Mike Smith - Think strategically, act tactically

Mike Smith - former CEO ANZ BANK

Mike Smith - former CEO ANZ BANK

"“…you can’t please all of the people all of the time” Abraham Lincoln

"Everyone has a strategy until they are punched in the face"Mike Tyson


Mike Smith

Think strategically, act tactically

Michael Smith was the CEO of Australia and New Zealand Banking Group Ltd. (ANZ) from 2007 to 2015 and, following his retirement, he remained an Adviser to the Board until July 2017.  He is the Chair of York Butter Factory (YBF) established in 2011.  YBF is the “destination point for innovation in Australia”.  He also holds the position of Senior Adviser Asia Practice at PwC.

Prior to this Michael held several other high-ranking business positions. He was President and Chief Executive Officer of The Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation Limited, Chairman of Hang Seng Bank Limited, Global Head of Commercial Banking for the HSBC Group, and Chairman of HSBC Bank Malaysia Berhad.

He graduated with honours in Economic Sciences from City University London and in 2015 was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Science from the same institution.  In 2013 he was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Laws from Monash University, Melbourne.

Michael is a Senior Fellow of the Financial Services Institute of Australasia and an immediate past Member of the Australian Bankers’ Association and Business Council of Australia.  He is a Member of the Chongqing Mayor’s International Economic Advisory Council, having previously served as its Executive Chairman, and a Fellow of The Hong Kong Management Association.  He was also formerly a Director of the Institute of International Finance, the International Monetary Conference and Member of the Shanghai Mayor’s International Financial Advisory Council.  He is a Life Member of the Financial Markets Foundation for Children.

Michael was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2000 and a Chevalier de l’Ordre du Merite Agricole in 2007.

My Story - Mike Smith

When I think back on the influences that shaped me from a young age, the most significant was that I was sent to boarding school in the UK. I was raised in Kenya in East Africa, and that experience gave me a sense of independence from an early age. In the mid-late 70s I went to university in London. At that time the UK economy was a terrible mess and, because of that, I never considered working in the UK. My broad plan was to get out and find somewhere else to go. Initially my thoughts were to join the navy, but never thought of this as a long-term career, but more something I just wanted to do when I was younger.

I decided then that the best way to get out in the world was going to be through international banking, so I applied for roles at several international banks. HSBC, which was based in Hong Kong at the time, gave me a job offer before anyone else, so I took it. And that was the start. All I really knew about banking at the time was that when I went to cocktail parties with my parents in East Africa, the nicest houses were owned by bankers. I thought banking certainly couldn’t be a bad thing to do. 

The first day I walked into the bank I knew instantly that it was for me. With a degree in economics, I at least knew how the industry worked, but other than that my knowledge was limited. The thing I found most interesting though was, despite my lack of familiarity, I felt totally comfortable. I just got it. I understood it, and that was very lucky.

A career spanning more than 30 years ensued, and almost 30 of those were with HSBC. I covered off on investment banking, retail banking, broking, general management, country management and operations strategy during my time with HSBC. Then, in 2007, I was approached by ANZ Bank. I was at a stage in my life where I thought that unless I made the change, I would still be doing the same thing in another 10 years. I really felt it was the right time for something new. 

I’d been to Australia in the 80s and two of my kids were born in Melbourne, so I had an affinity with Australia and Melbourne in particular. I decided to make the move and, ten years later, I’m still here. I became an Australian citizen, and this is now very much home. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time here, apart from the tax which is higher than in most places.

My career saw me live and work in 10 countries – including in Argentina in 1997, when I was working for HSBC. HSBC had purchased a bank and financial services group called The Group O’Roberts in Argentina. It was basically a bank, a general insurance company, a life insurance company, a superannuation business and a medical insurer. It operated country-wide and was the fourth largest bank in Argentina. At the time it was a family-owned business, so it was run very differently to what I was used to. My job to go into the business and bring it into the HSBC family. I reported to the Group CEO of HSBC at the time who was based in London. Like all large companies we had a long list of KPIs. But this time, instead of the normal 15 pages he handed a KPI form to me with just two words on it: Fix It. I’ve always thought of this as a brilliant lesson, because we both had a clear understanding of exactly what he wanted me to do. It didn’t need a massive industry to explain it. It was a good lesson in keeping it simple.

The first two or three years in Argentina were great. And then the country’s financial in 2000-2001 really hit the business hard, to the extent that it caused some significant changes. The banking system effectively had its capital stolen by the government, expropriated.  At the time the Argentine Peso was fixed to the US dollar, as a peg. They unpegged it but at a different rate for assets and liabilities. I woke up one morning to find I had no capital.

