What is your business story? How to tell and deliver on an authentic business story

This article is a transcript of the presentation by Marnie Baker, Managing Director, Bendigo and Adelaide Bank delivered at Governance Institute’s Victorian Governance and Risk Management Forum held on 20 May 2021.

I’d like to introduce you to the story of a wannabe primary school teacher who became a banker, a banker who became the Managing Director of an ASX 100 company, and a gold rush inspired building society that became one of Australia’s biggest and most trusted banks.

Let me take you back, back to 1989, when I was a young, and somewhat naïve country girl who had relocated from the small northern Victorian dairy farming town of Cohuna to what was to me at the time, the big city of Bendigo, to pursue my chosen study path.

This was meant to be a steppingstone to a career in Melbourne. However, I fell in love with Bendigo, with my now husband and with a job and an organisation that mirrored my own personal values, and where I could progress my professional career. 

Like the Gwyneth Paltrow movie, my story is one of sliding doors, of spur of the moment decisions, which taught me the lesson of not overthinking things nor placing too much pressure on yourself. For the decisions you make are only for that point in time and not for the rest of your life.

You see, I could have stayed in Cohuna and applied for a role in one of the local banks, however it never crossed my mind to ever work in a bank. I knew I wanted to go to University and my whole life I’d dreamed of being a primary teacher — just like my mother.

But when I went to fill out my preferences for university, there was an oversupply of primary teachers and as such, limited job prospects for those coming out of university.

So, I thought to myself, I’m pretty good at maths and I heard accountants make good money, so in that split second, I put down Accounting as my first preference and Latrobe in Bendigo as my choice of university.

I studied full time to start with, but quickly realised I needed some real-life experience, so I decided to seek a full-time job and finish my degree while I was working, through correspondence and night courses. 

I pounded the footpath and walked into Sandhurst Trustees, an old and very historic trustee company in Bendigo and asked for a job which I then started the following Monday — my how times have changed!

A few years later, Sandhurst Trustees was acquired by the then Bendigo Building Society which in 1995, became Bendigo Bank and then later Bendigo and Adelaide Bank — the company of which I am now managing director. So much for not wanting to become a banker!

I get asked quite a lot as to why I have stayed more than three decades in the one sector and with the one organisation.

For me, when my personal values align directly with the company I work for, then forging a long-term career with an organisation becomes a no-brainer.  

Put simply, Bendigo and Adelaide Bank possesses a bold and ambitious vision, and a deeply embedded purpose and set of values that resonate perfectly with my own. If it didn’t, I wouldn’t be standing here before you today.

Bendigo and Adelaide Bank was born out of community, for community. Its origins stem back to the Bendigo goldfields 162 years ago where a group of miners came together to pool their funds for community prosperity purposes.

Once a month, they’d pool their funds, and everyone’s name would be put into a barrel. A name would be drawn out of the barrel and the selected person would then be allocated the funds to build their house.

It was the genesis of banking itself: the notion that everyone should benefit from a financial transaction - the investor who provides the funds, the borrower, the bank's shareholders who bear the risk of the borrower not paying, and society itself.

That original barrel still sits in our boardroom in Bendigo and while the board doesn’t use it for voting purposes anymore, it’s a symbol and reminder of our purpose that still stands today — to feed into prosperity, not off it — it’s part of who we are and what sets us apart.

Since its initial establishment in 1858 as a fixed-term building society to improve conditions in the Bendigo goldfields during the Victorian gold rush, the bank has worked hard to constantly shape and refine its business in line with a clear vision and purpose, and a set of non-negotiable values.

The bank’s vision is to be Australia’s bank of choice. It’s a bold ambition, but one I believe our capabilities and deep commitment to doing good can help achieve.

Our fundamental purpose as a business — to feed into prosperity, not off it — remains the same today, as the day it was founded more than 162 years ago, and is deeply embedded in our DNA.

Guided by this clear vision and enduring purpose, the bank’s ultimate goal is to help customers and their communities secure prosperous futures, so as a bank we too can thrive.  For a business can only achieve success if their customers and the communities in which they operate are successful.

These principles sit perfectly with me as do the values of authenticity, integrity and the importance of community, which the organisation has proudly championed since its establishment.

Let me tell you why.

