2019: Leadership Lessons I have Learnt

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Manhatten, New York: sep 19

2019 has been a fantastic & full on year working as part of a talented team and supporting some of the top companies across New Zealand, Australia and the USA. It is important to reflect on achievements, leadership lessons and to recharge in preparation for the projects we are taking on in 2020……..a new decade.

On the home front a baby girl (Sahara) joined our family on 30 Dec 18, so it’s been exciting having another wee one in the house. We moved house, our eldest daughter graduated from St Margarets College & was accepted to study at Canterbury University next year. Our wee boy turned 2 so home life was hectic with many firsts such as talking, walking & other family milestones. It’s been a year where sadly some good friends have died & we’ve supported close family (& several clients) with cancer. So it’s been fulfilling but certainly not plain sailing!

It was my 15th year of self employment, I took 53 domestic & international flights, completed 143 physical work outs (not enough), slept on average 6 hours per night (more needed) & Averaged 9907 steps per day (stats courtesy of my Fitbit). I delivered 208 one to one coaching sessions (for directors, CEO’s and executive leaders), facilitated 23 strategic planning sessions/reviews, developed & delivered 18 one off leadership workshops for Executive Leadership Teams & attended 34 Board & Advisory Board meetings (chairing 31 of them). I took seven weeks off to recharge, rest and have time with family.

In my Army role as an Infantry Battalion commander we have led change, deployed soldiers on operations & been involved in responses to fires in Nelson & floods in Westland as well as the Christchurch mosque shootings which rocked our nation to the core. 2/4 Battalion joined the Army’s operational 1st Brigade (NZ) in July & this role was 67 days work of my work. S

In governance roles there was challenge, break throughs & pivots. During a visit to the USA in my role as Link Engine Management Chair (along with our CEO) we visited some of the top companies in the world (Google, Apple, Facebook, Air BnB, AllBirds amongst 10 others) that since start up have been client centric & design thinking focussed. This was part of a NZ Trade & Enterprise “Better by Design” Tour and involved leaders from 20 NZ export companies. This was a life changing learning experience, as we visited New York & San Francisco over 10 days. I learnt so much about client centricity, culture by design & leading change.

In my role as part of the University of Canterbury MBA Advisory Board, I was lucky enough to be able to have a small part in a bold modernisation of the UC executive leadership programme. A move that reflects the current reality of business leadership and (in my personal opinion) it will allow UC to become one of the most innovative & relevant tertiary providers in the country for experienced leaders looking to pivot their career & lift their leadership impact.

As a business owner we have lived what we teach. We have grown our team numbers & our revenues & profits by 25%. This is an outcome of working with some fantastic clients & business partners & invest in in long term trusted relationships. Our approach supporting chairs, boards, business owners, CEOs & Exec teams to get significant break throughs, has been recognised in the market through growing referral networks. We have measured staff engagement & client loyalty via bi annual surveys & used this information to build on our offering. The Christchurch team will be delivering 22 pre booked leadership workshops in January & February 2020 alone so it is going to be a busy start to the year.

So what leadership lessons have I learnt over the year?;

