The Business Of...Adaptive Leadership

About the Episode

Today’s leaders are required to be adaptable and resilient with a growth mindset that equips them to navigate complexity and lead people and organisations effectively during times of crisis. The unprecedented disruption of 2020 means leaders must look for opportunities to create new business models as they respond, reset, recover, and rebuild.

In this episode of the AGSM ‘Business Of…’ podcast we look at Adaptive Leadership, and turn our attention to the tourism industry, one of the hardest hit by the global pandemic. A global health crisis, travel restrictions, border closures, the cancellation of major events and a continent ravaged by summer bushfires have decimated the many Australian businesses relying on tourism this year.

For some first-hand perspective into how the country’s tourism sector is adapting during the crisis, host Emma Lo Russo is joined by Phillipa Harrison, managing director at Tourism Australia. We also hear from Quirin Schwaighofer, Co-CEO and Co Founder of Australian accommodation innovator, MadeComfy, who despite unprecedented disruption, uncovered growth opportunities for his business and a way to support essential workers during the early stages of the pandemic.

Finally, Richard Holden, professor of economics at UNSW Business School, shares his insights on how we, as leaders, can navigate the long and short term challenges on the road to recovery.

Speakers:

  • Emma Lo Russo, (AGSM MBA Executive 2013), CEO and Co-founder of Digivizer
  • Phillipa Harrison, (AGSM MBA Executive, 2007), Managing Director at Tourism Australia
  • Quirin Schwaighofer, (AGSM MBA Executive, 2013), Co-CEO and Co Founder of MadeComfy,
  • Professor Richard Holden, Professor of economics at UNSW Business School.

 

Emma Lo Russo:
Welcome to The Business Of…

I'm your host Emma Lo Russo, and this leadership podcast is brought to you by the Australian Graduate School of Management at UNSW Business School.

The ability to manage through and recover from a crisis is a staple of effective leadership, but rarely does one come along that's universal enough to impact everyone. We've seen that happen this year with COVID-19, and the way we weather change and look for opportunities to learn, evolve, rebuild and recover from it, will inform generations of leaders in years to come. 

In this episode, we turn our attention to the tourism industry, one of the hardest hit by the global pandemic. In the space of a few short months, we've seen airlines, like Virgin Australia, go into voluntary administration, and others, like Qantas, forced to lay off record numbers of staff. This, coupled with the closure of borders, the cancellation of major events and a continent ravaged by recent bushfires it's just the tip of the iceberg for the many businesses that are reliant on Australian tourism..

For some first-hand perspective into how the country's tourism sector is managing the crisis, I'm joined by Phillipa Harrison, managing director at Tourism Australia.

We'll also hear from Quirin Schwaighofer, Co-CEO and Co Founder of Australian accommodation innovator, MadeComfy, who despite disruption, uncovered growth opportunities for his business and a way to support essential workers during the early stages of the pandemic.

Finally, I talk to Richard Holden, professor of economics at UNSW Business School. Richard shares his insights on how we, as leaders, can navigate the long and short term challenges on the road to recovery. 

First up, let's hear from Philipa Harrison

Phillipa, I'm very excited to speak to you today. Welcome to The Business Of...

Phillipa Harrison:
Thanks Emma. Good to be here.

Emma Lo Russo:
What a challenging time? Let's just set some context for the tourism industry. First, the bushfires, then COVID, how has this impacted the sector?

Phillipa Harrison:
This is no doubt the most challenging time the Australian tourism industry has ever faced. So as you say, we started off the year with the worst bushfire season we'd ever had, and that had a massive impact, not just on those areas that were affected by the bushfire, but the downturn in tourism that came about as part of that. Because there were images of fiery hell going out around the world and people actually thought that all of Australia was burning. And so people just stopped coming here.

So we were just starting to recover from that. We were doing lots of work around the perception issues. We did some research and people thought that more than 25% of Australia was burned. It was pretty bad out there, but we were seeing the shoots of recovery from that. Then global tourism just shut down, virtually, in a couple of weeks. It's just a situation that none of us had planned for, but particularly, the tourism industry, which is 300,000 businesses, most of those are SMEs.

They just don't have continuity plans in place for shut down of six months or more. So we went from an industry that contributes more than $10 billion a month to the Australian economy, to one that is in hibernation effectively.

Emma Lo Russo:
How does an industry pivot and manage that disruption that you've had to experience?

Phillipa Harrison:
Well, for the vast majority of the industry, they couldn't pivot. It was really just around hibernation and conserving cash, and hoping that they get through it. Tourism Australia is a marketing organisation. We are federally funded and our job is to promote Australia to the world and to promote inbound visitation. So our job at that point was really around making sure that Australia remains top of mind because the path to planning a holiday and then booking it, it can be months to years. So it was important that we didn't go dark in our markets.

So we did make sure that we were still there. We pulled all of our big marketing campaigns, we pulled all of our conversion-based partnership marketing, and it was really around the tone and timing of our messaging completely changed. And it was around just talking about everything there is to see and do in Australia, but making sure that people know that they shouldn't book now, that we're here and ready when the time is safe to travel again.

So we have done a lot of changing. And the other thing that we've done is we've focused on the domestic market now. We haven't been in the domestic market for over eight years and this is where the opportunity is going forward, certainly for the foreseeable future.

Emma Lo Russo:
You're just under a year as managing director in your new role. How does it feel and what was it like to experience leading an organisation through this incredible time?

Phillipa Harrison:
You know what? It actually feels really purposeful. While the tourism industry was focusing on business continuity issues, it was our job to and it still is our job by the way, to do the heavy lifting in the marketing sense and to focus on the future when most people just aren't in a position to do that. So we are probably busier than we've ever been ironically because all of our borders are closed.

And arrivals in April,, they were 99.7% down, so I never saw it-

Emma Lo Russo:
Wow.

Phillipa Harrison:
... as the MD of a new organisation I would oversee the biggest fall ever in history. But there I am and hopefully I will oversee the biggest upturn as well.

Emma Lo Russo:
Did you find you had to change your leadership style? How did that have to adapt from maybe where you started to this period?

Phillipa Harrison:
I think it wasn't so much changing as dialling up things that were important. So I think for me, there were some guiding principles and probably the first one that I made a lot of decisions around is just putting people first. So I call it humanity over economy. Very early on, I saw a webinar with Tom Peters who I was introduced to from my time at AGSM. He's very straightforward and he said, "You're going to be judged by the way you treat people through this period. It's going to define you and it's going to define your career."

The other thing I think was really important is just being quick and making decisions imperfectly but quickly. So we did set up a crisis team. We met once or twice a day and we made lots of decisions based on what was happening right now, and I think that that was important. So the cadence of my leadership changed completely. Who I talked to and how I made decisions changed pretty much overnight.

You have to do that, you don't have a time on your side when you are managing in a crisis and you're managing so many different, I guess leavers are coming in and there's lots of pressure. Tourism Australia is an organisation that has many, many stakeholders and trying to make the right decisions for all of those stakeholders was actually quite an interesting job.

Emma Lo Russo:
I read an amazing stat in terms of feedback from your team or engagement rating from your team.

Phillipa Harrison:
Yeah. Well, we did a stakeholder engagement survey. We do with our staff all the time and it came back with 96% engagement, and NPS, is this Tourism Australia a good place to work? Went up from 23 to 44. So I think people have felt like we have looked after them in this time. We have made sure that as they work at home, they have the right tools and just making sure that we communicate frequently and honestly. And I think that people appreciate that.

I think if you treat people like adults and ask them to step up and place trust in them, they step up to your expectations of them, and we've certainly seen that with the Tourism Australia team.

Emma Lo Russo:
You talked about cadence changing and some of the, I guess, lessons through that. How do you feel your leadership has changed? And what do you want to take forward? If you could share more of your thinking there?

Phillipa Harrison:
I think it's given me, I guess the assurance I needed and the courage because I'm very new MD. I've only been an MD for less than a year. I've run businesses and departments before, but this is the first time as an MD. And it's given me the assurance that there's a way that I like to lead and the way that I like to manage, which is being authentic, and transparent, and imperfect, and all of those things that people like that and people respond to that.

I look at the Jacinda Ardern example. I love her leadership style. I think that she is just absolutely nailing it. I can't say I wish she'd run Australia because I work for the government, but I love her and I think that she is going to define and lead a new style of leadership into the future, and it's all around being decisive, making hard decisions, but just being warm, and authentic, and imperfect with that as well.

Emma Lo Russo:
Jacinda led a lot with talking to everyone, and I think even our own government did that. How have you engaged your stakeholders, this broader tourism community during this period?

Phillipa Harrison:
It's a really uncertain time and we don't have the answers that people want from us.. But what we have done is just over-communicate. I actually don't think you can over communicate in a time like this.

I think we just changed our comms with the industry. I send a personal email three times a week with a summary of what's gone on in the last couple of days. Those messages have been repurposed and sent out everywhere. We do a webinar every single week, and in the early days, we're on webinar about 14 now, but in the early days we have thousands of people signing up because people were at home, they didn't know what was going on and they wanted some certainty and a little bit of connection..

Emma Lo Russo:
I think that personal approach to leadership is obviously transferred then to that group. How do you keep, I guess the leadership style and then take it forward?

Phillipa Harrison:
Previously, my role was a lot about going out and travelling and being places, and I will continue to do that. I think it is important to go and be face-to-face with people.

Generally as people, we just like face-to-face communication, but the tourism industry is all about relationships, it's all about delivering personal experiences. So for me, it's just about keeping up that cadence in a more face-to-face way. But I think also I will continue to communicate in some of the forms that I have over the last couple of months. I will continue to do webinars, and podcasts, and things like that.

And I think for me, it's about thought leadership, and one of the things that I have done over this period actually is set up a bit of a strategy unit, think tank that I really want to provide the thinking that people are after.

People are looking for thought leadership from us. What does consumer sentiment look like in the future? What is the distribution going to look like? What travel agents are left? What wholesalers are left? What experiences are people looking for? So one of the things that we're doing is really stepping that up because people want that practical help and don't necessarily have the means or resources to do that themselves.

Emma Lo Russo:
I was talking to a friend in Mudgee and she's saying how that region has really opened up because everyone's looking for their experiences, but within state. How do you see that flourish and the lessons learned and being taken forward for those types of businesses or regions?

Phillipa Harrison:
As Australians, we love travelling and over the last couple of decades, it's been all about travelling off shore. That's where the excitement is, that's where the brag ability is. And six-and-a-half million of us took leisure trips off shore last year. We went off and did all those experiential and amazing things, and that will come back, that's not going to change. But what we're trying to do as a government and a marketing organisation at the moment is to, and I've got a hashtag for you because we're in marketing, Holiday Here This Year.

It's really about our opportunity is showcasing how damn amazing our own backyard is and that people should get out and experience Australia. Because it's interesting, the top 10 domestic destinations do not correlate with the top 10 international destinations because Australians are... I'm not worried about the hotels in Noosa, they're going to fill themselves. It's the Great Barrier Reef. It doesn't even feature in the top 10.

It is the number one reason people come to Australia is to see this natural wonder of the world and it doesn't even feature in our domestic top 10. So we have a bit of a job to do to show Australians again, just how amazing all these incredible experiences that we have. There are some amazing multi-day walks all over Australia that have come up and developed over the last 10 years that I don't think people necessarily know about.

There's Ningaloo Reef and the whale sharks. There's the Kimberly, there's all these amazing places. We think there's a real opportunity here to get people focused again on their own backyard. And we also think there's probably going to be a little bit of nostalgia around the road trip, and people getting back in their cars and taking those three and four-hour drives, and discovering things along the way.

Emma Lo Russo:
Well, I'm doing my bit for you. I would have been overseas at this time and I've just come back from up the coast holiday, and I booked a down the coast holiday and I'm exploring areas again. I've been there before, but it's different lenses, different ages, you do different things.

I am curious what would you advise someone who's going to face a crisis to make sure that they get through it? What do you think your key lessons have been or recommended?

Phillipa Harrison:
Look, the key one for me has been around communication. It's really hard to underestimate how important it is to communicate. We've even seen that through this crisis, the daily update from our leaders have been... they've been a point of certainty. They sometimes haven't had a lot to say, but there has been the point of certainty where we're going to hear from somebody who knows what's going on, they're going to tell us as much as they know. So I think that regular, and clear, and transparent communication, I probably would place at the top of the list.

Then the other thing that we did early on was to set some sort of framework for making decisions because as I said, there's a lot going on, there's a lot of stakeholders, there's a lot of things going on. So we early on set a framework around consumer sentiment because we are a marketing organisation. And so we decided that we were going to monitor our markets and it's domestic, but it's also many other markets around the world that were in different stages of crisis. And so our reaction has to be different at those.

We looked at four different mindsets, and one was panic. When people are in panic mode, they're trying to work out what they're doing. They don't know, do they have a job? Is it safe? What do we do? Where's my toilet paper. We're trying to work all that stuff out. That is one mindset. When they get locked down and there's restricted movement, they start dreaming a little bit and thinking about life beyond.

Then there's the rising optimism of, things are starting to open up. I can maybe go to Mudgee for the weekend and all of that sort of stuff. Then there is when there's unrestricted free movement, this new environment we're in, what are people going to want then? So we have this green light project that looks at a number of, I guess data, points, if you'd like and we decide where a market is. That determines how we act and how we market and what we do.

And that has really helped us frame with the industry, with our stakeholders, with our teams, the decision making that we needed to make. So that was really important as well. The other thing would just be the crisis management, make sure you move quickly, make sure you meet frequently, make sure you have a cadence that is quick and you're able to be quite nimble.

Emma Lo Russo:
You talked about observing or measuring consumer sentiment, and that you said that was both domestically and that was also internationally. What techniques do you use? What have you observed over that period? And what do you think is likely to stick by way of that sentiment?

Phillipa Harrison:
Yeah. There's a lot of research on consumer sentiment at the moment. Some of that is going to be sticky and some of it is just of a moment and really a reaction to the way people are feeling right now. But we do know that there will be... This connection with family and friends is going to stay around for a while, it's really important. Sustainability and travelling with a light footprint is something that has gained a lot of interest and a lot of momentum over the last decade.

And towards the end of 2019, it was something that a lot of people were talking about. It is going to be more important now. I think this crisis has amplified that, so travelling in a sustainable way, visiting sustainable businesses is going to be important to people, so we think that that's going to really dial up. So we are changing and looking at how we manage that going forward as well.

I spoke to an operator who has an 88-year old mother-in-law in Italy, and she was saying that after the second World War, people were different for a decade. They changed what was important to them. Their priorities were more around family and friends than things. And they really had a sense of appreciation for the earth, and for the land around them, and for the great food that they were given because they were denied that for so long. And I really do think that those things are increasingly important for people.

