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What do you think about when you think about shadows?

18 April 2019 |Opinion
Image of seven people in darkness holding hands with reflection of them in water.

What do you think about when you think about shadows?

18 April 2019 |Opinion
Marnie Baker, Managing Director Bendigo and Adelaide Bank’s address at the Women in ASX 200 Leadership Summit in Sydney on 10 April 2019


American novelist, Elie Wiesel, has a great definition:

“Most people think that shadows follow, precede or surround beings or objects. The truth is that they also surround words, ideas, desires, deeds, impulses and memories.”

Let’s be honest, shadows are really not something many of us think about deeply on a daily basis, but that’s the point they are all around us – they’re omnipresent – and we’re generally unaware of them.

Be they the physical shadows cast or the invisible ones which can follow us stealthily through life, the common denominator is, that every single one of us has one – physical and unseen. And it is with us everywhere we go, all the time.

In fact, shadows share a lot of fundamental elements with leadership – they are difficult to define, they are often intangible and can sometimes creep up on us – and others - when we least expect it.

Whilst it might sound like an odd theme to kick start a speech with, once you become aware of the shadow that each of you personally cast as leaders right across your business and personal lives, it stays not just with you physically, but also mentally, forever.

No matter the size of your organisation, the shadow you cast as a leader is immense. Acknowledging and recognising this is absolutely fundamental to succeeding in business and as leaders.

After all, your leadership shadow reflects how you respond to crises, deal with a disagreement, treat those around you and behave in general. Whether you realise it or not, all of this feeds into the wider cultural fabric of your organisation.

And the more senior and influential you become, the further the branches of your influence reach and the greater the impact of your shadow on those around you.

What we say, how we act, what we prioritise and how we measure outcomes all influence what gets done – and what doesn’t – and importantly, how our people, our customers and partners respond to us.

As part of the brief for this speech, I was asked to discuss how a leader should increase visibility and gain recognition to thrive within a large organisation. While at first blush there isn’t anything inherently wrong with actively seeking out and gaining recognition – as a means to an end – but it doesn’t sit comfortably with me, and I want to challenge it from the outset.

Firstly, as a business leader, if you spend all your time craving and vying for internal recognition to get ahead, then who are you really focused on?

Well, it’s not your customers, it’s not your team members, your direct reports or your partners.

It’s most definitely, YOU.

And what sort of impact do you think this will have on those around you – what would be the impact of your shadow if you remain solely focused on gaining recognition for you and you only?

I don’t think I even need to answer that question.

Secondly, people in organisations watch their leaders very carefully and it doesn’t take them very long to figure out if their leaders are committed to what they say they are trying to achieve, or not. Proof is always in the pudding and we all know the result of a battle of actions vs words.

A critical element of the leadership shadow is the "Say-Do" factor. It has to do with having the courage of your convictions. Essentially, if you say you are going to do something but act differently when it's not politically correct or represents a risk to you, your reputation or your position, you put your credibility at risk as a leader and create doubts about what the company stands for.

Which brings me to my next point, if you focus on gaining recognition in a large organisation and your company’s objectives don’t sit nicely to you – it can become very exhausting and hard for you and you’ll find that you’ll be constantly questioning yourself. It’s not sustainable. And ultimately, no one wins.

You see, my personal values align directly with Bendigo and Adelaide Bank’s and they align with my organisation’s purpose which is to feed into customer and community prosperity, not off it.

This isn’t by chance. I simply wouldn’t be standing here before you if they didn’t. Our organisation recognises that we can’t have a successful bank, if we don’t have successful customers, communities and people and if we don’t enable our people to succeed and operate with integrity – it would all fall down very quickly. These principles sit perfectly with me. I value and respect them.

So, what are some of my values you might be thinking? Well, you’ve probably already guessed but they are:

  1. Authenticity
  2. Integrity
  3. Community

I’ll come back to these later.

For me, when these personal values align directly with the company you work for then forging a career with an organisation for more than three decades becomes a no-brainer.

