The power of purposeful curiosity

If you are the leader of one of New Zealand’s most influential and prominent organisations, affecting the futures of more than a million customers, it pays to be relentlessly curious, always seeking purpose and understanding amid the blizzard of details.

Fortunately for ASB Bank, its CEO Vittoria Shortt has these qualities in abundance. Having initiated and led a bank-wide project to articulate the bank’s purpose: “Accelerating the financial progress for all New Zealanders”, she took MEttle through the steps of her career to date, driven by the curiosity that has powered her path to this latest responsibility as one of the few female CEOs of a major organisation in New Zealand.

A proud Kiwi, Vittoria Shortt grew up in Auckland and went to Waikato University. There, she took the first steps along an academic path that she then replicated in her career.

“My father suggested that I should go into accounting, because you can travel around the world and have a profession, and I thought that sounded quite exotic. So off I went to Waikato, where they had a Bachelor of Management Studies course that had a practical element to the degree, as I really loved the idea of working with business.”

After taking a few accounting papers, Shortt took some finance papers, which she really liked.

“I then went on to do what they called Strategic Management, so I went accounting, finance, strategy – and it became more and more fascinating to me.”

In her last year of university, Shortt received a letter from Deloitte inviting her to work for them.

“John Hagen was running the firm at that time,” she says.

“I worked for John and Peter Simmons, who were running the corporate finance practice. So, I went from audit into corporate finance, where they did everything from evidence for commercial litigation to due diligence to M&A to opinions for the Stock Exchange – all the good corporate finance work.”

Realising that she didn’t want to be advising businesses as much as she wanted to be in them, she thought the best way to get into one was to try to get into an in-house corporate finance or M&A team. At the time there were only three businesses that fit the bill: Fonterra, Air New Zealand and Carter Holt. Shortt got into the Carter Holt M&A team, at a time when Chris Liddell was reshaping the business substantially.

Saying that she had “a really terrific few years” doing M&A, Shortt then had an epiphany.

“I thought that unless you were running a business, you weren’t really in it.”

“I thought that unless you were running a business, you weren’t really in it,” she says. “I asked if I could move into a division, and I went into the timber division as the Commercial Manager, doing all the finances and strategy as well. That was my evolution from accounting, to finance and then strategy.”

At this time Shortt met her Kiwi husband, Tony, and together they went to Sydney, precipitating a move into Commonwealth Bank. There Shortt says she did “pretty much every role that was going: product, HR, IT, sales, operations, M&A, strategy. You name it, I did it. Every time they asked me to do something, I said yes.”

A few of these role changes were because she had children, she explains.

“In those days, they didn’t keep your role open for you when you had children, so I left, had children, and came back. Each time I came back, the question was ‘what do we do with Vittoria?’ so I went into whatever role was going, which at the time I saw as opportunity to do something different.”

AT THIS TIME AN UNEXPECTEDLY PIVOTAL MOMENT AROSE

“They asked me to work with the HR team”, she says.

“I had gone from corporate finance and those sorts of areas – where I really knew what my skills were and how I added value – to an area that couldn’t have been further from what I felt I knew.

“However, I had also come to the view that if I wanted to lead businesses, no area would be a bad area to go into. So, with that in mind, I took the HR role. Retrospectively, it was a great decision because two roles later I had 5,000 people working with me all over Australia, and I really needed that grounding in people fundamentals. It was really helpful.”

This experience also helped Vittoria to realise that not being a subject matter expert offered a degree of latitude, which allowed her natural curiosity to come to the fore.

“I always had a view of what I could bring to a role and what I needed to learn. I learned that when you go into a role and you’re not a subject matter expert, it gives you a real degree of freedom. I am naturally very curious; I ask a million questions. I just want to know how things work, how they hang together and how they tick.

“By not being a subject matter expert, you can ask all the stupid questions; you can prod and poke into lots of different areas. It gave me the ability to look into a business, or whatever I was accountable for, and understand it in a fundamental way.”

“By not being a subject matter expert, you can ask stupid questions, you can prod and poke into lots of different areas, and understand the business in a fundamental way.”

After this point, bigger roles came to the fore, enabling Vittoria to bring all her experience together. These roles included running the retail bank for Bankwest, joining the Executive Team at Commonwealth Bank Australia, and then her latest role at ASB Bank – where her curiosity has been a real asset in learning about the business and its customer base.

“Natural curiosity is good to help you understand your customers and how they operate, and what they are thinking about. I like going onto a farm, or into a business, as I am really curious to see how it runs,” she says. “One of our clients runs a very successful dry-cleaning operation. I had never known how it works, and now I do – and I would like one of those machines at home!”

DEVELOPING AND LEADING A PURPOSE-LED ORGANISATION

Now CEO of ASB Bank for over eighteen months, Vittoria says that one of the first things she did when starting in February 2018 was to really understand how the bank ticked, and what drove its purpose.