And so that's certainly messages that we are going to pull into our marketing and also into our product development going forward.

Emma Lo Russo:
So the path to recovery, taking that view of what you can and can't control, how are you looking at building this recovery period? And over what period of time are you currently modelling?

Phillipa Harrison:
I think it's going to take a few years for the tourism industry to recover. It was the first affected, it's going to be one of the last to recover because leisure tourism, it's something that's not going to come back in the same form for quite a few years, we don't think. So what we're looking at in terms of recovery is just where the fish are at the moment.

And we also think that cohorts from offshore are going to come back in a slightly staggered manner as well. So students might come back first, business leaders might come back first, and then potentially people visiting their friends and relatives before those bigger, really high-yielding travellers come back. So we are just making sure that we are making the most of each of those markets as they come online, if you'd like to use an imperfect word and looking at all the levers that we need for that.

So aviation recovery is a really important part of that. More than half of the airlines, the world's aircraft are parked at the moment. All airlines are going to come back as smaller airlines and our job as an island is to make sure that as many of those as possible are pointed towards Australia. So we're looking at aviation recovery.

Then just making sure that Australia is top of mind and that what is important to people right now, we are offering up, and we're in a great spot with that. Safety and security is a number one rational factor that people have when they're deciding on where to travel. We are a very safe destination, always have been.

Emma Lo Russo:
What about you as a leader and your leadership team? What do you think is going to be the way forward for you leading now that you've gone through this crisis? What stays moving forward?

Phillipa Harrison:
Whew. That's a good question. Look, I think I'm happy with the way that we are at the moment. I think we need to as I said, keep some of the lessons that we learned through this period. But I think you can't always run an organisation like you're in a crisis and I think for me, it's working out the right time to get back to a new normal.

One of the things that we are looking at is, what is our structure in the future? And that's not something that we can determine right at the moment. We've made a few tweaks and changes, but the structure of the future is going to depend on the tourism industry of the future, who our customers are, what distribution looks like, what the industry looks like. And one of the things that I'm going to focus on is, are we fit for purpose? And I think there's going to be quite a lot of soul-searching around that one.

Emma Lo Russo:
Amazing. Phillipa, I have enjoyed so much talking to you. I feel like there's so much to learn.

Phillipa Harrison:
It was lovely talking to you. We do next one over a glass of wine. How's that?

Emma Lo Russo:
Sounds perfect. I'd love to.

Emma Lo Russo:
Wow. I don't think many businesses would face a 99.7% downturn that Phillipa had to. But it was her choice to go humanity over economy. The speed at which she changed the cadence of her leadership team, the emphasis she placed on communication, and genuinely changing, with great speed to help those customers in the way that they needed. We can all take something from that.

The business co-founded by my next guess is a true Aussie success story. Since its launch in 2016, MadeComfy has transformed into a fast growing and multi-award winning disrupter in the accommodation sector, and in 2019, became an official partner of Airbnb.

Let's go to my conversation with Quirin and hear how he's leading the MadeComfy team through the challenges of COVID-19.

Quirin, welcome to The Business Of. I've loved watching MadeComfy grow, but can you give a brief overview of how it's performed and growing since you launched it?

Quirin Schwaighofer:
Thanks, Emma. A pleasure to be here. Thank you so much. We are short-term rental brand. We provide quirky and comfortable, self-contained accommodation at a high level of consistency and cleanliness, service, and quality, to travellers that stay between three nights and to six months and prefer us to hotels or Airbnbs. We are about four and a half years old as a start-up, I think we're still a start-up, and been growing in Australia since, with that vision to be Australia's most-loved short-term rental brand. And yeah, it's been a very exciting time since we started. We grew a lot year on year. And then this year have the pleasure to face a few things with the bush fires and COVID-19, so lots of things to learn and to grow on.

Emma Lo Russo:
Well before we probe those challenges, because I would agree, what a challenging and unpredictable year, being hit with both things. But what inspired you to start the company?

Quirin Schwaighofer:
Well, there are a few things. If I summarise it to three things, one thing was when I did my MBA, I was a sales engineer at a mining company. And I remember I did managerial skills with you and it was really impressive how you did your own business. You had your family and it seemed like you could do anything. I was like, "Wow, what am I doing, actually? I'm in this corporate ladder. I'm doing everything I can." And so that was a really eye-opener and I met a few other really incredible founders at that time. The second one was really, I got to the point where I really need to be challenged and I need to be excited about things. And I really lost that in my corporate career. And, really, I thought I need to do something else.

And then the third thing, I stayed in an Airbnb in Melbourne at a Formula One race and everything was booked out and our friends recommended the Airbnb. And I was like, "Okay. I've not stayed in one." 2014. And when I got there, I thought, "How smart is she?" I used to live, back then, in Cremorne Point, with amazing views. And I thought, "I have a Formula One every morning and evening with a sunrise and sunset, and why am I not renting out my place when I'm travelling?" So went back, put my place on Airbnb, and I thought that was very easy.

I got bookings, but that's when it started to get difficult to really manage the whole process. And Sabrina, my co-founder, helped me a little bit and that was not sustainable. And yeah, we did a bit of research to find someone to help. And suddenly this whole thing opened up where we realise there's a whole ecosystem growing, especially overseas, in the US and in Europe. And Australia was around two or three years behind that, but we could really see this all happening and we thought, "Wow, no one is in that space." And naive as we were back then, we thought, "Let's do that and build a hospitality business based on that."

Emma Lo Russo:
Well, I should say thank you for that reason one. I didn't ask that question to get that answer, but I thank you for sharing that. I think you're right. I know I learnt more than I ever imagined going from corporate to doing my own start-up. You said that naivety. What do you think the first lessons were at those early stages?

Quirin Schwaighofer:
Why I'm really saying naivety is because if you knew everything,... And I'm honest to myself. I'm not sure if I had the guts to actually do that. If someone gave me this book and said, "Okay, you have to tick that all. And if you don't, you will fail. And even if you do tick it, there's a high chance that you don't make it, but good luck." And really, it was this whole naivety of starting a business. It's so easy. You click a button and you register a company and you think, "Oh, that's so easy." And we were lucky that we built a website on website builder. We got a booking, a customer, the first, really, week, and we thought that's so easy. But then, really, building a business, there's so much more than that.

Learning about how to raise capital, for example. We knew very early we had to raise capital because it is a quite tech- and service-heavy piece. And I'm not a developer, Sabrina's not a developer, so we knew we needed to build infrastructure. So learning about how to really raise capital, I had to Google what a VC is.. And really learning how to do a pitch deck, how to really do that. Whilst doing that, really, how to build a company, from all the things you don't talk about. Your HR, your legals, marketing, inbound marketing. All those things were, in the corporate world it was done by someone. And we had little insights. Learning all of that is like a whole study itself. Naivety drives you to make more mistakes and to be really challenging with your goals. And I think that gets you forward.

The second thing next to naivety, I think, is what you need is persistence, because you fail a lot and you get told a lot that what you do will not work, or is a bit of a nonsense. The more you hear that, usually the better it is, because less people try it. And you might really end up in a place where you add something really valuable to others, which then is what it's all about. Adding value to others that are willing to pay something for it.

Emma Lo Russo:
So you're going through all that massive learning. Four years in, you've got 50% of your customers from overseas, and you get hit by fires and then COVID-19. What was that impact like? What did that mean for your business?

Quirin Schwaighofer:
Well, it was a shock for everyone. At first we thought, "Okay, worst case, what can happen? We have to close MadeComfy. We're not going to get through this. We thought about how, what do we do with the team? Where do we find them jobs? What are we doing? How do we pay our things?"

And that was about a week that was really, really hard. And we realised, for MadeComfy, the bottleneck was properties. Getting more properties meant you get more guests. And the whole travel market was growing itself.

What we realised is for the next couple of years, properties will not be the bottleneck, because the long-term market will be impacted. A lot of other shorter rentals will simply not be booked. So let's pause all marketing and sales in that space, and how can we fill the properties? Because if we fill our properties, we will get more properties. So that was a really key change in shifting, and we went back to the wall with our Post-it notes and started with our strategy diamond, with all of these frameworks.

And that really helped at that point. And yeah, we came up with a strategy after a month where we knew we'll get out of that. Now, once we did that, we also had of course, to save the business. So we knew we had to cut around 60% of our opex, because we will not be able to get the revenue back that quickly. And one key advice I got from Rolf Hansen, one of our advisory board members, and a mentor of myself, was always make sure you have control. If you have control, you can do things. If you lose control, that's when it gets ugly. And so to keep control, we had to reduce our costs, to manage our cashflow and runway. And that was a very difficult point because you can only cut costs in so many areas. And it was a point where we had to be very true to our values, especially trust, agility, and empowerment, and it was very clear for us that making people redundant and just letting them go was the last thing we want to do.

Emma Lo Russo:
So do you want to share a little bit about those steps, the strategy change, that pivot that you undertook?

Quirin Schwaighofer:
An amazing thing that really came out of that was our CTO, Tom, came up with his idea. We used to do cross-functional teams before, more casually, but he said, "Look we have to change so many things. And it's so difficult to align tech with marketing, with sales, with customer experience." So one focus for us is the corporate market where we think companies that do have to travel to make a revenue will have to travel. And hotels are maybe not the nicest thing to put your staff into, especially where you have other people that are getting quarantined. And what we have as a nature is spacious, self-contained properties at a lower cost as well. So those are really interesting parts, so how can we get prior companies to book on MadeComfy? And so to do that is so complex. And so Tom came up with this idea about these mini-pods. We call them mini pods now, MadeComfy pods, where we have maximum 6 team members, one captain, and we tackle mini-project by mini-project by mini-project, in a really six-week quick huddle, where we have someone from marketing, sales, tech in there.

And for example, the target is to get the very first corporate booking. What's that MVP; we have to, have to get there. One other one is we, in the whole time, the last three months, we launched our own booking page. So what can we do to increase conversion by 20%? And we now have three of those pods and it is now no longer Sabrina and myself to really lead that. We are out. We watch. We are not allowed to get too much involved, but it's incredible to now see that it was the best thing we ever did to not let people go, to now empower them to help us to be aligned with our strategy, our OKRs and our goal to evolve MadeComfy in, like these mini-robots, mini-pods, like to mould my company to that shape. It has to be. And I'm super-excited about that. And when I look at the faces of the team, from this anxiety they had a month ago to where they are today, empowered and really excited. There's nothing better than watching that.

Emma Lo Russo:
So would have, again, been such a great learning from a leadership perspective. So looking at your leadership style through this crisis, and love the idea of those mini-pods, what do you feel your biggest lessons are?

Quirin Schwaighofer:
Well, I think there's nothing by the book that you can do in those moments, because there is no book written yet about COVID-19. There may be lots of case studies, I'm sure, but it's about a few things. I think being true to your values is so important, and showing empathy and being persistent, I think, is a few important things and to have a clear vision.

And that is something you learn, you experience. You don't read it in a book. And I think it shapes you as a leader for the next challenge that you will face, but it is an important part. The second one, really, to trust your team and be a more of a supportive leader, so you go from the front to the back, is again something that requires you to be able to do that, so you have to put your ego back. You need to know that others can do better as a team than you, and all these things you learn about and read about are great, but it's very difficult when you know everything is at stake, and you have to trust that what you put in place works. Again, is so easy read and so difficult done.

Emma Lo Russo:
If you were writing a book or you were contributing to a book, what do you think this crisis has taught you about leadership or resilience? What are you going to take forward, no matter what?

Quirin Schwaighofer:

That's a good question. I think never be too confident that you are there. That that's it. I think we were on this amazing traction and close to our series B, and then something hits you. In this case, it's just nice it hits really everyone. What the maybe main learning there is, is like it is so daunting. And from a stress-level point of view, it is very difficult. And the one thing that maybe I learn from, I would put it in the book, is don't worry about things you can't change and accept those things. Understand what is the worst case scenario. And be really okay with that because you simply can't change. There is no unfair, there is no things. It is simply life. And then really focus on the things that you can change and that you can tackle. And that can be so many things that you maybe haven't done before.

We've done, personally, so many things. Tidied up certainly areas financially. Sabrina and I got married, which we wanted to do for a long time, and which I said, "Okay, let's do this now." That was when there were only two people allowed and then we had our wedding with 20 people. It was amazing. But all these little things also within the company, like these mini-pods that would have not really happened without this crisis. And when you look back, when I look back to myself, when I learned the most was when it was really difficult, tough, unfair, and you make it or not. This is when you learn a lot.

So when a crisis like this happens, see that bit? This is one of those moments you will look back and you will say, "Hey, wow, I grew so much in this time. And I learned so much from that, that I am a different person, a better person." And once you do all of that, just make sure that whenever you look in the mirror, that you can look into the mirror and that you do not regret whatever you do.

Emma Lo Russo:
Yeah. Quirin, thank you so much for joining me today to The Business Of.

Quirin Schwaighofer:
Thank you, Emma. Thank you very much for inviting me.

Emma Lo Russo:
I really enjoyed speaking to Quirin again, and seeing how far he's taken his business. It was good to reflect how you don't really know what it's like to start a business, and your speed of learning is exactly the same speed you need to learn and pivot in a crisis situation. I loved how he set up those mini pods for his team to fast-track problem solving and drive innovative thinking during this crisis.

Perspective is such an important part of leading through a crisis, and my final guest for today lends us plenty of it on both the human and economic challenges that lie ahead. Let's hear my conversation with Richard Holden, professor of economics at the UNSW Business School.

Hi, Richard, welcome to The Business Of. I'm really looking forward to speaking to you and starting with what do you see as the biggest short term and longterm challenges we face on the road to recovery?

Richard Holden:
Well, I think in the short term, the biggest challenge is getting the public health crisis under control.

The longterm crisis is going to be getting our economy back moving again. We're going to be trying to get our unemployment down from levels that we haven't seen in decades. We're going to be coming out of the first recession in about 30 years. And we've got a situation where the reserve bank's interest rates, monetary policy is really no use anymore. They can't practically speaking, go any lower. And so it's going to be up to the government using its policy leavers to try and get us back on the economic track coming out of COVID.

Emma Lo Russo:
So what do you think of the different skills or perspectives that drive each of those stages? Because they're quite distinct aren't they in quite different areas?

Richard Holden:
That's one of the things that I thinks been interesting about the crisis, which is we've seen a lot of deference to public health officials and so-called medical experts. And I think that's been really encouraging to see. There's been, there's been some people lamenting how we don't trust experts anymore. And I think in this instance our medical experts have really acquitted themselves incredibly well. The national cabinet and the prime minister in particular have put a lot of faith in them and they've done a great job. So, that skill set is still obviously very relevant while we continue to weather the health crisis. And unless and until we have a widely deployed vaccine rather, more or less worldwide, then those skills are still going to be very, very important.

