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Exclusive interview: Former Westpac CEO Brian Hartzer

Image of Former Westpac CEO Brian Hartzer
Former Westpac CEO Brian Hartzer talks to Yahoo Finance in a wide-ranging interview. (Source: AAP, Yahoo Finance)
    This exclusive interview was first published in Rich Thinking, a new fortnightly weekend read delivered to Yahoo Finance's Fully Briefed subscribers. Get it straight to your inbox here.

Most leaders have their own productivity secrets. Some meditate, go for a run, mine is to-do lists. Is there a non-negotiable in your daily routine that ensures you’re productive and performing at your best?

For me the biggest thing is sleep. I've found that for the sort of roles that I've had, I needed to be calm and have good judgement – and, for me, that has really meant being rested. For many years I lived on adrenaline and caffeine and I was on a bit of a roller coaster, so, I've come over time to really realise for me it's about sleep.


Exercise is obviously important, that's what everybody says, but for me, it's mostly about just being rested, and not [so much] caffeinated.

Is there a secret number for the amount of sleep you need to get?

It really varies. I would say for me, it's probably seven and a half hours to eight hours.

You’ve got more than two decades of executive experience under your belt, and you’ve worked across different countries. No doubt there was always a huge workload and a schedule that changes day by day. What was your ‘system’? How did you prioritise what had to be done that day or that week ahead?

I used to plan my year out in advance. So I would do a spreadsheet each year thinking about all the different stakeholder groups that I had, both internal and external, and I would think about how much time and how frequently I wanted to spend time with those different groups.

I’d use that to allow my assistant to then plan my schedule out for the year, starting with non-negotiables like board meetings, and management committee meetings, and then working back through how often I wanted to see different people. That structure and discipline made sure that I covered off all the things I needed to do during the year.

I think the second thing I would say is, over the years, I became better at knowing what time of day I was in what mode. And so I would schedule certain kinds of meetings in the mornings, and other sorts of things in the afternoon or late afternoon.

What were your focus hours?

The things that required real discipline and intellectual rigour I would tend to do in the mornings, and the things that were about relationship building and more unstructured creative work I would tend to do in the afternoon.

Westpac chief executive officer Brian Hartzer smiles as he leaves a media briefing in Sydney on November 7, 2016. - Australian banking giant Westpac posted a seven percent slide in annual net profit November 7 on the back of market headwinds and impairment charges but said it was well positioned with a strong balance sheet. (Photo by WILLIAM WEST / AFP) (Photo by WILLIAM WEST/AFP via Getty Images)
Westpac chief executive officer Brian Hartzer, November 7, 2016. (Photo by WILLIAM WEST/AFP via Getty Images) (WILLIAM WEST via Getty Images)

Having led a number of financial services institutions, you would’ve faced up to some fierce competition. And that’s not to mention that getting into the c-suite itself, and holding onto that, isn’t something that everyone achieves. Is there a way that you believe you think differently to your competitors?

No, I don’t think so. I think the foundation is to, well, it’s to build a strong foundation over the years.

I think one thing that I always focused on was getting the most out of every role that I was doing and not worrying so much about what my next role was going to be. I never had a career plan. And I know that people are often encouraged to be very specific about their career plan.

Instead, I use a set of principles that helps me make decisions. My principles were pretty simple: I wanted to enjoy the work that I was doing; I wanted to enjoy the people I worked with; I wanted to feel challenged and feel like I was learning; and I wanted to feel like I was making a contribution. And as long as those things were true, I was happy.

When one of those things stopped being true, then I would make some sort of change. But I was very conscious, all along the way, that there was real gold to be gained or learned in each role, and to just have the confidence that the experiences I would have, I was having would be worthwhile in the long run, and not to rush.

I actually turned down a couple of promotions at various times in my career … I felt I wasn't ready for the next thing, and I hadn’t learned as much as I needed to out of the experience I was in. Perhaps that's a little unusual … I think that that really helped me in the long run, because it meant when I did finally end up in a C-suite position, I had the experience and the depth of knowledge to allow me to cope with the sorts of things that came at me.

Do you think that’s more true for someone at the midpoint or later end of their career? Did you feel the same way when you were in your mid-20s or 30s, that you wanted to take your time?

