Diff'rent strokes

Diff'rent strokes

National Australia Bank's Cameron Clyne may be an ocean swimmer but, in his rise, he has not always swum with the pack - and that's probably why he suits the times.

In executive psychoanalysis sessions during John Stewart's reign, colleagues were asked to think of animals which best captured the personality of one another. The reserved, bespectacled deputy chief executive Michael Ullmer was an owl or an eagle. The Bank of New Zealand CEO Cameron Clyne was a polar bear. A big guy with silver-white hair who once played rugby for Victoria against the Springboks as a lock forward, Clyne reckons it was probably his physical appearance that prompted the comparison.

One of his colleagues, though, only half-jokingly says it's because he's stranded on an iceberg as the globe warms around him. Clyne, after all, was a surprise choice for CEO, his appointment announced just as NAB was reeling from the shock revelation of billion-dollar exposures to toxic debt and the global financial system was just getting started on its own climate meltdown.

Told of his colleague's comment, Clyne laughs - before promptly pointing out that the corporate therapy sessions actually took place before the financial crisis got going. (Although, ironically, on the day in 2004 that Clyne joined NAB as executive general manager for customer solutions, the bank's share price had hit a three-year low.) "I think it's probably more my size and the ocean swimming thing," he tells The AFR Magazine. The response is actually a clue to Clyne, very much the unknown quantity in the current crop of Australian bank CEOs.

That he's an avid ocean swimmer is already well known.

But while he joined NAB just weeks after the high-profile Ullmer and Ahmed Fahour, he not so much swam with the pack as just below the surface. Both Ullmer and Fahour had immediately joined the board and were increasingly regarded the two most likely candidates to succeed the then CEO. It was only when Stewart started speaking as if Clyne were his right-hand man, and then promoted him to running NAB's New Zealand operations in 2007, did he really enter the succession frame.

The polar bear anecdote is a small clue because it displays how Clyne is very much at ease with his stature - physically and professionally

- but has a consultant's eye for the accuracy of detail. For all the modern trend for senior executives to be out on the floor, he seems genuinely comfortable with his standard-sized, uncluttered desk, indistinguishable from those of his support staff and fellow executive group members around him except for the Cameron Clyne sign. And, unlike the enforced collegiality of some open-plan workplaces, his staff seem happy to have him there.

Not for Clyne the mine's-bigger-than-yours exclusiveness of those executives who cling to large offices for their symbolism. Not that he isn't into symbolism. "One thing I can say is I have never raised my voice," he says. "Hopefully, I can maintain that record. It is symbolic but I think symbolic leadership is very important; it's a message about the culture."

The raised voice thing is not strictly true. A former colleague from Clyne's consultancy days says he was at a conference with the current NAB boss, at a resort, and the bar was due to close on the final night. "Cameron stepped forward and told the management he would run the bar, vouch for its safety, put his credit card up. He's a big guy, he's got a big voice - he loves playing the host and he kept it all in line," the colleague remembers. "That's him; he loves having a good time but keeps it in line."

Clyne comes out of Price Waterhouse prior to the formation of PricewaterhouseCoopers, rising to lead PwC's financial services industry practice in Asia Pacific while in his mid-30s. Turning 41 this year, he is one of the young generation of CEOs in Australia. He is also part of what might unkindly be called an emerging generation of 'management' CEOs - as opposed to 'exciting' leaders. While former colleagues praise Clyne's 'brain', and his just over four years at NAB have ranged from hand-to-hand dealing with the regulators in the wake of the 2004 rogue trading incident to implementing new management systems to running the NZ business, Clyne, to put it bluntly, is not Fahour.

Headhunters say the past 18 months has seen a pronounced shift in board preferences away from heroic leaders, candidates whose strength is drive and inspiration, to managers, those whose skills are more operational and inclusive. Clyne fits the latter category. The former CEO of NAB's Australian operations Fahour, also a former management consultant and around Clyne's age, presented a more dynamic and abrasive image: he brought people with him and achieved excellent results but also registered internally and to the board as higher risk in this age of anxiety. In fact, he has recently moved on from the bank altogether.

Critics have said Clyne's strengths are team building and communication but not strategy. (In another form of emotional intelligence assessment used at NAB, Clyne is rich in blue, an inclusive colour, while Fahour was hued a more assertive red.) Having kicked off his public role with an uncertain performance at last year's AGM, a strategy presentation and management restructure in March was much more assured.

Clyne brought forward his new management team; dealt comfortably with questions; set forward a vision. But not exactly a strategy. NAB's strategy boils down to trying to do things well and preserve options for action. Conservative, not unpopular, but a far cry from Mike Smith at ANZ Banking Group, for example, who has consistently articulated a strategy of being an Australia-based Asian bank with a target of 20 per cent of earnings from Asia-Pacific business by 2012.

It's not that Clyne, former and current colleagues say, is necessarily non-strategic; rather he fits the prevailing management template brought to NAB by chairman Michael Chaney, the Argenti System. As Clyne's stocks rose in the succession tournament, observers noted he was a "Chaney kind of person". Indeed, Clyne is unabashedly a supporter of the Argenti system and his first major project at NAB was to embed Argenti into the fabric of the organisation.

The Argenti System of Strategic Planning and Facilitation Services is the construct of Englishman John Argenti, now in his 80s. The system is wilfully big picture. Argenti is famous for his 'elephants' - the big strategic issues - and he maintains there are never more than six in any company. Get them right and the smaller issues will fall into line. Get them wrong and smaller issues will be the least of your worries.

Chaney has explained that the system suits his belief in 'logical incrementalism' because "the future is unpredictable. You have to grab yourself the right people and the right balance sheet to take advantage of the opportunities as they have emerged." Chaney's approach is to ask: what do we exist for? What's our main objective?

