Building resilience through empathy and action

Standing in as CEO during a tumultuous time in an organisation would test the resilience of most leaders, but to lead New Zealand’s largest bank through a period of intense change with Covid, the repercussions of the Australian Royal Commission into banking, and further disruption takes foresight, determination and a great attitude.

Having worked her way through a highly successful finance career, Antonia Watson now holds the position of CEO of ANZ Bank. Her down-to-earth characteristics are moving the bank away from traditional styles of leadership and embracing the diverse, flexible, and changing nature of the workplace and adapting to an era of data-driven customer-centric banking.

Born in Auckland, success runs in Antonia’s blood. She proudly talks of a photo she has of her mother being the only woman admitted to the Bar in her class surrounded by men. The inspiration derived from her mother and attending an all-girls school where she was surrounded by people who supported her, gave her the confidence to pursue a business career.

After attending Otago University to gain her accounting qualification, Watson completed three years at KPMG. Once she received her accounting qualification, she headed overseas.

“I travelled with a girlfriend for four months and then my-now husband for another month and arrived in London with no money and an urgent need to get a job. Morgan Stanley scooped me up for an urgent project – I didn’t even have an interview – and I ended up working there for 13 years in London, Sydney and Budapest.”

Initially working in finance roles, she moved into a Head of Infrastructure role in Sydney with line responsibility for finance and local responsibility for the back-office function. Her performance in this role took her to Hungary, where she became General Manager of the Business Services and Technology Centre, providing back-office functions for Morgan Stanley in North America and Europe, operating out of Budapest.

“I loved it,” says Watson. “It was basically a start-up. I was first in on the ground, and when I left the centre had grown to 800 people – and continues to go from strength to strength.”

However, Watson then adds, she knew she wanted to return to New Zealand, and even though it was in the middle of the GFC, she knew she was going to resign.

“On my trip home at Christmas in 2008, I put my feelers out and was interviewed for the role of Financial Controller at ANZ. Luckily for me they took their time offering me the role, which gave me the space needed to resign, leave Budapest and travel back to New Zealand ready for the next adventure.”

She knew this was the right step in her career.

“I’d run a country team and had senior roles. If I was in a smaller company, I would have been expected to be applying for CFO roles, but I didn’t feel I had the appropriate skills. Instead, I was able to enter a big organisation like ANZ as Financial Controller and work through that role until the CFO at the time returned to Australia and I stepped into his shoes.”

Watson believes becoming CFO was one of her more exciting appointments.

I began to realise that people saw someone who looked like them, did things a bit differently and still achieved.

“It was my first role with a C in front of it, and when I said I was CFO people understood what it meant. This position provided me with a platform to champion diversity, and suddenly there were people who wanted to hear about me – and from me. I began to realise that people saw someone who looked like them, did things a bit differently, but still achieved. I was told ‘it’s great someone like you was appointed’, which I think meant someone a bit less directive in style and with a more empathetic approach.”

Continuing as CFO for four years, Watson then moved into retail and business banking, which provided her with front office experience and groomed her for the potential roles that could include CEO.

“In banking the traditional path to CEO is via the CFO role. You definitely don’t have credibility until you’ve done a front-line role, and from there I was thrust into Acting CEO.”

Navigating crisis management

Although the plan was always for Watson to cover David Hisco’s role during a planned 11-week long-service leave period, ultimately the opportunity came in a slightly different package that involved a more challenging seven months. This meant she had to learn some lessons at speed.

“It was a pretty tough time. I didn’t realise when you’re in a role like this how much people feel you’re theirs and the things they’ll write about you when they don’t even know you. I went from crying about headlines to growing a thick skin very quickly.

“But it wasn’t just about me, our staff were in pain as well. Here we were working for a successful organisation when all of a sudden it imploded. We implemented a lot of communication and travelled around the country listening to people and focused on rebuilding the trust. We couldn’t defend the situation easily, as no one wanted to hear our defence. We had to wait for the Deloitte report to be released, and we needed to have someone independent say the right processes were followed.”

In December 2019, Watson was officially appointed as CEO – and promptly went on a month’s much-needed leave. Then, two months after her return, the country went into lockdown.

We went from one crisis to another and both of these situations required a really empathetic leadership style.

“We went from one crisis to another, and both situations required a really empathetic leadership style. Our senior team went from rebuilding trust and pride in the organisation to the Covid situation, where our customers were in pain and there was this incredible uncertainty.

