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.

2017: The Leadership Lessons I learnt

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Life is a journey and you have to stop every now and then, get off the track and reflect. It is essential to pause and reflect on what has been achieved, the patterns you see, the lessons you have learnt and what you need to change as you start another busy year. 2017 for me was a full on year. A CEO role (stepping down on 1 December 17 after 5 years, the last 3 of which has seen 30% growth in the business year on year), my first year as a Battalion Commander in the Reserve of the NZ Army, Chairman of a growing global tech company that was a finalist in the NZ High Tech Awards and working alongside & supporting some very high performing client CEO’s and their companies.

A year in which I took took 62 flights, hired and fired some key staff and exited a number of clients, supported clients across NZ, Australia and the USA, spoke at Universities, funerals & business events and most significantly had a baby son born in June bringing a lot of joy to our growing family. I also took my annual 7 weeks off across the year to recharge the most important break being a month over Christmas.

I tracked some other data too. On average I slept 7 hours a night, walked & ran 2555km, did 156 work outs (weights, running, cycling or boxing), climbed 4380 flights of stairs……the joys of a Fitbit keeping the data.

2017 was another year of full on learning as I worked with good companies as they adapted, grew and executed in the increasingly complex business environment. I supported and coached CEO’s and executive teams from public, listed and privately held companies. Revenues ranged from $3m p.a. through the $14bn p.a. Tech companies (mining, gaming, AI/OI, motor sport), professional sport entities, Army leadership teams & Infantry Combat teams, professional services companies (legal, psychology, accounting & finance, survey, software implementation, banking), manufacturing and distribution companies, commercial and residential building companies, civil construction and sub contracting companies, insurance, retail, medical, science, large scale agribusiness…….the list goes on.

So what did I learn as a leader? Good question and here are my reflections;

  1. There is a time to walk away. I take 100% accountability for my actions and 0% for those of others. If you coach, mentor, encourage, teach, collaborate, discuss, seek buy in, plan, agree……and they still don’t change their actions you have to be the change. Its never easy but some people simply can’t, won’t and don’t change.
  2. If its messy keep going. Clarity will prevail, give it time, take time to reflect on the patterns and what you are seeing. Often when you are leading change it is really messy when you are in it. Clarity will come if you create the space to reflect.
  3. Give your time. The most valuable thing you can give someone is your time. Cast a big shadow. Ensure people value it but invest in people, care, play the long game and go the extra mile for good people. They will give back when you need a hand, advice or time.
  4. The power of networking. The most valuable asset you have are your friends and your network of people you know & trust. Hang out more, ask questions, support them, interact, go to events that interest you, learn lots. My network is absolute gold and allows me to seek information, referrals and help.
  5. Ask for Help. One of the goals I set myself early in 2017 was to ask for help more, to let others step up, to seek feedback and advice more. It has paid huge dividends in learning, reduced work load and it actually the best way to engage your team and get out of their way. It is hard to let others step up but persevere and free up your time. Top leaders create other leaders rather than followers.
  6. Look at what people do. I always look at what people do rather than what they say. As a leader and as a coach this is where the gold is. The gap between what they say and what they do. The magic happens if you can close that gap. Also you see who people really are and what they care about by looking at what they do. Be tough and hold people accountable for their actions because people want to be led well and to be given a chance to be better at what they do.
  7. Get rid of the takers. As the African proverb says “If you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far go together.” Some people take and never give and they play a short game continuously. Get rid of those who simply set out to get ahead themselves. They are not team players and the world operates best with people who can play in a team. In fact these are the people who continue to ask advice and never take it.
  8. Don’t take advice from those who don’t inspire you. Inspiration tends to be about the future rather than the past or the present. Get advice from pragmatic, forward thinking, positive people. Everyone has an opinion so make sure the advice is balanced between data & real life experience. Data wins arguments and shifts both conversations & thinking.
  9. Clever people just need gentle reminding. More often than not people know the answer and they just need to be reminded of what they need to do or should do. Typically there is no substitute for hard work, tough conversations and having the grit and motivation to push forward when things are tough.
  10. The way you do things is what matters. The devil is in the detail i.e. its not what you do but how you do it. Take action, try new things, iterate, measure. Engage people, ask lots of questions, get people to reflect and take them on the journey with you. The world is full of people with great ideas but sadly very few can make shit happen. Value the leaders, the people of action, the doers, those who make mistakes trying new ways.

2018 for me is one of creating new opportunities to be involved in governance, succession and executive leadership coaching. I believe that in order to thrive in the future you have to be 20% better every year and to be passionate about what you do and why you do it. CEO’s are often isolated and they need good solid support from people who have experience and who can introduce them to a network of like minded leaders.