Authenticity is non-negotiable

My father said something to me that brought me to tears when I told him about my appointment to the managing director’s role in 2018. 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.

It also neatly encapsulates my leadership philosophy — to be genuine and honest. People want to hear from the authentic you, they don’t want generic information that could sound like it’s from anyone. And they don’t want to hear one thing and then see something different.

I’ve lived my whole life by one rule — treat others as you would like to be treated. 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 and leader that I want to be seen as — someone always striving to do well, by doing good.

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 firmly believe a high level of emotional intelligence and a strong sense of self-awareness are the foundational stones upon which authentic leadership is built. 

Emotional intelligence is defined by psychologist Daniel Goleman as ‘the ability to understand and manage your own emotions, as well as recognise and influence the emotions of those around you’.

Put simply, self-awareness is understanding who we are and how we are similar to, or different from, others. And being aware of how our actions can have varying impacts on the many people affected by them. 

Self-awareness, therefore, is the foundation of our authenticity because it is about conducting our lives according to our values, abilities, and preferences and having the resolve to act in accordance with what we are aware about ourselves, despite the risk of vulnerability. 

While many may see vulnerability as a weakness, in reality, it’s a strength because vulnerable leaders tend to inspire, are more authentic, and build bonds that leads to increased overall 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.

Ultimately though, authentic leaders must possess highly tuned human skills such as compassion, empathy and understanding of both the self and others, and this is what emotional intelligence brings. 

However, one of the realities of life which complicates the essence of authenticity is our own individual uniqueness. There is no universal model for an authentic human being.

We have to discover our own identity because we come from different contexts depending on our social, political, religious and cultural backgrounds. We have to discover our own authenticity — and embrace it.

The truly authentic leaders are those precious few who manage to combine a high level of emotional intelligence, with strong personal values and belief in the courage of their convictions. 

The value of authenticity, as we have seen play out in many industries and international politics cannot be understated. In this post-trust era, trust and authenticity are our most valuable assets — they are the currency of modern business.

I strive to communicate with a framework of paying less attention to what I think people want to hear from me and more attention 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.

However, listening is also just as important.

Especially in today’s always-on, fragmented, information heavy, digital world.

If your people can see you actively listen to them and you demonstrate this through action, they will feel more valued and engaged.

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 most importantly, I stay true to myself.

I’ll tell it like it is and won’t smother it with corporate, buzzword-speak.

Integrity and authenticity go hand in glove

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.

CS Lewis famously said, ‘integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.’

In other words, right conduct emerges from an integrated character — or entity.

In dealing with any challenge, I seek to lead by example and tackle it with integrity. Afterall, if we can’t be honest with ourselves, we won’t be able to overcome problems with our teams and work together to develop solutions.

Practically, this means, encouraging active debate among our executive, senior leaders and all our teams.

We are not a collection of ‘yes-people’, and we have worked hard to foster a culture where no one is afraid to speak up and everyone is encouraged to embrace curiosity, interrogate decisions, and celebrate new ways of thinking.

In fact, one of the cultural behaviours we actively encourage our team to do is to ‘challenge the status quo’.

Integrity is also about fairness and cultivating a sense of belonging.

As a result, we’re firmly committed to putting our people first by continuing to strive to build a workplace community where our people want to work, where they feel valued and ultimately, where they feel they belong.

What this really means, is that if we can create an ever more inclusive and diverse workplace where everyone can truly be themselves, then we will continue to drive a high-performing, motivated, productive and happy workplace culture which will lead to future commercial success.

There is no doubt it is still really tough for women in the financial services industry and across other broader industries. 

As we all know, banking and finance is a very male dominated sector however, it still never fails to amaze me that only 10 of Australia’s 200 most successful companies are led by women and as of today, Bendigo and Adelaide Bank is the only ASX200 company with both a female chair and CEO!

Over the last two years there have been 50 CEO appointments in the ASX 200, and of those, only three were women!

We all know (or should know) the business case for having more women in leadership positions is clear. 

Throughout my career, I have focused strongly on driving social and economic progression for women and diversity more broadly across our organisation. 

I have been a key supporter of the company’s Women in Leadership Program which aims to sustain a diverse team that reflects our diverse customer base, the partners we work with and the communities in which we operate.

