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Leadership in a time of upheaval

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The disruption caused by Covid is not going away, The Icehouse head of growth Liz Wotherspoon told a Waikato business audience at a forum held in Hamilton.

Maryse Dinan

Maryse Dinan

“What we realise right now is that uncertainty equals reality. Change is not going to slow down. The sense of instability that we felt over the last little while is going to characterise the rest of our lives.”

What that means from a leadership perspective is that communication becomes “incredibly important”,
she said.

And that is a two-way process, about listening as well as talking, Tompkins Wake chief executive Jon Calder told the forum, which had a focus on leadership and was organised by The Icehouse customer growth partner Maryse Dinan.

Calder told the audience Covid has helped his firm improve its levels of transparency.

“It’s about communication, probably ramped up to another level again. Something that I think Covid taught us really well was to listen to our people.”

They conducted regular surveys during lockdown to gauge where staff were at.

“It was very much focused on, what do they need from us? And overwhelmingly, it was that they wanted clear, regular communication and effectively just reassurance that we were going to be okay.”

Wotherspoon said The Icehouse similarly increased the frequency of its surveys, while also having more one-on-one conversations.

She said during the last year communication with their own people, their customers and suppliers was important.

“But you had to be comfortable with the fact that you didn’t necessarily have all the answers. So when you were communicating, it wasn’t communicating that you had certainty about what was coming, or what was going to happen.”

Mitre 10 Mega Hamilton chief executive Clifford Buchler, like Calder a former Waikato Business Awards Chief Executive of the Year, also stressed the value of transparency in his presentation.

That sees all staff at the Te Rapa and Ruakura stores having up to date information on sales, growth, profit and budget. “I really believe if you want to motivate a team, how do you motivate them without any information?

“It’s quite a difficult thing to get across to most companies, because they  want to keep everything closed and quiet.”

Buchler said great business results come from having a motivated team. “And how I believe you help with motivation is clarity.”

He cited his own absence from work for two months with a health issue. “I got back to work – there was nothing for me to do.

“I think that’s one of the best rewards for having a motivated team. And a lot of them did it for themselves, they saw opportunities, a lot of them did it for me, a lot of them did it for their colleagues.”

He said he saw exactly the same happen when Covid hit. “Motivation is definitely one of the key fundamentals. And the rewards are absolutely magnificent.”

Wotherspoon echoed his experience: “Great leadership is not about what happens when you’re there, it’s about what happens when you’re not.”

Buchler also said leadership requires clear accountability, which requires measurable goals.

“I really believe that something that’s fundamentally missing in a lot of retailers that I’ve been with – the goals are not clear, and more importantly, they are not measurable.”

The Icehouse has worked with more than 5000 SME owner-managers and leaders since 2001 through learning programmes, workshops and coaching.

Reality check

Ask Your Team chief executive Chris O’Reilly says his company conducted a heartening survey around workplace trends and the response to Covid.

“One of the surveys that we did was about 26,000 employees, we saw an initial fantastic response around flexibility, autonomy and trust.”

But it didn’t last. O’Reilly, who was speaking at the Waikato Business Summit, says employees have since reported seeing that dwindle quite significantly “like it was a temporary blip”.

At the same time, he said it was interesting the number of people who said they had seen productivity rise as a result of the flexibility.

“We need to challenge ourselves, we need to be thinking differently,” he said. “It is a new world, it is changing, it’s only going to change more. And just the fact is that the way that we used to think, the way that we used to operate, the way that we used to lead, the way that we used to engage and partner with our clients and our people most importantly, has changed.

“But we’re not seeing that change. We’re not seeing that change in leadership, we’re not seeing that change in organisations. And that’s flowing through to a really high level of frustration, which converts to lack of productivity and lack of opportunities.”

The answer is simple, he said. It’s to change from hierarchical command control, to empowering people. That means getting to know staff personally.

It also means “getting to know what they’re actually thinking, creating a safe environment or mechanism or processes for them to actually tell the truth”.

He questioned the extent to which New Zealanders hold honest conversations, and said leaders should be hungry for feedback.

“It’s really hard to get that feedback as a leader if you’re doing what you can. And when you get that feedback, it can be quite heart breaking. But it’s the truth.

“So be hungry for feedback and try to take feedback as a good. Unless somebody is being absolutely vitriolic, all feedback is a gift. It’s either reinforcing and appreciating something you’re doing or it’s giving you the opportunity to improve on something. So embrace it, even though it’s not easy.”

Leadership tips

Liz Wotherspoon on learning from others:

“Where are your worthy rivals? They may not even be in your industry. But where are your worthy rivals? Who are they and what are they doing? What can you learn from them? What can you steal from them – and I don’t mean literally stealing from them, but what could you do in your organisation that they’re doing and you’d be a better organisation? That’s worth leaders spending some time thinking about.”

Jon Calder on acknowledging your limits:

“I’m very much big picture, blue sky. And what I know I need around me is a team that can help fill in the detail and then execute. One of the things that I find most liberating is I can run off a list of all the things I’m no good at. The flip side is I know what I am really good at. And I’ve got a good team around me. I’ve got 24 partners who I lean on to help me with the stuff I’m not good at. You can get really comfortable with the stuff you’re not good at, as well as the stuff you are good at. I think that’s what really takes you forward.”

Clifford Buchler on networking:

“I ended up in New Zealand through a network and my career since I’ve been here has all been around networks. If you want me to go run for cover it’s about psychometric testing. I really find them intimidating, I don’t enjoy them. So therefore I believe in networking. I also believe you should network within the company. Networking politically – again, I think it’s good to know what your political landscape is, you have to make the effort. And the one that I really believe has helped a lot is international networking. So when it comes to leadership, for example, one of the people I worked with and still keep in touch with is from Brazil. He’s one of the finest leaders I’ve ever met, in my opinion. Networking internationally, I think, gives you a taste of a foreign culture. It gives you a taste for foreign ideas. And I think it helps you as a person, as a leader, to just think of it wider than your own environment.”

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