  1. Business Leaders need to get serious to lead in constant change. It is time lift to your game if you want to succeed globally. Whilst we have some fantastic NZ companies doing very well internationally (in fact a number are clients), they have invested heavily in intentional, qualified and experienced leaders who focus on culture and inputs rather than just the outputs. Too many businesses aspire to compete at a high level but leave their leadership to chance. They invest in the best independent directors, executive leaders and strategic thinkers with an emphasis on execution combined with client focus and great products/services and constant adaptability. The old NZ “no 8 wire” attitude, whilst important to drive innovation, won’t cut it alone in a complex market environment. The best companies in the world value and invest in not just innovative/smart ideas but also qualified and experienced talent led by high performing leaders.
  2. Most leaders won’t have the courageous conversations needed. The number of senior leaders who simply won’t lead a tough conversation or confront poor behaviours (which are a pre-curser to poor performance) is staggering. Those who are action orientated, care deeply about their people and who will initiate a courageous conversation before it results in a big issue are rare and highly sought after. Most hide behind a complex process as a reason for not taking action. In reality they simply don’t have the courage to start what is a simple & effective process.
  3. Stop focussing on outputs and focus instead on the inputs that deliver them. Too many react to results after the fact and it is too late. Spend time creating clever predictive metrics that guarantee the results you are after and create a culture that consistently measures & executes them.
  4. Schedule, value & prioritise unstructured time. Most leaders are simply “busy & sadly that means reactive. They have no time to get ahead of the market and competition because they don’t prioritise the time needed for professional development, strategic thinking, reflection, banking lessons learnt, building strategic relationships or hanging out with clients understanding their needs. There are too many leaders who were the badge of “busyness” with pride and it creates mediocrity and reactive companies. Self discipline is needed to keep the important things ahead of the urgent.
  5. Invest in a future focussed Board that reflects the voice of your customer. Who on your board represents the voice of the purchaser of your products or services? Too many boards spend their time looking backwards instead of setting the culture of the business and driving the strategic agenda. To win in todays constantly changing & dynamic business environment the conversations of shareholders, directors and management must be separated, defined and deliberate. Get serious about it & have both a succession plan & professional development for your board.
  6. If you sword fight with Zoro you will get cut. As a leader there is always someone who thinks they have the solution or is hyper critical of a decision. In reality to lead at a high level you need to have confidence & clarity. Make the best decision you can with the best information available at the time and iterate it as needed. Leaders stand for something, they can take a punch and are resilient enough to carry on and win. It therefore stands to reason you will make a few mistakes, get things wrong, piss a few people off and attract the armchair critics. Accept this, reflect and commit to being always a better leader, stay true to your values & purpose and surround yourself with a wide network of coaches, mentors & peers who want to see you do well. Most importantly enjoy the ride because executive leadership is one of the most challenging & satisfying things you can do in the world. Most people can’t or won’t step up the the plate & thats fine……there have to be followers.

So overall 2019 has been a fantastic year. There have been the challenges of leadership and people that every business faces. Highs, lows and everything in between. Without a doubt the best things have involved family and friends growing and changing. Many of our clients have won national and international awards and their energy and thirst to get better and better has inspired me to keep learning and to get better at what I do professionally. As a professional leader it doesn’t really get much better than that & in the world we live in we require adaptability and agility to navigate the change we face over the coming years. Thank you for letting us play a small part in your leadership journey…….I really value it.

That said it is time to have a break, to disconnect, to have a beer (or 3) and to recharge over the summer break. Hows 2019 been for you? What valuable leadership lessons have you learnt?

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It’s beer oclock

What I Learnt at Google

In early September in my role as Chairman of tech company Link Engine Management Ltd, the CEO & I went to the USA as part of the New Zealand Trade & Enterprise Better By Design Service. We are a company that works closely with and highly values the business advice, market support and development funding opportunities provided by NZTE as we expand across the USA.

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The Purpose of the trip was to immerse ourselves in some of the best companies in the world that have been client centric in their design thinking since start up. Along with 15 or so other prominent NZ export businesses we visited 15 different companies in both Manhatten, New York & in San Franciso. Companies such as Apple, Facebook, Air BnB, Chabani, WW (formerly Weight Watchers), Sidewalk Labs & AllBirds. I say total immersion because it was like drinking out of a fire hydrant in terms of what we learnt and reflected on. We had unprecedented access to C-suite executives ranging from CEO’s, Founders, Chief Development Officers etc. Weeks later I am still distilling the many things I learnt as a Chairman, Strategy Consultant, Leadership Coach and Business owner.

Google stood out due to its prominence as a brand, size & scale. With annual revenues of $137Bn USD, over 100,000 employees globally working across 9 products (each with over 1 Billion users) it can take some time to get your head around.

Here is what I learnt from Google;

