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Ken Henry and the establishment

By Mark Christensen - posted Tuesday, 30 April 2019

Our establishment blunders on, oblivious to its own self-importance and how it perpetuates poor corporate performance.

Take the banking sector, post Hayne Royal Commission.

New board members and management. More money and teeth for the regulator. Highly emotive TV ads designed to convince us financial institutions have finally acquired a heart.


But there's been no real change. It's largely business as usual for those in positions of authority.

The why is simple: the upper echelon believe it's in their interests to go on persuading the masses that politicians, lawyers and executives are at the top because they possess a formal solution to whatever ails us.

His refusal to obey Rowena Orr's demand to cough-up a yes/no answer at the Commission hearings was not an example of elite indifference. Ken Henry was merely highlighting an inconvenient higher truth about the need to devolve power and responsibility.

The outgoing NAB chairman and fellow Taree native went to lengths to explain the cultural reform program he helped set in train.

Purpose and vision are paramount. Hundreds of staff confirmed for him that a bank is – or at least should be – about customers. In particular, "helping people in times of difficulty".

He also said shared purpose and meaning come from stories, such as how a prior incarnation of NAB bravely bankrolled the makers of Vegemite. The pursuit of profits isn't as important.


When pressed to spell out exactly how NAB intended to establish a customer-centric bank, Henry alluded to the metaphysical, the abandoned spirit of capitalism.

Good culture can't be guaranteed or coerced, since what ultimately matters to human beings isn't formulaic. A quality service requires a personalised approach and a personalised approach deals with the particularities that elude binary data and algorithms.

This doesn't mean, of course, that systems and organisational policies are unnecessary. Success requires a statement of values back up with consistent symbolic acts from leadership.

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About the Author

Mark is a social and political commentator, with a background in economics. He also has an abiding interest in philosophy and theology, and is trying to write a book on the nature of reality. He blogs here.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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