But we're now going to need to see skills really on the economic repair side of things. And that's what's coming into play now, and that's going to involve everything from thinking through fiscal policy and how to deploy government spending in a useful and intelligent way, to thinking about policy reforms in areas that are going to range from industrial relations, to tax policy, to education policy, really across the economy.

Emma Lo Russo:
Does it also, the fact that we've done more online, you don't have to travel overseas or you don't have to ... you can employ someone overseas much more easily. Does that change the opportunities or the thinking about what future organisations or the economy can recover to leverage?

Richard Holden:
I think it's a really interesting opportunity in two ways. The first is as we know, Australia is pretty far in applying from anywhere and very far from certain places, and as someone who spends a reasonable amount of most years in the United States and a little bit in Europe, I know that all too well. And so this is going to mean that remote work can be done more, it's time zones and things like that still really matter, but that still gives us big opportunities within the region. Thinking about some of the Asian countries that are on similar time zones to the East coast of Australia.

I think the other thing that's a huge opportunity with technology is to try and think about remote work within Australia. So we've had a kind of forced experiment if you will, with a whole lot of people, people in jobs that can, to all intents and purposes, be done from home. So people do their work on a computer, it can be on a Zoom call, things like that. That's obviously not everybody by any means, but those who can, have by necessity, taken advantage of that. And some companies have seemingly been surprised by how successful that's been.

So I've seen overseas companies like Twitter saying, "We kind of thought", and Facebook saying, "We kind of thought there'd be a drop in productivity. It looks like it's gone up", and they're already making work from anywhere options permanent going forward for anyone who wants to do it, even post COVID. And so I think we wouldn't have seen that kind of experiment. It would have been a kind of brave thing for any company to do, but it just shows you that bold experiments can sometimes provide really big payoffs and striking results.

Emma Lo Russo:
That's a great example of the positive side, but what in your view as some of the common mistakes leaders make when they respond to a crisis?

Richard Holden
I think the most common mistake that leaders make is not realising there is a crisis. I think the real mistake that lurks for Australia now is not understanding what this kind of recession is. And I think the right way to think about it is this is a recession in two acts, or in two parts. Part one is the supply shock, it's COVID. No one wants to buy anything, everyone wants to stay at home. The government then comes in and helps coordinate that lockdown and changes it from a sort of self lockdown into a mandated lockdown. There's really good work coming out of the US by Steven Levitt of Freakonomics fame, and Chad Sieverson from the university of Chicago showing that about 90% of the contraction in economic activity came from the self lockdown. People just not wanting to go to the shops and get sick, not wanting to spend money that they might not have in a crisis, anticipating getting laid off and so on.

And then you had the government come in and there's the self lockdown down, that contracts the economy because there's a whole lot of stuff that normally would get produced to supply that doesn't. Now once the health crisis is dealt with and things open back up, l, we're then going to be left with high unemployment, damaged business and household balance sheets, people with back rent, people with back mortgage payments, landlords who may or may not get that back rent who've got their own back mortgage payment, people without the income that they thought that they would have going forward, but a lot of other financial obligations and real damage of confidence, both on the consumer and business side.

And so faced with that, we're going to have what looks like a much more ordinary, but very significant recession. So think of the early '90s recession, or maybe even the financial crisis of 2008. So I think the big risk and the big watch out for us is to think that once you've dealt with, as a government, the supply shock, or as I like to put it, COVID recession phase one, to then ignore that there's going to be COVID recession phase two, and you need to do in that instance, all the things that governments normally do on the policy side in responding to a big ugly demand side recession.

And I think the concern is the government is going to take their foot off the kind of fiscal pedal and think things are going back to normal. And my own view and the view of most mainstream economists is with our continued fiscal measures of a pretty significant size, that recovery won't happen as planned.

Emma Lo Russo:
Where do you see the traits we saw in the government leadership to business leaders in how they can approach their recovery?

Richard Holden:
So I think good leaders tend to explain where they're going. That's important for the people that are in their organisation, whether that be a business or a university or even the military or something. I think people in an organisation understanding what the strategy is and where you're heading is really important, but also all the other stakeholders that are involved. So I think business leaders who are able to say what it's going to mean for their customers, what it's going to mean for their suppliers, what it's going to mean for all the other people that are touched by their operations. Shareholders obviously as well as a very important stakeholder, I think being clear with people is really important.

Emma Lo Russo:
What do you think are the short term sacrifices we've made? How will that lead to the longterm recovery?

Richard Holden:
Yeah, I thought very much and said early on that the pain we were suffering on the economic side was best thought of as an investment in the economy of the future, that we were taking pain in the short term. And for some people it was extremely painful, for other people it wasn't so bad. There was a real distribution of pain and loss during that time, and that continues to the time that we're speaking. But I think of that as an investment in the economy of the future. And so that was a smart thing to do.

Similarly, I think organisations coming out of this are going to have to think about how they adapt to, if not a permanently new world or changed world for several years. So international travel is not going to be coming back in a meaningful way anytime soon. We don't know how long that's going to go on for. International trade has taken a real hit and there are increased tensions around that. There's a lot of pushback around globalisation, which I think has been one of the huge drivers of the world economy and Australia as a country that gets roughly a quarter of its GDP from exporting and importing is potentially going to be hit really hard by that. So again, thinking about what sacrifices we need to make to get us through this period for the longer term I think is really important there.

Emma Lo Russo:
What do you think are the most important things Australian businesses need to get right to rebuild post-crisis?

Richard Holden:
I think one of the things is trying to use the crisis in the moment for whatever restructuring and reform they need to do. So again, I don't really like to point to silver linings about things as devastating on both the health and economic side of this, but to the extent that there might be a positive that comes out of it is the incremental change is often not the way to get to where one needs to go if significant changes need to be made.

And so this may be a moment for businesses to really think about large structural changes and those things, the whole reason they don't happen easily with incremental change is because they're often really hard. So will retail chains incrementally close down one store at a time during normal times? Yes, they might do that, but this might prompt them to really rethink their entire footprint and their business model, and the same with, whether it be universities, whether it be airlines like Qantas, whether it be our supermarkets and thinking about automation, thinking about home delivery, we've seen big changes with that. Again, completely necessitated by the crisis, but these are changes that could be made in a really significant way. So I think using the crisis for those sorts of changes is an important thing to do.

Emma Lo Russo:
So I hope you don't mind me asking this question, but I'd love to ask you if you had the keys to stimulating our economy, or maybe some of those transformations or innovations that could be put in place to ensure our economic recovery. What would they be?

Richard Holden:
I've got a long list, so I'll try and keep it to-

Emma Lo Russo:
Good.

Richard Holden:
... the greatest hits. I've been saying for a long time that we've got an internationally uncompetitive company tax rate. Been some measures taken on that, but really only for smaller businesses. That's good, but I think it's insufficient. So we've gone from having the second or third lowest tax rate in the OECD, to having the second or third highest tax rate in the OECD and that's not because we've been jacking it up, it's because other countries have been lowering it and making it more competitive. And so we stand at a real disadvantage to companies like Singapore and the United States, France, the United Kingdom and others. And so I think that's one area where more work needs to be done.

I think that the education and training system, particularly in the post secondary area, needs to be really thought about carefully. One thing that's often talked about is TAFE and making sure that that provides skills for people who aren't going to have a university education, but are entering a workforce where more than just manual skills are really required and are really at a premium. That's incredibly important. And I think understanding that our university sector is now in a global market, we're in a global market for students, both coming into the country and our high school students, our sons and daughters leaving the country, potentially, maybe not curing COVID, but that will happen again. And also we're in a global market for researchers and faculty members that are educators and researchers, and that's something that's been a secular trend over the last few decades. And so understanding that we need to think much more carefully about the structure of the funding and the nature of the incentives and responding to market based pricing signals in the education sector, particularly the tertiary education sector, I think is incredibly important.

And thirdly, I'd say industrial relations reform, something that people always talk about. There's a process going on now, which is good to say, we'll see what comes of it. It's the government playing more of a role as a coordinator and a facilitator, rather than driving a particular agenda it would seem. We'll see if that works. I think it's admirable that it's being tried. But we have a situation where there are good things about our industrial relations system, and it's very good that we don't have a situation as is the case in the US where people can work full time really hard and be below the poverty line. That's a social disgrace and also an economic disaster as well. We don't have that situation in Australia with our industrial relations system, but we have a whole lot of other rigidities in there that frankly make it harder for business to hire people, and hiring people is going to be at more and more of a premium now if we want to get unemployment down and be internationally competitive.

So I think there's going to have to be stuff done on both sides, and something that I think transcends or sits over the top of all of this is doing something meaningful with climate change. And I think that the technology roadmap that the government's put forward in labour is now making supportive noises about is fine as far as it goes. As I and many others have said before, if you don't have market based pricing signals, essentially some kind of price on carbon, then technologies aren't going to get developed in the right way, and they're not going to get adopted in the right way. So technology is an important piece of the puzzle, but without price signals to drive the implementation of that, it's not going to happen. And that's going to leave us in a really bad situation, both in terms of the environment and in terms of the competitiveness of our economy.

Emma Lo Russo:
Richard, you've done an amazing job at taking what's complex leavers I guess, to make them accessible and easy to understand. We can't ... they say you get what you vote for, but if you don't hear it articulated so well, then people might not know what to champion. Thank you for your time today on The Business Of.

Richard Holden:
It was lovely to chat. Thank you.

Emma Lo Russo:
For many businesses, there's no denying 2020 will be remembered as one of the toughest years on record, but I observed an optimistic confidence through my conversations with today's guests that we will, indeed, recover.

While communication, quick thinking and action are paramount in crisis recovery, one thing that really stood out to me is that reflection is also an important part of the mix. As Richard said, good leaders tend to explain where they're going, so knowing that and being able to identify and communicate what it means for customers, suppliers and stakeholders is the recipe for success. 

Thanks for listening, to The Business Of, brought to you by The AGSM

Adaptive Leadership - Part 2

About the Episode

The second of our Adaptive Leadership episodes focuses on transformation and how leaders can leverage complex change with a growth mindset.

Part of navigating our way through crises is realising the one thing we can control is our response. Do we retreat to what’s familiar? Do we focus only on the short-term? Or, do we see this as an opportunity to reboot, rebalance and transform?

To discuss these questions and more, host Emma LoRusso is joined by Curtis Davies, Partner in Charge, Customer & Operations at KPMG Australia. Curtis has wide experience working with the leadership teams of major organisations navigating the challenges of transformation from legacy business models to ones that are 'future ready'.

Also in this episode we hear from Adele Schonhardt, AGSM alumni and Co-Director of music technology start-up Melbourne Digital Concert Hall - a truly innovative response to COVID-19 restrictions and one creating new opportunities and possibilities within the performing arts sector.

Finally, Emma speaks to Greg Joffe, Principal in Business Strategy, Public Policy and Digital Strategy at Nous Group, and Adjunct Associate Professor at UNSW Business School. Greg shares his reflections on consulting during a time of unprecedented transformation.

Speakers:

  • Emma Lo Russo, (AGSM MBA Executive 2013), CEO and Co-founder of Digivizer
  • Curtis Davies, Partner and Management Consulting at KPMG Australia
  • Adele Schonhardt, (AGSM MBA Executive, 2019) Co-Director and Founder of Melbourne Digital Concert Hall
  • Greg Joffe, Adjunct Faculty member at AGSM @ UNSW Business School and Principal in Business strategy, Public policy and Digital Strategy at Nous Group

Emma Lo Russo:
Throughout this podcast series we’ve examined the public and private sector response to COVID-19 and the lessons in adaptive leadership afforded by this period of disruption.

As we navigate our way through this crisis, we must realise that the one thing we can control in times like this is our response. Do we retreat to what’s familiar? Do we focus only on the short-term? Or, do we see this as an opportunity to reboot, rebalance and transform?

In this episode, we’re focusing on transformation, and how leaders can leverage complex change with a growth mindset.

Joining me is Curtis Davies, Partner in Charge, Customer & Operations at KPMG Australia. Curtis has wide experience working with the leadership teams of major organisations, navigating the challenges of transformation from legacy business models to ones that are 'future ready'.

Also in this episode we’ll hear from Adele Schonhardt, AGSM alumni and Co-Director of music technology start-up Melbourne Digital Concert Hall - a truly innovative response to COVID-19 restrictions creating new opportunities and possibilities within the performing arts sector.

Lastly, I’ll speak to Greg Joffe, Principal in Business Strategy, Public Policy and Digital Strategy at Nous Group, and Adjunct Associate Professor at UNSW Business School. Greg shares his reflections on how consulting has adapted to this need for unprecedented transformation.

Curtis, I’m delighted to have the chance to hear about how you lead organisations from transformation to legacy to future ready, welcome to The Business Of.

I like how you said when we were chatting before about particularly complex transformations, what does that mean?

Curtis Davies:
Look, in my mind, actually the word transformation is used too frequently. People can think of anything as a transformation. And I suppose to the individuals involved, if there's a lot of change they do feel like they're transforming. But when it comes to an organisation in its entirety, transformations are actually very, very scary things. And you only really do them when you almost have no choice. You're transforming in order to move to a condition, a situation, an arrangement that has a future. And a successful future, you hope.

The analogy I like to run is, a lot of people think you change programmes, you're at point A and you want to move to point B. That's great. And it only really works that way when point B is defined. And I think a lot of the challenges organisations face today is that all you really know is that point A won't exist, and you have to go somewhere. And most organisations don't want to close down. They've got plenty of ambition, and they've got a lot of people that they support, and people they care about. So they do want to move to another point, they just don't always know where it is.

And the market is changing so much these days, whether it's your competition, whether is technology change, whether it's regulatory change, whether it's things happening overseas, but it makes it very difficult for a leadership team to often know where they're going. But again, they just know that where they are at the moment won't exist. So how do you help an organisation to think about that? How do you help an organisation plan its journey? And the sorts of things in my mind, you have to make a few bets. You have to form a view of which end of the alphabet are you aiming for. Is it somewhere between B and J, or M and Z? And that at least gives you a direction off which to move, and to start making progress to a new future.

And I think giving the executives the confidence to go on that journey is one of the most rewarding parts of the work I do, helping them make that first step. And you know it's going to change again. So my thinking of a complex transformation is one that involves that sort of decision making. It's not a case of, we're going to build a new factory. It's not a case of, we're just going to launch a new product. It's not even a case of, we're going to outsource a particular function.

All of those are very important. I'm not looking down on any of those, they're often very hard to do, but often you have a very clear objective. And that really, in my mind, is a project. And there's a lot of project management, a lot of change management, but it's not quite the same as transformation.

Emma Lo Russo:
So if the future's state isn't always clear, don't fix on a point. Is it the recognition that your old model won't survive something new? Is that the driver for the need for change?

