Our company culture is a critical success factor in our business. We took some time out to articulate what our culture is and how we approach our work as a team.
Governance is an important component of any business. All companies have directors but not all place an emphasis on its importance nor the value it can add. It is a key part of succession (allowing owners the transition or sell), accessing external funding, maximising value to shareholders and reduces business risk as the organisation navigates change or challenge. On top of that it supports talented CEO’s to thrive and reach their potential.
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.
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 do 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.
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;
- 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.
- 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”).
- 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.
- 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.
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;
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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;
We believe that in order to thrive (not just survive….thrive) in the future and an ever changing business environment, Leaders (and Businesses) need to constantly adapt, change, iterate and to lead their people with certainty.
This mission involves working with Business owners, Board Chairs and CEO’s who are looking to invest in their own leadership skills, grow other leaders & develop a clear strategic execution plan which they can execute continuously. The latter “Execution” piece is the important bit.
This is about getting things done, prioritising the important things over the urgent (disrupting business as usual in a good way) and leading behavioural change. This is getting the people in the business to change and do different things & sadly our world is full of people with great ideas but not people who can bring these ideas to life practically.
This short video outlines some of the work we do with long term clients as we support them to lead in change, succession and execution.
The Army is a culture of history, rituals, traditions and story telling. Soldiers tell stories of hardship, often using humour as a medium. Taking the piss out of one another, laughing when things get tough, keeping it real and connecting with each other. One of the things I loved about being a professional soldier and now as a Battalion Commander in the Army reserve is the camaraderie of being part of an Infantry unit. Like minded people, prepared to serve connected by common purpose, experience and at times hardship, overseas and in harms way.
In fact we as humans are genetically hardwired to tell stories. In ancient times in all cultures the art of storytelling was the the “google” of the time. This was how methodology, family history and lessons learnt were passed on to the next generation. It was human connection, the entertainment of the time, education of the time and the essence of tribe.
In the modern world this lives on in movies, youtube, games, the entertainment industry, book etc. In many ways things have not changed even if the methods of delivery might have. As a leadership tool the ability to connect people through stories is a skill that greatly enhances effectiveness. Telling a story is a great way to teach, inspire, influence and connect. The best CEO’s and leaders I know are the best storytellers. I love Tom Peters analogy “Manage by storying about”.
Here is 2 mins on the subject from a recent leadership panel I took part in;
A valuable video full of some valuable ideas on Strategic Planning and Strategic Execution from Business thought Leaders and Leadership expert John Spence.
Are you slaying dragons?
We use this video on our Executive Leadership Program. It nicely tells the story of the soft (EQ) skills that are so important as a modern business leader. In fact to move beyond transactional type management and to develop as a leader who can adapt, flex and grow a business in todays disruptive environment these are the skills to develop.
It constantly amazes me how many professional leaders don’t invest in their own ongoing professional development. Those who do achieve a major competitive, they consistently out perform competitors by having a highly engaged confident team delivering exactly what clients need. They pivot through disciplined execution to stay ahead and they are highly profitable.
They have clarity.
How do the top performing teams in the world stay at the top of their game? Sports teams, racing teams, leading brands, innovative teams, military teams and many others? What do leaders at the top of their game do to stay at the top? What does this mean for business?
Right now things in business are going pretty well. There is uncertainty in the medium and longer term as to what is going to happen in money markets, commodity markets, the Chinese/US or EU economies. There is a lot of technology disruption starting to show up on the fringes of even the least tech savvy industries. Change is coming and whether it is disruption, a softening economy, a total global meltdown or even a major political event we will all need to navigate it.
The RESULTS Group work with good companies and proactive leaders who want to get better at what they do. Our clients tend to be the long term brands that over decades have performed exceptionally well. They are actively seeking to stay at the top of their game.
In the next 5-10 years all of us leading (me included) are going to face more change than the world has seen in the last century. It will be fast, ongoing and relentless and will be an exciting and challenging time to lead. Some commentators say we are in year 2 of a 35 year technology disruption. How true is this and how will it affect our own business is open to interpretation but we are all starting to see the wave of change.
To stay at the top in any professional environment there is a need to develop a culture of continuous learning. If we look at the All Blacks (the most successful global high performance professional sports team/brand with a winning record of 86%, two back to back world cups & recently voted the best team in the world across all codes). In James Kerr’s book “Legacy: What the All Blacks can teach us about the business of life” you will see Chapter 2 is entitled “Adapt”. In essence the commentary is all around “When you are at the top of your game, change your game.” This is about changing consciously before you need to, in order to stay ahead of the competition and to remain the best of the best. To keep an edge or a sustainable point of difference.
I like to refer to the term “pivoting”. I saw this in action during some work I recently did at the University of Florida, assessing entrepreneurial engineering teams and the projects they were completing for private business. They were presenting what they had achieved and were seeking feedback so they could iterate and improve their project. They were seeking a “pivot” through good insights and application of ideas.
The best leaders and companies we work with are already pivoting at a time when they are performing well. They know through experience that the good times won’t last. To stay ahead of their competition and to navigate change they must understand what success continues to look like. How do they do this?
Those CEO’s proactively keeping ahead of the crowd prioritise the following;
- They invest in their own development and leadership skills so they can lead smart innovative people in a collaborative way.
- They spend time in strategic and operational planning with their teams, senior leadership teams and functional teams. They continuously define the priorities and focus of action.
- Actively build an aligned plan to execute continuous change and constantly reflect on it, revise it and iterate it to make it better. They empower their people to lead parts for the execution.
- Focus on execution and getting the important things done.
- Seek the best advice on technology disruption, the economy, competitors, new entrants and possible substitute products and services.
- Stay very close to their clients and know what they value, expect and want improved. They build collaborative and close relationships through many channels including social media.
- Invest in leadership development (and education) and focus on increasing staff engagement to build resilience and an ownership mentality. This aids the change process and brings innovative and collaborative thinking to the fore.
- Focus on the numbers. What gets measured can be managed.
- Actively disrupt the companies “business as usual” in a positive way so as to build capacity and capability in a continuous way. This allows the organisation and the team to scale up in a long term sustainable way.
- Make the tough decisions early.
- Learn the lessons of previous economic downturns and change projects so as to ensure the same mistakes are not made again, and
- Recognise success and continue to have fun along the journey.
This all sounds simple (and it is) but it is not easy. It takes focus, good strong proactive leaders committed to ensuring the important things happen and not just the urgent things of modern business. It is about going beyond reactive firefighting and consciously picking & executing the plan for/route to success.
Staying at the top of your game is about changing before you are forced to change. This means having a good team committed to getting incrementally better at what they do.
It is about confidence and momentum.
Just start the journey.