I am lucky enough to guest lecture at the University of Canterbury at the School of Business and Law. Supporting Masters level and MBA students with access to real life business opportunities and thinking is something I am passionate about. In July I introduced my good friend John Spence (Find out more about Top 100 Business Thought Leader John Spence here) to UC to speak about “Leading in Constant Change”. Here is his presentation.
20 February 2011 (5 years ago) at just after 1pm was one that shook is all, a major earthquake. Our office building evacuated & we headed for home. That in itself was going to be challenge with a full central city evacuation under way & bridges out. Short Texts came through to tell me my immediate family were alive & safe. My brothers house was hit by rocks I knew & Dad was in it…..but just how bad things were was to later be a bit of a shock.
I had left the Army in 2004 but was in the throes of rejoining the Army Reserve.
A call from the XO of the Battalion (the only one to come through in a jammed cell network) redirected me to Army duty. I parked my car and proceeded from Sydenham to the city centre. In my office attire I walked through liquefaction and what was a scene out of a movie. It was 1.30pm.
I walked past a building lying across a lane of Montreal st, stopped to hug a distraught older woman with half a hair dye and foils in. Distraught from watching a bus get crushed she was walking to Oxford 50km away crying.
I overheard builders discussing how they should secure their high rise site and get home.
My task from the Army was to find the Mayor, provide the NZ Defence emergency cell numbers and to proceed to the Civil Defence bunker on Kilmore st. Later I was to discover my wife’s bravery in getting Caetana from school amongst collapsing cliffs and then helping Dad who was trapped in my brothers house that was destroyed by rocks.
The mayors staff had been evacuated after an aftershock from the new gallery building. I passed on the info to Bob Parker & his Ops Manager, gathered a couple of soldiers who were there looking to help and pushed on to find the civil defence bunker, my next task was to fill in as a situation/operations officer until a regular Infantry officer could get in from Burnham. Little did I know it would take many hours for him to arrive.
My first job back in Army service for 7 years.
The bunker was hard to find in the chaos, I passed through the emergency aid station in Cramner square and through many police check points.
In the bunker I found my old Army boss, Baden Ewart in command. Baden was working in the medical world and was stepping up given that the civil defence staff were in Wellington the day of the quake.
I sat in on the briefing of the current situation and it was apparent that a lot of people were hurt and killed. Early sky TV reports showed the CTV and PGG building collapses and I could hear the fire and police radio traffic spelling out the terrible challenges they faced.
Andrew Howe was the ops officer (an ex army friend and colleague). I was put in an office with the fire liaison officer. All the Army assets were in Timaru in preparation for a large defence exercise and by chance HMNZS Canterbury had docked at Lyttelton minutes prior to the big quake. It was full of armoured and military vehicles and soldiers that would help.
My role was to link between the civil defence command post and the Army command post in Burnham and to support military flights bringing high risk search teams, generators, water treatment units and medical assets into the city. We were coordinating fuel and power for the fire and police services to keep operating and prioritising transport heavy lift and military communications assets.
40 mins into it someone came into the command post and announced that it looked like the Copthorne Hotel might collapse on the bunker. With ongoing large aftershocks hammering the city it was possible although a bit dramatic I thought. Baden said “Langston go out and check that”. So out I went and looked at a 12 story building leaning over and definitely looking like a potential collapse.
My report ” I’m no engineer Baden but it’s not looking flash”. Someone did mention that the bunker was designed to withstand a building collapsing on it but then who would dig us out. WTF?
And so through the shock and chaos a lot of good people worked to make sense of it and to make a difference.
At a little after 7pm I was relieved by an Infantry Captain (he had to park in Riccarton and find the bunker) and walked the 7km around the cordon to my car in Sydenham. A full cordon was in place and with no ID the police made me go the long way through the park and around the 4 avenues. Our office was in the cordon (for 6 weeks) and I arrived at my car covered in mud.
My trip home to Sumner paused at my brothers place where I surveyed the damage, the rocks on his house, the tunnel my dad escaped the 2nd floor from and the boat that had caught fire. Ed was smiling but shaken. My family had tents on the lawn and Dad was quite badly shocked after his experience. We settled into a night of aftershocks, sleeping on the lounger floor and the start of months without water, sewerage or power.
I will always remember that day, just how surreal it all was and the part we all played in a difficult situation and uncertain environment.
It was a fitting baptism back into our Army and Months later I received an unexpected letter of commendation from the Brigade commander thanking me for my work that day. Many people did what needed to be done and I was proud to play a small part for the NZ Army.
I never did get around to claiming that first day of army pay (it didn’t seem right) but it was worth it for the adventure & I’ll chalk it up as a donation!
……. And so we remember.
Some of my pictures of that day are attached. We were one of the lucky families that all survived although we were all affected by those who did not.
There is a lot of research that shows the best lessons are learnt through experience and from failure. Failures can be big and small ranging. One of the leaders I admire is Winston Churchill. I have read so much of his writing and the various biographies and speeches. He had some of the most fantastic failures and also some biggest successes. His early years were a disaster and yet he went on to lead Britain and the Commonwealth to victory over Germany in the second world war. He adapted, reflected and used what he had learnt and the resulting resilience he built.
Most long serving Business Owners and CEO’s have made some big mistakes over their career. Economic changes, currency fluctuations, competitor moves, technology changes have taken most close to the brink at some stage and we add to that the complexity of some bad decisions, no decisions or not changing fast enough. In fact some would say if you haven’t pushed things a bit then you are not even close to peak performance.