  • Don’t screw up the culture: Culture is key and it drives every aspect of life at Google. Like most of these companies we visited, the war for real talent is very real & like Google most are feeding their staff 3 meals a day and making life easy to do great things. Behaviours, teams, leadership & soft skills are prominent and highly valued. In fact if you work against the team you will be fired no matter how brilliant you are. Work hours are 9 – 5 and working long hours (or weekends) are actively discouraged & this behaviour is modelled by senior leaders.
  • Hire slow, fire fast: Google undertake 8 interviews in the recruitment process over a number of months followed by 4 months of induction. It is hard to get in and if over 2 quarters you don’t perform staff are exited (after coaching, mentoring and clarity around KPI’s).
  • Cultural add: Whilst cultural fit is important more, front of mind at the hire stage is the Cultural add. What will you add to our culture. This is where they actively find diversity and give mandate for new employees to add and enhance the culture and teams they join.
  • Unstructured time: 20% of all employees time is unstructured and they are expected to work on projects within the company they are passionate about. Projects that solve company problems or move Google forward.
  • KPI Clarity: KPIs range from hard numbers to softer KPIs such as failures. Failure is encouraged if employees learn the lesson & teach others in the company the valuable lessons. The expectation is the lesson is not learnt again. They don’t focus on the outputs in terms of their KPI’s, they focus on the inputs that guarantee the outcomes they seek. Feedback is constant and 360 via platforms that allow your team, your peers, your bosses to give live 360 feedback. This is the same from the CEO down.
  • Be the Best at What you do: Like many of these companies Google expect you to be the best at what you do. If you are in the technical stream they expect you to be at the top of your game & getting better. If you are leading teams they expect you to be the best leader. A key point here is you don’t have to lead people to advance (role & remuneration) if you are a technical expert. Consider that in most NZ businesses where the only way to advance your career is to lead bigger teams!
  • Client centric: The work spaces are designed for learning, to stimulate innovative thinking, to break down silos and status quo thinking. The client is at the centre of all the products & services they develop. 9 products each with over 1 billion users. By having break out areas and fantastic working environments there will be a minimum 9% lift in productivity & very high engagement.
  • High levels of trust and autonomy: Employees are expected to perform, trusted to IMG_1392do what is needed, can buy the equipment they need and travel, accommodate etc by choosing from a range of providers. Money they save the company in expenses are shared 50% with the employee so there is incentive to be smart.
  • Fail fast: New projects are well led and it takes strong leadership to fail fast, to decide to stop a project.
  • Get Serious: Most New Zealand businesses with the aspiration to grow globally need to get serious. Invest in competent, forward thinking & qualified directors that will challenge the status quo & most importantly support the CEO & management team to upskill & excel. A client centric intentional Culture enabling seriously talented & experienced people to do great things will ensure companies iterate & adapt. They need to invest in the advice, skills & technology that allow them to scale. Most importantly defining true purpose & a long term compelling vision is as critical as telling the story.

Many of these things challenge the way we think and certainly to the level they could be done. In my discussions many NZ business leaders are dismissive of Google given its size & scale ie it is easy to do this when you are a huge company. I make the point that Google started with a clear vision & purpose in 1997 and is only 22 years old.

Where will your company be in 10 years if you start focussing & executing on some of these important things & get really serious about attracting and leading top talent?

The investment by our company in this experience was significant but the networking and relationships formed with a really talented cohort & the business leaders we met provided a massive return on investment. This combined with the ideas we have decided to execute and the input from a very talented NZTE host & design thinking team will allow us to continue to navigate our future growth aspirations.

Thank you NZTE.

Leadership Lessons form 200 CEO’s: 2018/19

Annually since 2013 I have surveyed over 200 CEO’s across the USA, Australia and New Zealand to seek feedback on two key questions relating to what they have learnt and what challenges they feel they face over the coming 12 months. This creates a huge amount of information which takes some time to distil down to the key patterns that show up across all the replies. It is also a very interesting document to read because these busy business leaders have taken the time to reflect and answer the questions.

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The trend over the last five years has been leading in constant change, the challenge of developing teams who have the resilience to thrive in uncertainty (created by constant change) and who can still achieve growth and a solid bottom line profit. There is much more awareness of the importance of a good culture of engagement and the need for governance, mentors and coaches to stay ahead of the crowd (competitors). I do note that the CEO’s surveyed tend to be those leading high performance companies that perform year on year despite market conditions and competitor moves so they are adaptable and already good at execution.

Question 1: What are the three biggest leadership lessons you have learnt in 2018?

