Leading Globally: Four International Business Leaders Share Their Insights

The opportunities for exporting or going global are obvious, such as entering new markets, better positioning, spreading risk, and achieving growth and scale.  There are any number of challenges that a bank adviser will tell you such as exchange rates and fluctuations, payment terms, logistics time frames, legal requirements, customs and tariffs.  But what about the leadership challenge as a key piece to understand?  So I took the opportunity to interview four NZ international business leaders that I work closely with, to understand the leadership challenges and to share some of their insights.  You will notice some key themes.

Link Logo 1Communication builds trust.  Leading a geographical and cultural diverse team is very challenging and relies heavily on developing trust within the global team. There can be a constant feeling of isolation, especially when there is a significant time difference, which makes easy and constant communication difficult. As Andy Millard CEO, Link Engine Management says, “You cannot just pick up a phone and have a chat. Regular communications become more structured and formal, usually with one person meeting outside of business hours (usually me, so I don’t want to inconvenience our employees)”.

“In the same way, it is easy to have many conversations in a day with team members in your office that progresses ideas and develops strategy or tactical decisions. The ‘back story’ is all relevant when you are discussing the topic informally in an office environment however, to an (isolated) remote team member the decision or conversation seems to jump ahead and leave them behind.”  With this in mind, some simple leadership themes Andy maintains are:

Get Face-to-Face.  Travel – get face-to-face with the remote teams at least twice a year and make it more than a fleeting visit – 3-4 days minimum. Also spend some quality time with them on the road seeing customers. What it can do for the relationship, not to mention the value of meeting and listening to customers shouldn’t be underestimated.

Over Communicate.  Make sure you over communicate. Regardless of whether it is a meeting, phone call or email – communicate daily or once every two days keeping them abreast of development that may impact them. Make sure other staff i.e. sales, marketing, etc are over communicating what they are doing.  Ensure regular meetings –  Put them in the diary and stick to it! – via Skype or Hang outs. Ensure others do the same.

Share.  Use Facebook for Business, Sharepoint or a staff newsletter, etc. to share pictures, stories, etc. with the wider team. Tell stories! Easy to say, very hard to maintain the discipline to do … but worth it.  Constantly ask for remote leaders’ input into ideas or decision – regardless whether it is required or not. Keep them included.

Agree Boundaries.  Delegate the decision making – Trust! Clearly articulate boundaries and let the remote manager make the decisions. Don’t get caught up in the daily decision making for each remote site. Set the strategy, agree of the execution and the KPIs (or milestones) and let them get on with it. Being involved in what colour the new t-shits are or the amount of photocopy paper you buy in Birmingham is just stupid.  Additionally, agree on times and days – make sure you and the team members are afforded that appropriate rest time.  Keep weekends for the family.

Lastly, Be Hungry to Understand.  Watch, listen and observe. Like a good recon soldier – observe to learn, learn to understand before acting. Understand cultural values and practices, how business is done in their region, what the customs are and how the customers transact. Religious and public holidays. Trying to measure and manage by our (NZ) business and employment values and practices could cause much frustration and damage.  Engage with your team members – ask their advice. Ask them to be your teacher, Ask Ask Ask. It is always a great conversation to ask the ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions and let them tell you – and resist comparing their country to NZ or worse, telling them why NZ is better.


Scaling Culture.  When companies choose to go global, many struggle to stay profitable. With new offices to lease, staff to fill them and new infrastructure needs, scaling can turn into an expensive exercise. Seequent (formerly ARANZ Geo) Managing Director, Shaun Maloney  said “We’ve been able to stay profitable through our whole expansion and transition, which is quite rare,” Shaun says. “We’ve gone from a company of 19 people, doing $2.5 million in revenue, to one that does $30 million with 184 people in 13 offices around the world.”  Maintaining a healthy company culture across different countries and continents isn’t easy, but Seequent has found a way.   “We’ve also set up an intranet, chat and we use notice boards to publish core value stories across the company,” Shaun says. “We also move a lot of staff around for a few months at a time to get that cross-pollination of culture and ethos, and develop face-to-face relationships, which are important.” “There’s obviously a big cost in doing this, but it’s well worthwhile. It helps us make sure we foster one global culture.”

Shaun adds that before launching, go and find those who have done it before you and seek advice,  get on the ground and be there, and seek to understand the market first hand, find trusted advisers in the new market outside of your business relationships within the region to get a different view.  He says “Too often kiwis rush into a new market, get off the plane, meet someone, form a relationship and put all of their faith in them – they need to go broader and seek wider insights and question what they are told.  Ultimately, take your time, prepare and don’t rush it“.

EPLMark Field, CEO at EPL leads a business based in Christchurch and Thailand, exporting across the globe.  He has identified several key focus areas: Firstly, research, research, research.  Mark said, “If I look back at our move into Thailand our greatest failure was fully understanding how business was conducted, how to set up banking systems, what were the rates of pay, hours of work etc, etc, etc. We asked the questions but often only got part of the answer or got the answer the best served the person providing the answer. In hind sight I would spend considerably more time gathering information from multiple sources and testing that information”.

