The Agile Leadership Mindset

I find myself talking about mindset a lot these days. In board meetings, with founders, with CEO’s, with Senior Leadership Teams and in one on one executive leadership coaching sessions. Why? Because it seems being intentional about your mindset is not common in the business leadership environment.

In elite sport & in military leadership mindset is all important and actively part of the coaching agenda. Those with a growth mindset, who can learn from and build on mistakes tend to progress to excellence and certainly are more resilient to set backs/failure.

Common mindsets to challenge in the business environment;

  • Being Reactive. The feeling and frustration of being constantly reactive. This is usually created by a lack of a structured framework for leading. Regular strategic thinking time, time with the team in the field, time with strategic customers and relationships of the business, one on ones with direct reports, professional development and reading (and many other important things) are not locked down in calendars. When well meaning team members look to bring you in on meetings there is nothing blocked out. You become reactive yet you are the only one who can change this.
  • The founder mindset. Most understand that what has got the company to this point in time won’t get it to the next level and despite investing in governance, professional advisers and management leaders they continue to stick to the familiar/ original narrative. By holding on too tight, conversations are shut down, new ways & opportunities are discounted before being explored fully and either adopted, adapted or discounted. The frustration of never getting a return on those investments grows despite knowing a return to status quo is not the answer either.
  • The new Team Leader Mindset. New team leaders are promoted based on merit and then are not mentored to understand that not only do they set the example for behaviours, their role now includes some really high value and critical tasks. Things such as planning ahead, anticipating problems, contingency planning, front footing conversations about poor performance behaviours etc are often never taught, prioritised and therefore don’t get done consistently.
  • The “backward” looking governance mindset. Boards start with and prioritise the historical performance of the business instead of being curious about the future strategic objectives. Supporting the CEO and executive team to break through key blockages and to wrestle down the big challenges to ensure the future success of the business is the most impactful and key role of directors.
  • The “I don’t read books” mindset. Reading books is just one way to absorb information in a world of audio books, video content and digital tools. Most things in business have been done before so a learning and inquiring mindset allows anyone to access excellent tools, ideas, tips and experience often at no cost.
  • The “I’m too busy to take time out to reflect mindset”. Never reflecting on why things keep happening in a certain way. Reflecting and learning lessons from each key projects, staff interactions etc is key to ensuring a leader gets better and better each time. Many leaders never reflect on why they keep getting the same results and often because they are too busy.
  • The “we are different to any other business” mindset. Some leaders and founders feel that their business is so unique, technical, or challenging that business lessons from other industries cannot be applied to their situation. In fact every business on the planet involves leading clever teams of people to deliver great product/services to paying customers with the intent to make some level of profit. So it stands to reason there are many similarities and therefore ideas and tools that can be explored and applied no matter what you do.

A growth mindset allows failure but all importantly also to learn from those mistakes and to have the resilience to carry on. New ideas can be kicked around without egos being bruised whilst trying some new ideas, tools, opportunities and ways of delivering a better future outcome. Business is not static, in fact it is a constantly changing and complex environment that requires a growth mindset. New ways of learning, consuming information, banking the stories and lessons of others (so you don’t have to learn it first hand) allow leaders to stay at the top of their game.

How do you constantly challenge your mindset? Do you choose it intentionally based of the many situations you can face across a day or week?

The Impact of Establishing an Effective Advisory Board

I recently spoke in Christchurch at an Institute of Directors event on the impact Advisory Boards can have for businesses who choose to implement them. There was then a panel discussion that further explored the topic.

I currently have four independent directorships (currently chairing two boards). In my consulting role I work as a strategist, high performance leadership coach and adviser to a number of Boards of Directors. At any one time a number of our client companies are restructuring Advisory Boards or establishing them for the first time.

In my opinion establishing an Advisory Board is a great way to add some real value to a business. It is a safe way to test the waters as to whether a formal board structure is the right course of action and a safe way for long term business owners to get their heads around this option. Interestingly founders having had an advisory board and then going on to establish a full board often reflect that they wish they had established the formal board from the get go. That said there is usually a healthy desire for an Advisory Board as a logical stepping stone.