In fact, it was as much then as now. When I got out of university, I worked for this fantastic guy who was my first boss. He was about 29 years old and he was a superstar and had been promoted incredibly quickly.

After working for him for a couple of years, I realised that I would go to him with questions and he couldn't answer them, he actually didn't have the depth. He had such a compelling personality, and was such a great salesman that he had been promoted incredibly rapidly, but he didn't have the substance. It eventually caught up with him, and he totally burned out.

So I watched that happen, and thought I do not want that to be me. I'm going to make sure I get everything I can out of each level that I'm at.

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That’s so interesting. As a C-suite executive, you command a C-Suite salary – how do you like to spend your money? What’s the best monetary or financial investment you’ve ever made?

My wife and I have six children between us, so we're a blended family. Frankly, kids are expensive, but I would certainly say that I've come to appreciate spending money on experiences rather than things early on.

It's normal, I guess, to aspire to own nice clothes or a nice car, and I've done that over my career. But actually, after you've done that, you find that satisfaction doesn't stick with you as much. The real value is the memories that you create with the people that you care about. So I'd have to say spending money to take my whole family on a ski trip, or on a trip to Disney World were probably some of the best investments I've made.

I’d imagine as CEO of Westpac it was quite difficult at that level to really have a great work-life balance?

It's varied. I mean, you have to prioritise what's really important to you, and my family's always been very important to me. [It’s] more challenging for me because my kids live in Melbourne and I was mostly working in Sydney. So I spent a lot of time travelling back and forth to Melbourne to be able to be with them. But I think if you prioritise those things you can generally make it work.

The only thing I would say, if the question is really about work-life balance, is that you go through different phases in your life and your career. I often like to counsel young people to bear in mind that part of why I was able to end up where I was because I really worked my butt off in my 20s, you know?

So I think my advice about work-life balance is: Life is about choices and choices have consequences. And that works both ways. You have to decide what's really important to you and make choices but you also have to be mature enough to recognise that the choices you make will have consequences.

Okay. That is personally quite helpful! On a completely different note, I understand that Westpac’s Reinventure has a minor stake in Coinbase. So, Bitcoin: how do we feel about it?

Well it's a very interesting development. I think it will have a future. I'm not totally convinced by the hype that it's going to fundamentally transform finance. But I certainly think the development of the blockchain is an incredibly important technical advance that opens up lots of really interesting opportunities for efficiency and innovation.

Excellent. And if you had a spare $10,000 to invest for a young child or nephew or a niece, where would you invest it?

Well if it was a young person and you had a long, long time for him, I would probably just buy a very low cost ETF, investing in the market overall, and forget about it.

And if you were still CEO of Westpac and had an extra 10 hours in the working week, where would you allocate that?

I would put it into visiting customers and visiting frontline employees to understand exactly what’s happening on the ground.

I used to do a lot of it anyway, but because of what happened over the last five years with banking, I ended up spending an enormous amount of time dealing with regulation and regulators, and the board, and corporate issues. And I think that took away some of the time that I would have allocated to frontline concerns. And so I think it would have probably dealt with more things more quickly if I've been able to spend more time [with] frontline employees.

Westpac chief executive officer Brian Hartzer answers a question during a media briefing in Sydney on November 2, 2015.
Former Westpac chief executive officer Brian Hartzer, November 2, 2015. (Photo credit: WILLIAM WEST/AFP via Getty Images) (WILLIAM WEST via Getty Images)

What’s something you see CEOs get wrong time and time again? Would you say that’s one of them [time spent with frontline employees], or would you name something else?

I think that's one. I think the other one is about choices on people. I think that the challenge for CEOs is to continue to raise the bar on the people that work for you, and to accept that that's going to mean that the company will outgrow certain people, even if they're good people and you've worked with him for a long time.

And I think the desire to be liked, the desire to reward loyalty, sometimes means that [team leaders] don't make the change they ought to make to help the company move forward faster.

That leads me on to hiring great people. When you're a CEO and you’re trying to pick your team, what exactly do you look for?

One of the things [to bear in mind] is you're actually trying to create a team, not just a bunch of individual performance. So you're trying to think holistically about the mix of skills and perspective, to bring diversity of thought and capability. You're not just hiring an individual; you're assembling a team, and you have to think about the way that people compliment each other.

