CEOs discuss what it takes to get to the top

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Michelle Baillie

Michelle Baillie

Carmel Strange

Carmel Strange

Leonard Gardner

Leonard Gardner

Richard Briggs

Richard Briggs

Four well-respected Waikato leaders formed a panel to describe their experiences and to discuss the attributes that make a good chief executive.

The ability to influence others, self awareness, patience and determination to challenge the status quo were among skills touted as winners for CEOs at a panel discussion by four people who should know.

Hamilton City Council chief executive Richard Briggs, SKYCITY Hamilton general manager Michelle Baillie, Foster Construction commercial manager Leonard Gardner and Asset Recruitment general manager Carmel Strange took part in a Waikato Chamber of Commerce/HYP (Hamilton Young Professionals) event at SKYCITY’S Co-Op Function Room on March 15.

Chamber of Commerce chief executive Willliam Durning asked the questions as the four leaders from contrasting backgrounds entertained and shared insights on the following themes

What experiences have set you up to be where you are now?

MICHELLE
It’s knowing what transferable skills I had and being able to make the most of opportunities. The thing that has helped me is realising that skills are transferable. When an opportunity comes my way I know I need to make the most of it and that has certainly helped me get to where I am.

When I came to SKCYCITY Hamilton they had some great people but unfortunately they were in the wrong roles. I had to unpick quite a few things and put the right people in the right role. It was hard moving my family from Queenstown and then coming into a business that wasn’t performing. You had to take people along on the journey with you. Once we got through the restructure it was about setting up this vision for what the business could be and then convincing the Board to invest money in the property and that is what has transformed the business.

LEONARD
The hardest experiences have helped shape me most. When I joined Fosters they had a branch in Auckland which really struggled. When I was going buy into Fosters I said: “I want to but my accounting head is telling me we need to close the Auckland branch.” They agreed but I had to do that job. So, I went to Auckland and told 15 people that they didn’t have jobs any more. It was really hard but it’s those experiences that actually shape you. I’ve been bloodied a few times in my game and it makes you realise how important people are in that process.

What skills does a CEO need?

MICHELLE
The ability to embrace change and be able to adapt. That is something that has helped me and I think it’s going to be even more of a factor as the world is changing. Also, self-awareness. It’s really important to realise your impact on other people. You can be in control of yourself and your own reactions. I think if you can master that and you know when to relax that’s really important.

William Durning

Waikato Chamber of Commerce chief executive William Durning.

Something I’ve learnt over time is to admit your mistakes, that comes down to not micro-managing either.
My industry is very heavily regulated and I always thought I had to be black and white and so professional and fair. You can still be fair and professional and still be a really good human and have some grey because grey is okay. When I moved into general manager roles where I had to take a step back I think I became a much better leader of people; I did rely on other people and when we had conversations I would admit I didn’t know everything and I would ask for help. And if I did make a decision which was wrong I would own it. That’s part of becoming self-aware and that only came when I grew up emotionally as a leader.

CARMEL
Having a great attitude. When you strive for something your attitude is everything. I think you have to be a bit of a risk taker as well. I think you have to push through that and there will be times when you are going to fall over but you have to get up and keep going.

I say to new staff, if you need to be managed then this isn’t the right job for you because we don’t have time to manage you. We will give you all the support you need, and we will let you do your job. My door is always open but we want to encourage you to go out and grow as a person. One of the main things we hear in recruitment is people leave their jobs because they are micro- managed and not given the opportunity.

LEONARD
Patience. With others but also with yourself. When I reflect, I was a little bit impatient. I think patience is a very important quality. That and resilience. You have to persevere and work through things.

Self-awareness is a massive part; it’s a journey that happens over time and it’s the tough experiences in my career that made me self-aware. Understanding your weaknesses is important too so you can get alongside people with the strengths you don’t have. And you have to be an enabler. If you can enable people, and if in your organisation you can have people around you who are enabling others, you will become a CEO. The ultimate CEO is the one who enables everyone around them to enable others.

RICHARD
If you aspire to be a CEO because you want to be the top dog or the big kahuna you won’t succeed because you don’t have a connection with the organisation nor its strategy. The strongest attribute is your mindset which should be based on what you are trying to achieve and what your strategy is. You need to be focused on achieving that strategy in everything you do.

A key for my career as a CEO was an understanding that for me to succeed I needed to know why I was doing something. I needed to have a passion for achieving strategic outcomes for an organisation.

Skills, knowledge and experience are extremely important. But what is also important is your state of mind and where you are heading as an individual. The ability to influence is key. Your focus should be on how you make the greatest impact in your role and enable other people to make the greatest impact in their roles. One of the biggest skills that you can develop as a leader is your ability to have a conversation with your staff to enable them to make a contribution that is bigger than the work they do. We want people not to just be good at their jobs but to look for every other opportunity to influence the organisation’s strategic outcomes.

Who comes up with strategy and how is is developed?

CARMEL
We have a six-monthly and annual strategy session. We as a team look at what we have achieved, where are we going and what new business can we bring in. It’s very much done as a team and everyone’s input is very important.

RICHARD
I want to drive transformational change in local government. Whatever we do is about throwing the ball out as far as we can, chasing it and building some executable plans around it. My role as CEO is to influence those conversations. I challenge my general managers to think wildly differently and about things and to think what if? I have a lot of conversations with my guys about what is that end state? The challenge is blue sky thinking, they will run hard at it and come up with executable solutions along the way which may be not as far down the track, but it still causes change. From a strategy point of view the biggest challenge you can have as a CEO is to stretch people to have those thoughts and don’t just settle for the status quo.