The purpose of an advisory board is to allow the directors of the business to access regular strategic advice from a group of trusted advisers familiar with the business who can contribute to the future success of the business. It’s also a robust platform for working on the business rather than in it. 

The IOD 4 pillars book (starting page 80) has a chapter on Advisory Boards and I point this out it as a very good reference. I particularly like very first headline bullet point – “Advisory Boards provide advice but do not make decisions and have no authority to govern.”

Legally an Advisory Board offers advice which the directors of the Company can choose to adopt or not. The advisers are effectively operating in a consulting capacity and the minutes must be careful to note that these conversations are such. This prevents those advisers from being deemed as acting in the capacity of a director. 

In my experience the key advantages of establishing an effective Advisory Board are;

  • They allow the shareholder, director and management discussions to be separated often for the first time. This adds structure and clarity. Shareholder expectations can be discussed in a separate meeting allowing the directors to focus fully on governing the business.This then starts the process of allowing the MD or GM to drive the business day to day.
  • Different Advisers can be engaged come for certain pieces of advice or thinking which changes the discussion and allows deeper/broader consideration of advice.
  • The Advisory Board is a stepping stone for succession that allows founders to get out of their business day to day. They can begin to see and understand how they can govern their business without being in it day to day. If run effectively it allows a discussion that rises above the day to day operations of the business……to give that valuable helicopter view of the business.
  • A strategic agenda can be discussed and a focus put on the execution that creates momentum.
  • The way decisions have traditionally been made is challenged and creates different outcomes.
  • Trust is built as to how to listen to advice and take advice. Many businesses seek advice but don’t adopt that advice. In my view when a business starts to value the advice and implement it the business starts to grow up. There are break throughs as the important things start to get addressed.
  • If the business is coming under management it allows a platform that supports the CEO/GM to be given the autonomy to lead. It helps the founder get out of the way whilst providing the confidence that there is still accountability and transparency. It can allow founders to have a management role that may not be making the key decisions day to day.

There are a number of ways to approach the implementation of an advisory board and certainly every situation is subtly different. Getting this right can really allow a business to get key break throughs and to realise their potential.

The future of Governance

Governance is an important component of any business. All companies have directors but not all place an emphasis on its importance nor the value it can add. It is a key part of succession (allowing owners the transition or sell), accessing external funding, maximising value to shareholders and reduces business risk as the organisation navigates change or challenge. On top of that it supports talented CEO’s to thrive and reach their potential.

The Fog of (War) Business

Out of Chaos comes Clarity

On the battle field the fog of war refers to the fact that it can be very hard to see the full picture of what is happening let alone how you are progressing your part of it. Smoke, dust, noise, reactions of the enemy, weather, other friendly forces in the area all contribute to a situation that can be hard to navigate, easy for clear communication to fail & difficult to make clear decisions amongst.

So too in the current business environment. How do you as a leader get the clarity and confidence needed to make good solid decisions when the future seems full of uncertainty, technology change, economic disruption, challenged supply chains and changes that require rapid responses?

A few proven big ideas to consider;

  1. Invest in your team. Continually building trust, close relationships and digging deeper in the “self” awareness and “other” awareness space builds support and empathy. Teams who have each others back can have robust discussions, align and then roll their sleeves up and get the mahi (work) done. Now is a very good time to invest in your team collectively and individually. Little bits regularly on an ongoing basis creates confidence and helps with alignment & effective communication.
  2. Bring the outside in. It can be too easy to be inwardly focussed within your own business and this increases your risk profile. Share insights, information and seek to understand the bigger picture across the market. By taking a much broader approach it will allow you to make better informed and timely decisions. Engage broadly with trusted advisers, collaborate with like minded professionals & constantly ask your clients for feedback. There has never been more collaboration between organisations including competitors.
  3. Schedule and prioritise regular reviews, strategic updates and industry scans. If things are moving fast increase your meeting rhythm. This means scheduling more reviews (not less) and opportunities to pause, take stock of the situation, make clear decisions, review previous decisions and execute change in an aligned and coordinated way. It can be too easy to cancel these important reviews and become consumed by immediate challenges. Sadly this creates confusion, increases the workload, levels of frustration and chaos. Plan, plan and plan.
  4. Make good clear decisions with the best data and information available but be prepared to adapt and iterate the plan as things change. It is important to execute through a series of reviews and decision points. Data wins arguments and moves a discussion away from strong opinions so it is always worth looking at the key numbers and the patterns that are emerging.
  5. Bank the valuable lessons learnt. Reflect regularly on what is working, what isn’t and ensure the same mistakes are not made time and time again. Success breeds more success and confidence.
  6. Take regular breaks, have fun and celebrate the wins. Keep across your team and ensure they take time out, look after their family and recharge. This period of change will be ongoing and a marathon (rather than a sprint). Teams who make it a priority to celebrate the key wins regularly have a sense that hard work is paying dividends. It is just as important to acknowledge what is going right than to constantly focus on what isn’t. Celebrations don’t have to be huge in fact most don’t need anything more than setting aside some time to acknowledge people and achievements.
  7. Ask for Help. Seek help from those in your team, your mentors, coaches, members of your board, others in your peer group. You don’t need to know & in fact can’t have all the answers, rather seek to build a network around you from whom you can seek expertise, experience and information.