Understanding the Culture.  It is very important to understand the customs and beliefs of the country or countries you are going to operate in. For example, freedom of speech in NZ is considered a right and you can openly criticise the government. In Thailand questioning or criticising the King is considered highly offensive and may get you arrested.  Also, a successful leader may have to adapt their style in a leadership role overseas. New Zealanders are encouraged, from an early age to speak their mind, challenge, and to stand out. In Thailand this is actively discouraged and speaking out or suggesting better ways to do something is considered disrespectful. A good leader encourages initiative from their staff however this proves very challenging in Thailand.

Customer Relationships.  Customer relationship management may be very different to NZ. Face to face meeting over numerous occasions may be required to gain trust. Emails and phone calls alone are rarely successful. A game of golf with a client is an acceptable way to do business in Asia, where as in NZ this is considered a perk. Gaining a relationship with a customer at a high level is also challenging but needed to win business.  There may also be moral challenges, in some countries unofficial payments or gifts is considered or even expected, as an acceptable way do business – and not making a payment or giving a gift may result in roadblocks. The dilemma for a leader is not only personal but what practices their managers and staff might allow versus what is acceptable by the company values.

The Right People.  If the business is relocating a person overseas the impact on the persons spouse and children needs to factored in. Whilst an overseas posting is considered an adventure the reality is that is very difficult and in some cases several marriages have ended because of relocation.  It maybe a balance or combination of the right local and expat existing staff.  Leadership in the new location will significantly determine the success of the new office.  Be very specific as to who is taking the lead and what qualities you are really after.

Monitor your business very closely.  A business setting up overseas needs to have very robust systems in place to monitor business activities, both financially and holistically. Ensure active visit schedules, good authority schedules, robust KPI’s and strong financial management. Bad news or results are often hidden. Remember that setting up a business overseas puts strain local resources.

FootscienceAs the leader of an international export business producing Formthotics, Greg Thompson, General Manager of Foot Science International, identifies that for New Zealand businesses it is often necessary to have a real niche, and as such going international early is a necessity.  When doing so you need to be export and marketing lead.  Often businesses start as a technical or product lead businesses but soon need to adapt as they go international.  He identifies that when going into a new market the power of focus is key, and not a shot gun style approach.  pick a new market, eg the US, then pick 5 key entry states, then pick the key cities in each state, then the key retailers in those cities, then pitch to those five.

If entering multiple international markets over time, you also need to understand that one operating model doesn’t fit all, and you may need to adapt your approach and model to each market.  Greg also identified if a business was on the cusp of becoming and export or global business, it was key to have market knowledge, and also knowledge and experience of international sales and marketing – ie someone who has been there and done it, as a key capability enabler.  He also said if you can, don’t underestimate the effect of boots on the ground to create momentum in key market entry strategies.

Background.  For many New Zealand businesses, especially those in manufacturing, primary goods, or IT sectors, at some point early in their business life cycle, consideration for becoming a global enterprise is a serious option, and I predict that this probably before businesses of a comparative size in other countries need to face this challenge.  Part of this is that New Zealand only has a domestic market of about 4 million people, the equivalent size of some small cities around the world, and so to grow and scale they need to enter foreign markets and lead global businesses.  As such nearly a third of all NZ small to medium business (ie 25% employing 6-19 and 28% of those with 20+ employees) are exporters.  And they export to Australia, China, US, Japan and UK, and many many others.

Greg Allnutt is a Strategic Adviser at Advisory.Works

A Matrix to Understand Winning Cultures

In my experience, many leaders look for a silver bullet to achieve a winning culture.  Many are often frustrated because they are doing so many of the right things but still feel they don’t have the winning formula – but there is no one thing.  The reality is, is that building a culture is a key combination of collective activities, ideas, symbolism, rituals and habits in which if one facet is missing, it may detract from the other positive efforts.  This matrix seeks to demonstrate this.

A winning culture has good leadership that sets a clear direction to inspire and grow their people; they encourage diversity of thought from their people; their people are respected and acknowledged for their contribution; their people have the autonomy to get on with their job unimpeded and the authority to makes decisions within their job sphere giving a sense of ownership; clear direction is given so that people know what is expected of them and they know what good looks like; there is regular open and transparent communication throughout the business; people feel their work is part of achieving something greater than just the job; they enjoy what they do and those they work with; and they have opportunities to learn and grow professionally and personally.  But if any one of these things is missing then it can detract from the other positive efforts to build the winning culture.

Winning Culture Matrix

A lack of leadership leads to under-performance. It has been said that only three things happen naturally in an organisation: confusion, friction and under-performance – everything else requires leadership.  Leaders set the tone for the culture. They model the way in which they expect everyone to behave, and exemplify the expected behaviours or core values.  Good core values are  behavioural type statements that define the key expected patterns for behaviour around things like safety, teamwork, quality, brand, innovation and attitude expressed in language that you r people use, and notably they can be aspirational to shift or lift behaviour.  We have all seen the scenario where we have the same players but a new captain and what a difference that can make in sport.  The same goes for business.

