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.

2018: The Leadership Lessons I Learnt

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The Southern Alps of New Zealand: A great spot to reflect.

I loved 2018. It was an exciting, challenging year packed with fun, great work assignments, tough conversations, big decisions, awesome colleagues and the opportunity to work with business leaders who are at the top of their game.

Each year I ask the CEO’s I coach to reflect on what they have learnt, what they have achieved and to think ahead to the challenges they face.  I  also challenge myself to do the same. “Live what we teach, teach what we live” is a Core value after all.

It does take discipline to stop, take time out, reflect and to bank lessons learnt. If you don’t then you run the risk of not seeing exactly what has been achieved and will likely make the same mistakes or worse not leverage the hard earned lessons you have learnt.

A summary of key aspects of my year and some data (what gets measured gets managed).

Family: My daughter passed her NZCEA level 2 with Merit (whilst rowing, playing netball and Basketball), my son turned one & a wee baby daughter was born on the 28th of December 2018. We moved house, celebrated my parents 75th birthdays, family birthdays and sadly have had to both support ill family members and attend funerals of extended family and friends. That said I loved every minute of my family life.

Personal Fitness, health & well-being: Courtesy of my Fitbit I know I walked or ran 2555km, climbed 2234 flights of stairs, completed 182 work out periods consisting of 261.5 active hours and burnt a grand total of 1,252,315 calories! I took a month break at Christmas and 3 x one week breaks during the year to stay recharged, have time with family and to rest.

Work wise I took 56 flights, led 231 executive coaching sessions (one on one with Directors, Founders, CEO’s and C level executives in NZ, Australia & the USA), Chaired 24 Board meetings, took on a another chair role & taught on the University of Canterbury MBA course. I also led 57 Strategic planning sessions with companies and facilitated 31 customised Executive Leadership workshops. Clients were NZ wide, in Australia and in the USA & included work with Ngai Tahu, the Canterbury Rugby Football Union, tech companies, not for profit organisations and bigger companies than we have traditionally done business with.

In October I traded my shares in the national company & Greg & I purchased the Christchurch Practice & client accounts outright. In November I attended the Institute of Directors five day directors course and then subsequently completed the requirements to be a Chartered Member of the Institute. Through the year clients won a number of national and regional awards and it was a pleasure to attend the Champion Canterbury, NZ Export Awards and NZ High Tech Awards.

Our business partner John Spence (and his lovely wife Sheila) visited down under and we worked together to deliver some unique Leadership Development workshops. We continued to develop strategic partnerships with likeminded professionals as we grow our leadership and execution services offering.

In my role as Commanding Officer of 2/4 Battalion, Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment I completed 56 days service. The Battalion supported local communities, deployed people overseas on operations and commemorated ANZAC and Armistice centenary celebrations across the South Island. I qualified on the NZ Army fitness test and the rifle and pistol shooting tests which whilst standard qualifications, they require some focus and commitment to ensure I set the example as the Commanding Officer.

A busy and fulfilling year. So what did I learn?;

  1. Push for the break through, be patient and do the hard mahi (work). Good things take time & when you are working in the complex space of behavioural change and leadership there are no magic bullets or instant solutions. You have to be focussed, consistent and reflective. Consistently leading courageous conversations is the catalyst for the break through.
  2. Never underestimate the impact of caring. Play the long game – In a world of pace, shallow relationships & instant gratification it can be hard to make the important things happen. The stuff that needs a longer horizon. The rewards are great if you can play the long game, focus on the long term goal and invest in developing high trust relationships. Time & time again it pays dividends. Give back time, coach others, be genuinely interested in their success & the success of their organisations.
  3. Choose your mindset and control your reaction. You can’t control the action of others, markets, weather, government decision but you can control how you choose you react. Keep a cool head, never react immediately, reflect and have fun. It doesn’t matter how challenging a business situation is…..life carries on. Its not like a military operation after all!
  4. It gets easier to make tough decisions. Tough decisions = an easy life. In a world of populist leadership it will set you apart and allow you to maintain momentum. After all time is short and your most valuable asset. Use it wisely surrounded by good people who challenge you, who are on the same mission and who energise you. Avoid those that constantly take and drain energy whilst offering nothing in return. When making decisions it is important to have a framework and to reflect back on the outcomes.
  5. Keep Grounded. It is important to recharge, spend time with family and friends & to invest in your own education, development and personal interests. It keeps you connected to your purpose and on track.

2019 has started with some great opportunities & I’m looking forward to working hard to ensure it is a success.

A link to to the Lessons I learnt in 2017.

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

Our Philosophy on Executive Leadership Coaching

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.

Check out this short video.

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?