Finding ways to get cash to people and to sort out what the government had done became very difficult. Finding liquidity generally was very difficult. The government then imposed a law preventing people from taking out their own money, to a limit of around $200 a day – you can only imagine people’s reaction to that. Customers began to blame the banks and would literally storm them – steel plates had to be welded to the outsides of the branches. There was even a gun battle inside our main office when a crowd of protesters attempted to burn down the building. We had to evacuate a thousand people, all while tear gas was going off and bullets were ricocheting around. It was a crazy experience and two people were killed in the attack on the bank. Thankfully, we got all our staff out safely, of which I was very pleased.

Prior to that I’d had my own run-in with some corrupt members of the older organisation, including an assassination attempt in which my car was shot up. Fortunately I was driving at the time so I managed to escape, despite getting shot through my thigh. But that’s quite a long story and it’s best told over a couple of beers. The Jag I was driving got shot up pretty badly. Somehow it kept going – without tires and with the engine full of bullet holes – which really saved my life. I’ve owned a Jag ever since.

The attack was in response to discussions I’d had about a superannuation business with a very large marketing budget. We managed to get a little deal going but it was obvious that money was being skimmed off. I couldn’t prove how much was being taken and I wasn’t too sure who was involved, but I knew something was happening. In the end I fired everybody including all the marketing department and the advertising agency. The response to this was the assassination attempt -they thought if they got rid of me then things would simply go back to the way they were. It was an instinctive move, but I just knew something wasn’t right.  And throughout my career I’ve learned to become much more instinctive; I think when I started I was incredibly analytical. But I know now that instinct actually plays a very, very critical part. 

Funnily enough we spend most of our lives overlooking our instincts, due to social norms and various other reasons. I think we should rely on our instinct and on our intuition far more than we do. This was one of the things I learned from being attacked. My security personnel had told me that if I ever instinctually felt I was in danger to act on it, and not to worry about the social norms and being polite. This piece of advice did save my life later in India when the Taj Hotel was attacked. I had a gut feeling something wasn’t right and my country manager and I left the hotel just four minutes before the attack. While in the car on the way to the airport we received a call from the Australian Ambassador telling us to go to the airport as central Bombay was under attack.

When you have a near-death experience, it does make you reconsider your priorities and the way in which you live. I would say that I’m a better person for that experience. I think that before it happened, I was far too ruthless, I was far too blindly ambitious. I was like a blunt instrument and I think because of that I left collateral damage everywhere. Afterwards my mindset changed – I began looking at different ways to achieving things. I learned that bringing people along is much more effective than taking them on. It also gives you a much less stressful life. 

People have often asked how I would like to be seen as a manager and what advice I would give on how to manage. I’ve always said, “Manage other people as you would like to be managed yourself”. It is a very simple message and I think it’s a valid one. Wisdom comes with experience and I think that as you experiences increase, your decision making becomes better – it becomes defined by what you know. 

I’ve never had any regrets because I strongly believe when you make the wrong decisions, you learn from them. I think it’s very important that when you look back at your life, you are able to recognise that while of course there are things you could have done better, it is more important that you learn from your experiences – the good and the bad. That is what makes you a better person going forward, and a better leader.

You also have to be honest with yourself. I’ve seen so many CEOs with egos that are out of control. It’s important to try and keep your feet planted on the ground and continue to surround yourself with good people. Luckily for me, my wife is very grounded and she is very quick to bring me back to earth if there are any signs of straying. It’s a partnership and it’s a valuable one. You do need those people to bounce things off and to support you. Certainly, in the early part of my career I didn’t feel I needed anybody, I guess I was arrogant and I’ve no doubt a few people would have described me as such. I didn’t mean to be, but I probably came across as being so. I think it’s important that you have ambition. Ambition is sometimes seen as a bad word. I don’t think it is – it’s good to be ambitious and to have a plan, to have a vision. That vision may change but you’ve got to set yourself some sort of opportunity, some sort of goal to achieve.

Like anything, compromises need to be made somewhere along the line. But most careers are going to last many, many years and in that time, the balance between the personal and professional elements of your life will adjust. A key issue is that when you’re really trying to make your mark in terms of your career, the timing will often coincide with a pretty critical time in your personal life, particularly when you have a young family. It is the hardest time to be in balance and I have no magic answer for that. Personally, I was very much weighed down by the career aspect – to the detriment of my family. Yet I swung back and I was fortunate my wife was able to compensate for that. Let’s face it, if you’re going to be a CEO of a major corporation, a company with market cap of say a hundred-billion, then achieving a life balance is quite difficult 24/7.

