02 Jun 2016

Michaela Healey and Dr Chris Sarra discuss NAB’s reconciliation journey

NAB’s Group Executive for Governance and Reputation Michaela Healey is joined by NAB Indigenous Advisory Group Co-chair Dr Chris Sarra for a discussion about NAB’s reconciliation journey and his vision for reconciliation into the future.


MICHAELA HEALEY: Hi, I’m Michaela Healey from the National Australia Bank and I’m here with Chris Sarra this afternoon. Chris, welcome.

CHRIS SARRA: Thanks, Michaela. It’s very nice to be here.

HEALEY: I feel like you’re the founding member of our Indigenous Advisory Group and that’s been going since December, 2008.

SARRA: Yes, it’s been a while and I was here right at the start when the IAG was first established.

HEALEY: And what prompted you to even start working with the bank on an Indigenous Advisory Group?

SARRA: I was approached some years ago by Glenn Brennan who is a person I have known and respected for quite a long time and, you know, it’s a time when a lot of corporate entities were thinking about setting up reconciliation action plans, often with little substance.

And I think because it was something sexy to do, I suppose. You can get the glossy brochures out.

But with NAB and when Glenn had made the effort to come and talk to me, I sensed that there was something much deeper, something much richer to all of this. And I’d worked in organisations where they’d launch a reconciliation action plan in which they talked about the importance of connecting with community and respecting relationships and all of these sorts of things and then launch it by flicking out an email to everybody, which to me seemed really quite absurd.

But I saw a very different kind of relational approach with NAB and I’ve stuck with them ever since.

I’ve got to say, Michaela, the thing I’ve liked the most is that when I talked to Glenn and all the people at NAB all along, they get what I would call the Stronger Smarter approach and a high expectations relationships approach and they know very well the difference between reaching out and embracing, for instance, Aboriginal employees without lowering the bar. So there is quite a distinction. Some people will just lower the bar, thinking that they’re being culturally sensitive, when, in fact, they’re just lowering the bar. NAB has refused to lower the bar and has basically said, “Yes, we want to increase the number of Aboriginal employees, we want to increase our business with Aboriginal people and be the bank of first choice, but that doesn’t mean we’re gonna lower the bar or we have a lesser view of you.” And that really struck a chord with me and that’s probably why I’ve stuck around for so long.

HEALEY: I think one of our core values is respect for people and so it’s pleasing to hear you talk about that aspirational element. For those people that might not be familiar with Stronger Smarter, what does it mean?

SARRA: I’ve been an educator for the last, probably about 30 years now, and I’ve always… I think it’s an approach that is based on a high expectations kind of approach, and I think, Michaela, in many ways, that’s come out of some very personal experiences for me having revelations about just what it’s like to be sold short by the toxic stench of low expectations.

 And then some years later, I ended up as the principal of Cherbourg School and having been in a circumstance where I was subjected to low expectations and realising that and then overcoming that, I engaged and I went into the Cherbourg School story knowing that, yes, things were challenging, but if we come at it with a high expectations approach, then we could make a difference. Now, history shows that we had quite a dramatic impact and the results are pretty good.

And then subsequent to my time – I did seven years at Cherbourg – and we’ve been able to take that kind of Stronger Smarter formula, which involves embracing a positive sense of identity as opposed to colluding with the negative stereotype of being Aboriginal. It’s about embracing positive community leadership as opposed to sort of booting the victim or being the victim type leadership, and it’s about high expectations relationships.

And so all of these kinds of things after my time at Cherbourg, we’ve been able to execute in a situation where we’ve worked with hundreds and hundreds of schools, more than 500, and got them to understand this overarching kind of philosophical sort of formula and all sorts of different people in all sorts of different schools have been able to apply that approach and get good success.

HEALEY: You have a contagious sense of optimism, Chris. Where would you like to see the future – so, Reconciliation Week in 25 years’ time? What would you be hoping is happening then?

SARRA: Yeah, I think that’s an interesting question, and I would like it, I reckon, to be the case that we’re just living and breathing this kind of high expectations relationships between Aboriginal Australia and non-Aboriginal Australia and not having the need to talk so explicitly about it. And so things like a Closing the Gap agenda would have come and gone and… I hate to say this but I come from a rugby league background and in the rugby league world, and in the AFL world, even though it’s a lesser form of football, the playing field is level and as a consequence, we can see a circumstance where if Aboriginal people come to that level playing field prepared to work hard, then that excellence is embraced and rewarded and celebrated. And I think whether it’s the AFL or the superior code of the NRL – I have to say that, of course – it doesn’t matter. It’s proven that Aboriginal people can be exceptional.

And I think it provides a good analogy for what Australia should look like as a nation where the playing field is eventually level and we know that as Aboriginal people we’re not gonna be restricted by these kind of toxic dynamics of racism or low expectations and we know that if we put the effort in, we’re gonna be rewarded and we can be embraced by a society that sees us as exceptional and we’re allowed to be so, which is more in line with the truth about who we are as a nation.

HEALEY: Chris, you’ve really challenged us and supported us during your time on our Indigenous Advisory Group and with your support, we’ve achieved elevated RAP status. What do you think are some of the things that have been critical to NAB staying the course and actually holding ourselves to account with our Reconciliation Action Plan?

SARRA: I think central to the relationship is maintaining that sense of a high expectations relationship that we talked about. And it’s one of the great things I like about being involved with NAB, is you guys know very well the difference between what is lowering the bar and colluding with low expectation and what is asserting a kind of expectation about Aboriginal people, whether that’s Aboriginal employees or Aboriginal people in banking relationships. What I see is not a lowering of the bar to enable people to come in. As an institution, you’re saying to Aboriginal people, “We believe in your excellence and we want to embrace you, so bring your excellence to us.” Which is a much more honourable way to have the relationship, or for us to be in the relationship.And I say that – and some people won’t know this – but my son works for NAB now and I highly recommended that he would do so. So he works in a branch in a shopping centre in Morayfield.