Without a doubt the current environment an exciting time to be leading in business. As professional leaders we owe it to those within our team, company and their wider families to be at the top of our game. The fog of (war) business can be challenging and even overwhelming at times and we can all learn from how others approach it.

How are you leading in times of uncertainty?

2020: The Leadership Lessons I Learnt

Landing back in CHCH.

2020 has been an amazing year really. As I reflect back on the first year of the new decade…..it really has been quite fascinating from a leadership point of view. We entered the year with the anticipation of a brand new decade and very early on the world changed forever in the face of Covid-19. Looking back it has been busy, full of challenge, uncertainty and yet one full of new opportunities.

The whole year has been a leadership case study. We have witnessed examples of excellent and completely incompetent leadership as governments and organisations have grappled with decisions, change and communication. Locally in New Zealand we leveraged the fact we are on an Island & able to shut the borders going hard in lockdown. Despite initial scepticism this has proven to be a game changing decision that our government took. In fact they got a second term largely based on this success.

“Sometimes life is going to hit you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith.” Steve Jobs

I feel it is important to reflect back over the year on achievements, failures and the valuable lessons learnt & I have published a summary of these over the last four years. As I prepare to take some time off I have looked back over 2020 and have published the highlights from my notes.

Personal Milestones

I got to work from home for 7 weeks and to spend time with my family, in particular hanging out with my wee kids (now 3.5 & 2). Our consulting practice remained busy & I really enjoyed being based at home.

Sadly my wife lost her father to cancer (fortunately his funeral was several weeks prior to shut down) & 2 of my elderly Uncles & an Aunty also passed away. One of these Uncles (Bruce Alexander) was a real mentor and a close friend throughout my life & I miss him a lot.

As a family we purchased our dream home on nearly an acre in an area we love in August. This was fortunately just before the property boom really started.

I managed to take my annual 7 weeks leave over the year and as family we did a 6 night camper van holiday down the West Coast of the South Island & over the Haast Pass into Central Otago. It reminded me of what a beautiful country we have!

We have supported my father through some serious health issues which at age 77 is an ongoing concern. It makes me realise that life is indeed precious and short.

According to my Apple watch I averaged 9092 steps per day, 38 mins of exercise per day, had a resting heart rate of 52, slept an average of 7 hours 15 mins per night, completed 193 workouts.

During the lock down I worked as part of the NZ Army response to Covid-19. Our men & women stepped up to do their bit as they always do in a time of need. On 11 July I handed over command of 2/4 Battalion, Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment after 3 years & 8 months as the Commanding Officer. This job was a bucket list role for me (not one many get to do in their career) and marked 28 years service in the NZ Army as an Infantry Officer (18 in the regular Army and a further 10 as an active reservist) & had required a 70-80 days per year time commitment. I am proud of what the unit achieved and the change that I got to lead within the Battalion. I also have a lot more spare time after 10 years serving 40 (+) days with the Army largely during weekends and breaks from my normal work.

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Officers & SNCO’s of 2/4 RNZIR

Business & Consulting Milestones

Despite a disrupted year & some concerning times, we significantly grew our business during 2020. We launched our own brand (Pivot & Pace which is our legal name) into the market, moved offices and iterated the way we deliver our services. We intentionally chose to change our structures to future proof against further shut downs & to respond to what our clients want (vs what we want).

