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Leading the Pacific way

“Most people in the Pacific are eager to try new things, easy to teach and thirsty for knowledge.”  

Although I’ve had many challenging leadership roles in my career, nothing prepared me for being Regional Executive, Pacific Islands, for ANZ. All of a sudden, I was in charge of almost 1,200 people across 11 countries as diverse as Fiji, Guam, Timor and Kiribati.


Even then, it wasn’t until my second year in the penny dropped and I actually questioned my leadership credentials.


The turning point for me was when I found out my engagement score with employees had fallen. Even worse, the engagement score with female employees had gone back 9 per cent. I was shocked as I had naively assumed being a female myself (plus some of the initiatives we had introduced), would have lifted the score. It was an eye opener and I realised that I, and ANZ, needed to change.


Two years on, it’s a very different story. My engagement score is at an all-time high, I feel on top of the role but at the same time humbled by the journey.


Here are some of the leadership tips I have learnt in my time in the Pacific:


Dump your bias


I didn’t have a lot of exposure to the Pacific prior to starting my role and did not fully understand the region’s diversity across its different countries.


There is a perception people in the Pacific are too relaxed, sitting under coconut trees, sipping cocktails. It is, in fact, the opposite.


I have never met so many clever, hard-working people who are incredibly resourceful. And I have never laughed so much in my career. Most people in the Pacific are eager to try new things, easy to teach and thirsty for knowledge. People learn fast and come away with more because they are so receptive and open minded.


Get out and listen


It’s not just that every country is different, every person is an individual and a one size fits all approach doesn’t work.


One of ANZ’s leadership imperatives is to connect with empathy. At first, I didn’t appreciate the importance of this and for a while I was uncomfortable because my team are direct and specific – including on some tough issues. Just the other day one of my executives came to me and said I need to listen more on a particular issue.


That also goes to listening to the experts in the villages. The Pacific’s outlook centres on sustainability in food, land, water and population – all impacted by climate change and severe weather events and underpinned by financial sustainability.


All of this leads to the big question: how can the economies of small island nations support people while adapting to change? In many cases, the local people have the answers and are simply getting on and fixing things.


Leverage community


Pacific people have a very strong community spirit and a very rich family and community life from which we can all learn. By leveraging community, you can drive impactful change.


About 30 per cent of Pacific Islanders are still poor and operate outside the formal economy. For example about a third of Fijians don’t have a bank account. Many are seasonal workers so training them to use a bank account and save is essential.


ANZ introduced the MoneyMinded financial literacy program in 2010 and has since trained over 16,000 people in the Pacific (including Papua New Guinea) who in turn spread the word. We now have a Financial Inclusion Team with four full-time staff and have trained new partners as well.


Drive digital transformation


ANZ CEO Shayne Elliott recently said the pace of change is so fast we have to become better at learning from each other. And it’s so true: being a digital bank is about learning from and working with partners and customers.


The Pacific islands are made up of smaller isolated economies without access to global platforms but everyone has a phone and half the people have smart phones.


ANZ was the first bank to launch a Pacific-wide mobile banking app, making it a lot easier for customers to bank. We have seen a 10-20 per cent increase in the use of internet banking in the past 18 months. A lot of that has come through education and working with partners and customers.



Increase FY16 to 18






Game changers


In order to address the falling engagement score, a training program was introduced to build confidence, capability and give everyone a voice. Our staff were encouraged to be professionally active on social media - primarily Twitter and LinkedIn. They then trained clients and industry groups.


The impact was transformational. It gave our people a voice, built confidence and capability and helped build deeper relationships with clients and stakeholders. It brought the outside in, linking them to global experts in their field.


By following leaders on social networks, staff now know far more about the bank’s strategy, values and purpose. One staff member said they now have access to the world’s experts on their mobile and they are learning best practice for free.


A lot of brands are struggling with trust issues, so having staff as advocates by getting them out there on social, building deeper relationships with customers and sharing education and expertise is critical.


Values trump culture


Sadly, the Pacific has entrenched problems around homophobia, everyday sexism and domestic violence and at times “culture” is used as an excuse with the implication it can’t be changed.


While we are respectful of culture, the bank is very clear about our values around diversity, gender equality, inclusion and bringing your whole self to work – this can create tricky ground. However, the breakthrough again came from our people.


A key executive pointed out Pacific values and religious values have, at their heart, inclusion for all. So we began talking about the values that bind us together rather than the issues that divide.


At the same time people saw I would speak up on difficult issues and reached out for help. As a leader, I learnt I am expected to be their voice and have the tough conversations which drive positive change. Living in close knit communities can result in a fear of consequence so an independent person can help.


Get into the weeds


It is incredibly important in the Pacific to be across the detail - not to micromanage but to know what’s going on and to question what we have done in the past. When I arrived, there were processes that had been decided on the fly, so I had to learn to get the right people in place and strengthen governance. To do that I had to know what was going on.


That’s the legacy I want to leave: our people have the capabilities, structures and discipline to carry on so ANZ is known for its professionalism and ethics.


People, not products


When we launched a term deposit account in Fiji, it had a market leading interest rate of 3 per cent. But this is more than just a great product. One employee explained “this will help people save more and get a home”. For our people it comes down to customer care because their focus is their community.


Our people are professional and hard-working, yet many spend part of their free time giving back to the community - whether it’s picking up litter on the beach, repainting the local hospital or raising money to upgrade two oncology rooms at Lautoka Hospital. Their community spirit is second to none and community work is a great bridge from ANZ to customers to help build trust.


Develop strong self-reliance


In a more developed country, it’s easy to be a cog in a wheel rather than a leader. But when you run an entire region or a country, you have to become very self-reliant.


You have to remain calm and lead because people rely on you. In the Pacific you are the face of your brand and there is nowhere to hide. People know everything.


It’s not about hiding your feelings. It’s about working through issues with trusted advisers, getting the help needed and being candid and transparent about the problem.


I know when I look back on this time, I will see everything will have worked out and be fine. Three years into the role now, so it is proving to be. And that is thanks to listening and learning and becoming part of the community.


Tessa Price is Regional Executive, Pacific Islands at ANZ



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