2020: The Leadership Lessons I Learnt

Landing back in CHCH.

2020 has been an amazing year really. As I reflect back on the first year of the new decade…..it really has been quite fascinating from a leadership point of view. We entered the year with the anticipation of a brand new decade and very early on the world changed forever in the face of Covid-19. Looking back it has been busy, full of challenge, uncertainty and yet one full of new opportunities.

The whole year has been a leadership case study. We have witnessed examples of excellent and completely incompetent leadership as governments and organisations have grappled with decisions, change and communication. Locally in New Zealand we leveraged the fact we are on an Island & able to shut the borders going hard in lockdown. Despite initial scepticism this has proven to be a game changing decision that our government took. In fact they got a second term largely based on this success.

“Sometimes life is going to hit you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith.” Steve Jobs

I feel it is important to reflect back over the year on achievements, failures and the valuable lessons learnt & I have published a summary of these over the last four years. As I prepare to take some time off I have looked back over 2020 and have published the highlights from my notes.

Personal Milestones

I got to work from home for 7 weeks and to spend time with my family, in particular hanging out with my wee kids (now 3.5 & 2). Our consulting practice remained busy & I really enjoyed being based at home.

Sadly my wife lost her father to cancer (fortunately his funeral was several weeks prior to shut down) & 2 of my elderly Uncles & an Aunty also passed away. One of these Uncles (Bruce Alexander) was a real mentor and a close friend throughout my life & I miss him a lot.

As a family we purchased our dream home on nearly an acre in an area we love in August. This was fortunately just before the property boom really started.

I managed to take my annual 7 weeks leave over the year and as family we did a 6 night camper van holiday down the West Coast of the South Island & over the Haast Pass into Central Otago. It reminded me of what a beautiful country we have!

We have supported my father through some serious health issues which at age 77 is an ongoing concern. It makes me realise that life is indeed precious and short.

According to my Apple watch I averaged 9092 steps per day, 38 mins of exercise per day, had a resting heart rate of 52, slept an average of 7 hours 15 mins per night, completed 193 workouts.

During the lock down I worked as part of the NZ Army response to Covid-19. Our men & women stepped up to do their bit as they always do in a time of need. On 11 July I handed over command of 2/4 Battalion, Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment after 3 years & 8 months as the Commanding Officer. This job was a bucket list role for me (not one many get to do in their career) and marked 28 years service in the NZ Army as an Infantry Officer (18 in the regular Army and a further 10 as an active reservist) & had required a 70-80 days per year time commitment. I am proud of what the unit achieved and the change that I got to lead within the Battalion. I also have a lot more spare time after 10 years serving 40 (+) days with the Army largely during weekends and breaks from my normal work.

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Officers & SNCO’s of 2/4 RNZIR

Business & Consulting Milestones

Despite a disrupted year & some concerning times, we significantly grew our business during 2020. We launched our own brand (Pivot & Pace which is our legal name) into the market, moved offices and iterated the way we deliver our services. We intentionally chose to change our structures to future proof against further shut downs & to respond to what our clients want (vs what we want).

This change challenged the mindset of everyone in the team (me included) to do things differently, to challenge the status quo & to look at new ways of delivering more client centric services as we continue to iterate & evolve our services. Our focus has very much remained about making an impact for those we work with. Helping them to get the break throughs they need to thrive (not to simply survive) in the current economic environment.

Client function.

As we launched our new brand we committed to an enduring agreement to collaborate with our good friends at Advisory.Works. This is an important relationship & the future of high values professional services is very much going to be about collaborating with like minded partner companies.

We retained all of our clients over the year (Less 2: One we decided to fire due to a misalignment on values & another in the retail sector who was sadly severely impacted by Covid-19). Over the year we also engaged a number of well known established companies/brands across NZ who, through referral & our networks, sought executive leadership coaching & strategic execution support. We continued to deliver services to our Australian clients and to a number in the USA working alongside John Spence.

We worked closely alongside New Zealand Trade & Enterprise supporting some of New Zealand’s best export companies on the “F700”, “Springboard” & regional business programmes. It has been very satisfying to be able to do this work & to make a difference.

We committed (starting Jan 2021) to being a sponsor of the Canterbury Branch of the Institute of Directors. This is a growing area of our practice as we support succession and the professionalisation of governance with many clients.

I enjoyed working as part of a number of Boards of Directors. I was chairing some of them but very much enjoyed working as part of a professional team supporting clever CEO’s to navigate the challenges of the market. I am proud of the achievements we made in these roles.I was MC for a University of Canterbury panel event about “Leadership in the Digital Age” in October. This focussed on some of the lessons learnt from the changes in 2020 around the use of digital platforms and dispersed leadership & teams.

This was our 6th year in a strategic partnership working with my good friend John Spence in the USA & of course his business changed considerably as Covid-19 impacted the US economy.This was my 16th year of self employment, my 5th teaching a Master class at the University of Canterbury on the MBA programme, I took 33 flights (normally annually over 60) & had only one overseas trip (Adelaide in Feb 2020).

Across the year I attended 51 Board meetings (chairing 32 of them), facilitated 22 contingency planning sessions, 36 Strategic planning workshops & 34 leadership development workshops for groups. I led 182 executive coaching sessions, coached 68 CEO’s, founders & senior executives, worked with 31 companies & actively supported the development of 15 Senior Leadership Teams. A busy year for sure.