This change challenged the mindset of everyone in the team (me included) to do things differently, to challenge the status quo & to look at new ways of delivering more client centric services as we continue to iterate & evolve our services. Our focus has very much remained about making an impact for those we work with. Helping them to get the break throughs they need to thrive (not to simply survive) in the current economic environment.

Client function.

As we launched our new brand we committed to an enduring agreement to collaborate with our good friends at Advisory.Works. This is an important relationship & the future of high values professional services is very much going to be about collaborating with like minded partner companies.

We retained all of our clients over the year (Less 2: One we decided to fire due to a misalignment on values & another in the retail sector who was sadly severely impacted by Covid-19). Over the year we also engaged a number of well known established companies/brands across NZ who, through referral & our networks, sought executive leadership coaching & strategic execution support. We continued to deliver services to our Australian clients and to a number in the USA working alongside John Spence.

We worked closely alongside New Zealand Trade & Enterprise supporting some of New Zealand’s best export companies on the “F700”, “Springboard” & regional business programmes. It has been very satisfying to be able to do this work & to make a difference.

We committed (starting Jan 2021) to being a sponsor of the Canterbury Branch of the Institute of Directors. This is a growing area of our practice as we support succession and the professionalisation of governance with many clients.

I enjoyed working as part of a number of Boards of Directors. I was chairing some of them but very much enjoyed working as part of a professional team supporting clever CEO’s to navigate the challenges of the market. I am proud of the achievements we made in these roles.I was MC for a University of Canterbury panel event about “Leadership in the Digital Age” in October. This focussed on some of the lessons learnt from the changes in 2020 around the use of digital platforms and dispersed leadership & teams.

This was our 6th year in a strategic partnership working with my good friend John Spence in the USA & of course his business changed considerably as Covid-19 impacted the US economy.This was my 16th year of self employment, my 5th teaching a Master class at the University of Canterbury on the MBA programme, I took 33 flights (normally annually over 60) & had only one overseas trip (Adelaide in Feb 2020).

Across the year I attended 51 Board meetings (chairing 32 of them), facilitated 22 contingency planning sessions, 36 Strategic planning workshops & 34 leadership development workshops for groups. I led 182 executive coaching sessions, coached 68 CEO’s, founders & senior executives, worked with 31 companies & actively supported the development of 15 Senior Leadership Teams. A busy year for sure.

Visiting the Leighs Construction team rebuilding the CHCH Arts Centre

The top 10 Valuable Leadership Lessons I Learnt in 2020;

  1. The most intentional leaders used the market disruption of Covid -19 to redefine how they deliver core business. It was a real opportunity to challenge and refine the way business is conducted. Sadly the vast majority in NZ businesses simply wanted to return to business as usual as soon as they could. Personally I think this was a missed opportunity but humans typically hate change & of course some industries couldn’t effect change. Whilst for a period as a country we have have a competitive advantage (in that we can operate normally), the rest of the world continues to innovate as the pandemic continues and I am concerned we run the risk of being left behind here in NZ. We certainly have an opportunity to innovate, to build better processes & methods of commerce, ones that move from commodities to highly valuable products & that also look after our environment, climate & invests in the people living & working in our country. We can really leverage our thriving tech industries.
  2. We have seen a decade of change in 6 months. It certainly felt like it. (This was reinforced by the findings of some recent McKinsey research). For those who were not actively tracking the trends this came as a big surprise. For the majority it created a tidal wave of change and overwhelm. Certainly most leaders found the edges of the amount of change they can cope with.
  3. Never underestimate the impact of being intentional in your leadership role and caring deeply about your people. Empathetic leaders enabling high levels of engagement have thrived in this period of constant change. Leadership is so much more than management. The best people leaders tend to be the best managers but sadly the best managers are not the best people leaders.
  4. The best people step up & lean in during a time of need. You see your culture in action as people respond to a crisis. Those leaders who created engagement and alignment have achieved a lot in terms of adapting to change. Those organisations who have not have really struggled to do anything other than survive.
  5. Those leaders who don’t lead themselves well, have struggled to cope over 2020. This year has highlighted the gaps in many leaders communication skills, leadership styles and delegation skills. To be agile & adaptable while leading a complex organisation requires a team of aligned professionals. You will never lead others well if you don’t lead yourself well so it very much starts there with self awareness.
  6. Many business owners simply don’t have the energy to lead through the next few years. They have been through recessions before, they have resources & they want out of their businesses & sadly for those whose business relies on them personally this creates a big challenge. For those under management are a lot of acquisitions & business sales occurring & that will occur over the coming year or two.
  7. In many cases governance has been found seriously lacking the needed horsepower. Some boards have not kept their management teams ahead of the change and are simply reactive, mediocre and tactical. I predict that many boards will have a high turnover in the next 6-12 months & that good directors (and in particular Chairs) will be highly sought after.
  8. Never before have we seen such a demand for leadership coaching. Investing in high performing professional governance, trusted advisers & intentionally building a network of aligned strategic partners creates confidence, resilience and peace of mind. Our main area of growth this year came from CEO’s, founders, directors and executives seeking support to become more effective and intentional leaders. Leading in constant change for long periods of time is not sustainable simply by doing the same thing for longer hours each day/week.
  9. Those who truly are close to and own the voice of their customer – win! Many businesses simply focussed inwards as they tried to address change. Those who stayed very close to their customers delivering what they needed have quickly evolved and adapted to deliver value.