As the Managing Director of Australia’s fifth largest retail bank and with more than 30 years’ experience, my goal today is to provide you with some valuable insights into how I have approached my time and have not only thrived in a large organisation but also helped my colleagues, our people, our customers and partners to thrive.

As we’re all no doubt anecdotally aware, large organisations are often perceived as a minefield of bureaucracy in which employees struggle to navigate, progress and ultimately, thrive.

However, I want to strongly challenge that assertion here today by discussing my own experiences at Bendigo and Adelaide Bank and outlining how - as the leader of a top 70 ASX-listed company - I empower my employees and nurture their development for the benefit of everyone.

As mentioned earlier, I strongly believe leadership and leadership style must be underpinned by clearly defined values.

These values should accurately encompass and embody your personality, your attitude to work and your philosophy of life, to inform and develop the foundations upon which you can build the pillars of a successful career.

I’ve lived my whole life by one rule - treat others as you would like to be treated.

And I firmly believe if you live by this mantra, you can never get too big for your boots, you will never lose sight of what’s important, you will arrive at better outcomes and you will remain grounded and real.

That is the type of person I am, the type of leader I am and the type of person I want to be seen as - someone always striving to do well, by doing good.

This is absolutely reflected in my leadership style. What you see is what you get. I make a point of getting to know everyone in my organisation, learning their names, understanding them as people, their strengths and aspirations and bringing everyone up at the same time through our success.

I personally reply to, and in most instances pick up the phone and call, customers who take the time to write directly to me with a complaint, observation or compliment. It’s something I have always done - and will continue to do - regardless of my role.

I’m accessible to anyone in our organisation and to all other stakeholders and I firmly believe this attitude drives trust and motivates our people.

Throughout my career, I’ve stood strong by my values and have not deviated from them. They have remained my guiding principles no matter what changes, challenges or tribulations I have faced.

As mentioned earlier, the first value I’d like to speak about is Authenticity.

Be authentic.

My father said something to me that brought me to tears when I told him about my appointment to the Managing Director’s role. He said, “I am not just proud of you for getting the role, but I am proud of you for not having changed who you are.” That meant more to me than any other comment I could have received, and it goes to the heart of who I am.

The type of person that I would like to be seen as is real, as genuine. Authentic.

My style is influenced by this example. My style is genuine and honest. People want to hear from the authentic me, they don’t want generic information that could sound like it’s from anyone.

Oscar Wilde said be true to yourself, because everyone else is taken.

The value of authenticity, as we have seen play out recently in the financial services industry cannot be understated.

In this post-trust era, trust and authenticity are our most valuable assets – they are the currency of business.

I strive to communicate with a guide of paying less attention to what I think people want to hear from me and concentrate on what my authentic self needs to say. As a leader, it is my responsibility to encourage authentic behaviour and authentic dialogue.

This is critical.

Because of this, when communicating I work to assemble a narrative that makes sense and appeals to people at a grassroots level by bringing together hard (rational, fact based) data and soft evidence (anecdotes or stories) – and importantly, I stay true to myself.

The second value is Integrity. Operate with it. Demonstrate it.

Integrity is one of the cornerstones of our business and is in fact, one of our business’ corporate values. It means we focus on building a culture of trust and that we are open, honest and fair.

Albert Camus famously wrote that ‘integrity has no need of rules.’

And really what that means is that integrity will behave rightly because it is right, rather than because it conforms to or is enforced or prescribed in standards. In other words, right conduct emerges from an integrated character.

In dealing with any challenge, I seek to lead by example and tackle any challenges with integrity. We won’t be able to overcome any problems if we can’t be honest with ourselves, with our teams and work together to develop solutions. This means, encouraging active debate among our Executive, Leadership and all teams. We are not comprised of a culture of ‘yes-people’, but instead encourage curiosity, questioning and feedback and we celebrate new ways of thinking. A culture where no one is afraid to speak up.

One example of this is our bank’s strategy with fintech disruption. It is a challenge for all incumbent financial institutions and a reality all will face, and are facing, especially in the current environment.

