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?

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