Australia's first female bank manager on moving past the banking Royal Commission


    Helen Lynch AM, the first female bank manager in Australia, reflects on her 25 year board career and the challenges ahead for directors following the banking Royal Commission.

    When it comes to success, for me it was about making sure I developed other leaders, not just followers. Integrity, trust, respect and courage are key attributes for leaders. In business and leadership, we all take risks and we all make mistakes. Obviously, it is essential not to make the same mistake twice and equally essential to correct the error and to go to those who have been affected and say, “I’m sorry I made this mistake. I won’t do it again and this is what I have learned from it”. Corporate Australia has been very slow to say sorry and directors and leaders have not said it often enough. Regrettably, too, they have been very slow in admitting and correcting their mistakes.

    When I was nominated to become a life member of the AICD earlier this year, I spoke at the Australian Governance Summit. Instead of telling my career story, I spoke about it being a crucial time for governance in corporate Australia. The Australian Prudential Regulation Authority report into the Commonwealth Bank and the banking Royal Commission have detailed so many cultural, governance and accountability shortcomings, some apparently criminal in nature. Both reports are essential reading for directors, aspiring directors and executives, regardless of industry or profession.

    In my banking and director careers, I found it useful when making difficult decisions to ask myself key questions: is it legal and if it’s legal, is it moral? If it’s moral is it fair or does it give one party an unfair advantage over another? Finally, if I make this decision and it becomes public and my family read about it in the media, how would I feel?

    Regrettably, it is not only in financial services where trust has been eroded. Religious institutions, sporting organisations, aged and disability care have also been shown as seriously flawed in their governance practices. These issues are not new. In 2003, in a speech I gave at the Chief Executive Women annual dinner, I concentrated on the lack of public trust in politicians, religious institutions and banks. This lack of trust has been building for a very long time. In banking and financial services there are so many talented people who, every day, act with integrity and in the customers’ best interest. They, too, are appalled by the unethical behaviour of those who have done the wrong thing and brought their industries into disrepute.

    Now is the time for true leadership. Accountability must start at the top. Rigorous application is required and must be enforced at every level. Remuneration policies need careful calibration to reward practices that are ethical and in the best interest of the client, not to reward sales or otherwise skew senior executives’ focus away from key business needs.

    A country childhood

    My mother was determined to give her girls equal opportunity. I am the eldest of four and we lived in Charleville, in outback Queensland. Even though there wasn’t a lot of money, I was sent to boarding school in Toowoomba where I loved tennis, but was really bored.

    I remember when I failed at something, a nun would take me aside and say, “You are not realising your potential.” She really held me to account. Some of those nuns were wonderful role models and knew how to motivate me. I have tried to use their approach in all my leadership roles.

    Leaving school at 15, I started work at the Bank of NSW (now Westpac) in Charleville. In my early 20s, after I was transferred to Brisbane, I found out about the unfair system in which men were paid more than women for doing the same job, so I started asking questions. There were then three roles where women enjoyed equal pay and in the next five years, I did each of these roles. I believe these actions and my results brought me to the attention of senior people in head office.

    I will always be grateful to the bank for giving me so many opportunities. In 1980, when I left Rockhampton on transfer to Brisbane, as part of my leadership development I was sent on a three-month executive development course program. It was fabulous. There, as the only woman in a class of 60, being instructed by men only, I learned how to work in a group and how to make sure people actually heard what I had to say. One lecturer took me aside and said, “You’re very tall, people notice when you walk into a room and you have quite a loud voice. I’d suggest when you’re really pushing a point and want to win that argument, just lower your voice a little bit so the blokes have to listen more carefully. It’s not what you say, it’s the manner in which you say it.” I have told so many young women this and it invariably works!

    When I was a commercial lending manager in Brisbane in 1982, having been interviewed for the Westpac executive development program, I asked why I was overlooked yet two of my close male colleagues had been selected. I was told it was because I’d said my ambition was to run the Bank in Queensland, whereas the two men said they wanted to run Australia. I explained if I had said that — as the only woman manager in Australia at that stage — I thought the interviewers might think I had tickets on myself. I did get on the program and four months later received a huge promotion to Sydney. My point to young women is that you must not hide your light under a bushel, but clearly articulate your goals and ambitions, and speak up for yourself and other women.

    Another thing I’ve learned is you’ll never be successful unless you really enjoy what you do — well, most of the time!


    On transfer to Sydney in 1983, the bank asked me to chair its senior development selection panel, sending me a list of 10 candidates to be interviewed. I responded, “I regret I am unable to chair the panel as there are no women on the list.” Soon after, four women were added to the list and two were successful. You cannot just talk about diversity — you have to speak up and be true to your values.

    Too few men or women in organisations talk about the extra pressures women face in performing at work and running a family. It’s evolving, but is far too slow. The battle needs to be led by upstanding younger men who are prepared to say what they are doing to make things different so as to have a more equal relationship in parenting. Making childcare and nanny costs tax-deductible would help, but there has never been a serious public discussion about it.

    When I turned 50 in 1993, I left Westpac to start a portfolio career as a non-executive director. Again, I was part of the vanguard of change for women and enjoyed a satisfying portfolio of interesting and challenging directorships, which included Coles Myer, Southcorp, Westpac and numerous pro bono directorships. I was chair of OPSM and Funds SA, and deputy chair of Pacific Brands. The chair/CEO and CEO/board relationships are significantly undervalued corporate assets. These relationships must encourage rigorous debate and the admission of errors to ensure the health of the organisation is paramount.

    Corporate leaders often still prefer clones of like minds when choosing CEOs and directors because diversity can be threatening. Diversity brings challenges to the prevailing point of view and diversity and divergent thinking are exactly what we need in corporate life.

    How does one measure success? Metrics matter. Unless other women and men developed as leaders, I wouldn’t have been a success. Their values, culture, sense of fairness, courage, behaviour and attitudes are our legacy.

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