So it has been a busy & fulfilling year. I am thankful to work as part of a great team of professionals & to be working for clever clients who are committed to constantly being better at what they do. I am also thankful to live in this part of the world & I really feel for those living in areas where Covid-19 brings daily uncertainty. I think 2021 will see a continuation of many of these changes and no doubt a few more challenges to navigate.

How have you reflected on the year? What will you do differently to thrive in constant change?

Staying on Track: Leaders are Adapting Fast

There has never been a more exciting time to be leading people in business, in fact leading people in any organisation. 2020 has delivered more change in the last 7 months than we’ve seen in the last decade and there will a lot more to follow. Although most of the change is being driven by the global pandemic, most of the resulting trends are not new ones……they have simply been brought forward a number of years.

This has created a massive wave of change & combined with the other impacts on the economy (caused by close downs, stay at home orders, restrictions on travel & limited physical access to markets) is changing the way we execute business. Leaders are adapting in order to win in this new environment.

“We are in a flexible period of humanity”

I work as part of a Christchurch based team that works alongside prominent and experienced leaders of mainly New Zealand companies but also some Australian & US businesses. Many of those based in New Zealand are exporting globally &/or operating nationally. My own clients range across the agribusiness, science, manufacturing, health, processing, technology, education & both civil & vertical construction. I work mainly with Boards of Directors, CEO’s and their Executive teams. Most are established businesses with revenues ranging from $10m – $500m. We also support New Zealand Trade & Enterprise clients for expansion and Tourism NZ clients seeking to pivot their businesses.

Across the experienced leaders I work regularly with here are the trends;

  • There is an interesting tension between the need to survive as an organisation & the opportunity to thrive. Moral courage is increasingly important. There is a need to do the right thing, in line with the purpose and values of the organisation, at a time when there are also a lot of business continuity decisions.
  • Most CEO’s are cautiously optimistic about the immediate future but are concerned about the medium term (12 – 24 months). Many are asking “what does the latter part of 2021 look like?” & are actively seeking to make some assumptions as a basis for continued contingency planning.
  • There is more empathy & connectedness with employees & clients. That human connection is critical because leadership is a team sport. Many employees are facing challenges with family ie child care, spouses losing jobs, mental well being. There has been a need for more pastural care, more access to counselling & support services. This has made restructuring even more challenging than before as leaders balance the human capital needs with the businesses survival needs. Retaining clients has never been more critical.
  • There is a much lower tolerance of those who are non performers. Poor performance is being addressed very quickly. On the flip side those that are being hired are bringing a different set of skills, often more experience and higher levels of expertise & diversity. In many cases the skillsets within the staff are changing to meet the need of the new environment. In some cases new hires cover multiple disciplines.
  • Leaders are actively seeking peer groups, individual coaching and access to information about how others are dealing with similar issues. We have never seen more individuals seek leadership coaching from our company. One such General Manager summed it up when he said “I’ve been winging it for years but I don’t think I can do that any more. I need to get better as a leader to support change and to support my team.” Some seek coaching to ensure they deliver within their role and in doing so provide security for their ongoing future employment.
  • Bigger, bolder decisions are bing made faster. There is streamlining of structures, clarity on the composition of teams & overall there is more contingency planning.
  • Leaders are much more conscious of the things they need to do to remain effective & reduce stress. There is more emphasis on taking time off to rest, to be with family, to relax & many seek to have fun.
  • Many are too inwardly focussed and know they need prioritise time to look out into the market to scan for risk & opportunity. This can be challenging because there is less trust & confidence in the mainstream media. Many to validate what they are seeing in the media.
  • Business and leader succession is a big issue. Many of those in the latter stages of their careers are asking whether they have the energy or the skills to lead through a number of years of change and economic uncertainty. This is leading to some life changing decisions, a focus on more effective governance &/or the desire to exit.

