An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

Care about people — genuinely care about each individual. Strive to find, hire, and nurture people will world class skills, who share similar values. Take an interest in them as people, show them through your actions that you want them to succeed, and they will support you through thick and thin.

As a part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Brian Hartzer.

Brian Hartzer, author of THE LEADERSHIP STAR: A Practical Guide to Building Engagement, is an experienced executive and leadership mentor who served as CEO of the Westpac Banking Group from 2015 to 2019. Earlier, he spent 15 years in senior executive roles at the Royal Bank of Scotland Group and ANZ Banking Group. Hartzer has also worked as a financial services strategy consultant at First Manhattan Consulting Group in New York, San Francisco, and Melbourne. He is currently an advisor and investor to Quantium, a leading data-science company, and several Sydney-based start-ups. Hartzer, who graduated from Princeton University and is a Chartered Financial Analyst, holds dual U.S. and Australian citizenship. He currently resides in Sydney, Australia.

Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I grew up in Connecticut and got interested in banking while in 10th grade — we had to write our first term paper on something in the news, and at the time the front page of the New York Times was all about the LDC (Lesser-Developed Country) debt crisis. A neighbour was a senior executive at Citibank and he took the time to explain to what was happening, which formed the basis of my paper. He was passionate about the fact that the loans had been to help poor countries rise out of poverty, and I was hooked by the idea that banks could be a force for good in the world.

After studying European History at University, I joined First Manhattan Consulting Group in New York, which specialised in banking strategy. In 1994 I was sent to Melbourne, Australia on a project, and after a two-year stint back in San Francisco I was recruited by my Australian client (ANZ Bank) to join as head of their credit card business. I found I enjoyed leading a business rather than being an advisor, and got deeper satisfaction out of helping other people be successful — rather than being the “smart guy” consultant in the corner.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

My first experience as a manager did not go well. I was managing a gelati shop during a summer break, and distinctly remember a young woman I’d hired screaming “you’re a terrible manager!” in my face, throwing her apron on the ground, and storming out.

So my takeaway was that I wasn’t really cut out for management — hence my career in consulting.

The positive of this experience though was that I developed a real appreciation for the craft of management, and recognised that you need to work at if you want to engage people.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

My first boss at ANZ had been my consulting client, and he went out on a limb to offer me a job managing a business with over 1000 staff — when I’d never really managed more than a large consulting team before. He obviously saw some potential that I didn’t see — and it changed my life.

I’m eternally grateful for his confidence in me, and have tried to repay it over the years by taking risks on people as well. Some of these have gone on to run significant businesses, and that’s given me immense satisfaction and pride over the years.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

At Westpac we were fortunate to have a clear purpose that dated all the way back to its founding in 1817. Westpac was founded as The Bank of New South Wales — Australia’s first bank, and oldest company. It was specifically charged by the Governor of New South Wales with helping to develop a private economy in what was then a military-run colony.

As CEO I was able to point to that original purpose in explaining that we were a service business — that we existed to help our customers to thrive — and that if we did a good job at that then we would be successful, and our shareholders would be successful.

This resonated well with our people, and I’m convinced that this clarity of purpose was an important contributor to our ability to attract, retain, and motivate people.

Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?

In 2009 I was hired as part of the ‘clean-up crew’ at Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) after it was bailed out by the UK government in the Global Financial Crisis. My role covered the UK Retail bank, Coutts (the private banking division), and Ulster Bank (Ireland). That meant that I inherited over 50,000 people, many of whom had lost their life savings — since the previous CEO had encouraged them to invest in RBS shares, which were nearly worthless. On top of that, many thousands of them were now facing the prospect of losing their jobs, and negative stories about the bank or the industry were a daily occurrence.

Rebuilding a motivated workforce in that environment was a huge challenge. To do that, we went back to basics and focused on the important role our people played in helping their customers get through difficult times and reinforced the important long-term role that the bank needed to play in the economic recovery of the nation. And while we were transparent about the need to cut costs and transform the business, we continuously acknowledged the uncertainty and did everything we could to be supportive and caring towards people who were affected.

Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

To add intensity to this management challenge, my marriage broke up shortly after I started the role at RBS, and my four young children returned to Australia with their mother. Plus, I broke my leg quite badly in a bike accident.

While it was a terribly stressful time both personally and professionally, I discovered — thankfully — that I was resilient.

As Winston Churchill reportedly said, “When you’re going through hell, keep going!”

I got up every morning, put my suit on, and went to work, motivated by the idea of helping to give my people a brighter future, and stimulated by the intellectual and competitive challenges that such a big turnaround brought with it.

Longer term, as difficult as that period was, it was a great confidence builder in that I knew that, having gotten through that period, I could get through anything.

What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

To stay calm and maintain perspective. Sometimes crisis requires fast decisions or personnel changes, and the willingness to use gut instinct rather than waiting for all the data. But more often it’s about the ability to see a problem from multiple angles, to identify what’s truly important and what’s “noise”, to source a diversity of views to develop and assess options, and to coordinate a thoughtful and comprehensive response to the underlying issues.

When you’ve worked in an organisation for a long time, it’s easy to get emotionally attached or defensive about the current position. But an effective leader needs to be able to separate their own biases, face the brutal reality, and think objectively about what needs to be done

When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?

