Extract from “The Leading-edge Manager’s guide to Success“.

New Zealand is famous for its pristine environment, its rugby prowess, its yachting expertise and its warm welcome to visitors.

There is however more to the small nation that “bats above its weight” on many things on the world stage. New Zealand has produced a unique set of leaders who have some tricks that we can all learn from.

I recently met George Hickton, one of New Zealand’s most successful CEOs a week or so before he left Tourism New Zealand. The purpose of the visit was to gather the tricks that George has used to good effect that any other leader can replicate.

  1. Background

Arriving at the head office you are immediately struck by how different it is from many other Government Institutions/Departments in Wellington. Everything is open plan. There is a large reception area that is used for team gatherings. It is an open plan office with workstations and not an office desk in sight. A quiet buzz of activity permeates the office space. This is very different to the Tourism Board that George inherited.

Having arrived early I decided to go down and get myself a latte. In the lift I spoke to a young staff member. “What is it like to work at TNZ?” “What is like to work with George?”. Besides saying she loved the job and how great George was she said the one thing that struck early on was that “George addressed me by my first name when we met in the lift and I it was my second week and I was only working on a part time basis”. Track back and see his history, interview his staff and the same will be said, “The last of the true gentleman CEOs”, “The nicest CEO I have ever worked for”, “A legend in this own lifetime”.

I believe great leadership is like a finger print, unique to the individuals who exude it. We can, however, glean much by understanding the great masters of leadership. The leaders who have made a great difference: George Hickton is one such leader. I am analysing George against a model I have developed when looking at ‘the Boss’, Ernst Shackleton, one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century.

    1. Crisis management

If you think you have a crisis think of what George faced. In the space of a week Sept 11 and the Ansett collapse had occurred. Like Shackleton, George is at his best in a crisis. He noted that in some cases life is simpler as most of the extraneous activities can be shed and thus you have less ‘balls in the air’ to juggle.

Staff report that they have never seen George in a ‘flap’. In this crisis he focused on and dealt with the issues that mattered, “communicating to the operators in the tourism industry”.

If you have worked for a boss that gets stressed in a crisis please note this is a habit to avoid. Great leaders rise every time to meet the challenge and inspire their staff to do likewise.

    1. Recruiting

GH always looks to recruit senior management positions from within. This trait is common in great companies like Toyota. It is so important to ensure that there is an in-depth understanding of the culture and operations in the senior management team (SMT).

GH has a knack of building a great team around him. He does not have to bring a team from his previous company. He works with the existing senior management developing their often unseen potential.

    1. Optimism

Some say great leaders can be made. I personally do not think so. Whilst ones leadership can improve greatly certain traits needs to be hard wired genetically. One of these is “optimism” GH, like the Boss, always remains optimistic no matter what is thrown his way. This optimism is not just for morale, it is deeper, much deeper. They just always see the jug half full rather than half empty.

Optimism is contagious, it helps organisations overcome horrendous difficulties, it enables the human spirit to achieve the seemingly impossible. Ernest Shackleton, never in the two years stranded, shared any negative thought with his team. He was able to, against unbelievable odds, to visualise salvation and bring back all twenty eight men from their Antarctic prison.

The Monday morning staff meeting is quick and focused on the achievements of the previous week.

    1. Managing Results and People

GH has developed some techniques that have been with him wherever he goes.

  • At Income Support he developed the nine O’clock news, a snapshot metrics report that showed how well all the branches were operating
  • He had a simple vision that everybody could understand “Greater tourist numbers visiting NZ and get them to spend more while they are here”
  • The Monday meeting, with all the Wellington staff, covers progress, people, policy and points of interest.. Whilst addressing the needs of over twenty people, the duration of the meeting never exceeds thirty minutes..
  • The importance of an annual conference, as George says “You need a grand final, something to work towards”. The annual conference is .a two day event that everybody attends. It is heralded as. an opportunity to communicate, to celebrate

When George first introduced this concept to the employment service there was a certain amount of scepticism. George said to the executive team I wish to acknowledge a member of staff who has gone beyond the call of duty to deliver a stunning service. The executive team replied “You cannot do that, by singling out an individual you will ostracize the rest”. George, nodded and said” I accept your point of view but we will go ahead”.