Curtis Davies:
I think it normally is. And we see plenty of examples of cost driving this. If someone's able to turn up with a different label arrangement, or they're able to have an internet based distribution channel rather than a physical one. You always see plenty of examples of this in the marketplace. Then the legacy organisations, the ones who have had a successful business in the past just are not ready for that. And it takes a very brave leader to stop investing in things that they've been successful at and start taking risks, and start investing in other things which may save them, but there's not always a lot of certainty in that. And somehow you have to develop the confidence to go on that journey.

Emma Lo Russo:
So where those, I guess, changes might look like they're coming, and you've got some sense of when it may impact you, what happens when something like COVID... And we hear people talking about six years of transformation in six weeks, and six months deadlines. What have you seen of organisation making change? How has that hit them? Where did they get exposed? Where have they championed?

Curtis Davies:
I think most organisations have just responded to what they see in front of them.. It's either been short term survival for those that are backed against the wall, or it's been about pivoting and meeting their customer expectations where there's been increased demand. And the obvious comparisons there would be something like a Qantas versus a Woolworths. One has had to find a way of scaling back and protecting its position as long as it can, and the other has had to ramp up enormously. So I think we're still in that stage where a lot of people are just responding. And you take your hats off to people who've made very quick decisions, often with very little information, but they've been decisions they've had to make for survival, or to maintain their brand promise.

So that's the stage we've been through so far. We are increasingly seeing a lot of people now making that next stage. Not just, how do I respond to survive, but how do I start to recover? That fits very nicely into the typical transformation cycle. You still don't know quite where this is going. You are seeing a number of opportunities laid out for you. We hear some commentators saying, we've had five years worth of change in five weeks. Well, I hope that's true because it will position us all very well, but we've got to keep that momentum going. And whether that changes to the cashless society, or whether that changes to all of us working from home like I am today, or whether that goes through to everything from telehealth, to tele justice, to far greater online shopping, society will change enormously because of this.

And that is the sort of conversation that's been going on probably for a few years now. Innovate, fail fast, have a group of people who are trialling things, and piloting things and see where it goes. Again, it's probably another trend that was starting which has been accelerated by COVID, and we all need to become much better at doing that.

Emma Lo Russo:
What have you seen, because I know you support both in your work, the difference in attitudes towards transformation, public versus private?

Curtis Davies:
I think traditionally, the private sector had a different set of demands on it. Clearly it had that external stakeholder, whether it's an individual owner, or stock market moms and dads, and investors who expect returns. They've always had a drive for clear payback, clear development of a future agenda, a real compelling story of where we're going, and where we're investing, and the return that we'll get for it. Increasingly, that is coming into the public sector. The public sector, and I can certainly speak for the New South Wales side, they've taken in an awful lot of very capable private sector individuals into leadership positions there. And that has brought a discipline and a focus, which our venture is much stronger now on that return on the investment.

I suppose the big difference is, they're not sitting there saying, what money will I make out of this? They are very, very focused on what return can I give to my citizens? And the decisions that are being made there to have a big infrastructure play to not only create jobs in this COVID time, but also to support and provide a platform for growth of the cities and the regions going forward, is fantastic. They are recognising that they need to become more efficient because they need to fund all this investment, so there is still an efficiency agenda being driven, as you would in a private sector. But it's certainly more focused on, what can I give for the citizens? How can we use our money better to create a better society in which we all live. And I think that additional discipline has been fantastic to see, and I do take my hat off to this new group of leaders who are coming through, who really do have this at the forefront of their mind.

Emma Lo Russo:
When you're looking to leaders to embrace transformation, what characteristics help them be successful?

Curtis Davies:
I think the really good leaders, certainly at the moment, are the ones who are comfortable talking to their people, are transparent in what the challenges are, are willing to engage in admitting that they don't always know the answers, and move forward. That's very much an internal view. As soon as you go to the external side, it has totally accelerated this idea of a social licence, and how you as a leader manage your external stakeholders and give them comfort that the way your organisation is working supports the needs of your customers, but your community as well.

And I've loved reading those notes that Brad Banducci from Woolworth sends out to all of us who are loyal Woolworth customers. And not knocking the opposition, but every week he was sending out a note, it was beautifully written. It was honest, it was engaging, sharing the problems. We had this many people wanting to buy toilet paper last week, yet we could only source this much. We've doubled our supply chain.And over time, he just explained very carefully as to how they were positioning themselves, and he built up that level of trust beautifully. So I think that's an example of that.

You'd probably hear the same when you look at how the train system is working. They could've very easily cut a lot of the services, but they didn't. They didn't for a couple of reasons. One, to keep people in work, to keep people employed. And equally, to ensure there was plenty of capacity on the network so that social distancing could be maintained. So I think when we see leaders making those sorts of decisions, communicating it quite broadly, you know that they understand what the society is expecting of them.

Emma Lo Russo:
How much of this is actually the way we'll need to engage moving forward, employee expectations, customer expectations, stakeholder expectation?

Curtis Davies:
It has always been important. It has gone up in its importance. It isn't the only thing you can do. We've all met and heard about the autocratic leader who just drives it through and doesn't really care. And if their business model's good enough then they can survive with that. Everything we're hearing about the importance of social media, providing service to individuals, customising what you do, if you've got that level of trust with the individuals that you're working with, or you're supplying, or you're dealing with, you've got to build it on trust because you'll get ripped down very quickly if you don't. So yes it has increased its importance, absolutely Emma. Will everybody have to do it? No, they never did. I think we've got to be pragmatic on that, but it is important that most leaders will have to behave in that sort of way. And frankly, the really good ones, the ones people enjoyed working for, the ones people enjoyed interacting with as an outsider, were the ones who had that ability to engage.

Emma Lo Russo:
I think that honesty and transparency in the mission, I think you said, when you don't always know, or going back to your people to find the answers within, I don't know. It would be interesting to see how that works.

Curtis Davies:
You do try and make those short decisions which are no regret decisions. There may be an investment in a particular platform you need because you know you're going to need that no matter where you're going. It may be removing a team that you know is not going to be a part of the long term future. You make those decisions, and that enables you often to fund the continued investment through that cycle of the transformation. A lot of your long term changes might take two or three years to make them happen. And it could take that long because you've got to build something, it's a complex implementation, it may require loads of staff engagement, it might require an EVA change.

The one I always think about it is, you're always looking on through your horizons, you're doing things now that will pay off immediately. You're planning things now that you'll do next year that will pay off at that time. And at the same time, you're thinking about things that you'll plan next year, that you'll implement after that. So I always talk about having these three stages in your mind. And it's one of the reasons why people who lead transformations are a little different from normal people. I'm not saying better, I'm just saying they're different because they're people who can switch between those three stages. They may not be perfect at any one of them, but they're able to change their focus depending on the topic at hand, who they're talking to, and they're able to create the energy behind an immediate implementation while at the same time spreading that out into the strategic thinking around a longer term problem.

Emma Lo Russo:
Apart from maybe the also, you need to for survival,, is there a psychological factor in transformation across those three horizons? Yes, we need to be in the game to make this change, that third horizon. But this progress along the way is essential to keep that momentum. Have you seen that?

Curtis Davies:
It very, very much is. You have to be showing progress, that's why you've got to be doing something now, otherwise you lose the interest and the support of people. I think it gets harder in the public sector when you have elections every four years or so. A new leader is potentially coming in. Maintaining that momentum is very hard. But in corporations, if you aren't showing some immediate success, the leadership gets changed as well. So you have to manage the expectations of whether it's the citizens, or the board and the shareholders, as to what does your plan look like? What value will be generated at what time period?

So you're able to look at key operational indicators that show that you are making progress. You can celebrate those, you can celebrate them with the team, you can celebrate them with the relevant stakeholders, and maintain momentum that you're going towards the vision that you've got. But you have to call it out in advance. And I said, you don't always know what that end vision is. So you have to have those milestones and at different points we're going to finish this piece, that provides us with options as to going here or here. And that's very much all I think of the transformation journey.

Emma Lo Russo:
So I don't want to, at all, trivialise the complexity in managing large scale transformation, or even fast transformation, or the need to transform. Is there some basic tool kit, as leaders who are facing the need to change, whether being thrust upon them it's survival or it's opportunity driven, what do you think of the essential must haves in the tool kit that will end up with that successful outcome?

Curtis Davies:
Being very clear in your mind what the journey looks like. And by that I do not mean you know what the outcome is. But being very clear in your mind of the sorts of challenges you're going to face, and staying resolute on the journey. The people who are good at this are pretty comfortable with ambiguity. They are people who don't always know the answer, and they're big enough to say that, but they are transparent enough to explain why you have to go on this journey.

Something I do say to sometimes create a bit of an impact is, some time in the first six months you need to make an example of someone who doesn't drink the Kool-Aid. You do, because people have to realise that we are all in this. It's where we're going. And if someone is just not playing ball, you just can't afford to have them in the team. It's meant as a way of prompting people to think differently, but it's not a bad story.

What every transformation has is a handful of moments of truth, and that's what I particularly call them. And you won't actually know it was a moment of truth necessarily until afterwards, but it was a point at which a leader could've easily backed down. A leader could've easily said, you know what? Yeah. It is going to be too hard. Or yes, I take your argument. It shouldn't apply to you, but it does apply to everybody else. No. They can't. They have to stay strong, stay very focused on what they're trying to achieve. And those moments of truth make or break a transformation journey.

Emma Lo Russo:
It's interesting you touched on that Curtis, because I think when I talked to other leaders, and even from a personal example, that sometimes trying to accommodate a very talented, high value person that might've delivered amazingly in the old model but doesn't get on board with the change that needs to happen into the future. You hang on for maybe too long, and the second you let that person choose to go back to whichever way they want to go, your path is set.

Curtis Davies:
Yeah.

Emma Lo Russo:
It's liberating. Liberating for the team, it gives an extra momentum, and I think I loved your moment of truth. It becomes, you're either on the bus and we're all going in the same direction or not.

Curtis Davies:
And maybe put that in a slightly different way. Probably the most important job of that transformation leader is to give their executives and their team the confidence to move forward. I won't mention the organisation, but I remember working very closely with the leadership team of one organisation, and the people in the leadership roles were there because of some fantastic work they'd done 15, 20 years ago. And they were famous because of it. They'd been very successful, they'd become reasonably wealthy, but they were, to a great extent, living on that old model that they had created. And it was dying. And for that individual to have the confidence to admit that when a lot of the team below them were probably agitating for the new way of working which they didn't fully understand, took an awful lot for the individual.

One of the jobs of that transformation leader was to work with that individual to say, you can do it. I'll go with you. I'll stand with you. I'll help you, albeit behind the scenes. You're the boss, you're the leader. You're the one who has to make the speech. I can't stand up and do it for you, but I'll help you, I'll write the speech for you. These are the sorts of things you need to say, and you need to do it with confidence.

Emma Lo Russo:
Yeah.

Curtis Davies:
And you need to admit that you don't use X, Y, and Z, but you know it's the future. That's a great leader who can get people to go on that journey when they personally don't feel comfortable with it. But they know it's right.

Emma Lo Russo:
I guess it's also honesty, right? There's some fear here. There is unknown ahead. We think this is the play, and it's going to take me to learn just like we're asking you to learn as well.

Curtis Davies:
Yeah.

Emma Lo Russo:
We talked about some of the things that are essential that leads to good transformation. Where have you seen it really not go well? When has it failed? When have organisations really not got this right? What were the mistakes?

Curtis Davies:
I don't know which firm came up with the number, but I think they say 50%, 60% of transformations don't succeed.

Emma Lo Russo:
Wow. That means many that started didn't actually finish.

Curtis Davies:
Yeah. That's right. That's probably all that I should say. It's very difficult. Often it will be because they didn't manage the expectations of the people who've kept them in the job.

They weren't able to make it clear what their journey was. Again, not saying they knew the outcome, but at least the journey, the milestones, where they were going to go on this transformation. Yeah. And that probably is the main one, when you don't keep those powerful people connected. As you may know, I spent many, many years at Qantas. And after I'd left there, Alan Joyce was the new CEO, and he was challenged in the newspapers and the media an awful lot for what was he doing. But he had the board's support all the way because he knew what he was doing, he was communicating with them, and they supported him.

And look at the fantastic journey he's been able to take the organisation on. But he managed that. And I'm sure there were plenty of discussions behind closed doors about is this right, is this not? And spending quite a bit of time with him over the years, but the style he's got, the way he would've shared that information would've kept people's trust. And I've seen other organisations where a leader did not do that. They just said no, I'm going to do it my way. I don't really care what you think. And it was much harder for them. Clearly, if you don't take your staff on the journey, you get a lot of unrest, you’ve got to keep people informed and aware. If you’ve got a clear story of why you’re doing it - you’re okay.

Emma Lo Russo:
Curtis, I could talk to you for hours. There's so many lessons in what you shared today. Thank you for joining us on The Business Of.

Curtis Davies:
Thank you Emma. I thoroughly enjoyed that, and hopefully provided some insights.

Emma Lo Russo:
So valuable to hear from someone with Curtis’s expertise on where uncertainty fits in a typical transformation cycle. A key part of innovation is allowing yourself and your organisation the permission to fail, but fail fast and learn. And the most effective and adaptive leaders will find opportunity amidst the chaos.

That’s certainly true of my next guest. When COVID-19 took a wrecking ball to the performing arts sector, essentially overnight, Adele Schonhardt knew she’d have to find a way to do her part in keeping the industry alive. Let’s hear from Adele on the transformative success of Melbourne Digital Concert Hall.

So Adele, welcome to The Business Of.. Can you share some background on Melbourne Digital Concert Hall and your motivations for starting that platform?

Adele Schonhardt:
Yes, certainly. Well, Melbourne Digital Concert Hall is a startup that co-director Chris Hallett and I founded back in mid-March. We both come from the classical music industry. I've been working in arts management for a long time and he directs festivals, and is a cellist. And as COVID-19 hit, we found that many of our colleagues and friends in the music industry were losing all of their work. And there was this dramatic situation where the venues were closing, where the concert halls were closing, where orchestras were having to cancel their seasons. And nobody knew how long this was going to pan out for. And that had an absolutely devastating impact on our sector because of course, a lot about people being the original gig economy live from one gig to another, or have a season of things lined up, but they're all individual jobs and therefore they're not eligible for job keeper.

So it had a devastating effect. We saw it panning out amongst our friends and colleagues. It wasn't just a financial issue, it was also about the mental health and wellbeing of our friends. And we thought, well, we can't let this happen. We have to do something about this, even if it's just a small thing. We can't just sit back. Particularly given that I am chair of the board of a classical music radio station, and he was chair before me. And those musicians for many years have given their time to help us raise funds for our station. So we felt a real responsibility towards these musicians, and we decided over the course of a phone call on a weekend, "Well, we're going to try and do something about this."

