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.
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 do 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.
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.
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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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;
- 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.
- 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”).
- 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.
- 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
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:
- 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.
- Discuss results as a team and make results visible on a weekly basis
- 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.
- Train regularly as a team. Leverage the skills and learnings of the high achievers.
- Be consistent. A consequence of not hitting a goal should be that it is confronted each time with a courageous conversation.
- 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.
‘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;
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
In 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.
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.
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 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.
Leadership is a game changer, the “magic ingredient” that can take a group of individuals, shape them into a team and then inspire some incredible achievements. I am lucky enough to work with, support and spend time amongst some amazing leaders both within Advisory.Works, the NZ Army and our client portfolio that includes prominent CEO’s, Founders and Directors from leading brands/companies in NZ, Australia and the USA.
Change and disruption are now just part of our new normal and we see business leaders actively seeking the leadership skills that can give them the edge. The ability to enable a culture that talented employees want to be part of and the ability to change and iterate so as to consistently stay ahead of their competition. Leadership is a lonely place and the skills a leader needs are not really taught anywhere. Influencing the future leaders is something I am passionate about and why I’m actively involved with MBA & Masters programmes at the University of Canterbury.
Our Strategic Business Partner John Spence recently spoke at the University of Canterbury Executive Leader Programme as part of the “Thought Leadership Series” and covered many of the current and emerging leadership trends he is seeing in his work globally with high performing organisations. You can check out his presentation here;
Let me know your thoughts?