  1. Culture & people have the biggest impact. Their skills, behaviours, diversity, ideas. The ability of our team/s to work together and to keep the clients at the centre of what we do in terms of high value products and services. No one can steal your culture.
  2. There is a need to move fast, make clear decisions & Execute. Know your numbers, focus, iterate the plan based on a good review process but stay the course to achieve success. Its less about the smartest ideas/plans and more about making important things happen i.e. executing.
  3. Trust yourself and your professional judgement. Back yourself to know the industry from your years of experience but be open to new ideas and ways. Make the big decisions, sleep on them, seek the best advice from those you trust & don’t over think it. But make good clear decisions, tell people why and then focus on making it happen.

Question 2: What are the three biggest challenges you will face as a leader in 2019?

  1. Finding the right people to allow the company to scale for growth. Recruiting, inducting, training and then being able to lead them well and retain the top people. It is tough to find the people with experience you need in many industries.
  2. Hitting growth targets in a tougher economy/market environment. There is a lot of change and uncertainty and in many markets there is more competition. Economic outlooks over the next 12 months are for a tighter market. The challenge of continuing to grow is very real.
  3. Taking time out to recharge. Finding time to rest, learn, study and have a good life balance when things move so quickly. There is more pressure to work longer hours and more days a week. The smartest leaders know it is a marathon and not a sprint so being balanced is needed to stay focussed, fresh and at the top of the game.

You can see the results of the 2017/18 survey here.

You can look back over a summary of the last five surveys here.

The lessons I personally learnt as a leader in 2018

I thank all those CEO’s who took the time to reflect and provide feedback.

4 Game Changers to Improve Execution

One of the biggest challenges and frustrations that business leaders have in 2018 is how to execute their Strategic plan to ensure the future success of the business. Over the last 18 months we have conducted in depth surveys with 161 business leadership teams across New Zealand, Australia & the USA asking them 35 key questions over a 2 hour gap analysis assessment.

When it comes to Disciplined Execution the basics really count and the surveys highlighted a common gap in four areas as highlighted by the data;

  1. Role Clarity: 110 (68%) of the 161 teams interviewed had not clearly documented who was accountable for key roles in the business & how their performance would be measured. It stands to reason that if there is no real role clarity then there will be overlaps in effort, low levels of accountability & frustrations. In many cases roles had not been updated as the team grew, head count increased and the company evolved. Putting in the effort to document and get clarity on roles and measurements makes a huge impact and is an engaging discussion to have as a team.
  2. Consequences: 106 (66%) of the 161 teams had staff that did not know the consequences for achieving (or not achieving) the performance standard required for their role. Without praise and recognition for great work (catch people doing things right) there is no incentive to go above and beyond. Likewise if poor performance is not confronted it becomes hard to perform as a team and good people leave due to the mediocrity that is tolerated. These topics should be discussed as a team so there is clarity which will in turn lift engagement. (See “The Power of Consequence”).
  3. Meetings: 117 (73%) of the 161 teams did not conduct well-structured “execution meetings” with team members on a weekly basis. Most leaders hate meetings and their team members hate being part of them. Yet if you lead people you need to be excellent at leading engaging team meetings that allow you to live your culture. What makes a great meeting? Respect for time, never cancelled, clear team rules, being prepared, having each attendee speak to their numbers, a review of results, clarity on future actions, updates on strategic actions/projects, documented decisions (who, what, when), core value stories, connection & fun as a team. A clear cadence of meetings will make a huge impact on team engagement, execution and will maintain momentum.
  4. Quarterly Reviews: 132 (82%) of the 161 teams did not review their performance against their strategy and then update and communicate the strategic direction every quarter (90 days). Most Companies have a strategic plan that is reviewed annually or bi-annually but few review and update progress quarterly. It is a static plan. This quarterly review is a key meeting that drives reflection, lessons learnt, measures numbers and progress and allows the plan to iterate and remain highly relevant. A quarterly review every 90 days is a real game changer.

I have worked with hundreds of good leadership teams over the last 10 years and whenever these four game changers are implemented execution, engagement and accountability really starts to lift and it doesn’t cost anything. The team lifts to another level. It requires the CEO to refocus on several important things that will make a huge impact. Below are two short videos on these topics.

My website: www.kendalllangston.com

The Power of Consequence

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Recently one of my clients asked the following, “What do I do if someone in my sales team never hits their targets? How should I handle that?”

That’s a good question & sadly its one we answer frequently.

Former US Secretary of State, Collin Powell made a powerful observation when addressing a Global Leaders Lecture series;

“Everyone in a team knows who is and who is not performing and they are looking to you as the leader to see what you are going to do about it.”