I do see a marked change occurring. When the discussion about gender equality became one that everyone was having rather than just women, that’s when things really started to change.

We’ve also seen in very recent times this discussion being raised to a national level and it’s important it continues to remain a focus until such a time it doesn’t have to be.

Gender diversity is incredibly important and while Australian businesses have made strong advances, there is much more to do on that front.

While we have prioritised developing women in our business and achieving gender equality in management — not only for their personal development and our workplace, but to support a gender balanced community — I strongly believe diversity and inclusion extends far beyond just gender. 

Our people need to mirror Australia’s diverse population — as well as the communities where they are based - and we can only realise that by having a workplace which supports people from all cultures, backgrounds and preferences.

By constantly striving to be more inclusive and diverse, we believe this will help drive positive change and enable our organisation to become more commercially astute, innovative and socially responsible.

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.

At Bendigo and Adelaide Bank, workplace flexibility has always been an important offering for our employees. Prior to the pandemic, many of our staff really valued access to part time work/compressed hours, Activity Based Working and the ability to work from home.

For example, in 2019, around ten per cent of employees had a formal flexible work arrangement in place.

However, this all changed, and changed quickly in March 2020, when more than 90 per cent of corporate office employees were forced to work from home as a result of COVID-19 restrictions. 

Our ability to move with agility to support our customers and protect our people’s safety and support them to work remotely was a testament to our culture and capability in responding to a serious, long-term crisis. 

We responded at pace to the COVID-19 pandemic to protect our people’s safety and support them to continue to carry out their important roles for the benefit of our customers and communities.

COVID-19 is still very real, and we continue to witness in countries like India, and more broadly across the world, escalating and tragic threats to millions of people. Quarantine programs are still live and hotly debated in Australia and most of our population remains unvaccinated.

With that in mind, it is still too early to understand what the new reality will be, but our people are telling us they enjoy the flexibility of choosing to either work from home, from the office, or a combination of both where it makes sense to them, their teams and our customers. 

A fundamental belief in the importance of community

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 upbringing. As I mentioned at the start, I grew up on a dairy farm in Cohuna, Victoria and this — I believe — laid the foundation for my love of community.

Throughout my time at Bendigo and Adelaide Bank, I’ve had the privilege of offering our customers and the communities they live and work in a hand up. Primarily by helping them finance their homes, farms and businesses, but also by playing a role in empowering them to take control of their community’s economic security, which has led to amazing social outcomes. 

I often talk about how being in a regional community forces you to remain grounded and connected. In Bendigo, where I live, and where our head office is, it’s no secret that I am the managing director of the bank and I’ll often meet people when I am out and about in my personal life who are only too willing to provide with their perspective about what the bank — or indeed what I am — doing well or not doing well. 

It’s this personal and very real connection that when you extrapolate across our business and the over 500 communities in which we operate across Australia that helps lead to our strong understanding of our customers and their communities. We don’t sit on the 27th floor of an office building making decisions that impact people on the ground. More often than not, we’re on the ground, on farm, in communities — side by side with our customers. 

Our Community Bank model is a great example of our grassroots connection with our customers and the positive social impact of business in these communities — our community partners actively consult across all their stakeholders in their communities to understand what the local opportunities and priorities are and this feeds into their business decision making.

The more than $250 million that has been returned to Australian communities since the model’s inception back in 1998 is an important social and economic proof point.

These funds have unlocked further government funds that have realised community projects exceeding many multiple millions of dollars nationally and it is estimated that the model itself has had an economic multiplier effect in these communities totalling more than one billion dollars since its inception - delivering real social and economic impacts to these communities.

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 and economic impact in communities right across the nation and because we’re starting with this at the centre (i.e., not tacking it on as some sort of CSR effort) we’ll always look to make the right decisions for our communities.

Delivering for all stakeholders

Bendigo and Adelaide Bank’s journey has been more than 162 years in the making.

However, despite possessing a rich and eventful history, our business story is ultimately defined by the key strands which knit our organisation together — our vision, our purpose and our values.

These guiding philosophies have been the backbone of the organisation for more than 16 decades and act as our bellwether through thick and thin, good times and the more challenging times.

It is articulated in our frameworks, our policies, and our practices, and is the prism through which the bank has navigated its path in business since its inception.