The absence of diversity of thought contributes to a lack of innovation.  If everyone is thinking the same then someone isn’t thinking.  We need diversity of thinking and healthy conflict to stimulate continuous improvement and we also need to stimulate collaboration to get the best results.  The best ideas come from the exchange and sharing of ideas between individuals and teams, and from those who have different experiences, knowledge and perspectives.

When people aren’t acknowledged and respected it erodes the culture to one where people perform to a mediocre level and resentment for lack of acknowledgement for performing above and beyond.  Why perform any better if its not recognised anyway? Also note that reward and recognition also needs to be linked to the desired behaviours and the drivers of the business outcomes.  Conversely the biggest demotivator for great performers is poor performers not being dealt with.

A lack of autonomy and authority sees and organisation become a traditional command & control environment.  It takes building capability and trust.  Delegation is an investment in the future of your business and builds a team where people feel empowered.  Autonomy and authority gives people a sense of ownership and responsibility and unleashes faster decision making and agility.

Infrequent and/or guarded communication creates and information gap.  Your people will fill the gap with rumour, speculation & gossip.  The biggest problem leaders have with communication, is believing that it has already taken place.  Frequent, open, often, many channels and consistent messages.

When people believe that they are making a contribution they have intrinsic motivation to perform and fell that their role is important to the business, community or the world.  If not their role becomes just a pay cheque.  The connection to the business purpose can significantly increase engagement and productivity.

People want to hang out with like minded people, enjoy what they do and celebrate the wins.  No-one wants a role that is monotonous & boring.  They spend most of their waking life at work so would prefer to have a bit of fun, enjoy the job they are doing with people who equally enjoy it, and take time to pause and recognise the successes of individuals and the team.  People want to have a sense that they are on a winning team and that you are hitting objectives and results – so take the the time to pause and acknowledge the wins.

Lastly people want to learn and grow as people and professionals.  That’s why many have hobbies and goals outside of work.  They want the same opportunities at work to experience or try different new things at work so that they can learn and grow, otherwise you stagnate potentialtheir potential and the potential of your business.  It doesn’t need to be a courses or qualifications, just the opportunity to experience a different skill, role, or extend themselves.

Black ferns

Every organisation has a culture – it is the patterns of behaviour that happen within the organisation.  The nature of that culture depends on what the leaders decide to make important or intentional.  It is what they do, what they don’t do, what they deal with and make important or celebrate and acknowledge, what they put time to and what they ignore, and what they don’t tolerate and what they let slide.  Your culture is the glue that binds you together as a business team and it’s the hardest thing for your competitors to copy, so make an intentional effort to implement the culture matrix and develop a winning culture.

Last thoughts. Culture is part of the soft stuff, but as we know the soft stuff is often the hard stuff, but it can make the biggest impact.  By the way, it takes time to build – so deliberately put some time to it.

No8 Wired – Enabling a Culture of Innovation

number-8-wireWe like to think that as kiwis we are pretty innovative and draw this back to our heritage as pioneers (both Maori and Pakeha) on the land solving problems by using what they had around them, invariably a spare piece of number 8 wire. Perhaps it is simply as atomic scientist Ernest Rutherford said “We haven’t got the money, so we’ll have to think”.

Team NZThere is a proud heritage of innovations such as the Hamilton Jet boat, the Martin Jet Pack, Maclaren Racing Cars, Zuru Toys, the Britten Motorbike, Icebreaker, Animation Research Limited, Weta Workshops, Rocket Labs, Seequent data visualisation software or the ‘Cyclors’ used by Team New Zealand to win the America’s Cup – the list goes on.  Maybe we have a culture of innovators, or maybe no more than any other country, but it certainly seemingly creates a national notion of innovation and problem solving.   I would like to think we have gone beyond make-shift No8 wire solutions to quality world class inventions.

This got me thinking, how do we create innovation in business, because businesses don’t come up with innovation – people do?  So how do we get the best people and then how do we grow a culture that stimulates innovation?

Innovation apparently boils down to people ie sourcing the right entrepreneurial talent; having clear business intent about what you are trying to achieve through innovation (not innovation for innovation sake); having the right culture, set-up, systems and policies to enable innovation to happen; external collaboration to bring the outside in and use greater collective brainpower and thinking than you own; and customer insight to know you are solving their biggest problem or enabling their aspiration to happen.  So lets take a look at a couple aspects.

People.  So who is most likely to be innovative?  We may like to think that young people such as Zuckerberg, Hsieh or Jobs will bring our newest and best innovative thinking but some interesting research by MIT of US tech businesses found that the average and median age of the founders of successful U.S. technology businesses (with real revenues) is 39. They found twice as many successful founders over 50 as under 25, and twice as many over 60 as under 20. So everyone has a shot at success, but age provides a distinct advantage. Studies in the arts by Philip Hans Franses from the Erasmus School of Economics shows that on average, Nobel Prize-winning writers produce their best work at age 45. Painters peak at age 42. And classical composers produce their most popular works at age 39.

