2017: The Leadership Lessons I learnt


Life is a journey and you have to stop every now and then, get off the track and reflect. It is essential to pause and reflect on what has been achieved, the patterns you see, the lessons you have learnt and what you need to change as you start another busy year. 2017 for me was a full on year. A CEO role (stepping down on 1 December 17 after 5 years, the last 3 of which has seen 30% growth in the business year on year), my first year as a Battalion Commander in the Reserve of the NZ Army, Chairman of a growing global tech company that was a finalist in the NZ High Tech Awards and working alongside & supporting some very high performing client CEO’s and their companies.

A year in which I took took 62 flights, hired and fired some key staff and exited a number of clients, supported clients across NZ, Australia and the USA, spoke at Universities, funerals & business events and most significantly had a baby son born in June bringing a lot of joy to our growing family. I also took my annual 7 weeks off across the year to recharge the most important break being a month over Christmas.

I tracked some other data too. On average I slept 7 hours a night, walked & ran 2555km, did 156 work outs (weights, running, cycling or boxing), climbed 4380 flights of stairs……the joys of a Fitbit keeping the data.

2017 was another year of full on learning as I worked with good companies as they adapted, grew and executed in the increasingly complex business environment. I supported and coached CEO’s and executive teams from public, listed and privately held companies. Revenues ranged from $3m p.a. through the $14bn p.a. Tech companies (mining, gaming, AI/OI, motor sport), professional sport entities, Army leadership teams & Infantry Combat teams, professional services companies (legal, psychology, accounting & finance, survey, software implementation, banking), manufacturing and distribution companies, commercial and residential building companies, civil construction and sub contracting companies, insurance, retail, medical, science, large scale agribusiness…….the list goes on.

So what did I learn as a leader? Good question and here are my reflections;

  1. There is a time to walk away. I take 100% accountability for my actions and 0% for those of others. If you coach, mentor, encourage, teach, collaborate, discuss, seek buy in, plan, agree……and they still don’t change their actions you have to be the change. Its never easy but some people simply can’t, won’t and don’t change.
  2. If its messy keep going. Clarity will prevail, give it time, take time to reflect on the patterns and what you are seeing. Often when you are leading change it is really messy when you are in it. Clarity will come if you create the space to reflect.
  3. Give your time. The most valuable thing you can give someone is your time. Cast a big shadow. Ensure people value it but invest in people, care, play the long game and go the extra mile for good people. They will give back when you need a hand, advice or time.
  4. The power of networking. The most valuable asset you have are your friends and your network of people you know & trust. Hang out more, ask questions, support them, interact, go to events that interest you, learn lots. My network is absolute gold and allows me to seek information, referrals and help.
  5. Ask for Help. One of the goals I set myself early in 2017 was to ask for help more, to let others step up, to seek feedback and advice more. It has paid huge dividends in learning, reduced work load and it actually the best way to engage your team and get out of their way. It is hard to let others step up but persevere and free up your time. Top leaders create other leaders rather than followers.
  6. Look at what people do. I always look at what people do rather than what they say. As a leader and as a coach this is where the gold is. The gap between what they say and what they do. The magic happens if you can close that gap. Also you see who people really are and what they care about by looking at what they do. Be tough and hold people accountable for their actions because people want to be led well and to be given a chance to be better at what they do.
  7. Get rid of the takers. As the African proverb says “If you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far go together.” Some people take and never give and they play a short game continuously. Get rid of those who simply set out to get ahead themselves. They are not team players and the world operates best with people who can play in a team. In fact these are the people who continue to ask advice and never take it.
  8. Don’t take advice from those who don’t inspire you. Inspiration tends to be about the future rather than the past or the present. Get advice from pragmatic, forward thinking, positive people. Everyone has an opinion so make sure the advice is balanced between data & real life experience. Data wins arguments and shifts both conversations & thinking.
  9. Clever people just need gentle reminding. More often than not people know the answer and they just need to be reminded of what they need to do or should do. Typically there is no substitute for hard work, tough conversations and having the grit and motivation to push forward when things are tough.
  10. The way you do things is what matters. The devil is in the detail i.e. its not what you do but how you do it. Take action, try new things, iterate, measure. Engage people, ask lots of questions, get people to reflect and take them on the journey with you. The world is full of people with great ideas but sadly very few can make shit happen. Value the leaders, the people of action, the doers, those who make mistakes trying new ways.