“I was a student of history of this business when I arrived,” she says. “I knew parts of it because I knew Ralph, Ross and Barbara. I knew people involved in the bank, so I had parts of an understanding. But I needed more.

“I went back and had a look at its genesis, which was always about the community. ASB has been going for 172 years, and it was all about the working class of New Zealand, supporting working people and helping them learn how to save. “ASB’s origins were always community-based, always about financial wellbeing. One of the first things they did when they set up ASB was to translate the constitution into Te Reo Māori, because they wanted to encourage people to save. At the end of their first year, they had £100, 14 Pākeha and seven Māori. That was the start of ASB.”

“At the end of its first year, ASB had £100, 14 Pākeha and seven Māori. That was the start of ASB.”

One of the things that Vittoria set about early on was to ensure that this fundamental community centric purpose was at the foreground of the modern bank’s outlook, thinking and decision-making.

“ASB always had an implicit purpose,” she says. “My job was just to articulate what was implicit and make it explicit: to showcase our deep roots in the community and doing the right thing by our customers.”

ACTIONING PURPOSE AT A TIME OF INQUIRY

Although Vittoria says that articulating the bank’s purpose was “easy in a way”, she acknowledges that it is a much bigger challenge to take a purpose and make it really meaningful and actionable.

“Our purpose is about accelerating financial progress for all New Zealanders. The task is to bring it to life so it is more than a phrase for each customer. We use a simple concept Every Day, Rainy Day, One Day.”

“Every Day is about how you function every day, meeting your commitments, having sufficient control over your finances,” she says. “Rainy Day is about when something happens, have you got something to fall back on? And One Day is important goals like home ownership, or for big corporate customers maybe it is an acquisition target or offshore growth. The same concept applies, irrespectively.”

The bank then uses the power of data to understand how to further help its customers – which is particularly relevant in light of the Royal Commission inquiry earlier this year.

“We looked at our customers to see how many have difficulty making payments, for example, and to see what we can do to help, and how many of our customers have resilient settings. If I take the dairy industry right now for example, they are going through big industry changes, so we think about what are those resilient settings and how do we have the conversation to help our customers?”

Each part of the purpose-led framework has data and a methodology behind it, she says, which helps the bank to be very clear about its role and to prove what it is doing to help customers make financial progress.

“Some of the lessons I have taken out of what has been happening with the Royal Commission were two sentences from an APRA [Australian Prudential Regulation Authority] report about culture. One of them is that financial success dulled the senses, and the second one is that important voices became harder to hear. Those two sentences go to the heart of the challenge, making sure you understand the impact of your decision on customers and the community and really listening to others opinions.”

Stressing that strong, profitable banks are very important for the New Zealand economy – “we have to go offshore to raise a lot of money, and we want to raise it at really attractive rates so we can bring it back to New Zealand and continue to support people doing what they need to do,” Vittoria – acknowledges that this is only part of the picture.

“This is why purpose really comes into sharp focus: yes, profitability is important, but how do we know we are looking after every customer every day?

“You can’t take comfort from an aggregate number. You’ve got to look and understand what is happening with all of your customers.”

“We can’t rely on averages,” she adds. “A lot of people talk about net promoter scores, and that’s great, but what’s happening with customers who aren’t happy? You can’t take comfort from an aggregate number. You’ve got to understand what is happening with all of your customers, and make sure that your processes support all the experiences your customers are having.”

Taking responsibilities seriously, and acting carefully amid change Vittoria is also keen to make the point that New Zealand’s culture makes for a different conversation within the banks, and ASB Bank in particular, about the needs of customers.

“New Zealanders are very relationship-oriented, which I think is a lot about the size of the country.

“When I look into our own business, I see our people all around the country asking themselves ‘is this the right thing to do for this customer?’ the ‘could we, should we?’ test.”

Ultimately, she says that we need organisations with skill to be able to provide quality advice and guidance to people who need that guidance.

“The point is how to do it properly and safely – for our people, for our customers. That’s the bit we need to get right, working hand-in-hand with regulators. There is a lot of change in regulation, potentially too much. We are at risk of trying to get a lot of change done in such a short space of time, so we have to make sure we get it right.

“We just have to be careful we don’t put too much change into the system at a time when there is a lot of change happening globally, and within the New Zealand economy. We have to be very careful that we don’t have unintended consequences from too much change.”

Vittoria concludes by saying that she and ASB Bank are doing everything they can to play the role in New Zealand that they should play, at an individual customer level and also for New Zealand’s benefit.

“Everything – from how do we help with financial crime, how do we help address some of the changes in different industries in New Zealand, environmental factors, social factors – we’re looking into these aspects so we can take the right steps forward to help our customers. We take our responsibility very seriously.”

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