So what does this tell us, perhaps we should blend the new with the ‘old’?  Stimulate the thinking with some fresh blood, coupled with some thinking from those who have been around the block once or twice, those who know the industry and have been potentially cultivating an idea or two.

Culture.  We also need to create an environment where it is ok to take risk and even fail. People need to understand the strategic direction so that their ideas compliment what is trying to be achieved, and have licence to try something new and even fail fabulously to learn, adapt and iterate.  And how do you just stimulate curiosity?  How do you get people to ask: ‘What if we…? How could we….? That’s a great idea and we could…..’

Plastic and silicone extrusion manufacturer, EPL, utilises Incubation Labs and visible innovation boards and discussion, to continually stimulate and create the space for innovative thinking.  They even count the number of innovations as their big hairy audacious goal (BHAG). With 196 innovations and counting on the wall, EPL is not only encouraging new ideas but also improving efficiency within their business, leading to a more productive and positive environment. “Most of the ideas are about improving the workplace,” EPL CEO Mark Field says. “Having core values such as ‘Innovation Sets Us Apart’, ‘One Team’ and ‘Making a Positive Difference’, means that no idea gets pushed aside or ridiculed. And every now and then a really good one comes through.  “We’ve had two or three great ones so far, one of which will probably have an impact of $150,000 on our bottom line, if not more.”

This approach may stimulate innovation anywhere on what I consider the innovation continuum, from continuous improvement through to disruption.  However other recent research also shows that if you want true disruption in your current business, you are better to set this up off to the side as a separate entity to stimulate a skunk works or ‘black ops’ project with a separate entrepreneurial identity.

This blog doesn’t intend to give a road map but give some considerations, at least – stimulate some thinking and keep stimulating the conversation.

Greg is a Strategic Adviser at Advisory.Works

You Can’t Outsource Leadership

I recently had an occurrence where a client asked me to come and start coaching one of their staff members.  As I do with many organisations, I assist the CEO by coaching some his team to be better leaders, giving them parallel coaching guidance, tools and techniques to help develop their leadership skills.

However on this occasion in the initial scoping conversation with a Team Leader and the HR Manager, it transpired that this was a staff member in the wider organisation, the person wasn’t a leader in the business, and as it turned out was having some ongoing performance issues and had been transferred from one team to the next.  They wanted me to basically coach the person to do their job better.

I quickly turned the conversation and said, “Hold on, this is a performance issue not a leadership development issue. This is a performance management issue that the Team Leader needs to deal with as their leader.  You can’t outsource leadership.  You need to have the hard conversation with this person and start the performance management process.  Stop beating around the bush and deal with the issue and start performance managing this person.”

“We thought you would say that”,

“Then I am pleased I didn’t disappoint.”

Courageous conversations are those conversations the leaders need to have.  HR Managers or external advisors can provide the process or the tools, but you as the leader must be the one to have the hard conversations and manage the performance of your team.

Interestingly, research by Zenger and Folkman shows employees are 11 times more likely to prefer corrective feedback over positive feedback, and yet over half of us shy away from having these hard conversations.  Only 12% of employees reported being surprised when given corrective feedback, which means 88% of employees are not surprised when given corrective feedback.

So it is about having the courage to name the issues, particularly around behaviour, and then managing the process through to either create lasting change and improvement or ensuring there are consequences.  And occasionally you will need to shoot a hostage so they know you are serious.

It is easy to lead in good times when the going is good, but true leaders come to the fore to deal with and resolve the issues.  This takes moral courage to do what you know is right.  You can outsource many things in business but you can’t outsource leadership!

Greg is a Strategic Adviser at Advisory.Works

Timeless Advice for New Leaders

My eldest daughter just got appointed to her first leadership role which is fantastic.  So I thought I would jot down a few key guiding ideas for her (and others) to consider, because making the transition from being a team member to being a leader is never easy.

New managers are often under-prepared for the job, the have excelled in their team role and demonstrate great potential but are often just told “congratulations on the promotion” and then are expected to get into their first role as a leader and perform.   But you just don’t wake up one morning as a fantastic manager. It’s a transformation or growth process and mistakes are going to happen, and you are going to learn on the job.

New LeaderYou’re not alone. Any experienced manager will tell you that they’ve made their share of mistakes along the way (and if they haven’t then they are trying hard enough or are lying).   There’s definitely something to be said for learning from your mistakes but with a little awareness, you can drastically cut down on those mistakes and try not to make them in the first place.  So here some key guidance tips.

