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.

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

Leadership: The Science of Personality

Leadership is a key predictor of success and the impact leaders have on a group is not only significant but extremely consistent. Leadership is a “Group resource” and groups that are seeking to get ahead tend to want to have the best leaders in place to ensure that outcome. Personality plays a big part and I am often asked questions such as “Are leaders born or made”, “Do leaders have to be charismatic and inspiring to be successful.”

This video from Hogan Assessments is a very good resource and it answers many interesting questions as it explores the science behind personality and the impact this has on leaders. We use Hogan Assessments to support clients on our Executive Leadership Program and really value their research and expertise.

2 Minutes on Strategic Execution

Recently I took part in a leadership panel with three other CEO’s. This is a short clip taken from the wider panel video (the link is attached).

The Leadership panel was held recently in Christchurch for a large group of CEO’s, their leadership teams and business leaders. The other CEO panel members were Shaun Maloney of ARANZ Geo, Lincoln Booth of Cookietime, Keith Jessop of EMDA.

You can link to the longer panel video here.

2 Minutes with ARANZ Geo CEO Shaun Maloney

Shaun Maloney is the CEO of ARANZ Geo, a finalist Company at the recent New Zealand High Tech Awards in Auckland. Shaun is a recipient of the Prime Ministers Leadership Award and has been a client of Advisory.Works for a number of years as his Company grows and scales. Here is a 2 minute video with him outlining why he works with our company in the Strategic Execution and Executive Leader Development areas.

2 Minutes Hanging Out with John Spence

I caught up with my good mate John Spence in Auckland this week. John was over doing a bit of work with our company and speaking at a conference. While he was here he appeared on the Am Breakfast show speaking about whether NZ can compete on the global tech stage. I spoke with him on Tuesday in this short video.

The Team in Action.

Every day and every week our team of clever leaders are lucky enough to influence and support some iconic brands and high performance leaders. As a premium brand focussed on making a significant impact we work with selected organisations across New Zealand, Australia and the USA. This video outlines some of our recent work and I am proud to lead it.

“Male, Pale & Stale”: The Diversity Challenge

Chances are your company will be led by a group of middle aged men with 30 + years of experience. The vast majority of established companies tend to be. Most won’t use or understand digital tools and they will struggle to understand why and how social media can used to grow their brand, sales and networks. They will be quite set in their ways, used to thinking and doing things in a certain way and change, new innovative ways of operating and motivating others will seem very inconvenient. Lets just say they won’t embrace change!

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Don’t for a minute think that I am not advocating the importance of experience (it is very valuable) but if this is all you have chances are you are being or are about to be taken out by an up and coming company that embraces diversity of thinking.

I work with a diverse range of established companies across many industry’s and it staggers me the amount of linear “group think” that needs to be disrupted. That age old culture killing quote “Thats the way we have always done it” which extrapolated out leads to “we get the same results….over and over again” is alive and well.

Working with diverse Boards, reading the latest leadership research, attending Singularity University, Institute of Director training and teaching young leaders at both the University of Florida & Canterbury, I know that the inclusion of young smart people of various genders, ethnicity and backgrounds will lead to better ideas, execution and outcomes. So what can you do to rid yourself of the “Male, Pale & Stale” brigade? A few ideas;

  • Disrupt your own business as usual in a good way by including younger people in key projects and planning sessions. Challenge thinking, have robust conversations and debate.
  • Bring externals into your team to change dynamics and conversations. Clients, consultants, students, people from outside the industry. This will lead to different outcomes.
  • Find talented young people who can reverse mentor by teaching older, experienced leaders their way of thinking and why they might think the way they do. Get them to share the tools they use and why they believe what they believe.
  • Ensure your next hires bring new ways of thinking and working to the organisation. Recruit for it, have a robust process to ensure you don’t bring on yet another clone who believes what you believe is the only approach.
  • Make ongoing education around change, technology and leadership a major part of the culture of your organisation and senior leadership team. Build on the formal education of the 1990s with ongoing learning, skills training and frameworks.
  • Get closer to your clients. If they are increasingly diverse and changing then you also need to be as a company and team to adapt and succeed in the future.
  • Be wary of the new data driven, technology savvy start up. They can really hurt you and will be a common & increasing threat over the next few years. A sobering message delivered by Singularity University was “Your biggest competitor in 2025 will be a start up company in 2024.”

Stay nimble. Ensure you lead your organisation to change adapt and pivot to ensure it thrives in the future.