I caught up with John Spence today & we reflected on a busy two weeks since we last spoke. A lot has changed in both the USA & in our part of the world here in NZ & Australia. Whilst each country faces a different situation there are some common emerging patterns & challenges that leaders are facing across industries as they lean into the Covid-19 impact.
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?;
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
A short video with Top 50 Global Leadership Expert John Spence on how we each approach Executive Leadership Coaching. There are many approaches to coaching but without doubt if you get the right fit the impact it makes to your effectiveness as a leader is significant. John has been coaching for many years and his approach, although similar, is different to mine.
I learnt through my career as an Army Officer the importance of coaching, mentoring and guiding and was lucky enough to have some very good leaders invest their time with me. Years of practical leadership followed by some post graduate study at Cornell University in the High Performance Leadership space allowed us to develop our framework that we use to work with many to the top CEO’s, Sports leaders and emerging leaders in New Zealand, Australia and the USA.
We recently hosted business thought leader John Spence here in New Zealand and I took some time to ask him what he is seeing in the market place since we were together in November 2017. This short video outlines the discussion.
What are the trends & issues you are seeing as a Business leader?
I am looking forward to hosting my good friend and mentor John Spence (www.Johnspence.com)down under in August. we will be working with a number of clients in Australia & New Zealand as we prepare them to lead in tougher times.