Understand that your relationship with your previous co-workers is now different.  You’re no longer a peer within the team. You are in charge. You may now be expected to assign and manage their tasks, and hold accountable for delivery. You analyse work performance and you conduct appraisals. You can’t be everyone’s best friend. Blurring those lines too much will lead to ineffective leadership. You will have to make objective and fair decisions more as a boss, and less as a friend.  Although becoming everyone’s friend might seem like a good way to win their trust, it might hurt your relationships with employees in the future. Remember, trust is built through transparent communication, being competent at what you do, being consistent and predictable in your dealings with people, genuinely caring about others, and always working with integrity.

Deal with performance issues fast as they happen.  Performance issues with staff will happen – as a leader you are expected to deal with them.  Get out and confront the issues. If you wait, issues only compound – it will not solve itself. When you deal with issues early, they are easier to tackle. Waiting means stiffer feedback and may even involve a larger group of employees if the problem have spun out of control.  Giving negative feedback is uncomfortable, but people generally respond well to constructive feedback. In addition to finding the way that works best for you and your team, you also have to learn how to actually deliver feedback.   Do it one conversation at a time.

You can’t let poor performance get in the way of team success. If you don’t address it, it doesn’t just disappear. Take a deep breath and have the hard conversations.  Confrontation in the workplace is inevitable. Whether it’s giving an employee a warning or confronting your team about a missed deadline, you have to address problems as soon as they happen.

Be confident in delivering unpopular decisions.  You have to stand behind your decisions, even when they are unpopular. Know that you probably wont’ and can’t please everybody.  The decision should be with the best interests for the business in mind.  But it’s not just a matter of “because I said so”. Decisions and the reasons why that decision has been made have to be explained fully. Employees can accept decisions more readily when they understand the “why” behind them.  If you are delivering a decision made by someone above you, then you need to be aligned to that decision (even if you don’t necessarily agree with it).  Deliver that decision as if it were your own.

Don’t try to change everything in your first week.  Innovation and new ideas are great. The worst thing in the world is having a mentality of “because that’s the way it’s always been done”. However, before you try to overhaul everything immediately take time to understand why things are done the way they are. There may be reasons that you simply don’t comprehend yet. Understand the process from a 360 view and then begin to introduce new ideas, get some feedback, and don’t forget to get ideas from your staff as well!

Don’t micro-manage employees and projects.  As a new manager, you’ll be tempted to monitor and provide feedback on every decision an employee makes. Even worse, you will do their work for them.  Instead of micromanaging your employees, give them the task expectations and the resources to do it, and allow them to perform their jobs and to come to you when they need help.  Your team members have the ability to do their jobs and meet your expectations. If you want your people to perform well, trust them with their responsibilities. They may not be able to do everything as well as you would like initially but if you always step in, they never will.  They need the opportunity to learn and grow – just like you.

Try and make timely decisions.  Decision-making is an important role for a manager. Don’t dwell so much on the minor parts of the decision.  You have to make decisions as a manager, some which will be popular with everyone, some which will be popular with some and unpopular with others and some which will be unpopular with everyone. Accept that when you take decisions, they will not be popular with everyone. It is not different from a meal that has been produced by a great chef. Some will love it, others might or might not like it and for some it will just hate it.   Take what you believe is the right decision based on the facts and information available, and what you think is best for the company to achieve the business outcomes and not necessarily the one that will please everyone.  But most importantly – make a decision – even if in hindsight it’s a wrong one– just make one.

Realise you are now a role model 24/7.  It’s the old saying – you lead by example.  Your employees need a strong leader from day one. What you say and do as a manager speaks more loudly than what you did as an employee. Your employees and colleagues are watching every step you take, so make sure what you say and do in the workplace counts.  They are watching what you, and what you don’t do, what you deal with and confront and what you don’t to work out what really matters to you.  The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.  Everything you now do role models the expected behaviour at work, whether you intend it to or not.

Its OK fail.  Now that as a leader you will fail at some things – especially dealing with the people stuff.  Everyone does and has.  Just reflect on it, and learn so you will do it better next time.  try different approaches or tools, but just authentically you.  leadership is a life long journey of learning.  The best leaders are the best learners and we learn best by doing and reflecting.

Its OK to ask for help.  New managers in particular try to hide their weaknesses and pretend that are the experts. Even the most successful leaders know that they don’t know it all. No-one expects you to know it all, and get it all right all of the time.  Actively seek feedback, gain knowledge and experience – you don’t have to do it in isolation.  Every successful leader has a mentor. Your new management position will have its ups and downs, so don’t hesitate to ask a co-worker or another manager for advice.

Lastly, but most importantly, Care for your people and inspire them.  If you genuinely care about your people they will care for you customers (internal or external).  If you inspire them and connect their daily tasks to the outcome and goal of the business, they will feel that what they do makes a difference in the world or community – create a sense of belonging and importance.  Give them regular honest feedback and praise, and thank them for their contribution, celebrate the wins and have fun.  Leading should be fun and enjoyable.  Growing your people and your team through good leadership is one of the greatest rewards.