2018 for me is one of creating new opportunities to be involved in governance, succession and executive leadership coaching. I believe that in order to thrive in the future you have to be 20% better every year and to be passionate about what you do and why you do it. CEO’s are often isolated and they need good solid support from people who have experience and who can introduce them to a network of like minded leaders.

What did you learn in 2017?

Other posts I have written;

Reflection: The secret skill of high performance leaders

Fight to win: Business Lessons from the Army

Are your leaders male, pale and stale?

2 Mins on my approach to Executive Leadership Coaching


Business & Leader Succession: Panel Discussion

48% of NZ businesses will need to navigate the challenge of Leader, Founder and possibly ownership succession. It is a global trend as baby boomers come out of their business that will peak around 2028 – 2030. It also presents a massive opportunity to get right. How do you create a culture of leadership development and succession planning? How do you start to get your head around the journey ahead. This panel video is worth watching as you start the conversation and the journey.

Data Wins Arguments: Less “Think” More “Know”

unnamedIn the busy world of business seniority tends to over rule in decisions that have no data. The more experienced and senior members of teams have more sway in decision making as they offer opinions and ideas and too often they are incorrect. They are assumptions based in history, bias or a lack of new thinking.

I work with senior teams all the time and see this pattern. The founder, CEO or “old heads” will refer back to what happened or didn’t happen in the past or what they think. This is often driven by the desire to avoid change because as humans we all hate having to get uncomfortable. New team members voice their views and ideas that are worth exploring but are simply dismissed and at its worst this creates a culture that resists change. It creates a significant risk that the organisation will be irrelevant in the near future.

At its worst countless hours are spent talking about opinions as if they are facts. One of the lessons I have learnt is that “Data wins Arguments”. Data takes the discussion from “I think” to one of “Let me show you”. It shifts the conversation to one that will get a good solid outcome. It takes emotion and bias out of the equation. It leads to data driven and robust business decisions. The role of a leader is to disrupt business as usual in a good way so that the company adapts and thrives in the future. Data can create a huge mandate for change by exposing current & future reality.

This is the impact of KPI’s, financial trend graphs, research, analysis of patterns and numbers. A simple exercise of graphing the monthly, year to date and lifetime revenues of your top 20 clients and having your team sit together and discuss what they see can have a huge aligning effect and can completely shift thinking, perceptions and provides clarity of the actual reality.

This video is worth watching as it outlines just how wrong we get it if we don’t seek data about what media shows us. The gap can be huge and in fact chimpanzees can be more accurate if we don’t look for the numbers and validate our perceptions.

High performance leaders go well beyond emotion, perception. They are aware of the impact of data and seek it to get better business decisions.

Keynote: Leader of the Future

I do quite a few keynote speeches both for businesses, conferences and universities.

One I did recently in the USA was for the global software company Optym (www.optym.com). They videoed it and kindly made it available for my network.

If you are looking for a practical keynote around leadership, strategic thinking or execution (getting things done)  please connect.

2 Mins on Executive Leadership Coaching

I am lucky enough to work one on one with many prominent CEO’s, Founders and senior leaders across NZ, Australia & the USA. These are highly motivated professional leaders already achieving some amazing things. They seek to be more intentional in their leadership role and to stay ahead of the crowd/competition. The courage to seek external help really sets them apart because the average CEO stops their professional development once they reach the top role whilst the top performers know the journey is just beginning. You are only as good as your last game and as with anything in the high performance space you need to apply top of mine application to it.