I’ve applied integrity and honesty through the process of the development of our fintech strategy. This includes requiring my team to be honest in how they deal with me, with how they present information, challenges and opportunities and vice versa. Having integrity as a cornerstone has helped guide our strategy to ensure the right outcome for our customers and all other stakeholders are considered as part of our response.

The strategy supports our vision to be Australia’s bank of choice and enables us to work with the right innovative fintechs and develop our own digital-first products and services to help drive better outcomes for customers.

Integrity is also about fairness.

Our Diversity and Inclusion framework centres around a core theme called Belonging@Bendigo. This platform supports our commitment to our people where we strive to grow a community where “I want to work, where I am valued and where I belong.”

We put our people first, so our people can put our customers first. By striving to be inclusive and diverse, we create positive change that enables our organisation to be commercially astute, innovative and socially responsible. And what it really means is that everyone can truly be themselves, so they can do their best work. And this is what I mean when I mentioned earlier that if your values don’t align to the values of the organisation that you’re working for, achieving success will be much more draining and exhausting for you.

Organisationally, flexibility is a core part of our value proposition and a key reason why our people stay with us long term and work so hard.

Many of our staff really value access to part time work/compressed hours, ABW (Activity Based Working) and the ability to work from home. It allows them to feel valued as an employee, achieve a sustainable work-life balance and ultimately, perform to a higher level.

Furthermore, just last month we announced an updated parental leave policy to support any staff members recovering both physically and emotionally from an unexpected end to a pregnancy.

Following feedback from our staff, our policy now also grants any employee eligible for parental leave as a result of being pregnant - a period of paid special maternity leave of up to 12 weeks in the event their pregnancy ends as a result of stillbirth from 20 weeks gestation.

We genuinely care deeply for all our staff and this change in company policy reflects our commitment to all employees across the organisation.

Continuing the theme of fairness. I have also focused strongly on driving social and economic progression for women and diversity across our organisation. I have been a key supporter of the company’s Women in Leadership Program and can proudly state that today, women make up 65 percent of all our employees, 45 percent of all managers and almost 40 percent of Bendigo and Adelaide Bank’s board and executive management.

Our Women in Leadership program aims to sustain a diverse team that reflects our diverse customer base, the partners we work with and the communities in which we operate. This program ensures flexible work practices that support each employee’s life stage and ensure attraction, recruitment and selection practices at all levels are structured so a diverse range of candidates are considered, free of bias.

When I was appointed MD last year, I was the only female Managing Director of the major banks and one of only 13 women running S&P/ASX200 companies.

Success is catalysed by the culture around you.

But I also strongly believe diversity extends beyond just gender. Gender is incredibly important and while Australian businesses have made strong advances, there is much to do on that front.

Diversity and inclusion are essential to business success.

Our people need to mirror Australia’s diverse population and we can only do that by having a workplace that supports people from all cultures, backgrounds and preferences.

If our people feel they are included, are treated fairly and with integrity and are valued by our organisation, it will continue to drive a high-performing, motivated, productive and happy workplace culture and lead to commercial success.

I am proud to have played a role in creating this type of culture and enabling it to thrive at Bendigo and Adelaide Bank.

And third, having a passionate connection to community. (And this strongly links back to integrity and authenticity).

I am passionate about the role customers and communities play in Australia’s economic and social fabric and strongly advocate the role of business and government in communities.

My passion for giving back has been influenced by my rural upbringing. I grew up on a dairy farm in the small community of Cohuna, Victoria and this has laid the foundation for my love of community. In fact, I am at my happiest when I am spending time within and helping communities.

In my quest to make a difference in my community, I have volunteered my time with for profit and not for profit organisations and have been actively involved in Football and Netball Clubs, including volunteering and holding executive positions, and am often found serving in the canteen at local matches.

Our Community Bank®model itself is a great example of social impact on communities – financial and social returns were the basis of the model for the shareholders, customers and communities in the first instance. Our community partners actively consult across all their stakeholders in their communities to understand what the local opportunities and priorities are.

The more than $205 million that has been returned to Australian communities since the model’s inception is an important social impact measurement. It has been estimated that these funds have unlocked further government funds that have realised community projects exceeding many multiple millions of dollars nationally. Ensuring the success of this model is important to deliver true social impact through my work.

