Staying on Track: Leaders are Adapting Fast

There has never been a more exciting time to be leading people in business, in fact leading people in any organisation. 2020 has delivered more change in the last 7 months than we’ve seen in the last decade and there will a lot more to follow. Although most of the change is being driven by the global pandemic, most of the resulting trends are not new ones……they have simply been brought forward a number of years.

This has created a massive wave of change & combined with the other impacts on the economy (caused by close downs, stay at home orders, restrictions on travel & limited physical access to markets) is changing the way we execute business. Leaders are adapting in order to win in this new environment.

“We are in a flexible period of humanity”

I work as part of a Christchurch based team that works alongside prominent and experienced leaders of mainly New Zealand companies but also some Australian & US businesses. Many of those based in New Zealand are exporting globally &/or operating nationally. My own clients range across the agribusiness, science, manufacturing, health, processing, technology, education & both civil & vertical construction. I work mainly with Boards of Directors, CEO’s and their Executive teams. Most are established businesses with revenues ranging from $10m – $500m. We also support New Zealand Trade & Enterprise clients for expansion and Tourism NZ clients seeking to pivot their businesses.

Across the experienced leaders I work regularly with here are the trends;

  • There is an interesting tension between the need to survive as an organisation & the opportunity to thrive. Moral courage is increasingly important. There is a need to do the right thing, in line with the purpose and values of the organisation, at a time when there are also a lot of business continuity decisions.
  • Most CEO’s are cautiously optimistic about the immediate future but are concerned about the medium term (12 – 24 months). Many are asking “what does the latter part of 2021 look like?” & are actively seeking to make some assumptions as a basis for continued contingency planning.
  • There is more empathy & connectedness with employees & clients. That human connection is critical because leadership is a team sport. Many employees are facing challenges with family ie child care, spouses losing jobs, mental well being. There has been a need for more pastural care, more access to counselling & support services. This has made restructuring even more challenging than before as leaders balance the human capital needs with the businesses survival needs. Retaining clients has never been more critical.
  • There is a much lower tolerance of those who are non performers. Poor performance is being addressed very quickly. On the flip side those that are being hired are bringing a different set of skills, often more experience and higher levels of expertise & diversity. In many cases the skillsets within the staff are changing to meet the need of the new environment. In some cases new hires cover multiple disciplines.
  • Leaders are actively seeking peer groups, individual coaching and access to information about how others are dealing with similar issues. We have never seen more individuals seek leadership coaching from our company. One such General Manager summed it up when he said “I’ve been winging it for years but I don’t think I can do that any more. I need to get better as a leader to support change and to support my team.” Some seek coaching to ensure they deliver within their role and in doing so provide security for their ongoing future employment.
  • Bigger, bolder decisions are bing made faster. There is streamlining of structures, clarity on the composition of teams & overall there is more contingency planning.
  • Leaders are much more conscious of the things they need to do to remain effective & reduce stress. There is more emphasis on taking time off to rest, to be with family, to relax & many seek to have fun.
  • Many are too inwardly focussed and know they need prioritise time to look out into the market to scan for risk & opportunity. This can be challenging because there is less trust & confidence in the mainstream media. Many to validate what they are seeing in the media.
  • Business and leader succession is a big issue. Many of those in the latter stages of their careers are asking whether they have the energy or the skills to lead through a number of years of change and economic uncertainty. This is leading to some life changing decisions, a focus on more effective governance &/or the desire to exit.

“By all means run with the wildebeest but remember it is important to pause & look back occasionally to remind yourself what you are running from”

  • There is a huge awakening about the importance of having skilled people leaders in place. Leaders lead people while managers manage things or resources. The skills of the “generalist” leader have never been more highly valued & there is more investment in coaching, training, leader & team development.

These are both challenging and exciting times and as with any change there is a lot of opportunity presenting to those leaders and organisations who are reflecting, planning and who remain agile enough to take advantage of them.

What are you seeing in your leadership role?

Anyone Can Lead in Good Times

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Anyone can lead in good times, it’s when things are tough that you really see the best leaders in action. At present we are seeing decades worth of change occurring in days as the economic, social & health impacts of Covid-19 reshape whole industries, relationships between countries and the purchasing habits of people globally.