My advice is to work out when you can get what I call down time and thinking time. I used to actually like flights as they allowed me to just think and do, not just about day-to-day things, but really think about what’s happening in the world, about the new issues out there and what was changing. Our family holidays were often based at a place we bought in France. Because we moved around so much the kids thought of that place as home. It worked particularly well for me because the time difference allowed me to spend a couple of hours responding to all my emails and making phone calls when I woke up in the morning, before the family had risen. By the time they woke, business on the other side of the world had finished for the day. By planning these things, you can get proper down time and quality rest time because frankly you need it. You do need to recharge. Anyone who thinks you can keep on going is not right.

People often don’t appreciate the sheer amount of work a CEO needs to do. You wake up in the morning and the first thing you do is look at how currencies are positioned or have moved. An almost trillion-dollar balance sheet is an awful lot of money to be managing, and its other people’s money. There are massive responsibilities to shareholders who quite rightly expect you to look after their interests. If you can try to make sure all interests are considered in the same way, you’re going to be more successful. Because if you run a business purely for shareholders, or you run a business purely for staff or purely for customers, somebody’s going to get upset.


There have been two types of role models in my career - good role models and bad role models. Bad role models are just as useful as the good ones as you can see what is not effective, what doesn’t work and what pisses people off. It’s important to learn from that aspect. But I have also had good role models. I was lucky at HSBC to work with some seriously capable managers and bankers, some really good people.  It was quite an aggressive style at HSBC, a take no prisoners type of approach, but it was always done for the good of the company. It was never about yourself, decisions were always based on what was right for the company. As a result, the value system of HSBC was extremely strong and it was something that was always highly important to me. I think you’ve got to do the right thing. You can argue values are very different between cultures and varying types of businesses, but fundamental decency is very important.



An action I have insisted on carrying out every single day is to meet a customer or a staff member who didn’t report to me and who I would consider a mover, somebody of influence. That could include a major shareholder, it could be a politician, or a media commentator. Sometimes I would meet dozens of these people, depending on an event I was attending or what I was doing. But I also feel it is incredibly important to keep touch with your own organization. So, for a customer, it’s as important to speak to mum and dad and the people who run the corner store as it is to the CEO of a major corporation. It’s also important to understand this in your own business. I used to have round tables once a week with junior staff, just to understand how they thought the business was going. As a CEO you are often told what people think you want to hear, and this can be problematic. You need to find different ways of receiving honest feedback. It’s amazing what you do learn and what you can pick up on and change. I think touching the organisation in any way you can is critical to success. That requires huge personal involvement and time, and you have to be prepared to do that. There’s a thousand other things going on that could be considered of higher priority, but this shouldn’t be overlooked as it is critically important.



Abraham Lincoln’squote “You can’t please all the people all of the time”, is one that resonates with me. You can please some people, some of the time. But as you become more senior it becomes increasingly difficult to please everybody – you learn to accept that not everybody is going to be happy. When you’re young, idealistic and starting out, you do want to please all the people all the time and then you suddenly realise there comes a stage where you can’t. You just can’t. It takes a lot of self-confidence and belief in yourself to be able to do that. It’s like spinning plates, you’ve got to allow a few to possibly fall off, and you’ve got to really work on the ones that need to be spinning.

The other quote I love is a bit unusual. It is one from Mike Tyson– when he was asked whether he had a strategy for his fight he’d say, “everybody has a strategy until they’re punched in the face”. I think that’s a great quote because no matter what your strategy is, something will invariably happen that will knock it off. It then becomes a question of what do you do about that? How do you adjust? What’s your plan B, plan C, plan D? That concept of contingency is so important. The more senior you are in an organisation, the more you have to look at the big picture, but you also have to understand that the big picture doesn’t have a frame. You are managing ambiguity all the time. Now a lot of people hate managing ambiguity. They love to be in a box and always know what they’re doing. But the more senior you get, the less you can do that. What I always look for in a senior manager is the ability to be visionary or to think strategically, but still act tactically. It’s quite a rare skill. It’s not an easy thing to find people who have got that ability. You get plenty of people who do the execution well, and plenty of people who are great at the vision and strategy, but finding people who do both is quite difficult.

For example I myself have experienced seven financial crises during my career. The Argentine crises was the worst of these because it was so dramatic, and the impact it had on everyday life was huge. In terms of the global downturn, the GFC was probably the most significant we’ve experienced in recent history and, in terms of its broad reach, we are still going through the effects.

These financial crises are a reality of economics and, particularly, banking. But it’s what we learn from these crises that is most important. It’s the same in all industries, and it’s the same story throughout history, we don’t learn enough from the mistakes of the past. Something which continues to amaze me is when look at the politics now in Europe, and you think ‘does nobody remember what happened seventy years ago?’  It is frightening how quickly people do forget – we don’t seem to learn from history and we continue to make the same mistakes. Well that’s good, I suppose, if you’re an accountant or a lawyer, because there’s always work.

