CANBERRA: National Australia Bank’s senior leadership team has targeted the group’s middle management for failing to “fill our people with excitement about the future” after NAB came up well short of its top-quartile objective for staff engagement. A note from chief executive Andrew Thorburn and the bank’s 11-strong senior management team, which has been obtained by The Australian, said NAB’s annual survey had returned a staff engagement score of 59 per cent, compared to the 67 per cent top-quartile benchmark. While the New Zealand arm BNZ had surpassed the benchmark with a 69 per cent score, Mr Thorburn identified three areas where the group needs a “significant lift” to be a top performer across all industries.
They were reputation (how the bank is perceived in the community), enablement (giving staff the right tools to get the job done), and the impact of senior leaders. Mr Thorburn is scheduled to front the latest session of the banking parliamentary committee in Canberra this morning. For managers below the executive leadership team, which reports to Mr Thorburn, the test is whether they “fill our people with excitement about the future”. “So there is a clear message here about what we need to focus on and we have a good base to start from,” the September note says. “It is good to know where we stand. We know our objective and the feedback from you is clear as to where and how we need to change. “We all need to take accountability for improving these results and we are committed to making that happen to get us to the top.” Middle management across the banking industry is under extreme pressure as the digital revolution and artificial intelligence take hold, with a wave of job losses expected in the next 5-10 years.
Bankers complain of perpetual restructuring, rolling redundancies and frozen remuneration without CPI adjustments. Engagement levels reflect this disillusionment, along with the escalating attacks on the industry and the Labor Party’s call for a royal commission to address allegations of systemic misconduct. Since becoming CEO in August 2014, Mr Thorburn has reshuffled his executive leadership team twice. The fact that the note is from the entire leadership team indicates that middle management is bearing responsibility for a level of staff engagement scored as average. While middle management has its own grievances, senior bank leaders such as ANZ Bank digital boss Maile Carnegie have targeted middle managers, or the “frozen middle”, for their inflexibility and refusal to adapt to change. Ms Carnegie said in May that most businesses had people who were no longer experts in their field, and had progressed from doing to managing by “bossing other people around and shuffling Powerpoints”. “The frozen middle will resist change like death — it exposes that they have no skills any more,” she said. “Figuring out how to deal with the frozen middle, once you have the boss’s support, is the big thing. “If they’re not going to become craftsmen and learn any more, they need to move on.”
NAB chief people officer Lorraine Murphy said yesterday that the survey of staff engagement had positive results in some key areas, and the bank’s overall engagement score was in the mid-range. “However, we want to be in the top quartile for engagement among Australian and NZ companies across industries, and there are areas where we need to do more,” Ms Murphy said. “Having great leadership at every level of the bank is an area where we will continue to invest.”
Among the areas where NAB had top-quartile results were people leaders (how leaders coach and communicate), empowerment, careers and development, and the bank’s commitment to inclusion and corporate responsibility. The note to staff followed the internal release of NAB’s purpose statement: “We back the bold who move Australia forward.” Mr Thorburn said at the time that companies with a clear purpose give people a reason to come to work. In a forum with the bank’s chairman Ken Henry in August, the NAB chief said that the behaviour of leaders set the tone in organisations. “There’s a lot of work that we are doing and we need to do to inspire our leaders to believe that they’re working for a company that has not just high aspirations but very clear standards.”