Visiting the Leighs Construction team rebuilding the CHCH Arts Centre

The top 10 Valuable Leadership Lessons I Learnt in 2020;

  1. The most intentional leaders used the market disruption of Covid -19 to redefine how they deliver core business. It was a real opportunity to challenge and refine the way business is conducted. Sadly the vast majority in NZ businesses simply wanted to return to business as usual as soon as they could. Personally I think this was a missed opportunity but humans typically hate change & of course some industries couldn’t effect change. Whilst for a period as a country we have have a competitive advantage (in that we can operate normally), the rest of the world continues to innovate as the pandemic continues and I am concerned we run the risk of being left behind here in NZ. We certainly have an opportunity to innovate, to build better processes & methods of commerce, ones that move from commodities to highly valuable products & that also look after our environment, climate & invests in the people living & working in our country. We can really leverage our thriving tech industries.
  2. We have seen a decade of change in 6 months. It certainly felt like it. (This was reinforced by the findings of some recent McKinsey research). For those who were not actively tracking the trends this came as a big surprise. For the majority it created a tidal wave of change and overwhelm. Certainly most leaders found the edges of the amount of change they can cope with.
  3. Never underestimate the impact of being intentional in your leadership role and caring deeply about your people. Empathetic leaders enabling high levels of engagement have thrived in this period of constant change. Leadership is so much more than management. The best people leaders tend to be the best managers but sadly the best managers are not the best people leaders.
  4. The best people step up & lean in during a time of need. You see your culture in action as people respond to a crisis. Those leaders who created engagement and alignment have achieved a lot in terms of adapting to change. Those organisations who have not have really struggled to do anything other than survive.
  5. Those leaders who don’t lead themselves well, have struggled to cope over 2020. This year has highlighted the gaps in many leaders communication skills, leadership styles and delegation skills. To be agile & adaptable while leading a complex organisation requires a team of aligned professionals. You will never lead others well if you don’t lead yourself well so it very much starts there with self awareness.
  6. Many business owners simply don’t have the energy to lead through the next few years. They have been through recessions before, they have resources & they want out of their businesses & sadly for those whose business relies on them personally this creates a big challenge. For those under management are a lot of acquisitions & business sales occurring & that will occur over the coming year or two.
  7. In many cases governance has been found seriously lacking the needed horsepower. Some boards have not kept their management teams ahead of the change and are simply reactive, mediocre and tactical. I predict that many boards will have a high turnover in the next 6-12 months & that good directors (and in particular Chairs) will be highly sought after.
  8. Never before have we seen such a demand for leadership coaching. Investing in high performing professional governance, trusted advisers & intentionally building a network of aligned strategic partners creates confidence, resilience and peace of mind. Our main area of growth this year came from CEO’s, founders, directors and executives seeking support to become more effective and intentional leaders. Leading in constant change for long periods of time is not sustainable simply by doing the same thing for longer hours each day/week.
  9. Those who truly are close to and own the voice of their customer – win! Many businesses simply focussed inwards as they tried to address change. Those who stayed very close to their customers delivering what they needed have quickly evolved and adapted to deliver value.

So it has been a busy & fulfilling year. I am thankful to work as part of a great team of professionals & to be working for clever clients who are committed to constantly being better at what they do. I am also thankful to live in this part of the world & I really feel for those living in areas where Covid-19 brings daily uncertainty. I think 2021 will see a continuation of many of these changes and no doubt a few more challenges to navigate.

How have you reflected on the year? What will you do differently to thrive in constant change?

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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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.

Business & Leader Succession: Panel Discussion

48% of NZ businesses will need to navigate the challenge of Leader, Founder and possibly ownership succession. It is a global trend as baby boomers come out of their business that will peak around 2028 – 2030. It also presents a massive opportunity to get right. How do you create a culture of leadership development and succession planning? How do you start to get your head around the journey ahead. This panel video is worth watching as you start the conversation and the journey.

Data Wins Arguments: Less “Think” More “Know”

unnamedIn the busy world of business seniority tends to over rule in decisions that have no data. The more experienced and senior members of teams have more sway in decision making as they offer opinions and ideas and too often they are incorrect. They are assumptions based in history, bias or a lack of new thinking.

I work with senior teams all the time and see this pattern. The founder, CEO or “old heads” will refer back to what happened or didn’t happen in the past or what they think. This is often driven by the desire to avoid change because as humans we all hate having to get uncomfortable. New team members voice their views and ideas that are worth exploring but are simply dismissed and at its worst this creates a culture that resists change. It creates a significant risk that the organisation will be irrelevant in the near future.

At its worst countless hours are spent talking about opinions as if they are facts. One of the lessons I have learnt is that “Data wins Arguments”. Data takes the discussion from “I think” to one of “Let me show you”. It shifts the conversation to one that will get a good solid outcome. It takes emotion and bias out of the equation. It leads to data driven and robust business decisions. The role of a leader is to disrupt business as usual in a good way so that the company adapts and thrives in the future. Data can create a huge mandate for change by exposing current & future reality.

This is the impact of KPI’s, financial trend graphs, research, analysis of patterns and numbers. A simple exercise of graphing the monthly, year to date and lifetime revenues of your top 20 clients and having your team sit together and discuss what they see can have a huge aligning effect and can completely shift thinking, perceptions and provides clarity of the actual reality.

This video is worth watching as it outlines just how wrong we get it if we don’t seek data about what media shows us. The gap can be huge and in fact chimpanzees can be more accurate if we don’t look for the numbers and validate our perceptions.

High performance leaders go well beyond emotion, perception. They are aware of the impact of data and seek it to get better business decisions.

Advisory.Works in Action

Each week we are delivering valuable services as true trusted Advisors throughout New Zealand, Australia and the USA to High Performance Businesses and Executive Leaders looking to Execute, simplify their business and to increase their influence as professional leaders. A snapshot of the team in action.

Leader of the Future

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.

Photo by: Visual Culture Ltd (www.visualculture.co)

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?