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A life in the law according to Bob

Pic: Bob Santamaria, Outgoing Group General Counsel at ANZ

It’s a little unusual, I expect, for someone to choose being a lawyer or working in a milk bar, but they were the two options I saw for myself when I was first starting my career.


I often wondered whether, if I didn’t make it as a lawyer, I could run a milk bar. I loved going to the local milk bar where you become friends with the person behind the counter. That’s the part that really appealed to me. And that’s what I tried to bring to my work as a lawyer.


Working in a corporate law firm as a mergers and acquisitions lawyer, I was surrounded by people who had topped law school and become great practising lawyers. I looked at myself and felt I didn’t fit in. It was a real knock to my confidence.


I have an honours degree in law, but I only came 20th out of 21 in the class list. Around me, other graduates were transitioning from being great students into being the most sought after corporate lawyers in the country. I was just getting by.


At that stage, it wasn’t a question of thriving. I just wanted to stay in a job and do what I loved.


I thought “how am I going to survive in this company?” So, I looked around and I thought well one thing I can try to do is be really great at looking after our customers - and also be reliable. I hoped I could give the same level of service to my customers and stakeholders at the law firm that I loved. 


There was lots of tedious work to do at the firm where I worked. I always put my hand up for the work no one else wanted to do and I tried to do it really well.


I used to think: “What do you really need here and what can I do to be someone that you would prize?”


The answer? Reliability. I tried to never leave the office without returning phone calls. I did the tedious work and I did it to the best of my abilities.

The longer I stayed with my old firm, trying to survive in my career with a wife and our then, four children all dependent on my wage, I thought hard about how I could serve our customers really well.


Sometimes, customers will say “I want this” but sometimes they ask for things that are the wrong thing for them. And it's incumbent on us, I think, to be thinking what does this person really need? Putting ourselves into their shoes - constantly putting ourselves into the shoes, the mind, the thoughts of that customer.


Soon enough, some of the partners of the firm took notice.


Maybe they saw something in me that I didn't see in myself but they built my self-confidence and I actually think that there is no greater gift that a leader can give to the people in their care than to build their self-confidence because you do that and you become so much happier in your work.

I will remain forever indebted to the partners at my old law firm who built my confidence and helped me believe I could perhaps make a career as a lawyer.


It's funny, I have two brothers who are barristers and they’re both very successful. One became a judge and the other a Queen’s Counsel. Barristers are sole practitioners, and when I compare my working life to theirs, I know I’ve chosen the right path.


In sporting parlance, there's this notion a champion team will beat a team of champions. That’s how I like to work. If you are individually brilliant, it’s no good if nobody else wants to work with you.


I love being in a firm with a team of people. I wouldn't have lasted as a sole practitioner. I love that feeling of working as a team. You can't achieve the same things by yourself as you can as a part of a team.


Everybody has good characteristics and they have their flawed characteristics and I think it's really important that you be patient with the aspects of people in your team that are maybe not the most attractive and as a leader you try to soften those pieces but you also work very hard to bring a group of disparate individuals together with you.

Pic: Bob and his daughter

That is what I love about being part of a team. Indeed, when you look at academic studies on what makes a good team it tends to suggest that bringing together the right mix of skills and seniority won't guarantee anything. It's that ability to draw out from people and have them speak up that is important.


My moral compass comes from within. A lot of it comes from my personal and professional upbringing; from my parents and from the people who I worked with who were good people and I watched how they handled situations.


I came to ANZ when I was 54. I’ve had numerous difficult situations where I just knew I had to say something.


To be honest, I think about if I didn’t say something when I knew something was being done badly. I think of what my wife, my adult kids, my late parents would think of me if I didn’t do something about that. I use them as my guide to when I should speak up. But I hasten to add that it's easier for me. When I arrived here [at ANZ], very early on I had a difficult moment where I just knew I had to say something. And I might have lost my job, but I spoke up to this person in the bank and it led to my being promoted in this case to a different role. So you get unexpected benefits from speaking up.


But I also try not to forget that it was easier for me. There are so many people who are still early on in their careers. Unlike me, they've got a young family or they've got other reasons why it's hard to speak up. What I say to my team is: “I will understand when there's a situation that emerges like that, when your courage might desert you. In those situations, talk to someone at work who you trust to check if your judgement is right.”


I will always forgive that initial lack of courage, or a feeling of courage deserting you. I would not lightly forgive someone who didn't talk about the issue with their colleagues and then if they were confirmed that it was a problem that they didn't raise it.

Pic: Bob outside an ANZ branch

I'd like to think if you were to speak to my leadership team that whenever a difficult issue comes up, everybody gets a say. I actually ask every single person and then I will take the responsibility for our collective decision. I try as much as possible to make them a collective decision.


I was set to retire in September last year; while I was still a young man of 65. I wanted to retire and spend 15 years working for the community; it’s my way of saying thanks for the wonderful working life I've had. And then along came the Royal Commission, and I said to Shayne that it wouldn't be fair for there to be a change of the person in my role in the middle of a Royal Commission. So, I checked in with my wife and we agreed to push my retirement back a year. I wanted to be here to support our staff as much as I could.


I can't pretend that the Royal Commission wasn’t a harrowing experience. There’s still a lot more to be done, but I guess when you reflect back on it, there were some aspects of it that were positive.


The most wonderful aspect of it for me was how so many people at ANZ put their hands up, rolled their sleeves up and really worked incredibly hard to help our bank get through a very difficult process. And, of course, the personal examples shown by our CEO was incredibly powerful for the rest of the team.


This might sound a little strange, but to me, when you’re part of a team working on something like the Royal Commission, you can’t be serious all of the time. We took the issues that the royal commissioner was raising with us terribly seriously. But it's also important that the team enjoys being in the trenches together.


Really, I think it comes back down to that first lesson I learnt in my old law firm. It’s so much about caring for all the people around you and being reliable. If your team can depend on you, and your customers trust you, then it’s likely you’re on the right path to doing the right thing. 


Bob Santamaria is the outgoing Group General Counsel for ANZ


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