To build a truly engaged team, leaders need to do five things, consistently. They need to demonstrate Care for their employees as individual human beings. They need to provide Context — the why, or sense of purpose, and how each individual contributes to that purpose. People also need Clarity on what’s expected of them, what good looks like, and what great looks like. Then leaders need to Clear the way for their employees — knocking over the barriers that get in the way of their people’s success and often lead to demotivation. Finally, they need to Celebrate — to recognise people’s achievement in ways that reinforce a genuine emotional connection and create a culture of appreciation — not just top down from the leader, but generally among peers, teammates, and across organisational boundaries.

But if I had to pick one thing to boost morale, I’d focus on Care — if people feel that their boss genuinely cares about them as an individual and is willing to take action to help them thrive, then that goes a long way.

What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?

With a combination of transparency and empathy.

Transparency is about sharing the facts, and providing context. For example, “as you know we’ve all been working hard to launch product X, but the reality is that the testing now shows it isn’t going to work and we’re going to cancel the project.”

Empathy is about acknowledging the impact of that news on the individual, and highlighting what will be done to support people who are affected. For example, “With the project cancelled I recognise this creates uncertainty for those of you on this project, whose roles may be affected, and I know that’s going to be upsetting for some of you. My commitment is that we will work with each of you over the next month to explore your options from here and will keep you updated on the timing of any decisions that affect you.”

How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

I like to think in terms of long-term and short term.

Long term, it’s important to have a view on the forces affecting your industry and how that is likely to shake out over 3–5 years, what your strategy is to deal with that, and then to update that view periodically.

In the shorter term, it’s about deciding what are the big levers that will move you towards that longer term future, while preserving some budget and resource flexibility to respond to immediate opportunities or issues as they pop up.

Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

Understand how value is created in your business over time, and don’t sacrifice on investing in the things that drive that value.

Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?

Typically it’s too much short-term thinking or focus on current-period financial results that damages you in the long term. That often manifests in excessive cost cuts that undermine the ability to serve customers (thereby damaging morale), failing to invest in technology systems, hitting customers with uncompetitive price increases that lead to attrition, or flip-flopping on strategy.

In difficult times the key issue for leaders is often about setting priorities and balancing short- and long-term objectives. To get this right, it’s important to be clear on the fundamentals of your business — what drives customer satisfaction, what creates value, etc. — and make sure you don’t neglect this, while accelerating decisions that can improve long-term productivity. It also helps to distinguish between the things that are urgent — i.e., those things that will help you meet your targets, or allow you to create competitive advantage — vs. those things which are nice to have — i.e., they will create value but it doesn’t really matter if they happen now or next year.

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

Often the best way to grow is to double-down on your core business — simplifying products, reducing costs, and getting closer to existing customers. In a difficult economy everyone is looking for ways to get through it, so rather than trying to create some new magic solution, you can find ways to create win-win with existing clients — for example, by helping them reduce their costs you may be able to gain a greater share of their business and thereby increase your own revenue.

Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Care about people — genuinely care about each individual. Strive to find, hire, and nurture people will world class skills, who share similar values. Take an interest in them as people, show them through your actions that you want them to succeed, and they will support you through thick and thin.
  2. Increase self-awareness: Take the time to understand what you’re about, what your values are, what motivates you, what your goals are, and how your own experiences and emotional scars affect the way you interact with other people. In my first 360 degree feedback session my colleagues said I wasn’t very collaborative, which surprised me. I subsequently realised — and, with help from my coach, addressed — that my insecurity about whether I was up to the job meant that I was so focused on my own role that I didn’t have time to be generous with others.
  3. Get into the detail: As we get more senior, there’s a lot of pressure to delegate and to empower people. All well and good, but if you’re not careful you miss out on what’s really going on, and you miss the opportunity to knock over barriers and to teach the people who work for you how they need to be approaching projects and problems in ways that benefit from your experience. At RBS I once discovered that we had over 1000 people devoted to an operational process that wasn’t needed at all — simply because no other senior manager had “opened the folder” to look closely at what people were actually doing as a consequence of an outdated policy.
  4. Stay calm, and stay centred: Separate how you see yourself from how your career is going. Many ambitious people (myself included) fall into the trap of thinking that they’re great when things are going well, and they’re terrible when things are going badly. The truth is that there’s a lot of randomness in life and in business, and you shouldn’t link your sense of self to things that are outside your control. My personal mantra is “all I can do is all I can do, and it will be what it will be.” Have I worked hard, to the best of my ability? Have I put the organisation’s interests ahead of my own? Have I lived up to my personal values, and treated people well? If so, then the outcome will be what it is, and I’ll be ok regardless.
  5. Communicate constantly, in many ways: Don’t rely on a monthly email or a quarterly town hall to get your message out. Find ways to connect with people at all levels, find and leverage influencers in the culture, and use “symbolic acts” to create stories that employees tell each other throughout the company — for example, handing out chocolates in the lobby on a big day, sending hand-written notes to teams who achieve something important, or ringing up front line employees to congratulate them on a major career milestone.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Tell them how much you care, before you tell them how much you know”.

Having been through a bunch of ups and downs both personally and professionally, it’s the relationships with people that you build that make it worthwhile and help you through the tough times.

This quote reminds me that genuine human connection is emotional, not intellectual.

How can our readers further follow your work?

I’ve recently published a book, The Leadership Star: A practical guide to building engagement, which is the book I wish I’d had when I was starting out. It’s available as paperback, audiobook, and Kindle in all the usual places. There’s also a website where you can sign up and receive a free downloadable chapter.

I also post on Linkedin,

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

Author Brian Hartzer: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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