“By all means run with the wildebeest but remember it is important to pause & look back occasionally to remind yourself what you are running from”

  • There is a huge awakening about the importance of having skilled people leaders in place. Leaders lead people while managers manage things or resources. The skills of the “generalist” leader have never been more highly valued & there is more investment in coaching, training, leader & team development.

These are both challenging and exciting times and as with any change there is a lot of opportunity presenting to those leaders and organisations who are reflecting, planning and who remain agile enough to take advantage of them.

What are you seeing in your leadership role?

Anyone Can Lead in Good Times

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Anyone can lead in good times, it’s when things are tough that you really see the best leaders in action. At present we are seeing decades worth of change occurring in days as the economic, social & health impacts of Covid-19 reshape whole industries, relationships between countries and the purchasing habits of people globally.

Without a doubt what is setting those businesses with a real future apart from those who are dead in the water are the people leading them. The strategic & proactive boards of directors, the inspiring CEO’s and the tight leadership teams supporting them to deliver change & business outcomes. The great news is that even in constant change some things never change but they are now even more important;

  • Inspiring a vision for the future: Leaders must be able to show a brightness of future by articulating a Vision for success. The road leading there might have pivots and turns but being able to quickly paint the future and to sell it to those you lead is the basis of inspiration. People want to be inspired & well lead. Keep the Purpose of the Company at the forefront of all you do and live the values.
  • Team first: Your team composition, sense of tightness, professional skills, engagement and focus will ensure your clients are well looked after. Your team always comes before clients. This means team meetings, one on ones and planning sessions are priority number one. Have fun, live the values, over communicate & ensure the tough conversations are on the table.
  • Being close to your clients: Know what is going on with them, what they need, what they value & how you can help them. Call them, video them, survey them and focus on their success and wellbeing. There has never been a time that this is more important. Solve their problems by knowing what keeps them awake at night.
  • Partnerships: Partner with the best suppliers & collaborate with competitors & other like minded organisations within your supply chain. Long term & win/win solutions that keep clients at the centre of all you do add massive value to your business ecosystem.
  • Plan, Plan & Plan: Contingency planning, involving the collective skills of your Board of Directors, Advisory Board, external Advisors and leadership team often and regularly keeps you ahead of the curve. Having had difficult discussions and having modelled financial scenarios allows a fast transition as the situation evolves. Bank the lessons learnt and constantly challenge the status quo – reimagine what is needed to deliver success in the future. Make good clear decisions & iterate them as the situation changes.
  • Ask for Help: Seek Support & Coaching: Any leader at the top of their game needs an eco-system of people around them whom they can ask advice, share reflections with and in many cases share ideas. Some of these are coaches you pay for but most are peers and people in your network whose advice you value. Hang out with them often and shoot the breeze. You can’t get it all right but with a good network it is hard to get the big stuff totally wrong.
  • Invest in yourself: Keep fit, sleep lots, hang out with family/friends & find time to read, watch videos and learn. Reflect in writing and revisit these ideas and reflections often as you plan.

In tough times those who can adapt, learn, inspire others and who take action early will have the resilience to succeed.

“Anyone can lead in good times” – You earn your money as a leader when times are tough.