Good luck

Greg is a Strategic Adviser at Advisory.Works

Oh Crap…! Leading in a Crisis

We have all had those days – when the crap hits the fan and we are leading in a crisis.  Some of my examples when leading organisations have been:  A soldier accidentally shooting himself in the leg when training on the range; getting called at two in the morning and told we need 100 troops in a foreign country urgently; three soldiers held in jail in a foreign country; getting called late in the evening to be told one staff member has attempted to murder another staff member; having a legal challenge to our brand, having a key staff member hospitalised in ICU; an accident occurring on one of our construction sites; or a complaint about the conduct of one of my team with a customer – yes I have had a few.  Yours might be the tragic loss of a key staff member, a health and safety incident where someone has been injured; a quality issue with a product affecting your brand reputation; or the loss of a key supplier or a key account.  No matter what the issue, they can quickly consume your business leadership focus, and if you aren’t prepared it can be a severe distraction.  So how do we deal with it better?

The interesting thing is that many of these types of issues are predictable, maybe not exactly how it will occur, but in each of our businesses we should be able to generally predict the type of incident as part of our SWOT when considering Threats or Risks – yes even soldiers getting in trouble is pretty predictable.  For each of our threats or risks we should then ask ourselves what is the likelihood of that happening and what would the likely impact be?  We should then be able to develop a mitigation strategy to reduce the likelihood of something happening eg a stakeholder management plan to regularly meet and discuss issues with key accounts, and suppliers so what we strengthen relationships and have our finger on the pulse.  Or it might be training understudies and creating desk files for a handover in absentia so that someone can step up if a key person is lost for any reason.

The other thing we should do is to have some contingency plans for those things that might just happen anyway such as: a health and safety incident management plan and practice it, as to who does what and how; or a PR communications plan for a product quality or brand incident already developed and practised.  This recognises that you can develop an outline plan when you are rational or ‘blue brain’ thinking, so that when the incident happens you your brain naturally flips to ‘red brain’ more irrational ‘fight or flight’ mode, you can take a deep breath, pull out the plan you have previously developed and see the basis of how to start dealing with the incident or issue from a rational perspective.  The critical minutes and hours faster in responding with greater  focus and clarity as a result, will be very powerful.

Importantly, it will help you to have less of an ‘oh s@#* moment’, have a meltdown, throw a tantrum, throw something, spin out of control, or go quiet and disappear ‘into your cave’ (I have seen or heard people do all of the aforementioned).  This is when leaders need to come to the fore and be seen to be calm, collected and in control, and even if you aren’t – you need to be like a duck on water.  This prior thinking will allow you to put on a brave leadership face and look like you are all over it. ‘Run to the problem’.  Get your best leaders around you, get the facts of the situation, work the solution, communicate and lead.  Your people need to know ‘you have got this’.  You can also then say ‘we anticipated this …..and have done…..already’.

Don’t wait for the next incident or crisis before you start doing some thinking about contingency planning.  And if you do have an incident, when things become calm after dealing with it – get the team together and capture the lessons that you have learnt and update the plan.

And just think about this, in my experience when the oh crap moment happens – remember ‘if no-one is shooting at you – it is a good day’ and you will get through it.

Greg is a Strategic Adviser at Advisory.Works

Business Leadership Lessons from the Infantry

Timor - returning from border tracking patrolI left the military ten years ago having served 24 years in the infantry, including six operational tours of duty to different conflict zones.  I have been in the public and private business sectors since then.  I find it interesting that I often utilise key principles or concepts I learnt in the infantry to help guide businesses I work with to lead, adapt, grow and solve issues.  I thought I would share the key ideas I fall back on:

Lead by Example or Don’t Lead At All.  It should go without saying, but you need to be able to demonstrate that you can stump up and do what expect your team to do just as well, no matter what position you hold.  So as a senior infantry commander I would still find time to fill sand bags, put out barbed wire, or go on patrol – especially when the stakes are high.  It says if its important enough for the ‘boss’ to do it, it’s important for you too.  Its about having executive leadership presence – it doesn’t need to be all of the time but enough to be seen.  It is also about being seen to pitch in and live the ethos and values with your team.  People are watching what we do & what we don’t do – we are leading by example whether we intend to or not – so while we may not always be perfect, we should always be working on trying to be a better leader and seen to be leading by example.

Leaders Eat Last – Long before Simon Sinek made it a TED talk, leaders in the infantry made sure that all of their troops had a meal before they sat down to eat.  If having a communal meal in the field or on operations, the leaders served the food to the team and if they didn’t ration it out right, then the leaders were the ones to miss out.  The leaders also checked on the sentries to ensure that all security and protective measures were in place, and took the chance to talk to everyone after a hard day to engage, joke, and listen so as to understand morale – all before they paused to eat.  It is a metaphor that says as a leader “I put you, our safety and our success before me”.  The infantry is a people based operation and morale is a third of the combat power to achieve success, it is the same in business, the morale or engagement of your team will hugely effect your outcomes – put energy to it, put your people first and make it a priority.