On the day when George started to give the acknowledgement there was a silence in the room. Upon announcement of the named individual there was a spontaneous applause and ovation. Everybody was not only recognising the individual but also celebrating that the organisation was happy to recognise the individual.

As George recants, tears flowed and the recipient had to rush out of the hall to ring his wife, to share the first recognition in twenty years of service.

In TNZ they give out rocks as awards, New Zealand rocks fashioned by nature over millions of years, and as the advert goes “given away in a moment” priceless. The recipients are called “rock stars”. While I was writing this article I was lucky enough to sit next to a recipient of this award on a plane trip. She recalled to me the shock, gratitude and buzz over the acknowledgement, and she too had to rush out to share the news with the folks at home.

Why is it that we create a tax on recognition? Why is it that we are scared to celebrate the individual? I certainly do not subscribe to “employee of the month awards” as it indicates only one can receive it. Why have “employees of the month” as we should celebrate with recognition all those who have achieved.

    1. A born Psychologist

All great leaders are a natural with motivation. The have an in-built radar which warns them who needs to be monitored, helped, recognized. When George was promoted to a leading hand on the Ford assembly line at eighteen he was given a hospital pass.

Over the weeks he had one to one consultations with his staff, many old enough to be his parent. He calmly said ”We need to work well as a team, for if we don’t you will need to work with that miserable sod over there”. It was not long before the team was working like a well oiled machine.

It is interesting to note that the CEO of Toyota began his career by running the canteen. There is no better way to start leadership than to start early.

    1. Conveying the vision

GH is a borne communicator. In order to create a vision you need to communicate a simple message. GH used this to great effect. His message to overseas travellers was “Come now, do more, and send others”. Like all great messages it passes the fourteen year old test. If a fourteen year old understands what you are talking about it is likely many others will.

His message to income support staff was “Provide a fast and accurate Income support service to customers”. As GH points out by making business simple staff get engaged. GH also likes to make strategic plans flexible so they could be organic. I think you need to elaborate, in what context do you mean organic?

    1. Engage and develop staff

GH and his team are one of the few organisations in New Zealand that have a leadership development programme run by the senior management team. This exercise is great for bonding of all those involved and at the same time ensures the executive team members get a refresher themselves. When George was at Income Support Services they trained 150 managers and supervisors a year over the three courses run each year. That is what I call commitment to engage and development.

Induction is something that GH takes very seriously. A new member is formally welcomed by all staff. The Maori welcome performed for the benefit of the new recruit is one of the most powerful experiences in their lives and the full turnout makes a lasting impression.

GH recalls when he first raised his wish for a one week induction course run by the executive team they looked at him and said “George can we afford the time?”. As with all his senior management teams he has worked with, they knew to trust George and of course they were converts after the first induction programme.

    1. Constantly reinventing yourself

GH unlike many CEOs like to read the latest management literature. He mentioned the impact that Gary Hemel’s HBR article ‘moon shots for management’ had on him.

GH would have succeeded at Toyota as their philosophies merge many times. GH likes to challenge the ‘status quo’ of operations’. One week a year the executive team ran part of the business with the existing staff by their side showing them the ropes. His executive teams have run the happy road employment centre, A TAB agency, a income support centre, and a tourist information centre. The importance of seeing the processes is akin to Toyota’s ‘use visual controls so no problems are hidden’

The executive team duty bound to undertake mundane tasks ask the staff, “Why am I having to copy this out three times?”, “Why have I got to have a hard copy when I have an electronic copy?”, “Why do I have to enter so much detail in the database?” The staff replied “These are the procedures that you approved!” On returning from this week the executive team are refreshed, are a tighter knit group whose priorities have changed completely. Now they focus on initiatives that will help the staff at the workface service their clients better.