HEALEY: And I love the fact that we didn’t even know that your son worked at… You made him get that job on his own merits, didn’t you?

SARRA: I did, yeah. I held off and then he was offered the opportunity, a school-based traineeship. And I didn’t mind saying, “Son, here’s an opportunity. You’re gonna be much better in this organisation because they will embrace you, and don’t think that you are getting a free ride.” Like, in some other organisations where they will lower the bar, it is not the place that does that to you. So you know, he’s like, “Oh, Dad, come on.” I said, “No, no. You’ve got to understand this seriously. If you’re not giving 100%, then your place in that organisation will be questioned, as it should be, and as it should be for every Aboriginal employee and indeed every employee in NAB. And so I really like that there’s a high expectations kind of culture and I like that my son gets to experience it.

HEALEY: Chris, you certainly bring those high expectations to bear in the conversations that we have in our Indigenous Advisory Group, and one of the challenges for an organisation that’s wanting to do the right thing is just that there are so many things that we could work on at any one point in time. What advice would you give an organisation like ours as to where to best concentrate and focus your efforts?

SARRA: I think NAB is in a pretty good space in terms of its relationship.

There is this aspiration that’s been articulated about being the banker of choice for Aboriginal Australia and Torres Strait Islander Australia and that’s an honourable pursuit and it’s made honourable by keeping the expectation high and understanding these things in context. And let me give you an example.

When you offer a school-based traineeship to a student or a traineeship to an Aboriginal employee or a potential Aboriginal employee, that traineeship is not offered as a stepping stone to some kind of hope that’s out there somewhere.

If there’s not a job at the end of it, then it’s often the case that we wouldn’t offer that traineeship in the first place. In many ways, you watch across other organisations who make this mistake.

They want to race out and offer traineeships and say, “Look how wonderful. We’ve offered 300 traineeships.” And then the following year after they’ve finished their traineeship, you ask the question, “Well, how many have you actually taken on?” And it might be about eight out of 300, so all of these others have disappeared and you kind of think, “Well, were you really signing up for the traineeship just because you get government money for this and you can print those numbers in some sexy, glossy brochure or somewhere like that?”

But here at NAB, it’s quite a different story and there is a good record to tell. I can’t tell you what the exact numbers are but that notion of retaining Aboriginal employees from traineeships into real employment is quite substantial and the rest of corporate Australia should watch on and learn from that and be inspired to emulate that kind of record.

HEALEY: Chris, you’ve got a pretty good BS detector, in my dealings with you. How do we keep it real and ensure that we at NAB continue to make progress?

SARRA: You know, I watch government make this mistake and other corporate entities make this mistake in their relationship with Aboriginal Australia.

And the mistake is this – that we commit to wanting to embrace Aboriginal Australia but then we tippy-toe around and our courage to challenge Aboriginal Australia where it needs to be challenged is diminished, and that’s quite frustrating.

And in some ways I think we as Aboriginal Australia are not questioned to the extent that we should be. Now, as a consequence, we see some really horrific kind of fallout from that. We see lots and lots of, for instance, government money and corporate money being wasted on ideas that are just being kind of shoved into the wrong sort of ideology.

And because we are in a circumstance where we are maybe intimidated by some Aboriginal figures who are advocates of particular projects or ideologies, we just back off and we don’t question because we might be scared of being abused or scared of having our organisation attacked or criticised through the media, and none of this is helpful in the interest of a relationship where you can be at your best and we as Aboriginal Australia can be at our best.

We will all be at our best when we have the courage to challenge each other in the sorts of things that we should be challenging each other about, and make it a circumstance where it becomes an intellectual sort of contest of ideas and contest of the high performing expectations and behaviours and where that’s executed in a way that I know if I’m falling by the wayside or not producing as much as I should, then you have every right to challenge me to lift my performance, with no fear of me coming back and saying, “Oh, you’re just saying that because you’re racist,” or “You’re picking on me because I’m black” or whatever. We need to get that off the table and challenge each other to be our best in the workplace and in the relationship. I wanted to ask you, what do you think reconciliation will look like in 25 years’ time?

HEALEY: My aspiration is that my child in the future actually has a much greater understanding of what it’s like for people, the first people of this country, that we’ve really made a difference to how we educate in Australia, that it isn’t a case of us and them but it’s a case of we, and that we really start to change the mindset more broadly and that we have a sense of confidence and pride in the cultural diversity and the economic opportunity that exists.

SARRA: That’s a great answer, and if you look at the theme of Reconciliation Week, it’s Our History, Our Story, Our Future, and for me the emphasis has got to be on the word ‘our’ rather than the other ones because it truly is a circumstance in which we come together and white Australia takes pride in embracing Aboriginal Australia and sees that as something really worthwhile because then we’re all part of a circumstance in which we are connected to the land of the people of the oldest inheritance human existence on the planet. And that’s pretty cool.

HEALEY: It is, and it would be a real source of differentiation for our country and a real source of strength going forward, so I share your optimism.

SARRA: We’ll get there.

HEALEY: Chris, thank you for your energy, honesty and challenge. It’s great having you really helping us to build a stronger future, not just for Indigenous Australians but also for ensuring that we have a more inclusive society going forward. It’s an absolute pleasure working with you.

SARRA: Thank you, Michaela.


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