A surgeon at work: NAB's head of operations, Gavin Slater

It is November 2010 – the most stressful moment in the working life of National Australia Bank's Gavin Slater. Slater, as NAB's group executive, group business services, is responsible for the bank's operations. At the time, the bank's operations had been in chaos for more than a week.

A computer glitch has left many of the NAB's four million customers without access to their money, and businesses and merchants struggling to trade with their banking facilities offline.

Slater is asleep on the floor of the bank's incident management office at Knox in Melbourne east. He has been there every day since the crisis began, not staying every night, but staying some. A team of technicians is working frantically around the clock to find out what is wrong and get it fixed.

Why is Slater there?

He has no idea how to fix the glitch, by his own admission, despite being the ultimate head of the technology division to whom the bank's chief information officer, Adam Bennett, reports.

The reason Slater is in the incident room vividly illustrates his leadership priorities, then and now. He says: "What I'm trying to live by is that, when things are not going well, there are a number of things you have to demonstrate as a leader; one is composure, the second one is visible leadership."

Together with Bennett, Slater provided the technical staff with the most basic of support – food, vouchers for cabs to ensure very tired staff got home safely, and the knowledge that their leaders were willing to suffer alongside them until the issues were resolved.

It was unclear at the time whether Slater would even retain his job, given the scale of the problems NAB faced at the time. "I would have accepted losing my job because that's part of accountability. It wasn't my fault, but it was my problem because we are accountable. But I'm glad I didn't lose my job and I didn't want to lose my job.

"In situations like that, you don't worry about your job. You actually worry about getting the situation resolved, and you're going to think about the organisation [and] the customers and the staff, and get through it."

Banking brought up to date

Slater held onto his position, supported by NAB's chief executive, Cameron Clyne. Two years later, he is deep into a 10-year transformation of the bank's technology and with it, the entire organisation. "The term I use is like a full body transplant. I am not just operating on the heart; I am transplanting heart, lung, spleen, liver, spine. We're effectively re-architecting the entire organisation."

And that includes changing the way everyone in the bank works, says Slater: "If you just take this new technology and you still continue to operate with your old structures, your old group practices, policies and procedures, you haven't changed anything."

The technology that drives NAB's operations is 40 years old – as is most of the big four banks' – and was built in a time when banks set the rules for doing business with their customers – the opening hours and the kinds of products. "You go back in time and you had to put a suit to see the bank manager," Slater observes. "That has all changed. Where we're at now, it's all about empowering our customers. It is a 24/7 business, and they want to deal with us wherever and however. It is all about mobility."

Batch processor made good

The scope of Slater's job is vast. One top of the bank's technology transformation, Slater is responsible for existing technology, payments, operations processing, property, procurement, key human resources services and its environment and sustainability programs.

He's a banking man through and through, joining the Standard Bank of South Africa straight from school at the lowest ranks – batch processor. He worked his way up, and went to university five years into his working life, at 24, getting a business degree along with banking qualifications.

Working as a consultant with accounting firm, PwC, for four years, Slater started to focus on projects and finance roles, a focus he continued when he joined the NAB in 1999. He showed his willingness to take on tough challenges when, a year into the role of chief financial officer for the Australian operations of the bank, he was appointed to clean up the mess left by the bank's foreign exchange losses and trading scandal. A PwC report into the scandal, in which four traders lost $360 million in unauthorised trades, made 70 recommendations for remedial action, and Slater took on the job of delivering them. It is a role he says he was sponsored into by Ross Pinney, then executive general manager for products and services.

In 2009, Slater accepted his current role.

The job is one that Slater says many other people could do just as well as him: "I know that there are many people that have the capability and the wherewithal to do this job."

Without the sponsorship of senior leaders, his career would not be where it is today. "I got offered the opportunity based on the belief that I could do the role, but also sponsorship as well. None of us are fully qualified to do any of our roles. We all get into these roles through sponsorship, through track record of delivery, and a bit of good luck."

That attitude helps Slater keep his seniority in perspective, as does his commitment to learning. "I've learned that if you continue to learn and develop in these roles. You never ever should claim to feel you've got it completely nailed and you know everything about it because I think that would be dangerous."

Effective leadership

Without the backup of the bank's Clyne, Slater says he could not do his job. "I've been really fortunate in having Cameron as a CEO and as a boss. He's been fantastic in his support, not only in terms of the transformation, but actually in terms of the daily operations. I mean, our successes are often very private, but the errors are very public."

To lead change, Slater says his main role is to have a compelling "story" about why the change is necessary and to communicate at every opportunity. As well as keeping the support of Clyne, who ultimately keeps the billions flowing to achieve the change, Slater has to convince his direct reports to "agree on the message". He doesn't want to be the only messenger, creating a bottleneck for information. "Clearly from time to time, people want to hear from the leader, but we try to encourage all our people to talk about the story, own it and be passionate about it."