Slow is Smooth, Smooth is Fast’.  Too often business people I see are rushing from one thing to the next, and while a sense of urgency is very important, at times you need to shift the accelerator back a notch to make a greater impact.  I first learnt the notion ‘slow is smooth, smooth is fast’ practicing urban combat skills clearing buildings with the US Army, it is a highly complex, dynamic and difficult task – and by being just slightly slower and a fraction more deliberate, you can clear a building faster, with less hick-ups.  It’s the same when implementing a new business idea, slow it down a fraction, get the right building blocks in place, systems cemented, and ensure stage completion before moving to the next thing.

Visit the Troops – In today’s business environment we often have a number of offices or people around the country or globe.  This is the same with military operations.  It should go without saying but leaders must make the time and effort to ‘visit the troops’.  Make the time to visit regularly and make time to do a whole-of-team business update and share stories from the other offices.  Also make time to spend ‘un-booked’ time at each location to just to be there, chat in the corridor, at the water cooler and connect.  Don’t under-estimate the impact of taking a team for a coffee, a drink or dinner to form stronger bonds.  If you have a key operational activity happening in a region, be there and be ‘present’ – you don’t have to run it but be seen to be interested and provide guiding support – its known in the military as Forward Command.  If there is a crisis – go there.  Understand it first-hand – you don’t have to solve it, but be there and front the media – run ‘top cover’ while others in the team resolve the issue.

A Good Plan Violently Executed Beats a Great Plan Too Late.  Too many businesses we see initially have no plan at all and are just in ‘doing mode’ and their decisions flip-flop around depending on the mood and they are reactive to the next issue, opportunity or crisis.  or they are trying to create the perfect plan before starting to execute.  A mediocre plan now is better than a perfect plan late.  Or as Patton said, “A good plan violently executed beats a great plan too late.”  A clear plan, even if it is an average one, gives people direction, anticipates issues and has contingencies, knows the opportunities to exploit, and becomes a backbone which to make decisions off of.  Afghan - QRF ptl BamyanNo plan is rock solid, and in the infantry we said no plan survives first contact with the enemy, because we couldn’t control what happened beyond that point but we could plan for the most likely and most dangerous possibilities.  The same is in business, while we have a plan as soon as it hits the market place we must, observe, adapt and iterate to remain relevant. A have a basic plan and keep improving it as you go – it is highly unlikely that you will need to throw the whole plan out and start again – just adjust and incrementally build. Oh, and if it’s in your head it’s not a plan, that’s just an idea.  Pick a general direction and execute like hell!

A Poor Decision is Better than No Decision. A can still hear the trainer at officer training when practicing to be a Platoon commander when confronting a problem in a training scenario – “make a decision Mr Allnutt!” Now I hear people say thing like: lets defer that decision, let’s wait and see, or hmm I’m not sure so let’s form a committee!  Sure there are times we need to do these things but it shouldn’t be our default mechanism.  In making a decision you need to understand that you dont need to, and usually can’t, please everybody but you just take all available facts and considerations into account – then make a decision.  Making a decision creates action and momentum, from there you can always get more information and adjust rather than sitting latent.  We need to have different decision making tools for dealing with different scenarios from simple, operational and intuitive issues, through to difficult, strategic, and complex issues.

I’ve Got Your Six – Seldom in the infantry was anything ever achieved by yourself.  Whether it was a four man reconnaissance patrol or a Battalion Command team, teamwork was essential to get the best outcome.  The basis of performance for every team is trust working to a common goal.  Everyone in a team has their role to achieve the mission and in a patrol you had the trust in each person in the team that someone was always watching your 6 o’clock or blind spot.  Military infantry operations are a high trust and high consequences environment, especially if that trust is broken, eg a sentry falling asleep.  Timor - water resup border tracking ptlThe same goes for a high performing team in a business environment ie everyone is doing their piece of the project without question, everyone is ‘all in’ and if one fails, we fail – but too often this isn’t the case, but it is equally as necessary in business and needs to be worked on, especially for Senior Leadership Teams.


Keep Everyone in the Know – When we were about to do an infantry operation we sent out a Warning Order to let everyone know what we knew about the operation up to that point so that they could start anticipating what might need to be done and start preparing as early as possible.  We then made plans and communicated them to everyone involved.  Once under-way we would constantly communicate what was happening and changing.  At an organisational level we would meet daily to share information.  If it was a high tempo operation we would meet twice a day.  On routine camp duties it might be once a week or twice a week to close things off – but talking was the key – because others would pick up on and share what was happening above them and around them, and share their plans.  If there is a lack of communication people fill the gap with rumour, gossip, and speculation.  In business, good meetings are the key conduit to good communication, keeping everyone informed and ‘in the know’.  This is one of the biggest failings I see in most businesses.  The bigger, faster and more complex your business becomes – the more meetings (that is good meetings) you need to have.