How have we done it in the past? How will we fare if we keep doing what we are doing? What are our strategies to achieve the targets we have set ourselves? "Our objective [at NAB] is to provide a satisfactory, sustainable return," he explains. "That gives us the scope to take advantage of opportunities."

Clyne was perfectly in tune with this philosophy when he delivered his March strategy. He frequently spoke of giving NAB "optionality" rather than specific targets, financial or otherwise. "We are advocates of the Argenti model," he says. "It forces each of our businesses to call out their elephants. If you don't face into these issues, they will have a material impact. The system is good at flushing these out.

Whether or not it is the world's best planning program, there is more merit in the consistency of the approach, so you're not constantly chopping and changing. And it is now quite well embedded."

One of Clyne's first significant moves has been to establish, along with some American academics, a NAB leadership academy. He describes the program as building on his predecessor Stewart's cultural renovation of the bank and also the INSEAD Leader Within program at which Clyne was fingered as a polar bear. "That program forced us to think about what was really the leadership brand at NAB," he says. The new program is aimed at instilling a particular leadership brand throughout the organisation - again it is the journey rather than particular targets that Clyne sees as crucial.

Even his personal ambition fits the template: "I don't have the aspiration to be No. 1, No. 2; you can't map those things out." In fact, it is particularly difficult to draw Clyne on his career structuring. He maintains that he was not consciously aware of the rise in the board's estimation of his suitability for the top job. Whether that's completely honest or not, his colleagues at NAB and elsewhere say he is a natural leader.

One-time rival Ullmer, a generation older, says he finds Clyne particularly engaging to work with and excellent at building teams.

Stewart credits NAB's UK head and trusted confidante Lynne Peacock, who worked closely with Clyne on talent issues, for drawing attention to him. "She said 'there's this young guy, he's really good' and when I spoke to him he was really impressive," Stewart tells The AFR Magazine. "So we created a job for him, it was projects and, at the time, projects was a real humdinger of an issue with cost overruns.

Within nine months, Cameron not only had them running like a Swiss watch - he had virtually made himself redundant."

Clyne's consulting background had plenty of technology and systems work but Stewart said it was the people skills that more impressed.

"In these things, there's always people feuding and he could get them to agree," he says. Stewart had Clyne come to work in the office of the CEO but remembers there was lingering doubt about the lack of direct banking experience. "That's why we had him go to New Zealand.

It's a complete bank there. He had to deal with regulators, the public; it has every product, its own board. He was just outstanding; the chairman in New Zealand was a huge supporter."

Stewart dismisses the argument that Clyne is not strategic, pointing in particular to his work on shared services in the back offices at banks well before he came to NAB and implemented them there as well.

The relatively new CEO is happy, indeed would prefer to remain low profile, focusing his efforts internally although there is an increasing recognition that part of the role of a CEO of a big bank in Australia is the symbolic one of being seen outside the bank. Pinned down on his philosophy of leadership, Clyne says for him the main driver is authenticity. "As long as you are genuine, that's what makes effective leaders," he says. "Some strong leaders are complete bastards but they're not people you want to work with."

Colleagues testify to that authenticity and personal integrity and it is one aspect of Clyne's career that can be documented. When IBM bought PwC's consulting business, several senior partners left, such as Clyne and Christine Bartlett. IBM sought legal remedies to stop some joining rival firms. Clyne says he rates IBM a great company but "I just didn't choose to work there; I didn't enjoy it." He left without a job.

While the post-merger travails at IBM were widely reported, less known is Clyne's support for PwC partner Christina Rich who sued the firm for sexual harassment. Rich settled after a lengthy mediation and brand-withering legal battle with PwC. She had originally sought $10 million in damages. Clyne was not a public advocate for Rich but nevertheless he refused to back the firm's action. "I just thought for a big organisation it wasn't right, against a female partner. Big organisations have to face these issues," he says. "Without getting into the rights and wrongs, it was not an appropriate course of action and again these are important symbols for large organisations. It was a very difficult situation; I was placed under a lot of pressure, but in your career there are not many situations where you are forced to stand up - you have to have credibility."

Issues of fairness and equity have deep echoes in his early life. He comes from a Labor family and while he stresses he has no formal political allegiance today - he does call the Treasurer Wayne Swan "mate" on the phone - there is a strong background of party political affiliation. His great-grandfather was a party member and union man who grew up in Bathurst and was close to Ben Chifley. Clyne Reserve in Sydney's old dock area of Millers Point is named after him in recognition of his efforts on behalf of wharfies. "In those days, there was no occupational health and safety; guys turned up each day looking for work, they didn't get paid if they were sick or injured.

That sort of stuff, it permeates who you are - it's not something I wear on my sleeve," Clyne says.

The NAB he inherits is a vastly different one to the dysfunctional, underinvested institution he joined in 2004. Yet challenges remain.

For all his affability and accessibility, and the vast operational and cultural improvement, Stewart was unable to shake off NAB's reputation for lacking transparency and even credibility in its message. That's something Clyne has acknowledged and he has vowed to be more open with the market. "I owe it to the staff, our frontline people," he says.

"When I get complaints, they are about the bank, they're almost never about the frontline staff who are often praised."

And he recognises what the bank's employees value: "People here talk about things [from] two or three CEOs ago, 20 years ago. These things resonate. In New Zealand people would still talk about Don Argus [former NAB CEO and current BHP Billiton chairman] and how he would like nothing better than to have dinner with the staff and swap stories." That's the kind of authenticity Cameron Clyne values. Fairfax Business Media

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