have access opportunity. That's actually what we mean by that, not just financial literacy.

Our view is a community which thrives as one where everyone participates. That's what defines our role as a bank - to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to participate economically. To get a job, start a business and save for their retirement. Of course financial literacy is part of it but in and of itself it’s not enough.

CP: So what happens when purpose competes with your profit motive?   

SE: It’s a really good question and there's no perfect answer. That's why we have to say whenever we make a decision we need to consider these things. We may still make the same decision.

We have a philosophy that says living with purpose is ultimately profitable because our customers and community notice that.

I'll give you an example around accessibility. We have a team here whose job is to make sure everything we do with products has an accessibility feature.

We developed a card with tactile accessibility features and it was rolled out as an option. This is in line with our purpose but ultimately inefficient. So we made a change.

Now when you go into a branch and get a new ANZ card you get one with tactile features. Everyone does. I think that shows there's a way of doing both and I think that's exactly the right way to do it.

Profitability is really important – if we don't make a profit we don't survive. But what we're saying is it's not purely about maximizing profit - it's to make a return but to do it the right way.

Carina Parisella is bluenotes innovation editor

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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