If you do not hold people accountable and confront poor performers, you cannot create a high performance team.  There must be consequences, and the reason for this is to keep your A players, the high performers in your team, engaged. No one wants to be part of a team that accepts mediocrity and if it is allowed to continue it destroys team culture. It also destroys your credibility as a leader and erodes respect.

Some tools for ensuring there are consequences:

  1. Include teams and individuals in planning and setting their team and individual targets. Agree one on one with each team member that what they are setting out to do is achievable, and that they are committed to it.
  2. Discuss results as a team and make results visible on a weekly basis
  3. Manage people individually. Meet with each individual one on one on a weekly basis to support high performers to get better and support poor performers to improve.
  4. Train regularly as a team. Leverage the skills and learnings of the high achievers.
  5. Be consistent. A consequence of not hitting a goal should be that it is confronted each time with a courageous conversation.
  6. Use Core Values and a simple set of team rules as tools to provide a framework for setting and managing expectations.

Your job as a leader is to support, grow and mentor your team.

There must be consequences for poor performance if a team is to grow and win in business today.

Everyone in your team knows who is and who is not performing and are looking at you as the leader to see what you are going to do about it. Move fast, have the courageous conversations and care about results.

High Standards Define Great Leaders

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‘Leaders have relentlessly high standards – many people may think these standards are unreasonably high’ – Jeff Bezos

In any organisation the leadership team set the standards. How this team operates sets the environment for the rest of the people in the wider team.

Many organisations have very talented people, great ideas, awesome tools of the trade to get the job done and a real mission but never get anywhere near their full potential. I have lead in several high performing military and commercial environments & currently professionally coach and support some fantastic CEOs, military officers and emerging executive leaders & there is no easy path/short cut to achieving success.

The standards & expectations you set as a leader will define the success of your team. As the leader you create the environment and the momentum to win in a tough environment.

The key drivers of leadership success;

  1. Growth Mindset. Experience and technical skills are critical but a growth mindset is the game changer. Leaders with a growth mindset ( as in high performance sport) believe they can learn and get better and better as a leader and as a team.
  2. Pick your team carefully. Most teams in business are long term so ensure those in key roles fit, have the desire to lift the game and are people you enjoy working and hanging out with. Surround yourself with good buggers.
  3. Diversity of thought rules. A range of different thinkers and backgrounds is a key to success. People who think differently and who are prepared to challenge your opinions and ideas can be confronting to many and a challenge to lead and align.
  4. Park the ego. If you want to achieve things the organisation has never done then you will have to be a better leader. More open to ideas, a driver of change, a facilitator of courageous conversations, better at alignment of your leaders within the team. Be prepared to adapt & iterate plans.
  5. Future focussed. A vision of the future drives inspiration, aligns decision making and provides a mandate for change ie doing what we do now with the structure and talent we have will not get us there.
  6. Expect more, far more. You have to be 20% better every year just to stay the same. Train together, have tough conversations, coach your people, get coaching yourself from professionals, seek mentors, hang out with peers, seek input from those who have done it, read, listen and apply things into real situations.
  7. Behaviours and meetings. Your ability to master the soft skills, to coach, to lead good meetings, to play with horizons and agendas are your best tools. Disrupting business as usual constantly in a good way is the role of a leader.
  8. Set and maintain high standards. This will at times be criticised and uncomfortable but those leaders who are courageous will get the respect of their teams by executing the important things that set the organisation up for future success.

Anyone can lead in good times but sadly not many can effectively lead and execute change in tough times.

How are you preparing for tough times ahead?

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.

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.

Leadership: The Science of Personality

Leadership is a key predictor of success and the impact leaders have on a group is not only significant but extremely consistent. Leadership is a “Group resource” and groups that are seeking to get ahead tend to want to have the best leaders in place to ensure that outcome. Personality plays a big part and I am often asked questions such as “Are leaders born or made”, “Do leaders have to be charismatic and inspiring to be successful.”

This video from Hogan Assessments is a very good resource and it answers many interesting questions as it explores the science behind personality and the impact this has on leaders. We use Hogan Assessments to support clients on our Executive Leadership Program and really value their research and expertise.