The guide for me is to ensure everyone in our organisation understands our shared value purpose of feeding into prosperity. If we operate with this front of mind each and every day, then I am confident our organisation will continue to have a positive social impact on communities right across the nation.

Helping people and communities to achieve their best fills me with a great sense of pride. And my personal passion for the role customers and communities play in Australia’s economic and social make up is a part of the cultural DNA of Bendigo and Adelaide Bank.

What I am ultimately saying is that to thrive as a leader in a large organisation, you need to help your employees and your customers to thrive.

Let your shadow speak for you.

As outlined earlier, personal values are crucial however, a successful leader of a large organisation must also display other leadership qualities such as; adaptability, agility and empathy.

These qualities are absolutely crucial to ensuring buy in from staff across the organisation and to reassuring all stakeholders of your leadership capability.

A successful leader - male or female - must be able to; adapt to different leadership styles, be agile to respond positively to change, and empathise with all stakeholders - great and small.

Another important, and often overlooked, trait in leadership is vulnerability. In reality, vulnerability is a strength because vulnerable leaders tend to inspire, are more authentic, and build bonds that lead to increased performance.

Embracing vulnerability means having the courage to face our fears. A vulnerable leader is willing to experience all the ups and downs that come with it and they know they can confront brutal realities while maintaining faith they will ultimately prevail.

Combining all these methodologies and skills underpins my efforts to bring others along on a journey with me.

A key part of any leadership role - across any organisation - is to support all employees to be the best they can be by providing them with the tools to thrive - and with that - so too will you.

The average tenure at our Bank is 9.5 years and I strongly believe this is primarily down to our culture.

I’m a strong champion for employee development and the cultivation of our next generation of leaders. I aim to provide younger people in our organisation with a platform to instigate and deliver real change across the business.

Being a curious and inquisitive person, I am excited about the future. I was extremely fortunate to be given the opportunity to join our Bank when I started at the organisation in 1989 and I want to ensure others receive the same opportunities I did.

With the early days of my professional career behind me, I spend a lot of my time drawing on a significant reservoir of past experience.

However, when I work with a younger person starting out in their career, I’m consistently struck by their fresh thinking and their lack of reflective perspective. They look forward and think ‘what if’ and ‘why couldn’t we’. I love that enthusiasm.

It challenges me and it inspires me to keep learning.

It’s certainly true to say that gaining recognition in large companies can at times be difficult – but it’s not impossible.

We celebrate our “quiet achievers” as we are fully aware that everyone’s personalities and values are different. Bombast is not required to succeed at our Bank.

So, what is success for me?

You might have guessed, even being a banker, that I don’t define success in pure monetary terms.

Our organisation’s purpose drives me professionally and it guides the development of our strategies at Bendigo and Adelaide Bank because it’s a proven methodology - you cannot have a healthy business if you don’t have healthy employees, healthy customers, and healthy communities.

Success is staying true to who I am, acting with authenticity, integrity and helping communities and the people in them to be the best they can be.

I actively encourage our people to bring their whole self to work every day - warts and all - as this authenticity is the key to unlocking untapped potential.

I’m convinced businesses and leaders that do the right thing by their people and their customers will not only win in the long run but will also go down in history for the right reasons.

Bendigo and Adelaide Bank has had an enormous personal impact on me. I would go so far as to say it’s been life-changing. Because of the strong connection between my own values and that of the Bank’s, it’s shaped me into the person standing in front of you today.

As an employee and a leader, I’m acutely aware of the impact I have on our people every day, the leadership shadow I cast and the legacy that I will one day leave behind.

The Women in Leadership program that I mentioned earlier, is underpinned by three principles: be kind to yourself, don’t let people intimidate you and don’t take this whole game of life too seriously.

Thriving in a large organisation is undoubtedly hard work but I believe if you create the right opportunities, for the right people, in the right environment, under the right leadership, magic can happen. Without a shadow of a doubt.

If you want to go fast, go alone; but if you want to go far, go together. Thank you.

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