    1. Managing results and people

GH has always combined the importance of performance with the focus on the happiness of the staff. Toyota likewise have this commitment. I personally was lucky to witness the setting up of income support service in the early 90s. GH had all the walls removed and his newly recruited executive team looked, at first bewildered at the vast empty space where there was no protection from staff coming up to ask a question or seek guidance. The 9 o’clock news was developed, a report that gave the statistics of performance of each income support office. The high performers celebrated and the branches lower down the table knew the extent of the gap that they needed to close.

GH says “It is so important for the executive team to work on the environment not in it”. By keeping in the ‘helicopter’ the executive team allow the supervisors and staff to do their job, to make their decisions, to run the day to day operations while the executive team can look out further afield.

    1. Embody the values

GH arrives to work to sit at a new workstation every day. His dedicated EA has arrived earlier to position them in a new place. All staff, at TNZ, are to work at a different workstation each day. For too many readers this would sound impossible, disruptive, inefficient yet, on reflection, profoundly logical.

Toyota have the five S’s Sort, Straighten, Shine, Standardise and Sustain. Jeffrey Liker has explained this and the other 14 management principles of Toyota in his master piece ‘The Toyota way’. To be efficient we all would agree everything should be able to be found in the right place. Staff at the TNZ have:

  • all their work saved electronically on shared drives on the mainframe
  • a small filing area for personal possessions which are repositioned, everyday
  • filing of all papers goes into a suite of filing cabinets, organised so all can access

  • the same computer equipment

  • a corporate wardrobe that supports the values of this great entity.

Nothing more typifies the values that GH embeds in the organisations he works for than the TNZ’s ‘NZ rugby ball’ display structure that shows off New Zealand scenery to all visitors. This display structure travels around the world popping up at exotic locations, like one of those stolen garden gnomes e.g., under the Eiffel Tower! From the dream, came the confirmation that technically it was possible, then came the approval from the Minister, with the caveat, ‘this better bloody well work’, to the approval from the French government, in un-Gaelic like speed.

The erected ball in Paris could have come unstuck. After the famous French victory it became a rallying point for French fans. The ball structure being saved from any damage by the quick thinking TNZ staff who quickly posted congratulations messages, in French, all around the site.

    1. A serving not self serving leader

GH was a leader very early on. At the Ford plant he was, at 21 years old, made leader of one of the assembly lines. One appointment to head a team of dispute hardened sceptics he talked to each of this staff, many twenty years older, and said, “I know I am a lot younger and less experienced than you. Please give me a chance to make this team work well”. He went on to say in typical GH fashion, pointing across the production line, “If I fail you will have that grumpy bugger over there as your supervisor”.

GH points out the importance of taking on leadership positions early on. At school, university, at social clubs, sports teams etc. It is through these experiences you can be become a student of ‘practical’ psychology.

Like all great leaders George has had many mentors on his journey. From the Ford manager who took him under his wing to Andy Kirkland and Jas McKenzie. To all those managers out there reading this please will you get yourself a mentor who is wiser than you, has more grey hair and whose advice you respect.

This article is part of a series featuring leadership and has been extracted from a large whitepaper called “Conquest Management – a guide to the top” which is available from www.davidparmenter.com. I hope this and my other articles will help aspiring managers copy winning leadership traits. If they do please let me know of your success.

    1. Writer’s biography

 David Parmenter is a speaker on and author of “The Leading-Edge Manager’s Guide to Success”, “Key Performance Indicators” (Wiley).

Contact at: parmenter@waymark.co.nz, www.DavidParmenter.Com.He can be contacted at parmenter@waymark.co.nz or +64 4 499 0007

Extract from “The Leading-edge Manager’s guide to Success“.