Leader & Business Succession = The Big Opportunity

So often the topic of succession is ignored or seen as negative. The reality is that it offers a big opportunity to ensure business continuity, a legacy to be realised or an investment to be realised. A culture that invests in leadership assists greatly in ensuring that a business will thrive beyond its current leader (be that a founder, owner or professional CEO).

In this video John Spence and I discuss the topic and some of the challenges and opportunities.

Taking Tech to the World: Link ECU

A fantastic Canterbury Company taking High Performance Motor Sport Technology to the world. Link Engine Management is a global exporter of engine enhancing technology. As finalists in both the Champion Canterbury Business Awards and the New Zealand High Tech Business Awards in 2017 it has been a year of growth successes. I am proud to play my small bit as Chairman of the Board of Directors as we support a talented leadership, marketing, distribution, manufacturing and engineering team.

Succession: The big Leadership Opportunity

IMG_4437One of the biggest challenges many businesses face is that of succession. Too often it is seen as something negative, stressful or is an unspoken topic. Certainly it is one that can be full of emotion especially in family businesses or it can appear to be simply a problem too big to tackle.

It is considered the realm of Lawyers and Accountants and many seek to engage these professionals to “solve” the problem for them. Without a doubt they need to provide good advice but succession is a leadership issue rather than a technical problem. It is one that requires courage, planning, transparent communication, good ongoing advice from a number of specialists and clear decisions. It is a journey, not an event.

Succession is not just about an ageing business founder/owner. The professional CEO needs to develop other leaders in their team to be able to take over the their role when the time is right & any organisation needs to have some contenders who can take on the top role (whether they do or not will depend upon the needs) and this requires a culture of investing in leaders at every level to step up.

Each week we speak to & work with business leaders who are looking to get out of their business. I have personally supported many who have started and successfully completed the journey.

Ten recommended considerations;

  1. Face into the opportunity. Ignoring succession will not make it go away. A compressed timeline or sudden change due to death or illness significantly reduces the chance of long term success.
  2. Select those who will succeed you carefully. Make sure they fit, buy into the vision, care about the mission and people and build trust. Succession is all about people, decisions and change. Lead well.
  3. Plan for success. Have a plan with key milestones and understand the process and journey. Get all the people involved who need to be and get the issue on the table. Build a plan that will iterate and evolve.
  4. Understand that succession is part of the evolution of any organisation, business and family. Change is constant and people don’t deal with change well. Embrace the journey and don’t treat it like it is “negative” or an “event”. It is a fantastic opportunity to evolve your business and to ensure it thrives (not just survives) in the future.
  5. Get good advice. Have external help in getting the plan and issues on the table. Seek good legal and accountancy advice throughout the journey but don’t leave the “people” plan to a tax specialist or legal advisor. This is about people and change rather than just a structure or contract.
  6. Succession is all about the future so a good vision and strategy will be needed and good leaders who can execute change. Succession is about leadership so include it in all your leader development programs. If you don’t have a leader development program get one in place. Little bits regularly can really make a big impact on the future vitality of an organisation.
  7. Make good clear decisions at every stage and map out the decision points & timeline. Document and communicate things & keep things on track.
  8. Implement and invest in key structures that enhance success. Independent Governance (or a Advisory Board as an initial step), bringing the business under management, coaching and leadership development for key current and future leaders, good independent advisors, implementing legal and financial structures and processes based on future plans are all critical as a business moves into a space whereby the business is not reliant on the founder or owner. Many of these take considerable time to implement and re a real culture shift for the business.
  9. Network with those who have done it. Find those who have made the transition and ask questions. Hear what went well and more importantly learn form the mistakes they made as you look to apply things to your own situation.
  10. Enjoy the journey. For those who successfully navigate change and ensure that their business will ensure into the future providing for the next generation the rewards are great. If a trade sale is involved the satisfaction of seeing the business moving to a new level is exciting whilst at the same time providing a new found freedom.

Just start.