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A Day in the Life: Kiwibank chief product and strategy officer Elliot Smith

Elliot Smith is chief product and strategy officer at Kiwibank. He joined the company in January 2019, where he came on board with a wealth of experience in driving strategic value creation in financial services. Previously, he was general manager of strategy and business transformation at ASB. Here’s how he gets through the day, organises his time and manages a busy executive role. 

What time do you wake up?

I normally wake between 5.30am and 6am. I live on Waiheke and catch the ferry to work in Auckland, which means no traffic jams. It’s about an hour door-to-door except for the odd day when you get some sea fog and that slows down the commute. Generally, it a pretty hassle-free way to get to work.

What kind of work do you do?

My work is varied with a focus on both long-term and short-term strategic transformation. Kiwibank has huge potential and an amazing purpose. I do everything from investment planning to strategic roadmaps that help design the bank we want for our people and customers. There is plenty of time spent meeting people from all over the business, because if doesn’t matter to them or our customers, it just doesn’t matter. So, I do a lot of listening to those who look after our customers and know them best. There is a lot of working with our teams on project delivery and change management. I get satisfaction when I’m able to see a project through and the impact that has for our people and customers is the rewarding part of my role.

What’s the ideal way to start your day?

Definitely a sleep in and hanging out with Amie, my wife. I travel quite a bit and often I’m between Auckland and Wellington during the week, so a relaxed start with a strong coffee and chilling on Waiheke is my ideal way to unwind on the weekend. I have an Italian stove top espresso machine so cranking that up, sitting on the deck, getting some sunshine and reading the paper is a great way to start the day.

Do you have any morning rituals?

Generally, I catch the 7am ferry. I always grab a coffee in my KeepCup from Harold at the ferry terminal before getting on boat. The community is diverse and vibrant with some great characters, so it makes for an entertaining morning commute.

How soon do you begin doing work-related things each morning, such as checking phone or emails?

There is something wrong if I can’t fit what I need to do into the 50 or 60 hours I’m at work. Devices can be a distraction at home and to your personal life, so I try to not to look at my work phone on weekends. On the ferry I’ve got 40 minutes to smash out emails and check the news, do some personal admin or listen to a podcast.

What’s your media consumption or interaction like – which podcasts, radio, videos, books, magazines, and new sites do you read or listen to?

  • Twitter for the latest update on global soundbites. Lots out of CNN and BBC that’s interesting and makes for easy snackable insights.
  • LinkedIn for making sense of what people are interested in, whether that be culture, change or technology.
  • I keep across Stuff and Herald, as Kiwibank impacts the lives and businesses of many Kiwis and I like to have radar on and antenna up for change, what’s going on for people and look at what we are doing to consider those perspectives.
  • The Australian Financial Review is a staple as well, while a proud Kiwi it is good to keep abreast of developments across the Tasman (except for their politics!).
  • Podcasts – I’ve been listening to Serial which is hosted by Sarah Koenig and tells a true story each week – the latest is on the US Criminal Justice system. I like it as she’s genuinely interested in uncovering the story and giving insight into a totally different perspective.
  • TedTalks are a good length when travelling between Auckland and Wellington.

What do you think is unique about the way you approach your work?

I started my career as a graduate in a customer-facing banking assistant role at NAB in Australia – this gave me a great insight into what it is like to be on the frontline. That’s been good from my perspective to know what it’s really like working with customers all day and the challenges our frontline staff face. I can empathise with what’s happening for our front line and what it is like if tools they are using are not up to scratch. Whilst head office can dream up lots of interesting ideas, they’re really meaningless if they don’t matter to your customers and your teammates. I also love the industry and know we can be impactful. We really can change people’s lives for the better and so we have a moral obligation to be respectful about the things we do, given that potential impact.

A lot has changed in the 20 years I’ve been in banking. It continues to be buffeted by disruption, changing customer perception and increased regulatory scrutiny. Money can be an emotive subject and can be a powerful thing. What we do is important to the fabric of New Zealand.

What responsibility do you have in a typical day? What takes up most of your time?

My responsibilities are spilt equally a third, a third, a third, up, sideways and down. I work with the CEO and board on the direction of travel, so they understand exactly where we are headed and cover the risk management considerations. The second stakeholder group is my colleagues, making sure we focus on improving the way we work and ensure we deliver to our purpose and drive positive change. Third is our strategy and innovation team, which I’m privileged to be a part of. We’re all about making the boat go faster. It’s an exciting challenge that we are all up for.

Where do your best ideas come from?

