Great Minds: Banking in pursuit of purpose

The forward-thinking bank-chief Shayne Elliott embodies the power of purpose in commerce. 

At one time, banking was a simple pursuit based almost entirely on the making of money. Banks would generate income by lending money to consumers at a higher rate than central banks. And that was pretty much it. But, as with so many industries, normal doesn’t work anymore. As purpose becomes more important for consumers and employees, banks are seeking ways to build value beyond their bottom line.

Shayne Elliott is chief executive of ANZ, one of the largest lenders in Australia and New Zealand. Elliott is a little different to many bankers in that he doesn’t see it as his role to unreservedly defend his industry. In fact, he’s keen that ANZ learns from the mistakes that caused the global financial crisis. “The system hasn’t really delivered,” he told me when we met recently. “Big business gave us the crisis, and it gave us fat-cats. Wealth was supposed to trickle down, but it hasn’t been that way for most people. We know at ANZ that we have to reconnect with society and community, otherwise we are in peril.”

Elliott has embedded into his company a guiding principle of purpose – asking everyone involved in the organization to think about why they are doing something, and what values led them to that decision. The drive for purpose has uncovered some interesting bright spots in the bank. Elliott told me how he visited a branch of ANZ in rural Australia and was surprised to see staff sales targets on open display to customers. He asked the branch manager how they could reconcile these targets with doing right by the customer. The manager told him, “Everyone knows me in this town, we live here.” The bank is part of the fabric of a community, so bank managers have to work in the best interests of the people who inhabit it. In the same way that residents of English villages want their local pub to thrive commercially, the residents of this small Australian town wanted the best for their bank. “We live here!” Elliott told me, “that’s what we have to get over to the public – bankers are still not seen as human beings, but we are.”

ANZ’s purpose is tightly linked to other community programmes – it sponsors Mardi Gras in Sydney for the LGBTI community, and bank jobs for refugees. “Radicalization in migrant communities is a big deal in Australia,” says Elliott. “But radicalization is just a by-product of marginalization. We are about participation, which is an antidote to marginalization. Our refugee employees are some of the most amazing staff we have because they are so committed – and that is because they are participating. These community efforts are exemplary of our larger purpose, which is broadly about helping people to participate productively in the economy.”

Elliott says that what might be termed ANZ’s Purpose Test gives coherence to the bank’s community policies because it makes it clear to staff why they are important and how they link to the business versus just being ‘good things to do’. This clarity helps employees see how their efforts fit into the bigger picture, and that shared meaning in turn generates motivation and alignment. I believe it is a model that many businesses – large and small – would be wise to follow.

I’ll share the thoughts of another Great Mind in the next issue.

— Michael Chavez is chief executive of Duke Corporate Education