What did you learn in 2017?

Other posts I have written;

Reflection: The secret skill of high performance leaders

Fight to win: Business Lessons from the Army

Are your leaders male, pale and stale?

2 Mins on my approach to Executive Leadership Coaching

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.

Leadership Lessons: The 7 Big Leadership Lessons learnt in 2013

I had a great break over Christmas and the New Year choosing to holiday in Western Australia. Hot weather, sun, swimming, wine tours and time with family and friends. Anyone in a leadership role needs time out to recharge (Link here for “Business Leaders need time out) so as to stop, pause, reflect, to do other things and most importantly to plan and refocus on what is coming up.

Last year I wrote about my 5 big Leadership lessons of 2012 (Link here) It was well read and I had a lot of comments back from others reflecting on what they had learnt.

Just prior to Christmas I asked over 200 CEO’s what they had learnt in 2013 and published the summary (link here) and I’m sure this will interest you.

Here are the 7 big leadership lessons that I personally learnt as a CEO, from working closely with other CEO’s and from leading a Reserve Army Infantry Company;

1. You are not in the role to make friends. When you are making consistent, ongoing business decisions there is a need for tough calls at times. It is impossible to please everyone and it is important that the best decision is made with the best information at the time. It is important to set expectations, have the tough conversations, to be consistent with people and to do what is needed for the business. If you communicate, plan, are transparent, guide, support and develop your people then they will respect you but ultimately you are not there to be their friend. You are there to lead. Respect and friendship follow once trust is established.Image

2. Spend more time in planning. I led a lot of change in 2013. Change in clients businesses, change within ours and change within the Army. There were many times that I had to make myself plan in more detail. There were many times I had to push those I was leading and working with to spend more time in planning. Time in planning is seldom wasted. Plan, plan, plan, delegate, plan. Even when the execution phase begins and the plan changes, the fact you did some planning will help in many ways to change the plan if needed.

3. Leadership is a lonely place. There were many times that I felt the need to talk to peers. Peers at the CEO level can be hard to find. 2013 was a year I learnt the true value of mentors, peers and hanging out with like minded people. In fact 2013 was a year it dawned on me just how big the need is for more formal peer groups. This year I plan to form a CEO leadership group to support both my own growth and the growth of others working in this space. Find smart people who want to see you succeed and ask for their support, help, advice or simply hang out with them.

4. Be completely comfortable in your own skin. I think authenticity is an absolute essential element of leadership. Being open, transparent, frank, including others in planning, decision making and problem solving makes things easier. It is easier to take others on the journey with you and it builds a high performance culture. I observe many leaders who like to keep a gap between their work life and personal life. I feel that if you are genuine and authentic then there is no gap. That does not mean you should not have privacy, rather I mean ‘be truly comfortable in your own skin.” Be aware of your own strengths and weaknesses, be comfortable with them and most importantly play to your strengths. Be who you truly are and lead yourself well in the first instance!

5. Be tough on people. Be brave on the people stuff. Be clear in your expectations, lead the way, guide, support and mentor but be consistently tough on your team. Be tough on standards, performance, hitting agreed targets and KPI’s. People need toughness to get the best out of them. Doing their job for them or accepting poor performance not only lets those individuals down but it means the A Players in your team will lose respect for you as a leader and motivation in their work. It is the number one culture killer.

6. The importance of your own leadership framework. As a professional CEO (leader) you must be clear in your framework of planning, meetings, mentoring, communicating & leading through other clever people. It should be possible to drop any professional CEO into any organisation and for that individual to lead it. Take the time to identify and formalise your framework and constantly review, refine and improve it. High performance leaders commit to ongoing training, coaching, mentoring and a life of learning.

7. My heroes are people who get stuff done. I am not into movie stars or celebrities. Rather I respect and enjoy learning from leaders who make stuff happen, people who are brave enough to risk, experience and overcome failure to reach the top of their field. The likes of Mandela, Churchill, Hillary, Buzz Aldrin. I enjoyed reading a book over the break about Air NZ pilot and mountaineer Mike Allsop. I find they are genuine, tell of the fear, effort and lessons learnt and it is possible to learn something from each of them.

So as we line up 2014 as a busy year in business I think it is important for any leader to reflect on what they have learnt and to write them down. Discuss them with your team, peers or family. What did they learn? How can you build on your lessons learnt?

I’m looking forward to the year ahead and the opportunities and challenges that are already on the horizon. How is 2014 looking for you? What are you doing to grow yourself as a leader and in turn those you lead?