Our business story has helped our bank to differentiate itself and stand out from the crowd. It has defined our culture, informed our remuneration model and underpinned our approach to upholding the highest standards of corporate governance.

We were pleased with Commissioner Hayne’s support of our bank’s remuneration model during the royal commission.  During the hearings, Commissioner Hayne cited remuneration incentives as the source of just about all unethical and legal problems and the final report stated that ‘culture, governance and remuneration march together’. Culture comes from the core of an organisation, it’s not a bolt on. Money can’t buy it. The right governance model will support and foster this.

Our purpose has helped differentiate us. It defines our culture; it informs our remuneration model, and it underpins our governance. The three pillars Commission Hayne said must march together.

For our bank, we didn’t need a royal commission or external pressure to structure our remuneration in a way that leads to delivering strong customer outcomes. We’ve done this because it’s the right thing to do.

We strongly believe, a clear purpose-driven culture, an environment that encourages fair competition and a responsible remuneration model are essential to achieving positive customer and community outcomes.

The importance of good governance cannot be understated. The royal commission didn’t necessarily make us all wake up and realise it — the average person knows this deep down — but it shone a light on what happens when good governance fails, and profit and shareholders are prioritised over customer and community.

Potential stakeholders, and current stakeholders, usually rely on governance elements prior to investing their time, their talent and/or money in you. If you’re on a board or management team, you can’t forget this.

But depending on heritage, and history — a clearly defined business story isn’t enough in today’s fractured and dynamic business environment. Just ask Kodak, Blockbuster or The Weinstein Company!

Your business story is only as good as your business itself. The two are integral. You can’t separate them. Your story can’t hide a bad business — it would be inauthentic and folly to think so. You can’t authentically tell your business story if you’re not telling the true story of your business.

And therefore, to survive your business must evolve and keep evolving — while staying true to its core — if it is to continue to resonate and be ‘loved’ by your people, customers and communities.

In 2019, in response to economic uncertainty, we launched a multi-year strategy based around three pillars — reducing complexity, investing in capability and telling our story.

This is the foundation with which we are reshaping our business for the future and to deliver on our vision in an uncertain economic environment.

And while the impacts of these recent and current significant events heighten ongoing economic uncertainty, our strategy and our purpose have not changed. The environment has instead, further accelerated the need for transformative change across our business.

We cannot afford to rest on our laurels, and neither can your business.

Remember, all your stakeholders are real living breathing people and if your business is to remain successful it must constantly adapt to better meet their needs, wants and expectations. And it must do so, whilst staying true to its very being. It’s as simple and as complicated as that! 

Bringing a business story to life and delivering tangible outcomes

If you are to thrive as a leader, I believe you need to help your employees, your customers and your communities to thrive.

You could be the most highly qualified person in the world and possess the IQ of a genius, but if you don’t understand emotions and their impact on people and performance, you’ll have difficulty in business today.

These qualities are absolutely crucial to ensuring buy in from staff across the organisation, to bringing them with you on the journey and to reassuring all stakeholders of your leadership capability.

Obviously, visions and values need to be complemented by skills, and a successful leader at any organisation must display some core leadership qualities such as; adaptability, agility and empathy.

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

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.

However, it wasn’t always so.

Not long ago, the workplace was a hierarchical and combative arena (some would argue it still is), dominated by leaders with aggressive personalities and a “do as I say” mentality. 

Fortunately, we are evolving into an empowered, team-based culture where the most successful leaders take the role of supportive coach. 

Nowadays, the ‘Say-Do’ factor rules the roost and separates the wheat from the chaff. 

Do what you say you’re going to do. It’s as simple as that!

Looking forward, my unwavering belief is that our future remains in putting the customer and community at the centre of our business, understanding what is right for them and empowering them simply, authentically, efficiently and more seamlessly as they conduct their everyday lives.

Author Miguel Reynolds Brandao’s book, The sustainable organisation — a paradigm for a fairer society: Sustainability in an age of technological progress and rising inequality, probably best sums up the state of the business world today and the implications for governance as we look forward. 

He refers to CEOs, but it equally applies across all levels of management and up to Boards. 

He said, ‘CEOs should be measured by the value they create into the community, the shareholders and the members of the company.’

And that hits the nail on the head for me. 

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