Other people! I am a leader with strong opinions, loosely held. There is no one source for a good idea so I make sure I have my radar on and antenna up. I scan globally for new technologies, team and customer experiences, and evidence that our approach is right. Sometimes I rely on my own experience and my stakeholder’s strategic aspirations, looking at the problems we are trying to solve. The best advice, I think, is to never fall in love with your own idea as you won’t see beyond it. I believe we must be prepared to adapt as new information comes to light.

What does inspiration look like for you?

There are so many different forms of inspiration. Our issues are similar to what global banks are going through. Seeing how they deal with it provides plenty of inspiration.  We have a unique customer base, and we know they like to use our branch network. I see that as a privilege and an opportunity to talk to customers – that is where the inspiration comes from. It is also great seeing fire in the belly of our people supporting the strong purpose we have: Kiwis making Kiwis better off. New Zealand wants Kiwibank to be successful. We are the challenger and want to stop a whole lot of profits going off shore, preferring to keep those here and reinvested in New Zealand’s potential.

What has been the most transformational business practice you’ve implemented at your work?

The one thing that’s made the most difference is trying something small with customers and our people and building on it. Gone are the days of big projects. People want to see change, as they interact with customers. Getting the team involved makes the difference to how an idea is embraced and developed, rather than direction from head office and a spreadsheet and ruler. It fits with the agile manifesto, which is more than a statement – it is the behaviours, rituals and change that has the most impact for our team and customers. 

What social or environmental issues inform the work you do, as well as what you’re aiming to do with your company’s overall vision?

Kiwibank has a powerful role in improving financial wellbeing. An example of this is our partnership with Kendall Flutey and the team at Banqer, which is an online tool that teaches financial literacy in classrooms across New Zealand. It is all about demystifying finance for people.

What’s the most enjoyable part of your day?

Hearing stories about the way we have delivered new capabilities, improved an experience for our team or customers or made a difference in our communities is something to be proud of. Not helping people and customers is fruitless work. Seeing or hearing a story on how we helped implement something are the moments I feel great about.

The best advice, I think, is to never fall in love with your own idea as you won’t see beyond it. I believe we must be prepared to adapt as new information comes to light.

What about the least enjoyable?

When we get things wrong for customers. Those stories where we could have done better. Those calls from customers where they have had a challenging situation, it is hard to hear when we’ve not been at our best. Making sure we have the tools in place to help our people do a better job is crucial. I don’t want to let our customers down, as every customer matters.

Do you procrastinate? Is it good or bad?

Procrastination can be a great thing, to a point. Adam Grant does a Ted Talk called The surprising habits of original thinkers. He says there is a point of procrastinating that yields best results. Procrastination can lead to great ideas, it gives you time to think rather than rushing in.

What’s your best productivity hack?

Keeping on top of my inbox so I have a good handle on what’s happening. To be productive I take a disciplined approach to delete, respond in the moment, rather than having million unread emails. Also, I know I can’t own everything. My best productivity hack is being part of an awesome team that has clear accountability and ownership of the work they do. Great communication means I’m most productive when my team is also productive.

What’s your interaction with friends and family throughout the day? Can you be both a successful executive and a good husband?

I believe in making time for things that are important. If I need to leave early for something important with family or friends I will do that and expect my team to do that also. Wellbeing is really important to be effective at work.

Do you get stressed? If so, how do you manage it? Do you practice any mindfulness or meditation?

I don’t really get stressed, after all – we’re not really saving lives. Having perspective is important, I feel like I can switch off work easily and focus on things that matter. I’ve got my health and family. Stress doesn’t help me be effective. When you have a good balance, it’s hard to unsettle. I get busy but can easily prioritise and can switch off.

What do you do once you get home? Can you switch off?

Totally, I have too. I’m at work for a decent chunk of the day so try not to think about it when at home. The ferry ride provides a great circuit breaker, so it becomes easier to forget about work when I get home. I go for a swim or drink a good glass of wine. The best things come from perspective and a break.

What do or don’t you eat or drink to maintain your performance throughout the day?

I have a normal life, and a normal diet. I (try to) drink less Monday to Wednesday. Certainly, I like food. I’ll prioritise good ingredients over quantity and love to cook. I like to know where my food comes from. I follow the food philosophy of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and consider welfare and sustainably when making purchases.

What time do you go to sleep? How many hours sleep do you try to get each night? Any special techniques for a good night’s rest?

I get a solid eight, which is shortened if going to gym. A good pillow helps. Carving out space early in the night is key for me – with a wife and two cats if you don’t own your space early, you can end up with the thin end of the wedge.

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