“It was all hands to the pump for weeks, with queues out the contact centre door, metaphorically speaking, except at 1pm when the country stopped calling us to listen to the Prime Minister’s updates. We were focused on getting our customers onto home loan deferrals if needed, working with central government and the Reserve Bank. It really was an amazing amount of collaboration in a short space of time.”

Throughout that time, she says the leadership team always knew they had to give staff certainty around their jobs and salary.

“I’m thrilled we weren’t in the position where staff needed to go on unpaid leave because we needed them working at full capacity. Being able to provide job security meant a lot to the team, with many having family members impacted. It was a financial concern we could alleviate.”

She adds that the bank was ‘lucky’ that it was so well set up from a technology perspective.

“This meant that most employees could work from home immediately. Our call centre was the exception, but we had started trialling remote working prior to the outbreak, so we managed to expedite a roll-out. It was an extraordinary achievement and I’m incredibly proud of how it turned out.”

Having spent most of her time as CEO tackling one crisis or another, Watson is now looking to the future. This means that the type of leader ANZ is looking for has changed and is now more specific around the qualities of the person.

“At ANZ this is called the New Ways of Leading, which includes: be curious, connect with empathy, grow people selflessly and create shared clarity. We test and ask people to demonstrate these aspects if we’re interviewing them, it’s very different from the traditional leadership style. By being able to exhibit and define the qualities we want to see in our people it brings more diversity and a different set of skills, and I believe it shows everyone we are changing.”

However, there are some challenges coming up, she adds.

“We have some significant regulation on its way which we’re in the process of enacting, whether it be the CCCFA (Credit Contracts and Consumer Finance Act), the BS11 outsourcing policy or new capital requirements. The potential for significant issues for customers doesn’t look as bad as it could have been, though it doesn’t mean that there isn’t still a lot to play out from the pandemic.

“However, ANZ continues to look to the future including how we invest, improving customer and staff experience and reducing risk. Probably the biggest challenge at the moment is the huge amount of change happening and the difficulty of getting appropriate resources to help with that change.”

Probably the biggest challenge at the moment is the huge amount of change happening and, with borders closed, the difficulty of getting appropriate resources to help with that change.

She intends to tackle this is by managing the process and keeping people focused.

“We won’t be putting our hands up and saying, ‘it’s all too hard’. We want to deliver better results, firstly through better digital experiences, straight-through processing and making less mistakes. Secondly, is to use our data to improve our customers’ financial wellbeing. We know a lot about our customers and can use data at scale. This will allow us to provide them with more useful and tailored communication. I believe this will be a game changer for our customers’ financial wellbeing and help them with all aspects of savings, housing, business, retirement and more.”

From disruption fear to fintech partnering

As an industry, banking has an enormous amount of change and potential disruption coming, and Watson faces it readily.

“We have moved on from being scared of disruption to looking at the disrupters as people who are prepared to take a risk and are nimble. They have less to lose than us. We acknowledge that disruptive FinTechs have some great ideas, and we’re starting to partner with them more.

We acknowledge that disruptive FinTechs have some great ideas, and we’re starting to partner with them more.

“I truly believe the future of banking will be like all industries: the customer becomes more and more central to everything. We have community standards and expectations, and if you’re not going to meet them, you’re not going to survive. It’s a digital and data-driven future which we’re excited to be part of, but at the same time we need to protect our most vulnerable customers, because for some of them the changing technology simply doesn’t fit with their needs.”

She is excited about the ability to deliver more by not relying predominantly on the traditional one-on-one conversation between customer and banker.

“Everyone responds to communications and messaging in different ways. If we do product suitability, we look at the behaviour of people who do and don't get the message. There are still people who do and don't get the message. There are still people who want a conversation with a banker, maybe when you buy a house for the first time you want someone to guide you. The next time, you just want to fill in the form online or on the app and don't require the personal interaction. This means we need to make sure we're catering for all those needs, and ANZ's scale mean we have the experts as well as a terrific app.”

And the biggest lesson?

“For me, the biggest lesson over the last couple years in an environment of Covid and crisis management has been resilience,” says Watson.

“During lockdown, one of our vendors invited me on a Zoom call with Julia Gillard. Someone asked her how she built resilience when she was the Australian Prime Minister. She said she learned to have two personas: Julia Gillard the person and Julia Gillard the Prime Minister. She explained that she learned to box-up the comments made about Julia Gillard the Prime Minister and keep them as two separate things. I was awestruck on how great it was to compartmentalise like that, and this advice has been immeasurably helpful for me.”

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MEttle, a collection of stories and interviews with influential New Zealand business leaders, curated by MinterEllisonRuddWatts.

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