Sonja Stojanovic – Breaking the path

Stojanovic is the director of human resources for the ANZ Bank (Australia & New Zealand Banking Group) in Australia, where she has spearheaded a radical change in the way senior managers interact and cooperate with each other. Over the past three years she has led a training programme for 15,000 of the bank’s 25,000 staff to teach them how to deal with the daily stresses of the job.

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Sometimes people fall into things that they’ve been preparing their whole lives to do, says Australian bank executive Sonja Stojanovic. She’s a case in point.
When Sonja Stojanovic was in her twenties she wasn’t sure where she was headed. That’s changed, and the New Zealand-born executive is now in charge of a management revolution at one of Australia’s largest banks.

Stojanovic is the director of human resources for the ANZ Bank (Australia & New Zealand Banking Group) in Australia, where she has spearheaded a radical change in the way senior managers interact and cooperate with each other. Over the past three years she has led a training programme for 15,000 of the bank’s 25,000 staff to teach them how to deal with the daily stresses of the job.

ANZ Bank’s Breakout programme uses “emotional intelligence” tools initially developed by American psychologist Daniel Goleman in 1995 to change the way people behave in the workplace, and its success in creating personal transformations among the bank’s staff has attracted worldwide attention. The Breakout programme fulfils part of the bank’s internal vision statement “Perform, Grow and Breakout,” which is aimed at giving the organisation a human face while also delivering increased earnings. And the programme and the vision have met with considerable success. The ANZ Bank is now considered an attractive place to work, and applications from university graduates have soared.

A winding career path
There was little hint of Stojanovic’s current success in her university days, when she dropped out of a zoology and botany degree course in New Zealand to wander the world.

“For five years the only job I held was teaching English in Iran, where I spent two and a half years,” says Stojanovic. “I went backpacking through Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Europe.”

In Iran she became involved in teaching English for the Imperial Iranian Air Force and for two American multinationals. She was forced to evacuate the country in 1979 when the shah was deposed. On her return to New Zealand she worked for a government-funded industry training board that developed programmes for the hospitality and tourism markets. In 1987 she arrived in Australia and joined Shell, working in training and development and implementing “total quality management” programmes. 

Stojanovic then took her first job in human resources (HR) at the multinational food company Heinz. It was a brutal introduction to HR, as the role required her to slash jobs and “take people out,” and in 18 months she retrenched 185 people. In 1998 she moved to the ANZ Bank to become head of HR for international banking. At the time the bank was reeling from exposure to the Asian economic crisis on the order of 11.5 billion US dollars. A new chief executive, John McFarlane, was under pressure to develop a new strategy for the bank and move the business away from risk-laden ventures. 

In response, ANZ hired management consultancy McKinsey & Company to advise it on developing a corporate culture that would reflect the bank’s broad vision. Stojanovic was appointed to join a three-person team to work with McKinsey on the project. The result of six months of analysis and discussion was a programme set up to establish the principles of a concept pioneered by psychologist Goleman: emotional intelligence or EQ.

Two-day training programme
The programme, called “Breakout and Cultural Transformation,” started in March 2001 with the bank’s 300 most senior staff. It consisted of a two-day training programme that aimed to increase trust between people, build cooperation and create a values system within the organisation. The course, which is ongoing, gives workers a guide to the kind of behaviour and values it wants in the organisation and helps people to reach those goals by allowing them to be their “whole” selves at work, instead of focusing on being aggressive or confrontational. 

As Stojanovic puts it, the old industrial theories of command and control management don’t work anymore because organisations have become more complex. According to Goleman, emotional intelligence includes self-awareness, impulse control, persistence, zeal, motivation, empathy and social deftness. People who have strong qualities in these “emotional areas” often do well at work because they can form positive relationships with their colleagues. 

“When the course started, the bank was a highly political organisation, and people did not have the courage to speak up and say what they felt,” Stojanovic says. “There was a lot of fear and internal competition. The staff here had no idea of the organisation’s purpose, and no human values had been drawn up.”

The bank had also decided to convert its business structure into 16 distinct units as it focused on new growth areas such as consumer banking, wealth management, small business and corporate banking.  The programme proved useful in ironing out some of the wrinkles brought about by the restructuring. “The challenge was that we would end up with 16 mini ANZ Banks, but what we really wanted to do was to create a cohesive culture across the whole bank,” Stojanovic says.

Some staff members have been slow to warm to ANZ Bank’s Breakout programme, but the overwhelming reaction has been positive. “In the early days there was a lot of cynicism about the programme, and we still have people that are cynical towards it,” Stojanovic says. Still, there is no doubt that she has created a revolution of sorts within the bank.

Stress reduction
In the two-day Breakout training programme Stojanovic teaches simple meditation and breathing techniques. She has also adopted the mind-development techniques of Anna Wise, whose book The High-Performance Mind deals with the practice of slowing down brain-wave activity to a semi-meditative state to arrive at more creative decisions.

Stojanovic’s training programmes have resulted in concrete business improvements, as illustrated by increased cooperation between the corporate and institutional banking divisions at ANZ. Using a shared interface, those divisions can now more effectively provide joint services to external customers. And Stojanovic is now helping the rural division work more effectively with the small-to-medium enterprise unit of the bank. In addition, she has started a programme to train all of the bank’s local market and branch managers to become coaches for their own staff.

When she isn’t working, Stojanovic enjoys spending time on her countryside property, riding horses and tending to her garden. She has also recently started singing lessons. After spending her early life on the road, she seems to have found her own sense of personal happiness.

“We often fall into things that we have been preparing all of our lives to do,” says Stojanovic. “I have no intention of leaving the ANZ because we are doing the most exciting cultural change work in the world.”

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