And as it so happened, Chris was great friends with a guy called Tim Kelly at university. Tim is a tuba player, but perhaps realising that tuba wasn't going to necessarily be the thing for his career, founded a company called 5stream, and they've become a national streaming company who work with everything from sporting organisations right through to very fine classical music ensembles, to stream their music often live. And they had a platform. And we went to Tim and said, "Hey, Tim, would you be willing to help us out with this? We'd like to try this idea of live streaming concerts and charging a ticket fee so that people can sit home, watch their favourite musicians in small COVID-friendly groups, and can help them to continue to earn a living during this time." And so the concept of Melbourne Digital Concert Hall was born. That was, I think on the 16th of March, and within 10 days we were up and running.

So we had our first concert on the 27th of March. We've just passed the five month mark now, and it has just become bigger and bigger. We've been blown away by the level of support shown by the community for this idea. We started out thinking, "Oh, we might be lucky enough to raise 20, $30,000 for the local musicians here in Melbourne." And it just proved so popular that we've since gone national and we've scaled it up and we've been streaming from many cities, both around Australia and the world to support Australian musicians, and have now just exceeded $600,000 raised for those artists so far.

Emma Lo Russo:
Wow. That is incredibly impressive.. So how did you overcome the decision to maybe resign from your day job to focus entirely on this... With that risk right? It's built around the opportunity. Will this continue to grow? What are you envisioning for the future?

Adele Schonhardt:
We certainly hope so. Well that decision didn't happen immediately. However, as it continued to grow, we realised the potential that this idea had because we started getting messages from people not only in metropolitan cities who were missing their favourite musicians, but also in regional areas. And we recently conducted a survey of our audience and discovered to our surprise that almost a third of the people in our audience don't actually attend concert halls in real life at all. And that might be because they live regionally or they might have a disability or a health issue, or they might have caring responsibilities. But whatever the case may be, they may well have been symphony orchestra attendees in the past, or have enjoyed going to a concert in the past and cannot do so at the moment. And they started begging us, "Please continue this beyond COVID-19. Please make it part of the recovery package for the Australian arts, because it's just so important and it means that we can sit in our regional town and we can see this high quality music played live and feel like we're directly supporting those musicians who are important to us."

And therefore it became quite a simple decision for me at a certain point to say, "Well, look, I'm going to have to focus on this fully. I can't possibly devote myself to my day job as well, and therefore it's important that I step away now and continue on as an independent." And who knows what the future will look like? But so far it's been the right decision. I'm excited about the opportunities that are arising now through this.

Emma Lo Russo:
So you leave the safety, you start your own business with Chris. Tell us how that works. There's only two of you with such a big ambition to meet.

Adele Schonhardt:
Look, it's been incredible working together with Chris. We have known each other for eight or nine years now through the radio station that we've both been heavily involved in. And I knew that he was capable of great feats of imagination because every year he presents a marathon event for us, which helps to fundraise for 3MBS and for the radio station. And for that, he draws together a cast of thousands of all the musicians around Melbourne and puts on an entire day of live broadcast concerts with the audience. So I knew he would, he was very good at that.

And this in a way is a very long version of that marathon. It's just night, after night, after night of concerts that he's helping to curate. So it's been wonderful to work together with him more closely, because I think we're very, very well aligned on where we see the priorities, which of course in our case are the musicians and the wellbeing of the community around our musicians. And we both have our strengths and weaknesses. I'm the one who is more accurate in writing. He's the one who has the speed, so we compliment each other very well. Generally the partnership falls along the lines of him being the artistic director of the organisation. So he is the one curating the programmes and has that main contact with the artists. I tend to be the one behind the scenes, writing the funding applications and doing the PR work and the marketing and then keeping it all ticking along.

And it's just been amazing actually how quickly you can work and how agile you can be when there are just two of you, because you don't need to consult with the marketing department and the finance department and the operations team and everyone else when you're wanting to get an idea off the ground. You just go, "Should we do this? Okay, great idea. Let's do it." And off you go. So it's been really wonderful and refreshing, and I'm extremely lucky and fortunate to have him as a business partner. So looking forward to what the future brings for us both.

Emma Lo Russo:
Sounds like very powerful playing to strengths combination there.

Adele Schonhardt:
Yes, absolutely. I think that's a good way of putting it.

Emma Lo Russo:
You touched on overseas markets there too. How big are you thinking? How far has your reach already been?

Adele Schonhardt:
Well, we have streamed concerts now from Berlin and London and Singapore. Now integral to our concept is that we want to support Australian musicians. So it's always about the Australian artists. However, we're finding that there are many, particularly in London who are stranded. They are Aussies, but they can't get home. Or they may have had performances on the West End lined up or wonderful things they were planning on doing over there that have now all been cancelled. And they're stuck there, but this is a way of bringing them home. So we're starting to see the enormous opportunities provided by this online platform to really connect Australians, not only here in our country, but internationally with the people who care about them, who have seen their careers grow. So I think the sky's the limit in terms of what we can achieve.

We also had a wonderful case where we hosted a world premier recently. It was of a piece of music called Return to Sender by Katy Abbott, and it was performed by the Flinders Quartet. And the amazing thing about this work that she has created is that it was based on 2000 letters. The barrister Julian Burnside had encouraged Australians to write letters to asylum seekers on Nauru a few years back. And those letters were all bundled up and sent over to Nauru. But for some reason, whichever government agent was involved or whoever else was responsible for delivering them, never gave them to those intended recipients. And so those letters were left unsent. They were at a later stage returned to Julian Burnside in that box. And he realised to his dismay that these 2000 letters had never reached the intended recipients.

And Katy Abbott got wind of this story and asked him, "Look, do you think it would be possible for me to have a look at these letters and to create a work of art around them?" And she wrote this wonderful piece of music called Return to Sender, which has a narrator reading out excerpts from some of these most powerful letters. And we were able to premiere that on our platform. It had been intended for the Canberra festival that had to be cancelled. And in some ways it was more powerful to have them on our empty stage in the Athenaeum theatre in Melbourne performing that work. And the most brilliant thing of all about that is that we were able to invite some of those intended recipients on Nauru, so they were watching it with us as were the letter writers.

Emma Lo Russo:
Wow, that's amazing.

Adele Schonhardt:
When you think of a story like that, you start to see the potential of this as an instrument to connect people together.

Emma Lo Russo:
I mean, it's an interesting thing. That's a whole new creative opportunity that you've kind of designed and created and implemented that might not have even been foreseen before. What does this period offer leaders, other businesses to think about how they can use digital transformation and change, and create these new opportunities?

Adele Schonhardt:
I think crucial to that is actually stripping your product and your purpose right down to its core and thinking about, well, why do we exist? In our case, what's fundamental to us is the musicians and the audience, and some way to connect the two. Everything else is superfluous in a way. Yes, it's great to have a big marketing team or an ops director or whatever else within your company, but you don't need those things in a time of crisis. What you do need is to be able to be very agile, to forget about your perfect product. You can't spend weeks running surveys or tweaking it or making it look brilliant. You need to grab your minimum viable product, and the sky's the limit in terms of what you can do, and just run with it. So, in a way, what we have done is a design thinking process.

As we learned in our final year in the MBA, it's a design thinking process in action, whereby we created this product. Of course, it wasn't perfect, particularly for our first concert, and there are still some rough edges that we're working on. But we've since hosted 150 concerts on our platform and all the way through that, we've been trialling different ways of delivering. We've had subscription series, we've had different pricing points, and the speed at which we've been able to deliver those performances has given us a lot of time to experiment and to gather data and to survey people about what they prefer about the look and feel of the product and the way the ticketing system works and everything.

So I think just go for it is really the advice I would give, regardless of which field you work in. Don't get yourself hung up as you normally would in consultation processes and designing the product. Just try something. People are very forgiving at the moment. So as long as the heart of your product is there, and you're very clear about your purpose and why you're doing it. The sky’s the limit.

Emma Lo Russo:
I mean, it's a good point, isn't it? If your purpose is really strong, when people are quite forgiving, the digital environment allows for that ultimate test and learn environment. What do you feel you yourself have learned as a leader in this period? And is it different from how you might've approached things previously?

Adele Schonhardt:
Certainly. And I think one element that we learned in the MBA was about T-shaped leadership or enterprise leadership, which is where you perceive yourself as a leader, not only within your one company. So I came from a role at Musica Viva, which is a big performing arts company, where I was media and public affairs manager. And really my job there was to look after our relationship with journalists to secure publicity for us, and also to look after our funding partnerships and government partnerships. But that was a fabulous role, I loved working there. But when it came to this situation, I started to see very quickly, well, if you work in a big company, you are in a way hampered by the fact that you need to carry that whole infrastructure with you. It becomes unviable when you're looking for a lean solution to fix a problem.

And you have to think very much about the broader industry and think, "Well, I'm lucky enough to work in this sector with these brilliant musicians." They are hurting now, and therefore it is my responsibility as an arts manager, regardless of what my title is, to get in there and to find a way to help them. And that is what then led me to step away from Musica Viva and to focus fully on this organisation. And the other thing I've learned is about, I guess, human nature. It really brings characteristics of people to the fore. We've had some incredibly generous organisations and people who've really got behind us right from the start and have just believed in us. A couple I'd like to mention here are obviously 5stream, our streaming partner. The Athenaeum Theatre in Melbourne has been incredible. They answered our call straight away. They are a huge old theatre in Collin Street in the inner city built in 1839, Australia's oldest mainland theatre, and they've got about 800 seats.

And they immediately said, "Well, of course you can borrow our stage in our theatre. You can use it for as long as you like. Come on in, set up your cameras in there and just do what you need to do. And we'll provide somebody to turn on the lights for you and to open the doors." And that was astonishing that they would do that. And similarly for Kawai Australia, the piano maker, they provided us with a concert grand piano. They just said, "Sure, you need a piano. Where would you like it delivered?" And within a day or two of us opening up, there was this beautiful piano, which is still there on the stage. And that generosity has enabled us to enable these musicians to earn a living. So I think that's extraordinary. There are those who are the gatekeepers and would just immediately say no. And there are others who see what you're trying to achieve and see the urgency and say, "Yes, of course." And it's not always the people you expect. So I think that's been an interesting learning.

Emma Lo Russo:
I'm curious,? What are you imagining the future is going to look like for the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall?

Adele Schonhardt:
Well, we have a vision that we should become hopefully part of the recovery process for the arts as a whole across Australia. And indeed we're talking with a number of government partners and other funding bodies at the moment about how we might achieve that, so that we have a mobile digital concert hall in a box, we call it. It's a set of high quality audio and video equipment that we can send to any location in Australia. And so we can start to stream from regional centres and showcase their music to a metropolitan audience and vice versa. And that really, we have something going on every night from regardless where. We've just entered into a partnership with the Darwin Symphony, which is going to be fabulous, so we'll be showing some of their work very soon, that we draw Australia together on this platform.

Adele Schonhardt:
And every night you can go online and you can see something wonderful from a different city. So that's where we hope to go with this. And we hope that it then supports the organisations and the soloists and the artists who are trying to recover from this devastating COVID situation, be it through showcasing them online or in some kind of a hybrid delivery model where they can have a small physical audience in the venue again. And that we continue to reach those audience members who can't get into a venue for whatever reason and draw them into our community. That's our vision for the future.

Emma Lo Russo:
It sounds amazing to new audiences, new experiences, something wonderful that changes the way we think and feel and helping our artists. Adele, I wish you all the best. Thank you for joining us on The Business Of.

Adele Schonhardt:
Thank you for having me.

Emma Lo Russo:
Wow - what a fantastic digital transformation case study, and under such constraining circumstances.. It's a great example of a crisis forcing a transformation, and I love the passion Adele brings to this.

My final guest for today is Greg Joffe, Principal in Business Strategy, Public Policy and Digital Strategy at Nous Group, and Adjunct Associate Professor at UNSW Business School. Let’s hear from Greg on how he and the team at Nous group are helping clients weather this crisis and prepare for recovery.

So Greg, welcome to The Business Of. I'm very curious, please share an overview of your work with the Nous Group and the work that you do for your clients.

Greg Joffe:
Sure. Hi, Emma. Nous Group's a 400-person management consulting firm. It was about 20 people when I started 17 years ago. We work pretty broadly. So we work across strategy, public policy, organisation alignment.

I co-lead the business and digital strategy practise and also the financial services work. And to give you a sense of the sort of work we do, we work mainly with highly regulated industries, so financial services, healthcare utilities, and also a lot of work directly for government including regulators. Some of my work at the moment, just to give you a sense of it at the moment I'm working with a government regulator or with a regulator who's obviously government, to develop their data strategy and operating model. So everybody's thinking about how do I use data better? They've given us that work to help them think that through, but equally I'm also working with a big global defence contractor on the Australian and New Zealand operations. Again, looking at sort of what's their strategy for the next five to 10 years, how do they position themselves? How will they compete to succeed?

Emma Lo Russo:
And the challenging COVID world that we're in, how has that impacted your work and what your clients are asking for?

Greg Joffe:
So at a Nous's level, it's been as for most businesses pretty confronting, particularly at the front end, we've found that some clients have just sailed through it and kept giving us work in the same way as always, but others there's been dramatic shifts. For some of those where there's been dramatic shifts in the work coming to us, it's either been a much greater focus on cost cutting. So some industries, there's a lot of pressure now on driving down costs because revenues have gone down so much. And so we're ending up doing a lot of work, particularly in these complex, highly regulated industries, trying to take out costs often to the scale of tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars. But then other clients as well have just cut back on consulting work. So that's obviously meant that our revenues have been lower than they would have been pre COVID, but so far we've been able to get through without having to cut any jobs. And that's been very important to us because yeah, it's not something anybody likes to do.

Emma Lo Russo:
So what's your view of learning how to do strategy well, and seeing those opportunities in time of planning forward, good times and challenging times. Is it something you'd learn or is it something that you have to practise?

Greg Joffe:
No, I think you don't have time to learn anymore. You're going to be learning by doing. So there are frameworks for thinking about strategy in what's been called a VUCA world in the last few years.. But some of the tools that leaders can use, it's really important that as a leader, people are looking to you to come up with, well, where are you taking our organisation? And how much do I trust that you've actually thought this through and you're not just flying by the seat of your pants? So one of the best tools that I find in the space is scenario planning.

It comes out of Shell in the 1980s, but it basically says, what might the world look like? And in this case you might say in a year's time. So choose any industry that you work in, but you could say, what are the drivers of our industry and what are two to four really different scenarios of what the world might look like that we're operating in, in a year's time? And then you can kind of look across those four scenarios and say, "Well, what would we do in each of those scenarios and what should we do now to be ready for that scenario?" And it's a really useful way. It's not just the exercise to get the answers, but the actual working on it tends to bring the executive team thinking about, well, gee, the world could actually be quite different.