There’s no doubt we are in the next revolution – the technical revolution – which is as significant as the industrial revolution. We are looking at an old economy and a new economy, and the models and process that drove the old economy are just not going to work in the new one. We are still probably going to make cars, but we’ll make cars differently, and it won’t be here. It’s really about understanding a few key questions – ‘what is important for the future?’ and ‘What’s going to make jobs for our kids?’. I wish the politicians would grasp this, because they don’t seem to – they are more involved in the populist short terms solutions, which is just hopeless. Australia can’t put its head in the sand and say ‘we don’t need to change’ as the rest of the world will pass us by. 


You can compare this to the industrial revolution. If you had approached a farmer in the industrial revolution and said ‘I’ve just invented the steam machine that does the job of twenty horses’, it is the equivalent of the farmer replying ‘Well I’ve got one horse and that does perfectly well for me’. You think just eight years ago there wasn’t an iPhone in Australia. And think that just six years before that was the introduction of the Blackberry. Now the Blackberry is gone. It shows how fast technology moves and we need to keep up with that.


My favourite book of the moment is one a colleague gave me, it’s called Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. It was written more as a diary of observations from the point of view of a Roman Emperor. It’s interesting that it was written in Greek, perhaps as a way of keeping it private. What I find most fascinating is that what the author writes are extraordinary comments on common sense. When you think about some of the great authors in history, for example William Shakespeare, some of his observations on life are as absolutely as relevant now as they were then, which is so extraordinary really. And for somebody so young to have been able to get those gems of wisdom is quite remarkable.

I have also just finished reading a book written by Winston Churchill. I hadn’t read any of his work for a long time, and again, the way he uses words is absolutely amazing. It’s an extraordinary talent. Every time he ran out of money he would write a book and publish it, and he made a lot of money from his writing. 

He wrote a history of World War II and I have just finished the first volume. I think there are six volumes so I’m aiming to get through the others at some stage. I think with books and magazines, you need to find something that interests you at the time. In saying that, I’m not big on management books – I find them a bit boring and really there’s nothing quite like learning as you go along. But I know some people really enjoy learning through books, and that’s good too. 

To have an open mind is incredibly important, and I think a key attribute that any executive needs today is curiosity. It is so important that people are interested what they do day-to-day. It’s why I love other cultures. You can look at the way other cultures do things and their values systems, and you think ‘What makes us right and them wrong?’. Or, ‘What makes them right and why don’t we learn a bit more from them?’. The same approach applies when running a business – there are no right or wrong ways, just different ways. If you’re in a job that you don’t enjoy, try something else. Otherwise you end up frustrated, you become cynical, you become bitter and then you become less effective.



I’m fortunate that I am at a stage in my life where I can do what I want to do and, very deliberately, I have not joined any public company boards. The reason for this is that the corporate governance system in this country has now got out of hand, I think. It has reached a point where board meetings can be 95% process compliance procedure and 5% business. Why would an entrepreneur or business person want to join a board? Boards are largely made up of people with a legal or accounting background who are used to being very risk averse. In other words, people who don’t have that entrepreneurial flair or who are willing to take risks. That’s a problem for public companies, so it’s something I have avoided.

What I have become involved in, however, is the start-up industry. I’m the chairman of the York Butter Factory, and that’s great fun. Not only is it a joint space provider, but also an incubator. It follows a model that has been developed with corporates in partnership, which is great. If a company like ANZ wants to get involved in an innovative type of business, they need a problem-solving partner. This is where they can give it to York Butter Factory to find the right company and the right way of dealing with it, with ANZ’s innovation people, and come up with something quite different. If you try to innovate within a corporate culture it won’t work very easily as corporate cultures tend to protect themselves. It’s like any maverick in any corporate – within the executive body, their edges will be clipped as the corporate culture is very self-preserving in nature. We are now in a world where that isn’t going to be enough. 

In addition to York Butter Factory, I’m still working as an advisor for PwCand I’m involved with a couple of other smaller companies, all of which I really enjoy. I’m doing what I want to do, which is a lovely place to be and it’s the first time in my life that I’m in that place. I am also now growing wine.

I still find I’m working quite hard but if the sun comes out and I decide I want to spend a couple of days down at the farm, I can. And the great thing about what I am doing now is that if you have a decent wireless service, you’re always connected – it doesn’t really matter where you are. It’s the relationships that are the most important. And these don’t happen overnight. You can’t have lunch with somebody and all of a sudden say you have a good relationship with that person – you have to work at it. That’s still so important.