Then in terms of the people you pick, for me the starting point is always character and integrity of values, followed by track record as delivery, and ability to work effectively within the team environment.

A team player, yeah?

It’s a little more than a team player. It's that someone is going to fit with the morality and values of the team.

In your book The Leadership Star, you say a leader needs to do five things: show that you care, provide the context, give clarity, clear the way, and celebrate successes. I found it really interesting that ‘show you care’ was at the top of the list. How do you do that as a leader? How do you credibly show that?

‘Care’ is an action verb. A lot of people think that care is just a state of being – ‘oh yes, of course I care about my people’. But what I say in the book is if you really care about people, then you need to be doing things.

You need to be demonstrating, you need to be taking an interest in them as an individual, you need to be responding to their individual needs and aspirations, to be investing in their development. You need to be taking risks on people.

You also need to show that you genuinely care about outcome, not just progress, and what they do really matters – what they achieve really matters. So it's really about curiosity, and it's about action.

It’s about understanding where they've come from, what they like and don’t like about the job, understanding their aspirations, who they like to work with, their family situation and any particular constraints they have, how you can support them. It's really getting to know them as a person, the ways you can support them and make them feel valued.

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You’ve been working on this book for more than a decade. Does the book encompass lessons you learned during your period at Westpac?

Yes, it does. The basic framework I developed well over 10 years ago and I've been teaching it. The way to think about the book is: it's the book I wish I had had 20 years ago when I was starting out as a leader. It provides a framework.

It's how I synthesise what I learned over the years, from watching, reading and thinking and trying things. So I tried to share a fairly straightforward, easy to remember framework for people who are trying to understand: ‘okay what do I personally need to do to get emotionally engaged in what we're doing, and how do I sustain that over time?’

For senior leaders who are experienced, it gives them something of a checklist to say: ‘well am I actually doing all these things?’ It helps them diagnose when things aren't going well, perhaps where to focus their energy.

One of the things that we found at Westpac is because all managers were trained in this framework, it gave a common language and structure to the organisation and helped reinforce that, because people could talk to each other and call each other on whether or not they were doing those things.

The book is written to help individual leaders to become more effective, but it also can help an organisation more broadly to the extent that everybody in the organisation gets on the same page [by] using the framework.

I really wanted it to be something that leaders could apply on Monday morning, not just some theoretical exercise.

Former Westpac CEO Brian Hartzer arrives at Banking Royal Commission in Melbourne, November 21, 2018.
Former Westpac CEO Brian Hartzer, November 21, 2018. (AAP Image/Joel Carrett) (AAPIMAGE)

Over the decades, you would have had bosses and mentors and all sorts of people who came into your orbit and helped you be the leader you are now. Are there any pieces of advice that stuck out to you over the years and has distinctly shaped your thinking or your approach?

Yes. One piece of advice I was given 15 years ago that I really like sharing with people is: you need to separate how you feel about yourself from how you feel about your career success. Do not let your career success define your identity.

That's really important, because as much as we try hard and we’re good at what we do, there's a lot of randomness in life and things don't always work out despite your best efforts. You have to make sure that you don't allow that to crush your sense of self. Equally, you need to be careful not to get carried away with yourself when things are going well, and think how brilliant you are, because it might be luck.

The consequence of maintaining that separation in your mind about how you feel about yourself, your career, is that you remove a huge amount of stress.

My mantra is: ‘all I can do is all I can do, and it will be what it'll be.’ And that has helped me stay calm in the face of lots of very challenging situations, because I was worrying about how it was going to make them feel.

So of course you care about the outcome, or about the business you want to do well. But, you know, you don't give up control of your sense of self to something that’s external. You continue to assess yourself based on your values, and the extent to which you are doing what you set out to do.

You’ve given me so much of your time, thank you. The book’s out now, and I know you’re also a trustee and chairman at the Australian Museum, and a senior advisor at Quantium. What’s next for you?

I'm working with a number of startups doing some mentoring and angel investing, I'm really enjoying that.

Brian, thank you so much for your time.

Thanks so much. Take care.

Note: This transcript has been lightly edited for the sake of brevity.

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