Get out of the Trenches & Rise Above the Crap – It is very easy to get stuck into the fight that is directly in front of us and lose sight of the bigger picture.  Your attention can get sucked into what is right in front of you.  Occasionally you have to step back from the immediate issue, and see what else is going on.  Get out of the trenches and get a helicopter view.  Its like when in a helicopter, if you are flying at tree top level everything flies by very fast, but if you gain height (but retain the same speed) things appear to move more slowly and you have what appears to be more time to react.  Similarly, crap and distraction will always happen, sure you need to deal with it – but don’t get overwhelmed by it or let it detract from the positive efforts and gains you are making – reflect occasionally on the wins too.

The Power of Identity, Ritual, Symbolism and RecognitionNapoleon said “A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of coloured ribbon.”  In the military service, great deeds, and sacrifice are recognised by medals that are worn proudly as badges of honour and recognition.  medals and poppyAdditionally, hats, badges & belts create a sense of organisational identity, while ranks, titles, badges or certificates for progression or tenure reinforce achievement, attainment and loyalty.  Or similarly, the top soldier for the year was recognised with a silver bayonet.  In the NZ infantry we played sport to desperately win a ‘pine cone’ (admittedly from Gallipoli).  These tokens strongly reinforce your purpose, identity and values.  Yet in business, we often find business leaders steer away from any awards, recognition or celebration.   And yet invariably and yet when they do finally decide to do it, their people love it creating a sense of individual and team success, achievement and acknowledgement.  Having things like company branded t-shirts, social fun activities, annual awards events, quarterly recognising people in front or their peers, having welcoming or departing rituals, and smaller ad hoc celebrations, small acknowledgements, and trophies are important.  Anyone who has studied culture knows that symbolism and ritual underpin the culture of an organisations and help create meaning and connection to something bigger than the individual – be intentional – traditions have to start somehow, don’t let your culture be by accident.


Greg is a Strategic Adviser at Advisory.Works

Leaders Beware – Technology Groundrush

When you first go parachuting, having jumped from the plane, you are then floating under canopy, and appear to be slowly drifting toward earth, and you seem to have all of the time in the world suspended in mid-air.  That is up until about the last 50 feet or so, when all of the sudden the ground seems to be coming at you all of the sudden very, very quickly.  And in this hastening situation you swiftly need to take a number of actions all at once to get ready for landing or face injury.  This is perception of hastily approaching ground is commonly referred to as ‘Ground Rush’. 

I remember one time having made a static line parachute jump, I was sitting on the landing zone while a number of free-fallers went up to a higher altitude to make a jump.  We then watched as they made their decent.  The problem was, that they were used to jumping over a landing zone at sea level, but the LZ we were at this day was 1000 feet above sea level.  It became apparent that they hadn’t reset their altimeters for ‘ground zero’, and as they were still free-falling suddenly the earth was appearing below them ‘1000 feet sooner’ than they had anticipated.  I watched them hastily deploy their canopies just before they hit the ground, some had fully opened, others had not.  There were serious injuries, but thankfully no-body died.  So the relevance of this story?

I often hear people talk about and acknowledge technology change and disruption, but then in the next breath state that it is not really in the near future.  In the last few days I have seen a few articles and heard commentary that highlights the pace of approaching technology.  The Watson Computer is now 240% better than it was in 2012 when it won jeopardy, the Baxter robot can operate at $4/hour, and four new manufacturers have just entered the electric vehicle production market in China aiming at mass market segments, not the ‘high end’ like Tesla.   And Ford just announced their intent to have fully autonomous vehicles in commercial operation for a ride-hailing or ride-sharing service beginning in 2021.

tech-ground-rushSo while technology can appear like it is coming very gradually and the changes and shifts wont be that significant, the reality is that the doubling pattern of technology development means that this pace is ever increasing, but because we are immersed in it, sometimes we cant see it changing around us.  However these indicators just outlined, amongst many others, suggest it is and will increase rapidly.  So we need to be actively considering technology and innovation as part of our strategy.

How can this look as it plays out?  It is a well-known story that when McKinsey & Co were asked by AT&T in the mid-1980s ‘how many cell phones there would be in the USA in the year 2000?’ Their research in reply said 900,000.  This was a linear projection.  The actual figure turned out to be 109,000,000.  How could they get it so wrong? They hadnt predicted the ‘doubling pattern’ of technology that increases capability and lowers in price, making it more powerful and ever more accessible.

So as a business leader if you aren’t paying attention to technology and its ever increasing advancement, you will suddenly get what i call ‘Technology Ground Rush’ as technology seemingly suddenly rapidly advances on you – and it may be too late to re-orientate your business to avert injury.  You may even be disrupted and blind-sided.  Similarly, if you are watching the tech space but have said (as I have heard) “yeah I know it’s coming but that’s 5 or more years away” you may experience the same as having you altimeter ‘ground zero’ set wrong.

It’s a hard game to predict, but a person free-fall parachuting is constantly checking, “horizon, ground, and altitude” so they don’t get caught out.  If you aren’t already, this might be a good habit to get into in the technology space around your business sector or be prepared to face “technology ground rush”.

Greg is a consultant at Advisory.Works