The ability to see mistakes early comes from that skill of being able to reflect. As a leader at any level you need to consciously build on that “gut feel” to really understand and reflect on what you are seeing; in the work place, after a meeting, in a project review, after a client discussion, during a Strategic Execution review etc. So often the skills a high performing senior leader seeks to intentionally develop is that ability to self reflect, to be able to change a bad situation, a failing plan or iterate on an initial decision. To be able to understand the impact he or she is having, needs to have and who/what needs to be influenced to achieve success. This allows a Company to move faster and to build on performance.
The ability to understand and interpret (make a professional judgement) what you are seeing, validate it by seeking feedback in many ways and to constantly learn lessons is a very valuable skill. It is especially challenging when it is “cultural/the people” stuff we are needing to interpret especially to support change. I enjoy coaching these skills and you never stop learning from others.
So some of the best leaders also have the best battle scars and the best stories to tell about the lessons they have learnt. They have adapted and overcome big challenges. The ability to tell the story, to reflect on what happened and why and how they have applied the lessons they have learnt is where the true gold lies. In fact the CEO Leadership Round Table Groups I chair in Auckland and Christchurch are based around current Executive leaders telling their personal leadership journey and generating discussion around their reflections.
In fact having to speak about your personal journey forces a significant amount of self reflection as you articulate who you are (background & history) and why you have taken the journey you have as a leader. The lessons learnt and the things they got wrong are where the gold is and it gives us the personal connection and insights.
Try writing your own story.
If you need some inspiration consider being a guest at one of our Business Round Table Breakfasts and hear some great stories.
In our work with Business Leaders change is inevitably on their radar. Whether it is change due to market conditions, competitor moves or the increasing realisation of just how fast & how much technology is disrupting the status quo. Often too succession is a challenge and at a time when the the tempo of change is increasing owners of businesses are looking at how they get out. Do they sell it or retain it under management. Could they? should they?
A business is not truly valuable until it is at stage that it is not reliant upon the owner/s. If key parts of the business have a founder who is a critical success factor either working in a day to day Management role or as the main member of the Board of Directors then it becomes challenging to sell & is a barrier to maximising the value if is to be sold. Often the owner/s & founders are in the way of the business moving to the next level. Some common reasons for this;
An ego that won’t allow others to lead in different ways. This prevents the business getting a different outcome.
Doing the same things over and over again……and guaranteeing the that same outcome.
Getting good advice from their Board, trusted advisors and their management team…….and largely ignoring it.
Getting involved at all levels of the business (Governance, Management level & at line manager level) despite paying good people to do own it. This shuts innovation down, causes frustration, confusion & disengages good talented staff.
Continuing to make decisions based on gut feeling rather than good Key Indicators based on data & interpretation.
A lack of planning (Strategic, Operational and contingency planning). This creates a company that is continually reactive rather than proactive & one that has a short term focus.
Not addressing the big elephants in the room. Missed opportunity, poor performance, lack of direction, succession planning are all left out of discussions creating speculation, ambiguity and mediocrity.
No clear roles and performance measures which allows the business to be an “average” performer.
Ignoring systems & processes that have been introduced to streamline Finance, Operations, Sales and to allow the business to scale through consistency.
Assuming that the Voice of the Customer of the future will be the same as it has in the past and never seeking real feedback.
A lack of innovative thinking, ideas and development leads to ageing & mediocre products, services & Intellectual Property.
Lack of investment into the future leaders of the company through training, mentoring and coaching. This adds to the succession problem & dooms the company to always having to seek senior leaders from outside the company.
Create friction within the team that actively takes the focus of core business. The modern business environment is complex enough without fighting those who are on your side.
Without doubt, as a Business owner it can be very hard to recognise the issues that need to be addresses and to then start the process of getting out of the way. In fact it often does not begin until a crisis looms (such as a health scare, a major disruption to the industry, a change in the economic environment, a new competitor entering the market or the loss of a key client etc). Generally what has got the business to its current point in time will not get it to where it needs to go in the future.
The number businesses seeking to break this cycle is truly staggering & it is not for lack of understanding of the need to change. The barrier is actually “taking the action” (actually doing something about it) and being brave enough to actually get out of the way of the business and to let others lead the business to the next level.
It is not until Business Owners understand what needs to happen and start to actively get out of the way of their own business & talented staff that the magic begins to happen.
It seems everyone has a story to tell about this. They have either been that person who needed to get out of the way, or worked for them, or have been involved with someone who needs to.
Dave Winsborough spoke in Christchurch this morning about why “Nice Guys Come Last”. Dave was speaking to a group of 26 CEO’s & High Performance Leaders that I host in Christchurch. The purpose of the group is to provide a peer group for CEO’s which includes a number who travel from Wellington and Auckland.
Dave is a leadership expert and his company runs a number of large Corporate and Government Department Leadership Frameworks. His topic today was challenging us around the impact good CEO’s can have on a Company and explaining why New Zealand organisations do not go on (generally) to be large Global Players. I learnt a lot.
It was a good morning and generated a lot of discussion and interaction.
Sadly the term “busy” has indeed become an almost acceptable excuse for not doing important things in your life. Reality is it is just an excuse. When I am working with a CEO and hear they are too busy to coach a manager, to get out in the field and see what their team is actually doing, to take a holiday or any of the other myriad of excuses it really it makes me explore why. I usually find one or a number of the following apply;
Their role is not clear,
They don’t undertand the importance of doing key parts of the leaders role,
They don’t plan enough (or at all),
The don’t prioritise,
They don’t set clear goals,
They don’t delegate effectively,
They don’t trust their team enough to delegate,
They don’t have a clear personal leadership framework that allows them to lead,
They don’t understand that burning out (from taking no time off) is not responsible, or
They don’t balance work, family and personal needs.
The reality is a leader has to balance a lot of things and make time for the important things that sustain them and their businesses. Its not a rehearsal, stop with being “busy” and get on with the important stuff. That includes time off to recharge and time out with family and friends.