That's what scenarios should do. They should put you in that quite uncomfortable space about the future and then force you to say, "So what do we need to do to the organisation to be ready for that now?" So I think scenarios are a great tool. That's not the kind of, how do you think about strategy as a leader? I think leaders also have a really important role in setting the emotional tone in their organisation at this time.

So in normal times you get your usual spectrum of sort of the people who are incredibly happy and they roll through to people who are always unhappy, no matter what's going on. But I think in these times, people are much more nervous and therefore a key role of a leader is to give people confidence that they have thought about the future and are actively working to position the organisation to continue to succeed. Because people worry about their jobs. And if they know that you're doing that, you're thinking really hard to get the right answers, to position the organisation for success going forward. That gives them some confidence.

I also think it's giving people spaces to talk to each other and talk to the senior leadership about this is how I feel, and this is what's going on for me, because a lot of people are very unsettled by current times as they should be, they're pretty bizarre times. And creating space so people can feel supported by each other and by the organisation is really important. So it's both the kind of get your strategy right but also understand where your people are emotionally and make sure you give them space and enable them to feel supported by being part of the organisation.

Emma Lo Russo:
I really like that you touched on that scenario playing, I often found that it's a great tool to manage stress in organisations. If you actually can think all those scenarios, what would we do? You see amazing innovation, that arms them with the confidence that actually everyone will be okay.

So you talked about tools that organisations could use and there's responsibility in the organisation. So my question to you is, where have you seen it play out best? Does it start at the CEO? Is it the leadership team? Is it something you teach right throughout your organisation? What have you seen really equips an organisation at all levels to win?

Greg Joffe:
So thinking about what equips an organisation to win and to play successfully, just running through, there are three or four different levels we probably need to talk about. I am a big believer that it all starts with the CEO. And so both having a good strategy, but also as we're talking about people understanding their role within that strategy and then people feeling that their role makes sense and they're supported to do the best they can. If you don't have a CEO who supports that, everything sort of below that then tends to be a problem. So Daniel Goldman sort of says those people that are high EQ and a really tuned into their people are the people that are most successful. I'd have to say my experience working in Australia and a little bit internationally has been, I haven't seen that consistently.

So I've seen some incredibly supportive and high EQ managers, and I've seen others who are CEOs, and I've seen others who are just there because they really want to be CEO and they want the title, but I don't see those attributes. So what are the things that make a difference to a great CEO, particularly in these sort of circumstances? Again, I think a third of it at least is you need to be smart enough and work hard enough and listen to your customers and listen to your staff enough to come up with a strategy to win. If you can't define why you should win, you're probably not going to, and it needs to be valid. You see these glib statements about, "We'll be customer focused, we'll be this, we'll be that." But it's not that. It's if I'm UNSW, why am I going to keep getting students and not the other universities? If I'm Porsche, why are people going to continue to buy my cars and not all the other hundreds of car manufacturers around the world?"

So no matter what your business, if you can't say why you should win against your competitors, you're probably not going to. So that's a chunk of the work. The second is you need to then give people an understanding of how they fit within the delivery of that. In the old days, there were sort of sometimes laborious business planning and sort of cascade of business plans down to division plans, down to team plans, down to individual plans with KPIs being cascaded along the way. I still think that's valid. I think now you have to move very quickly. So you have to look for tools that allow you to put this stuff online, let people comment, and then do it in three days, not three weeks. But you still need a business plan so that people understand where they fit in the biggest picture.

And you should be able to talk to anyone in the business and go, "Do you understand how, what you do does feeds into what we're trying to achieve here and feeds into that thing about, well, what's our competitive edge?" So the business planning and an understanding of KPIs and how they fit together is really important. And then the third part for me is still the people part, which is, are you actually supporting your people to grow? Are you supporting your people to move up over time and continue to progress? Are you supporting your people to take risks? So we do quite a lot of work in the public sector. And sometimes in the public sector, people say but you don't understand if I do these innovative and risky things. And it goes, well, everyone will say so what, and if I fail, I'll lose my job and the minister will scream at me. Why would I take that risk?

So it really is, I think it's up to leaders to say, well, you should take the risk. So as an example, when I was at Austrade, before I joined Nous, we put in an initiative to double the number of exporters in Australia, because we understood that was really important from a macroeconomic perspective. But I ended up having to brief the trade minister and say, "Well, this is quite risky because you're putting a name to this really out there target. But if we do it, and even if we only get 80% of the way, that's a huge benefit for Australia, but the downside is the press may still go, "Well, you only achieved 80% of your target."

And to his credit the then trade minister was very supportive and said, "I think it's worth us doing things like that. Let's go for it." But many people don't choose to do that. So I think that creating a space where people can do the best to achieve the objectives can have the ability to fail, not repeatedly for the same reason, but fail and supporting people to keep learning and thinking about where am I developing a critical components of what leaders at all levels need to do.

Emma Lo Russo:
And if we touch on like the pursuit in ensuring inclusion and diversity as a foundation to success, what do you think is important? And how does that drive value, particularly in these challenging times within the context and framework that you've shared today?

Greg Joffe:
Nous thinks diversity or inclusion is very important and we've put a lot of effort into it, including we have our own reconciliation action plan. We attend Garma and we think that the shift, particularly in Australia, for Australians to recognise the importance of indigenous Australians, to who we are as Australians generally is important.

Some of the things particularly that we do or that I think CEOs can do to improve inclusion in their organisations, one is using data. So I was always sceptical about this in the old days. Because I always thought who wants to tick the box that says I'm a black person or I am female. But actually having spoken to some of my colleagues, including, Abigail Nduva, Basically Abigail's argument is, well, if you don't track the data, how do you even know if you are actually being inclusive? Let people at least have the option. So yes, give people the option to identify by the groups they're in, track that data and make sure that you have conversations at a management level that say, well, are we actually making sure that we do have decent gender representation, that we do have decent diversity of people's backgrounds?

So I think the data is worthwhile and it is worth tracking and people can choose not to do it, but at least it gives them the option to do it.? So at Nous for instance we choose a very small number of people from the people who apply to us. But we realised at one point that we were getting tonnes of really great applicants from Sydney University and University of New South Wales and Melbourne University and Monash.

And at one point I actually said, we need to actively recruit a bit more broadly than this because I think we're getting a particular socioeconomic background. And the work we do is important. We're doing stuff with the NDIA, we're doing stuff in health. You don't just want to have rich upper-class people doing all the problem solving. So we actively chose other universities that had brought a diversity and through our recruiting people went and approached them and said, "We are actually very keen to speak to your top students." Which has allowed us to have a fabulous flow of super smart students with greater diversity than we otherwise would have had. Now that was driven from the top. And I think that's worked incredibly well for us. And it's made us deliver better projects for our clients because we bring a broader view.

Emma Lo Russo:
I love that you connected it back to the extra value that you deliver to clients by having that diversity within the makeup of the team and the way that they might be bringing their experiences to better your customers as well.

We're going to have to wrap up. So thank you Greg, for your time today.

Greg Joffe:
Pleasure. Thanks very much.

Emma Lo Russo:
It was great to speak with Greg and hear all about the work he’s doing with clients at Nous Group. I love his point about what makes an effective CEO in times of crisis: you need to be smart enough,work hard enough and listen to your customers and staff enough to come up with a strategy to win. If you can't define why you should win, you're probably not going to.

I hope you enjoyed my conversations with today’s guests.

One thing was clear to me. If you want to survive and thrive in periods of challenge and beyond you need to engage and empower all your stakeholders to contribute and always be guided by your purpose and your why.

I’ll talk to you next time on AGSM’s The Business Of… I’m Emma Lo Russo, Thanks for listening.

Adaptive Leadership - Part 3

About the Episode

As we continue to cast a light on adaptive leadership and the ability to recover from a crisis, we turn our attention to the financial services sector.

For many in the industry, 2020 was to be a year focused on restoring public trust after the findings of the Hayne Royal Commission. Instead, a new crisis arrived in the form of COVID-19 and supporting customers through the subsequent economic downturn and financial hardship became an all-embracing priority.

Joining host Emma LoRusso is Rob Adams, CEO and Managing Director at Perpetual, a leading Australian investment and financial advice firm. Rob explores how the core value of trust plays an invaluable role in adaptive leadership, internal and external relationships and business success.

We also hear from Suzana Ristevski, Chief Marketing Officer at National Australia Bank (NAB). Suzana shares her insights into how NAB continued to support and serve their customers while navigating a strategic and cultural transformation, all in the midst of a pandemic.

Our final guest is Dan Peters , Chief Revenue Officer at fintech disruptor Limepay. Emma talks to Dan about the speed of decision-making in a startup and how that plays during a crisis.

Speakers:

  • Emma Lo Russo, (AGSM MBA Executive 2013), CEO and Co-founder of Digivizer
  • Rob Adams, CEO and Managing Director at Perpetual
  • Suzana Ristevski, Chief Marketing Officer at National Australia Bank
  • Dan Peters, (AGSM MBA Executive, 2009), Chief Revenue Officer and Co-Founder at Limepay; ex-Google Director, Non-exec. Board Director

Emma Lo Russo:
Welcome to The Business Of…

I’m your host Emma Lo Russo, and this leadership podcast is brought to you by the Australian Graduate School of Management at UNSW Business School.

As we continue to cast a light on adaptive leadership and the ability to recover from a crisis, we turn our attention to the financial services sector.

For many in the industry, 2020 was to be a year focused on restoring public trust after the findings of the Hayne Royal Commission. Instead, a new crisis arrived in the form of COVID-19 - and supporting customers through the subsequent economic downturn and financial hardship became an all-embracing priority.

We begin this episode with Rob Adams, CEO and Managing Director at Perpetual, a leading Australian investment and financial advice firm. Rob explores how the core value of trust plays an invaluable role in adaptive leadership, internal and external relationships - and business success.

Also joining me is Suzana Ristevski, Chief Marketing Officer at National Australia Bank. Suzana shares her insights into how they’ve continued to support and serve their customers while navigating a strategic and cultural transformation, all in the midst of a pandemic.

Lastly, we’ll hear from Dan Peters , Chief Revenue Officer at fintech disruptor Limepay. I talk to Dan about the speed of decision-making in a startup and how that plays during a crisis.

First, let’s go to my conversation with Rob Adams.

Rob, Welcome to The Business Of.

Rob Adams:
Thanks. It's a pleasure to be here. Appreciate your invitation.

Emma Lo Russo:
It has been challenging, the last six months, and trust sits at the core of Perpetual's relationship with your customers. How have you managed this period through this volatile time?

Rob Adams:
Yeah, you're right. On all fronts there. I mean, it's been a volatile time and trust does sit at the core of our relationships with our clients at Perpetual. To be honest, we make a bit of a noise of that. There's an important phrase we use in Perpetual and that is trust is earned. We truly believe that, that we earn our trust of our clients, every day through every action.

We never assume that we have trust with our clients and we constantly want to retest that, and difficult, volatile investment market conditions and economic conditions provide that retesting moment, if you like. We remind our people at Perpetual that we do earn that trust every day, and that in particularly difficult times, when people are uncertain, when there is volatility around, that volatility creates information gaps. We have to fill those information gaps more in volatile times than in normal times.

One of our mantras we've added since the COVID-19 crisis really started to hit is to double down on communications with our clients. We've been doubling down both in shape and form, and accessing and emphasising different forms of communication, given we're all so technologically led and digitally led these days.

Doubling down on comms, using technology wisely, and getting information to people in a timely and relevant manner. That helps reduce those information gaps that therefore hopefully helps us to maintain the trusted relationship with our clients.

Emma Lo Russo:
Your purpose and that trust has guided that. but even for the best of leaders it challenges us. What did you look for in your leadership team to lead during this? And what were the most successful attributes that you saw?

Rob Adams:
Yeah, I'd like to say it was exactly the same attributes that we would display as leaders in the normal course of business, but I think the difficult times can create different reactions from different people. I think it's important and we're fortunate that most of our leadership team have been through a crisis moment before. Unfortunately, in our own working careers, we've seen too many once in a hundred year events, haven't we?

But I think to now experience maybe three or four one in a hundred year events, that positions us well as an experienced leadership team to know what really comes to the fore during these difficult times. Certainly for me, something I've been keen to impress upon our leadership team has been calmness is a really important thing. Leadership casts a pretty big shadow and people watch and learn, and even subliminally or in a subconscious sort of a manner. I think being calm, making sure you don't overreact to the first piece of information, getting the fullness of information before you might make a decision. That's been pretty important.

A big learning for me personally out of the GFC in particular, and something that I've been impressing upon our leadership team as much as I can, is that you need to really only focus on what you can control. There are plenty of important things in what we do, particularly in financial services, that impact our success or failure, but we can't control them. The direction of investment markets is one of those things. That's really easy to be obsessed by looking at screens and numbers. And I know people who want to be woken up every hour throughout the middle of the night to see how certain securities might be performing.

I think that can really get you wound up in a wrong sort of way. Really focus on what you can control, and try and be calm in your decision making process. Another really important thing I think for our leadership team has been to make sure that you trust your people. Sometimes in difficult times, volatility, charts going the wrong way, financials of the business going the wrong way, sometimes that trust can be tested. People start to second guess things a little bit more. But we've hired our people for a reason. They're tried and tested individuals. Let's trust them just as much as we would in ordinary times, in more difficult times.

I think through empowering people in that way, showing that you have confidence, showing that you trust them, I think becomes contagious in the business. That's been a really important thing for us. Another thing I would say that we've tried to stress a lot throughout the last few months has been really having a deliberate and obvious pulse check on a regular basis. Recently we had R U OK Day but I think in this sort of environment, we need to be asking our people are they okay far more regularly.

I think retesting and re-asking that question. I had an interesting conversation with one of our senior people in Melbourne not so long ago, and of course, Melbourne has had their second lockdown and that's really been a big issue for a lot of people from a mental health and wellbeing perspective. In conversations with this one particular senior person, I asked her how she was doing, and I got a pretty political response. She was trying to sound tough but I could just tell that I needed to ask the question a couple more times, which I did in that phone call, and then we spoke for 45 minutes.

I think it was important just to retest that initial answer. Those pulse checks with our people are really, really important. I'd maybe wrap up the answer to that important question by saying wrapping up all of those things is showing that you have a genuine care, that you really do care for the relationship with your customers, with your clients, and you really do care about how your people or how your clients are going. I think that aspect of just being genuine and fair dinkum about things makes a real difference.

Emma Lo Russo:
How has technology been accelerated to help your organisation and do you see that being something that will continue to be as rapidly adopted? What are you thinking about that and change, and serving customers and employees?

