Prof. Deen Sanders OAM, a proud Worimi man, is Lead Partner of Deloitte: Integrity, Leader in the Deloitte Space Practice and a key driver in the firm’s Indigenous Strategy and Truth and Reconciliation Action Plan.
“The way we understand trust draws deeply on the Indigenous knowledge principle that our primary purpose is to care for country, because when you do it will care for you. This is not an extractive, transactional dynamic – if you trust me, I’ll trust you – it is a complex relational one, where the whole system benefits when we accept our personal responsibility for it. In turn, that brings us into a relationship with other people who share and care for it. It is a binding, singular purpose,” he says.
Western economic systems, on the other hand, lean into transactional and individualistic approaches.
"Trust wears many hats. We all think we understand it, because we have our own versions and metrics of trust, but there’s not a singular truth to it," Deen says.
It’s not surprising then that business leaders are baffled by the intangibility of trust that “begins with us as human beings, in the commitments we make in our relationships with clients and customer, and the relationship of those commitments to the health of the whole system”.
The former financial services regulator, CEO, academic and globally recognised thought leader on ethics and systems thinking is adamant when he says: “I want Deloitte to be Indigenous-hearted, not because it’s my culture, but because it’s the world’s oldest, continuous culture – with a 100,000-year body of knowledge, science and wisdom to share about how we can be successful together.
We interviewed Deen while he was on country in the beautiful Hunter Valley, in New South Wales.
At a time of global change, Deen is interested in organisations that, likewise, want to change. He notes that Deloitte: Integrity has been set up because integrity is at the centre of trust and real success, while the challenge of what it means to act with ‘integrity’ and to be ‘integral’ is growing in business. “It’s bubbling up in the largest corporates in Australia and big global convening bodies like the World Economic Forum. Everybody wants authenticity and to be trusted,” Deen says.
“I’m having conversations with CEOs that I wouldn’t have had five or 10 years ago, about how they want to do the right thing, but they don’t know how to do it.”
Building trust takes bravery from leaders in terms of how much they are prepared to change their organisation. In a ‘systems thinking’ environment, it’s not always about the scale of the change, but how radical or systemic it is – where radical is really code for ‘truthful’. Most organisations fail to look truthfully at how their systems (people, power, technology, structure etc.) impact on trust. It’s not just about the CEO making public commitments, and it’s more than statements of ‘social purpose’. It’s got to be in the blood and bones of the organisation, in the way they do their core business – and the good news is that we are seeing big changes in the market.
According to Deen, frontrunners even include mining and construction companies, which 12 months ago were following the formula of maximising revenue from their sites. Now they are shifting their focus to first consider what a systems perspective on ‘place’ means.
In Australia, every piece of land has cultural purpose and was cared for by Indigenous people for more than 100,000 years. Deen reminds leaders that if they understand the nature of the location and place, if they shift from an extractive (value and revenue) perspective to a perspective informed by the purpose of the land, they’ll build more productively. In turn, it will change the relationship of the people in the building, or site, with the landscape they’re on.
"Indigenous culture isn’t just about land and environment. It’s science, psychology, economics and governance – where the whole system is the customer," Deen says.
Big-picture indicators for the need to change are strong. Recent overwhelming forces – from a worldwide pandemic to massive natural disasters, including floods and bushfires in Australia – are expediting an upswing in common purpose.
Those signals are coming more frequently, and Deen believes each unique signal is here to teach us what we should be doing.
While constructs such as net zero by 2030 give us a clear goal, it’s not informed by an Indigenous concept of the system. Rather than just extracting the bad, it is just as much about nurturing and nourishing the good. Nonetheless, tools that connect us in a singular purpose are going to be useful, Deen believes.
He suggests that one of the reasons First Nations people have been successful at translating culture into real action is because cultural practice is a powerful tool for building relationships and navigating complex group decisions.
As a methodology, it comes from the process of sitting together around a campfire, or looking together at the stars. “It’s a formalised process of governance where everyone is looking in the one direction, not negotiating power across a table or in one-on-one dialogues through a screen.”
In corporate Australia and capital markets, trust is often translated as transparency. “Yet, in my psychology training, I was taught the need for transparency is an indicator of a lack of trust. I see trust as the risk we take when we don’t know all the facts,” Deen says.
“In business environments, increasing trust is typically about closure. We try to manage risk and increase confidence and certainty by building walls around the system and controlling how people behave – but only open systems can genuinely innovate, adapting to changes in their commercial, social or natural environment.”
Above all for Deen, the real meaning of trust is truthfulness. His perspective draws deeply on his heritage as a Worimi man (Giparr) and Indigenous systems thinking that has enabled Australia’s First Nations people to survive massive environmental change and multiple ice ages, as well as invasion and social change, and remain strong as the world’s oldest continuous living culture.
Truthfulness is the starting point for contemporary organisations as they grapple with the elusiveness and intangible nature of trust. Trust is an invisible relational strength, a currency or energy that’s often only noticed or measured in its absence.
Deen says most of his conversations with clients are “brutally truthful.” People want authentic, real dialogue in this rapidly changing world and this translates into the public policy space for things such as the environment and business performance – and even the formalising of respect and recognition of First Nations people.
Professionally and as an Indigenous leader, he’s working on outcomes for the Uluru Statement from the Heart. The bare bones of the 2017 statement called on Australians to establish a First Nations voice to Parliament enshrined in the Constitution, and a commission for the purpose of treaty making and truth-telling.
“Part of my job is to say: ‘How do we negotiate the next set of challenges and opportunities as a nation, as a community, as a firm, or for our client? Being trusted is a relational issue, working to be trusted is a truthfulness one.”
That’s the universal challenge.