MICHELLE
I’ve surrounded myself with a great team and we see opportunities and take advantage of them. We have lots of planning sessions and blue sky thinking. It’s good to think and question why do we do that? Our industry is heavily regulated. A lot of things we did for years because that was the way, you can challenge now, and that’s okay. You should regularly ask ‘why do we still do this?’ ‘What if we did it differently?’ ‘What are the possibilities?’ I think you have to be curious as well; you have to go out and look beyond what you know and read. You can’t look inward either, you need to look outward. We need to reimagine the future of entertainment and that’s something we are quite excited about doing.

LEONARD
I have many competent people around me, but they are very much technically-focused and great at construction. I’m blessed to have the opportunity and space to think ahead. A big part of my strategy is just reading the landscape and talking to people. So, to be able to read what section prices are going to do, what suppliers are going to do and who the players are helps me set the agenda for the next 12 months.
Who do I talk to, what connections do I need to make? If I get around people and help them with no ulterior motives and treat them well they will treat me well. One of the things that makes it tough being a leader is there is no one in front of you telling you what to do. Everyone is behind you asking ‘what do I do?’ From my perspective, a big part of being a leader is to work out what the direction is, create a story around it and relay that story to the team and give them some purpose for turning up in the morning. The best leaders can do that. This gives them something beyond the wage.

Biggest career regrets

LEONARD
When I was younger I was so impatient. I probably left a trail of people who I didn’t treat well because I was in a hurry. My biggest regret is that in the old days I didn’t treat everyone well. Now part of my personal goal is to treat everyone well and I work really hard at that.

MICHELLE
Getting stressed out about things that didn’t really matter, how much time you waste thinking about things that really aren’t a big deal. Some of the time was spent doing that when I could have been spending time with my partner and family. Don’t take things too seriously. On one hand you have to but you will be a much happier person and a much better leader of people if you just relax.

RICHARD
I probably regretted not getting my philosophy sorted out earlier in my life. Years ago I came to the epiphany that someone’s drive for their relevance doesn’t diminish my own drive to deliver my purpose. One you get to that conclusion, effectively, regardless of how someone is behaving, there can be a whole lot of negativity coming towards me but it doesn’t diminish my purpose. Once you get to that realisation how people behave doesn’t matter, they are going down their track but if you stay true to your purpose and what you are trying to achieve you don’t get stressed out because you are still going to be able to deliver on your purpose.

Personal goals – how do you weave them into the organisation

LEONARD
I have a bit of a philosophy on this. You have a crystal clear vision but you have a very vague plan. I don’t have too many personal goals. It’s more about a clear vision and a vague plan. For me when I sit in a meeting I’m thinking how does this contribute to a community that I’m trying to be a part of? So that dictates how we employ, what we do, the jobs we pursue as opposed to the ones we let pass by and how we invest our money in terms of sponsorship.

MICHELLE
We are a publicly listed company and we have goals we need to meet and are publicly held to account for them. Our goal is to be Hamilton’s premier entertainment destination and we have extended that to Waikato.

Everything we have done over the last few years investing into the property has been around that. The main thing for me is having time to work on goals and plans and actually having the space and dedicating my power into that. My biggest personal goal is to make sure my family is healthy and happy. I think you’ve got to be prepared to take smaller steps or smaller achievements because sometimes you might go sideways or life might throw you a curve ball. You have to be prepared to adapt those goals as well otherwise it can be quite personally damaging.

CARMEL
I’ve always been a person who wants to achieve. As an agency we plan out our year. We have a vision for the business and targets. As a manager my goal is that I want asset to be the best agency in Hamilton and I believe we are.

Work life balance – how many hours should you work

MICHELLE
I think the whole hours thing you must be really careful about because lots of hours doesn’t make you successful. I don’t think we should be expecting that from our team or sending the message that being successful is being busy and going from meeting to meeting and working so many hours. Sometimes you will have to and balance doesn’t always come in one week or one day, it comes over time. But I think if you have the right resources in place and you are enabling your team properly then you should be able to not work those crazy hours. There is more to life than work.

RICHARD
Your impact is not a by-product of your skills knowledge and experience, it’s a by-product of your state of mind. You can increase capacity if you think the right way. I see it as a failure if people work 80 hours a week. If you focus on your state of mind and make sure your mindset is appropriate for what you are trying to achieve, you will achieve a lot more.

CARMEL
I’ve gone to the gym every single day for 28 years. I usually head out of the office early afternoon. I do have my phone with me but I’m there for 90 minutes or two hours because I often work at night. But I have that balance to keep me sane. You need to have a clear mind. That doing something physical during the day is important to me. You do have to do the hard yards at times but you also need that balance.

LEONARD
I have the Fosters hat and a few others. My personal passion is community. I spend one or two days a week working with Momentum Foundation. I’ve been fortunate I’ve employed fantastic people around me. Fosters has allowed me to fulfil my personal passion. Where do I get my stress relief from? It’s feeling that I’m making a contribution in the community.

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Geoff Taylor

Waikato Business News editor Geoff Taylor. Email: geoff@wbn.co.nz