Rob Adams:
I'm sure you've seen the multiple choice question, Emma, that says who was most responsible for the technology revolution at your company? Was it the CIO, the CEO-

Emma Lo Russo:
Or COVID.

Rob Adams:
... or COVID-19? I reckon we're all ticking the third box, right? Good things come out of difficult times, and I think Perpetual, we're no different to many other firms. To be totally frank, I would say with weeks until the shutdown, we had concerns about our ability to totally mobilise our workforce and to take 1000 people from the office and have them work remotely.

But our IT team worked incredibly well, incredibly hard, and with great partners, and we got it done, and it actually was really seamless. One of my personal reflections on that is that if absent a crisis, if we as a management team said, "Hey," to our technology guys, "Hey guys, we've got a new project. We want to work out exactly how we can mobilise our workforce and have full functionality from 1000 different locations." My guess is we probably would have called it a project. We would have given it a name, we would have appointed a project manager, we would have put all this shape and form around it, given it a budget, and in nine months time we might have come up with a reasonable response.

I guess a big learning for me and I think for our business is to say, "When you take away some of the bureaucracy of structure," which is there for important reasons, but just have an attitude of getting something done because it has to, it's remarkable what you can achieve.

Emma Lo Russo:
What do you think the role for financial services in leading that type of change or transformation for customers?

Rob Adams:
Yeah, I mean I think back to one of your opening questions, Emma, we were talking about trust and the need to provide information in a timely and relevant way, making it easier for people to access information. And making it easier for people to do business with you. I think they need to be themes that are at the forefront of people's minds. Within that, really standing in the shoes of our clients, our customers, and our prospective clients and customers, and using their language and not our language.

I think this industry, financial services industry is obsessed with three letter acronyms and complications and jargon that actually just makes most people roll their eyes and say, "I just don't know." We can easily cut through, and I think about some of our most successful communications in the last six months have been when we've had senior people who are technically incredibly strong people, who are talking to their clients in a plain English, simple way. We're open for Q&A, we'll take any questions in any shape or form, and we'll respond in a way that makes sense to people. I think financial services needs to be more relatable, I guess is what I'm saying.

I think we've learned through the requirement to be incredibly transparent that timely and relevant communications through different mediums, I think we as an industry have hopefully learned that we need to do more of that. That needs to be a permanent feature of our landscape. I think that's a really critical aspect of our forward looking learnings.

Emma Lo Russo:
What do you hope in terms of the shape of your organisation? How do you keep them ready? Who do you hire? How do you maybe reskill? What are you looking for when you imagine the perfect workforce to arm you and keep you-

Rob Adams:
Perfect workforce? Wouldn't that be nice.

Emma Lo Russo:
I mean, what is it, right?

Rob Adams:
We can all aspire to it. What do they say? Business would be great if you didn't have to manage people. I don't believe that at all. People are our business. I'm in business because of the people stories that you're able to impact, right? And those people stories you can tell for the rest of your life, it's immensely rewarding. From Perpetual's perspective, again, one important thing that we've had front of mind is the old Churchillian phrase that you should never waste a good crisis. Within a crisis, if you have the courage and commitment and alignment, you can do good things.

Rob Adams:
We've executed two offshore transactions. One of them is a transformational acquisition for Perpetual. By some margin, the largest transaction we've ever undertaken in our 130 year history. We've done that through pretty difficult times. I think when you're able to show that sort of long term vision, that light at the hill, then it starts to attract the right sort of people I think. That's important.

I think the behaviours we've shown as a management team in being able to do extremely positive and transformative things for our business during this time, I think gives people a feel for the sort of organisation we are becoming. Perpetual at its heart has a terrific brand, a terrific heritage, and we're in the act of positively reinventing ourselves for the next 50 and 100 years. I think that attracts a certain sort of person. We've certainly seen that in recent weeks post the announcement of the larger transaction.

I think people who can share in that vision, who are happy to be courageous within sensible parameters, who want to be empowered, but most of all who just want to make a difference. I often draw the metaphor in business of together, we're building a structure and we've got mortar and we've got bricks, and we're slapping a bit of mortar on the brick and building this structure. We might not know exactly what that structure looks like, but we know on every brick that we've put in, we've written our name and the date, and it'll stand there forever more.

I think for people who want to have that feeling of positive relative impact, building something that will stand the test of time, when they see the actions of a group like ours through difficult times, then I think if they can be inspired by those things, then they're the sorts of people we want.

Emma Lo Russo:
You tell great stories, I’m hearing it already. Is that part of your secret in leadership, do you think? When you look at your own style of leadership, how do you describe it?

Rob Adams:
That's an embarrassing question. I don't know. I don't often like talking about myself, to be frank. I'm going to rephrase your question, Emma.

Emma Lo Russo:
You can.

Rob Adams:
What styles of leadership in others do I admire and aspire to? I think leadership by example is absolutely head and shoulders above anything else. I think you set the tone for the organisation or the tone of your team, and so I think setting the example in everything you do in terms of the way you communicate, the way you interact with people, that genuine care that I talked about earlier. Setting the tone is incredibly important, so leadership by example is a standout. I think transparency and openness come along with that.

I think about definitions of the way you work. It's not about the hours that you spend, it's about the output and the quality of the output and being focused on that output. Being able to bring people with you is really important. I'd say my standout quality that I seek in others is leadership by example.

Emma Lo Russo:
For the benefit I guess of people who might not have done those types of acquisitions that you said, these big transactions that you've undertaken, how do you ensure when you're doing that, the culture and what you set as your ultimate goal, how do you make that work?

Rob Adams:
It's a really important question. I mean, I think in looking at any acquisition opportunity, in financial services, and specifically in relation to the two transactions we've recently announced in asset management, but I think the same applies in any aspect of financial services. Because almost all financial services activities, the major asset you're acquiring is people. Therefore, the cultural test that has to take place is the most important test. We can count the assets, we can count the revenue, we can have a best guess as to the opportunity in a forward looking sense, but if the people aren't on the same page, then you're fundamentally going to have a problem. I think in particular in asset management and probably advice, as well.

The cultural audit and we do actually do a formal cultural audit, is really important. That's just a reflection of how you feel culturally about your interactions with the other side. That's not to say that everybody's the same and unless you think in a certain manner, it's not going to work. Because the worst outcome you could have is groupthink. But I think just ensuring that fundamentally people are driven by similar things is important. I think secondly, it's really important to think in a forward looking sense, to say, "If our businesses come together, here's what we're going to do and this is what the other side's going to do, and this is how we're going to come together."

Agreeing the rules of the forward looking game upfront is really important. Understanding who's going to do what, where the value's going to be added. And then calling each other on that. And then the other thing I would throw into this, and this might sound almost trivial, but I think testing that in your business environment, through due diligence meetings, through countless meetings, face-to-face, is so important. But then it's equally important to do things off-piste, to be in a social setting and to really understand what people's drivers are on a personal basis, as well.

I think when you can tick all those boxes, I think you're in good shape from a cultural foundation perspective, as you're bringing teams together. Particularly disparate teams. The larger transaction we announced back on the 27th of July is 100 people based in Dallas. We won't be able to get to Dallas for some time, and they won't be able to get to Sydney for some time, but luckily we did all of that cultural pre-testing and analysis work, pre-COVID.

We can call each other on those cultural promises and commitments, albeit electronically, we have that base now. It is the most important thing.

Emma Lo Russo:
And probably where also a lot of organisations could get it wrong, so it's good. It sounds like the more you put upfront, the more likely the outcome will be a positive one.

So, if you don't mind going back to technology and disruption and I mean FinTech in Australia has had an amazing investment, and there's all sorts of companies popping up everywhere. Do you see innovation driving into Perpetual more so? Something you’ll look to some of those partnerships of acquisitions.

Rob Adams:
It's interesting. In Perpetual, we have three businesses and one of them is a corporate trust business, where we are trustee for effectively the securitisation industry in Australia. In that privileged position, we have access to line by line mortgage data of pretty much the entire Australian marketplace. Through an acquisition, we completed about 20 months ago, we acquired a lot of additional debt data, non-mortgage debt data.

We have this incredibly rich datasource, which is a privileged position to be in, because it's through those provision of a trustee activities that you're there, and we have been able to utilise that data in a manner that's entirely secure, where we have created a whole bunch of analytical tools for financial services organisations to do a whole range of risk assessment and regulatory reporting.

Within a sleepy trustee business, we've developed this terrific little data as a service operation, that is now producing material revenue for us. You'll actually an example within our corporate trust business that's a combination of being born from within, because smart people invested in the right technology ahead of time, saw the potential for this to happen, which is now happening. We've augmented that through an acquisition, so that's an example of both those things, thinking from within and without, coming together to produce something that we think over time will become quite material for the group.

Who'd have thought technology company and a sleepy trustee company that's actually making money? That's the thing in technology, actually making money. I think we're on the constant search for that sort of I guess potential to unlock it from within our business. There are other parts of our business, say in our asset management functions, where I think we need to invest more in utilising data to improve our own decision making. We're seeing some of the interesting FinTech startups, particularly out of Europe, where asset management businesses who rely solely on artificial intelligence, making active decisions and becoming competitors in the asset management space.

We need to be prepared for the shape and form of our competitors to be changing, and to ensure that we are using data in the same way, but with more human interaction to improve our decision making. I think there are loads of applications for technology, loads of application for data. I think we need to be a rich source of data, we need to be interrogating and utilising that in a secure and responsible manner, and using it to improve our own decision making, and using it to improve clients' decision making, as well.

Emma Lo Russo:
I think to your point, it's the questions you ask of it and maybe the courage to act on it, but be driven by your purpose. I'm hearing a strong learner profile in you. You talk a lot about your own learning and even the way you're suggesting, the questions that you ask, how important is that ultimately to your organisation and to your leadership team?

Rob Adams:
Having a learning attitude, if you like?

Emma Lo Russo:
Yeah. I feel like I'm hearing it from you.

Rob Adams:
No, you're a good reader. That's true. I think that's one of the joys of this industry. I've been in the game, asset management game, or financial services broadly, I think this is my 33rd year. One third of a century, that's frightening. And every day I've learned something. I think that's inspiring. That's terrific. How lucky are we to be in a position where you'll never come close to knowing everything? One of my favourite phrases I use regularly throughout the business is nobody has the mortgage on knowledge. I think the minute that you assume you do, you get a bit too big for your boots. That creates a different set of problems down the track.

I'm glad you've picked up on that, that's something that's dear to my heart, is learning. From everybody around you, and it's not as if I as a chief executive can only learn from other chief executives or my executive committee or my board. I'll learn from anybody. I spent an hour today with one of our IT service desk guys on a particularly painful mobile phone problem, and I just learned so much about how these things operate that I didn't know before.

Emma Lo Russo:
Rob, because the listeners of The Business Of, they learn, you've given so many great insights into the way you lead and the opportunities and how fast I think Perpetual saw those opportunities to move fast, what else would you say to other organisations who are managing change or going through a crisis, to help them stay open to what may be, and be comfortable with it?

Rob Adams:
Well, I guess whatever I might be about to say, just take with a grain of salt, because everybody will apply their own views and aspects of what I might say to their own situation. I think you've got to be open to change, prepared to change, and I think prepared to move quickly in order to get the best out of that change, which means you're taking risk, generally. Whenever there is change, there's risk, but you can't be afraid of risk. You've got to embrace it, understand it, recognise it, and use it for good, not bad.

I think we're very fortunate at Perpetual to have a chief risk officer who I bought into the business, who I've worked with before, who has had a serious impact on the way that I think about risk and risk management. It's not to be avoided. It's to be embraced. I think with the right dose of courage thrown in, as long as you're certain of your long term direction, and when I say certain of your long term direction, it's the old chart that says, "This is where we're heading." You can define where that is, but you know that your path is going to be a zigzag. It's not going to be linear.

And accepting that it's going to be a zigzag, and accepting that some of the things that happen in the short term might not align with that long term direction you have, but being prepared to respond accordingly. Reassess, take on risk, adjust, and within that, I think be totally prepared and comfortable with being wrong. I think that's a big thing. I think sometimes people, particularly as they start to climb the leadership ranks, think that being wrong is a problem. And think that being wrong might stymie their success or their future potential.

I absolutely don't believe that. I'm wrong every day. I think it's really important to be able to say you're wrong, explain why, and explain your learnings and to be better the next time. I remember an old adage from the 1970s when Canon was one of the most progressive companies on the planet and one of the management mantras was, "If you're not making enough mistakes, you're not making enough decisions." I think that's one of those things I think about quite regularly. Now, there's obviously limits to that, and if you keep making the same mistake over and over, well that is a problem. Because you haven't learned.

But I think showing a preparedness to back yourself, to back your people, being open to getting decisions wrong. I would say is that be prepared to make decisions when you think you are 75% or 80% of the way there. Trying to extract the last 20%, to be certain of a decision, generally takes a lot longer, will cost you a lot more, and it'll mean you miss out on a lot in terms of the opportunity. Be prepared to gain in a risk adjusted way, make decisions when you're about 80% of the way there.

Emma Lo Russo:
Rob, you've given so many amazing insightsThank you for joining us today on The Business Of.

Rob Adams:
It's a pleasure, Emma. Thanks so much for your time.

Emma Lo Russo:
A fantastic conversation with Rob Adams. His humility as a leader and that commitment to always be learning really shone through it's something that’s proved to be so valuable for leading his teams and stakeholders throughout his career.

Next, let’s hear from Suzana Ristevksi, Chief Marketing Officer at National Australia Bank on how she’s built an organisational culture that adapts to change with a bias for action. Suzana, welcome to The Business Of.

Suzana Ristevski:
Thank you for having me, I’m excited.

Emma Lo Russo:
So, I should declare we've worked together many, many, many years ago, and it's been wonderful to see just how far that you have grown and tell me how your leadership journey has gone and how do you define it today?

Suzana Ristevski:
If I think about myself as a leader, I'd hope that I'd got better over the years. I have gotten better over the years with experience that does come, lots of learnings. But it's interesting. There are some things that I've held true to from day one, when I first started my career, that really stick by me. And there's things that I've learned along the way. What I would say is as a leader, I do feel like collaboration and context are probably the two most important things that I've carried through with me.

And why do I say that? Collaboration, goodness, whether you work in a big organisation or a small organisation, and no matter how many people you have got under your direct leadership, there is this constant need to be able to influence, understand and collaborate across the business. Particularly in the marketing sense. We can't do what we do on our own. We have to be working with the technology teams, our people team, operations, the product teams. So that's the first point. You've got to be able to gather context and collaborate across the value chain so that you can make the right business decisions. I had a previous boss who said to me context adds 100 points of IQ. And I really do think that is the case. And from a leadership perspective, that is something that I've carried with me. Just because I think a certain way, or I tackle a challenge or even the way I lead is the way I lead, it doesn't mean that's the way people want to be led or that's the way other people lead.