The bank's front line staff got a big fillip from the "break-up" advertising campaign, in which NAB crowed about breaking ranks with its three key rivals to lower or remove some of the most-hated banking fees. Suddenly the call centre staff and banks tellers stopped having to deal with angry, upset customers. "And for this change program, we want the same outcome. We want as many people as possible understanding the reason for the change."

What customers see – the new mobile banking apps, websites and the ATMs that make banking convenient – are a small part of what the changes at NAB involve.

The ancient, bespoke technology does not automatically process the transactions – behind the scenes, there are still many thousands of staff filling in forms and entering data.

At Ubank, NAB's online-only brand which is also a testing ground for innovations, a new customer can set up an account, including verifying their identity, in five minutes without talking to anyone.

This is the kind of automation that is Slater's ultimate vision for the business.

NAB does not build its own technology systems anymore – they are customized off-the-shelf systems from suppliers such as Oracle, IBM, SAP, Telstra, Infosys. In fact, almost every blue-chip technology supplier is lining to be part of the program.

Like airlines that now outsource the maintenance of their plane's engines to their manufacturers, such as Rolls-Royce, NAB will shift the onus for updates of its technology to its suppliers. "Oracle invests $4. 5 billion a year in research and development. We can't invest that money. So you're getting the effect of that investment."

The degree of difficulty? Slater draws another airline analogy. "I've described it as being like trying to turn a 747 into an A380 while you're flying it."

Everyone makes mistakes

Failing to deliver a project on time, blowing the budget: these were once the fears that haunted Slater's performance. But his biggest mistakes have come from a different source: failing to trust his instincts.

"I've always had a nervousness about going to the dentist, and the result is that I leave it until a simple procedure becomes a really painful one."

After decades of delivering projects, Slater knows that things don't always go as planned. He insists on meticulous planning and setting precise goals for delivery of new projects. Nevertheless, he warns the board that things may go wrong, and promises to keep them up to date.

He no longer believes in unsubstantiated promises, nor encourages his reports to guild the lily. "If I look back on the mistakes that I've made it is where I've felt a growing unease about a situation, and hoped that it would go away. It could be a project; it's over budget, the milestones are slipping, but you've been told that it will still be landed on this day and it would be okay. Your heart wants to believe it, but your gut starts to say, 'You know, I just don't feel good about this'. If there's one thing I've learned, it's that when a combination of my head and my gut are starting to warn me, it's time to just really get involved and get to the issue.

The well-spring

For inspiration, Slater turns to ordinary people, such as fellow passengers in the airport lounges where modern-day executive spend so much of their lives. He watches for decorum in the face of frustration. "We fly a lot, and I see people react to flight changes or this and that happening. watching someone deal with a check-in person or the flight crew. Some people do it really well and some people do it poorly."

He reads avidly, has mentors and sponsors, and also looks for examples from around the board table.

He's looking for leaders that keep their cool – blowing a gasket is one of the things leaders must never do, in Slater's view.

"Always maintain your composure," he says. "The shadow you cast as a leader is a lot greater than you realise. We see ourselves as mere mortals, and we are. But for the staff, they'll look up to you and think, big job title, senior person. So you are always on show, and I think you have a duty to the organisation and all its stakeholders to maintain your composure."

Slater is a believer in teams – all boats make it to shore, he repeats on a couple of occasions. "Leaders shouldn't feel the pressure of having to know everything. And leaders shouldn't feel the pressure of always having to lead. In some situations, others should lead, and you should feel comfortable about that."

Engagement is the leader's job

The kind of engagement he wants to see all the time is the kind that occurs in periods of crisis. "Natural disasters is an example – you know, the fires, the floods, the earthquakes in New Zealand. That is when we are at our best as an organisation because suddenly everyone is thinking about the customer and the community. You less worry about job title and hierarchy, and that sense of doing the right thing prevails."

Getting the best out of people, and achieving engagement, is the people leader's job.

"Staff's level of engagement is highly correlated to the effectiveness of their people leader. When I'm at my best, that's when I'm highly engaged. That's when I'm motivated, and you get the discretional effort out of me. You don't have to worry about me, just trust me and I'll get the job done. And it's like that for all of us."

Slater says there are several elements involved in that engagement: creating a feeling of safety, not just physical safety but from a behavioral and cultural point of view. Clear expectations, stretch targets, constant feedback and support to achieve the goals create a sense of safety and engagement, he says. "Great organisations and people that do well always stretch themselves."

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