Without a doubt what is setting those businesses with a real future apart from those who are dead in the water are the people leading them. The strategic & proactive boards of directors, the inspiring CEO’s and the tight leadership teams supporting them to deliver change & business outcomes. The great news is that even in constant change some things never change but they are now even more important;

  • Inspiring a vision for the future: Leaders must be able to show a brightness of future by articulating a Vision for success. The road leading there might have pivots and turns but being able to quickly paint the future and to sell it to those you lead is the basis of inspiration. People want to be inspired & well lead. Keep the Purpose of the Company at the forefront of all you do and live the values.
  • Team first: Your team composition, sense of tightness, professional skills, engagement and focus will ensure your clients are well looked after. Your team always comes before clients. This means team meetings, one on ones and planning sessions are priority number one. Have fun, live the values, over communicate & ensure the tough conversations are on the table.
  • Being close to your clients: Know what is going on with them, what they need, what they value & how you can help them. Call them, video them, survey them and focus on their success and wellbeing. There has never been a time that this is more important. Solve their problems by knowing what keeps them awake at night.
  • Partnerships: Partner with the best suppliers & collaborate with competitors & other like minded organisations within your supply chain. Long term & win/win solutions that keep clients at the centre of all you do add massive value to your business ecosystem.
  • Plan, Plan & Plan: Contingency planning, involving the collective skills of your Board of Directors, Advisory Board, external Advisors and leadership team often and regularly keeps you ahead of the curve. Having had difficult discussions and having modelled financial scenarios allows a fast transition as the situation evolves. Bank the lessons learnt and constantly challenge the status quo – reimagine what is needed to deliver success in the future. Make good clear decisions & iterate them as the situation changes.
  • Ask for Help: Seek Support & Coaching: Any leader at the top of their game needs an eco-system of people around them whom they can ask advice, share reflections with and in many cases share ideas. Some of these are coaches you pay for but most are peers and people in your network whose advice you value. Hang out with them often and shoot the breeze. You can’t get it all right but with a good network it is hard to get the big stuff totally wrong.
  • Invest in yourself: Keep fit, sleep lots, hang out with family/friends & find time to read, watch videos and learn. Reflect in writing and revisit these ideas and reflections often as you plan.

In tough times those who can adapt, learn, inspire others and who take action early will have the resilience to succeed.

“Anyone can lead in good times” – You earn your money as a leader when times are tough.

 

Reflections on the Last Two weeks: USA & NZ/Australia

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.

What We are Seeing from CEO’s in Lockdown

He aha te kai a te rangatira? He kōrero, he kōrero, he kōrero. 

What is the food of the leader? It is knowledge. It is communication

It is an amazing time to be leading people and leading a business. Since lock down we have been working closely with CEO’s across New Zealand, several in Australia & also in the USA. Work at present consists of keeping our team connected whilst we work had to anticipate what our clients will need so as to stay ahead of them. We have just run a webinar & panel which was well attended entitled “Leading in Lockdown”and you can download the video here. There is also a useful panel discussion at the end of it.

Many times a day I am asked how others are dealing with it, what am I seeing across industries. This morning we spent some time as a team reflecting on what we are seeing from our clients across a range of industries. In no particular order here is what we are seeing so far;

  1. Some are reflecting that they are glad this has happened now and not two years ago, before they invested in their exec team and strategy. Their culture of action is holding them in good stead to quickly pivot.
  2. Having tight exec team and clarity (team rules/norms) on how they operate is valuable.
  3. All are wanting to know how others are coping and dealing with the issues. There has been massive value in sharing ideas and connecting people.
  4. CEO’s value someone to talk to and just bounce ideas. It is a lonely space & they want to make sure they have not missed anything.
  5. All have quickly responded to the crisis and now are re-orientating to the future and how they will lead through the restart. The restart scenarios are slowly becoming clear and teams are starting to work through and model what this might look like.
  6. Many reflect that they won’t go back to the way they operated. The world has changed and there is more understanding of virtual tools for meetings, learning, training and less travel. Even the tech dinosaurs have had to change & adapt!
  7. Some CEO’s reflect that this has been a great catalyst for advancing culture change & structuring work productivity in new ways. Prior to this there was resistance and now it just “roll up the sleeves & crack on”.
  8. No one has lead in this situation before despite what the “experts” may portray. Therefore there has been real value in reflecting on the Global Financial Crisis & for Canterbury based businesses the lessons learnt from the earthquakes. This has provided confidence and allowed them to understand their business is resilient and they can lead through it.
  9. Some industries are really doing it tough: Hospitality, accommodation, retail, travel etc. They are feeling for their staff and are working hard to find options.
  10. Some CEO’s who have previously delayed hard calls around succession or structures are now faced with some really tough situations and decisions what will impact a lot of their people and in some cases the viability of their business.
  11. Those leading are empathetic and genuinely seeking to look after people in the first instance. They want to do the right thing.
  12. Sharing good & timely practical information has been valued as they work through the challenges they face. Using video updates, live all of team calls, e-mails etc has been really valued by staff. Just checking in on them and their families means a lot.

It is a time to over communicate via the platforms available and to communicate directly with staff. As we now reorientate to the future there will be opportunities and different challenges. It is a time to lead and inspire those we lead but remember as a leader you make the impact. You must look after yourself, keep fit, worry only about what you can control, connect with family, friends and mentors often & have some fun.

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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.

Manhatten

I recently spent a week in Manhattan, New York & enjoyed learning from Google about how they attract, recruit & induct top talent. A fantastic environment. A minimum of 8 interviews up front over 12- 16 weeks & a 3 month induction.

#thatsculture