So gather context, listen, try and have some fun along the way. I'd like to think that people have got a sense of me as a human being as well as me in the workforce. And I do think as a leader, I do spend a significant amount of time trying to understand where my team are at personally, as well as professionally.

Emma Lo Russo:
And then had that pandemic thrown in just to further challenge and including, particularly in Melbourne, not even being able to have your team in front of you. How has that changed or been different in driving change to then dealing with driving change, having to deliver and having these additional kind of challenges?

Suzana Ristevski:
Let me give you some context because it's not just the pandemic that's been thrown at us in the last six months. So I'm at NAB at the moment. I run the marketing function. Just prior to COVID, we had our new CEO come in, Ross McEwen. We came on the back of the Royal Commission, strategic transformation within NAB, a cultural transformation all redesign, strategy refreshes and a pandemic. So overnight, literally 300 people in my team let alone, probably 20,000 people, were like, you're now working from home. So none of this code or conversation or meetings in the office or the interactions that you get, we had to overnight do all of our business over zoom.

And what an extraordinary situation that was, because you go one, can we actually do this over zoom? And it was extraordinary to see the whole organisation tilt overnight. And I was so super proud of NAB to be able to do that. We had to make sure that we could continue running the operation from home. We were getting as many phone calls in three weeks as we did in a year.

650,000 inbound calls over a two week period, which is really what we expect to get over a year. So I think, be agile, flex, Be gutsy enough to be able to say, all right, this needs direction.

The clarity, if you think about leadership, there's kind of three things that we should offer up our teams, clarity, make sure everyone understands what they need to do, where they fit. Train them capability, make sure that they've got the tools and the training to make sure they are capable to do their jobs, and motivation. We really tilt the clarity piece up front. Upfront I had to change the marketing plan overnight. We had bought our media 12 months in advance. We had our plan. Literally overnight we're like go. So with that, that was fascinating because we said, right, let's set some principles. We don't have time here to review the marketing plan. Go deep into the media plans. Review our CVPs. What proof points have we got?

We gave principals. And we said, here are the five principles. Focus on customers first above prospects. Support our customers, make sure they understand what is available for them from our perspective, the business relief packages that the government's offering, the work that the banks are doing to support them. Digital adoption, how do they actually keep safe? And then we let them go. We gave them a budget. We said, here are the things to do, off you go. And the team was extraordinary.

Emma Lo Russo:
You had to adapt that style, that approach, maybe that empowerment. Fast decision-making, probably removal of some of the processes you said, normally you'd goes through that approval process around plans. Is there anything you think you've learned or you would take because it proved to be more effective moving forward?

Suzana Ristevski:
Yeah. All of it. And it's not like we didn't know it before, but there are times in your career where you just like, it just hits you right in the face and you go of course, that's what I should be doing. That's what we should all be doing. So even before, and our CEO has been very public about this. We had over 400 projects in place and the backlog was huge. It was going to take us an extended period for time to get through this. Here are the top 20 guys. These are the ones that you're accountable for. And then the pandemic. Once you have less things to do, and you're really clear about those things. It's amazing quickly you can get these things done.

But this real desire to kind of get out there, trial stuff, give it a go in a safe way, I want to hold onto that forever. That's what you want to hold on to.

Emma Lo Russo:
You're still driving a massive digital transformation, customer empowerment, kind of a programme. How are you going to drive that change in that new way that you're going to work?

Suzana Ristevski:
So look, digital transformation is something that we're always wanting to do and it's because our customers want that from us.

We were really encouraged to do the right thing by our customers because what they wanted was help me bank online. And again, it went back to the focus. So we've already done that. If I think about some of the stats, our internet banking registrations were up 35% in the first month. The behavioural change we supported that with here is how you do it.

And behaviour really, I think customers now that they know how to use digital, the apps, and they're doing more stuff online, it's unlikely that they're likely to go back to do the things that they used to do in the branch that can now do. So the journey has started. People are less likely to use cash. They're more likely to use online and that's really propelled us to just continue that journey.

Emma Lo Russo:
So some feedback we've heard and the psychology behind customers is that they're looking more to values and trust. Could they trust their organisation at time of crisis? What's your view of that for what you've observed? Has it been different, are they challenge you in different ways or is it more the mindset of the organisation that's adapting to that?

Suzana Ristevski:
Well, our purpose as part of our strategic refresh, we had another look at our purpose and it was tilted, but I really loved the words. And the words are around serve our customers and our community. So it does start from the very top in terms of, our purpose as a bank is to serve our customers and our community. If you start there, the decisions you make around, well, how do you serve? You have to respond to what customers needs. And it was actually helpful for us, and it's an awful thing to say, and no one wants a pandemic, but post the Royal Commission where trust was decreased significantly because we weren't serving our customers. And that wasn't because people were purposefully trying to destroy value, or we were trying to do the wrong thing, but you've got this huge organisation where the left hand needs to talk to the right hand, there's technology platforms that have been there in years and processes and things. We have to navigate our way through that.

But you have COVID, it gave us the opportunity to go back to the say do ratio of 100%. We are going to be here to support you. We are going to serve you. We are going to help you get through this. And we are also going to do things like, and I don't know if you've seen any of our recent activity, but helping you does not mean saying yes in every instance. There may be times actually where we will not be able to lend to you because you're not in a position to be able to pay for it. And really encouraging our customers to come to us very early so that we can have those conversations, have a look at their cashflow before it's too late.

So COVID gave us a chance to improve our say, do ratio. It gave us a chance to rebuild trust. And we know, there's lots of stats there that I think there was one stat that I saw the other day that two in three people say that the way a brand response during a crisis will impact their likelihood of transacting with that brand in the future. And we're certainly seeing that. Our strategic NPS has improved significantly. Reputation's improved.. So this isn't just a bank thing. It's those big brands that are really tilted to supporting customers that have seen an increasing reputation and trust,

Emma Lo Russo:
Which is wonderful to hear. Actually just curious, how often are you testing that? Is that a monthly check that you're keeping track of or quarterly?

Suzana Ristevski:
Yeah, so we track trust and reputation. We track everything monthly. And there's obviously levers, different organisations have got different ways of measuring. And what is it that you measure? The leavers into strategic NPS around trust and reputation. Service plays a significant part of that as well. So this desire to keep the simple things, the digital adoption, and being able to service them simply in an easy way also plays into that.

Emma Lo Russo:
How do you view technology? Is that the cause for strategic change?

Suzana Ristevski:
I mean, technology shouldn't be an enabler. And I think sometimes we can get caught up in the shiny new technology and actually forget about what's the business challenge that you're trying to solve for. And again, I'm in marketing, I could spend hours and hours and hours thinking about what is the best marketing tech stack, but really I should be spending hours and hours, hours going, what is it that my customers need? What are our value propositions? How are we going to service them? Now there's pros and cons of working in a big organisation versus a small organisation. And it's always interesting talking to people because if I talk to someone that's in a startup, they're very envious of a big corporate who perceiving has more budgets, more funding, more people. And that's true, but it's never enough.

Whereas we look very fondly at startups and go goodness, they're quick they can steer the ship really quickly. And I think the secret is to not be envious, but take advantage of what you have. If you're in a startup, we want to act like a startup but have the scale and the infrastructure of a large organisation. That's where the magic is. And with that, again, I think it goes back to be really clear on what business challenges you're trying to solve in order of priority.

Emma Lo Russo:
Has the way you've shaped your organisation changed over the years? And then how do you imagine that's going to continue to change into the future?

Suzana Ristevski:
it definitely has. We have access to new tools and those new tools are technology and data and artificial intelligence and bots. And of course we would take into account those things and try and take advantage of those things to build out differentiated and value propositions.

So my team, of course, 20 years ago, when we worked together, I remember setting up the first website. Whereas now we've got people in the team that are actually tech experts, marketing tech experts that know how to do programmatic buys, that are using bots that are looking at WhatsApp, messenger. We're absolutely taking advantage of the new technology that is in place. But the way we approach it, some of that stuff doesn't change. You get back to the fundamentals of marketing, what are your objectives? Who's your target audience? What's your value proposition and how are you going to execute? Maybe the how you execute has changed somewhat. Yeah.

Emma Lo Russo:
But not necessarily how you want to make your customer feel, right? The empowerment. That's been the same. It's just different ways.

Suzana Ristevski:
This is the thing. And almost you've got to be, marketing has always been about art and science. Some organisations try to go too far on the science end, and forget about the importance of emotional attachment to a brand, which I think always anchor yourself in what is it the customer wants? And what are you going to deliver to, what's your strategic capabilities and your assessment of where do you want to play is a really good anchor that marketers and in fact business overall.

Emma Lo Russo:
What are the characteristics, what do you look for? How do you probe around that to make sure that you do have someone that's future-proofed maybe for want of a better word?

Suzana Ristevski:
Curiosity, first and foremost and... So what I probe on is desire and evidence of, have you been learning along the way. Because we're never not going to, we're going to have to continue learning. And if I think about the things that I've had to learn in the last three or four that I've never covered off at university, In this day and age, right, you've almost got different types of CMOs and you can have depth and breadth. And it really depends on how you line up with the business strategy and the culture of the organisation.

I think cultural fit actually has a huge part to play and how does this person fit in, in an overall leadership team? So for instance, in financial services, there are a lot of people that know financial services, a lot of financial services experts. Now of course people will say, it's wonderful to have financial services experience in marketing, but in this environment, I'm really open to new industry segments. Exposure to different kinds of customer segments. Because that will add something different to the organisation and allows you an expertise that can help lift the whole organisation. So I'm looking for, where does this person fit in, in the overall leadership team? Will they learn? And have they got a capacity to be thinking about teams? Not themselves, but evidences of have they been able to build up their team and push them through the system?

There's nothing more satisfying than seeing someone that's worked for you pop up somewhere 10 years later where their careers just phenomenally grown. And I think one of those common traits amongst people is their motivation and curiosity.

Emma Lo Russo:
Another theme we talked to a lot is how you can pursue both goals of doing well and doing good. What's your view and how are you keeping that in balance? how do you get that tension right to you want to serve the community, but you also need to deliver the results

Suzana Ristevski:
Yeah, it is interesting. It's an interesting question and I'm going to be controversial and say, why do we ask it? Because if you come back with, what is it that you are here for, if you don't do well by your customers, you won't do well by your financial performance.. It is okay in corporate to go, this is what customers want. And I do do that. I go in and we go, what is it the customer wants? And I'm completely agnostic to NAB to start with. Be very purest and democratise what is it that the customers are looking for? Start there.

Then you run your strategic capabilities on what can you deliver versus the competitors. And what can you deliver can be a what's the cost. Can I actually deliver that? And that's where I think that the magic is on well and good. The magic on well and good is find out what customers want. But be honest around what are your strategic capabilities and your ability to deliver on that. And one of the metrics can be, well if we can't afford it, or it's going to cost us too much and we're not going to make any money out of it, then find something that you can do to service them.

And it sounds very purist, but if we always start with either be financially driven or either do what the customer wants, you never going to get to the right answer. You've got to meet somewhere in the middle and that somewhere in the middle is balanced scorecard. Are you meeting your customer's needs? Have you got the strategic capabilities? Can you invest in that? Can you make money on that? I think it's that middle part where the balance score card that actually helps you get to the right answers.

Emma Lo Russo:
It sounds like you're leading with the right questions and answers and potentially managing expectations. Do you think some organisations make their timelines too tight?

Suzana Ristevski:
Leadership is very responsible for balancing short-term and long-term.And they get to drive what the objectives are and make sure that they are thinking about short-term and long-term without doubts. And it's been fabulous at NAB to actually see our CEO come in. He's very clear. It's customers, it's colleagues. And if we do that, right, we will meet our shareholder expectations. And that is driven very much from the top.

Emma Lo Russo:
So Suzana, finally, what excites you about the future? What are you thinking about next?

Suzana Ristevski:
I am actually proud of the organisation. I'm proud of my team. What we had was a real sense of joint purpose. There wasn't one person that wasn't aware of what we were trying to achieve. And that was actually for the good of the community and the good of our customers. I want to hold onto that. And again, we knew it, but just this sense of purpose and what people are doing can really help push through the changes that need to be changed, motivate our teams. So that would be the first thing, really making sure everyone is clear and aligned on the purpose.

Two. Just reminding each other that we're human. We're looking at people's lounge rooms and kids running around in the back and the rest of it. I think being a leader and you've got to find your own style. Different people have got different styles, but it's actually okay to be human. And it's okay to say, I don't know. And it's okay to say I'm having a crappy day today. Because that all gives context.

Emma Lo Russo:
Suzana, what an inspiration. I know our listeners are going to get so much out of this. Thank you for joining us today on the business of.

Suzana Ristevski:
Pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Emma Lo Russo:
What a transformative time for National Australia Bank. So valuable to hear those insights from Suzana on how the organisation is forging a way forward putting customers first. I loved hearing her reflect on that instinctive curiosity we have as leaders, and how it can play to our strengths during a crisis.

My final guest for this episode is Dan Peters, Chief Revenue Officer at Limepay. Let’s hear from Dan on what he’s learnt from the most disruptive period in recent history.

Welcome to The Business Of, Dan.

Dan Peters:
Happy to be here.

Emma Lo Russo:
Tell me about Limepay and what attracted you to the business?

Dan Peters:
Look, I'd spent 12 years at Google, all in Australia and felt like I was ready to take a step back into startup.

We can get into some more of the principles of it, but effectively it's just a really good disruption play and a very compelling proposition and the hotter the 'buy now pay later' space gets, the more compelling the disruption looks from something like Limepay. The combination of just getting back into startup and doing something with that energy was very appealing.

Emma Lo Russo:
So you joined in January and then COVID hit, right?

Dan Peters:
Yep.

Emma Lo Russo:
So talk about that.

Dan Peters:
You leave the security of one of the world's most successful companies for a startup, just when a global pandemic hits, doesn't necessarily strike you as the most sensible thing to do and your wife does ask you a few hard questions at night about whether or not that was the right decision, but it's very much proving to be. We've been able to proceed unabated somewhat, which is great.. I think they're countervailing factors, right? The slow down and the general business economy and general hesitancy is counterbalanced by the fact that we really specialise in e-commerce and online transactions, which obviously has boomed as a result of COVID.

Emma Lo Russo:
What are the characteristics and what are you doing that drives that disruption? And what do we learn about disruption when we're putting it into play?

Dan Peters:
It's been really interesting actually. I spent a lot of time talking to the C-suite and boards of the biggest retailers in the country. And retail has been under pressure for a very long time and I really got to get under the skin of that and what it means to try and to be running effectively. Those businesses under extreme pressure of all of the forces at play around digitalization, digital disruption and so on. Here at Limepay, we're in the same space in that, we're representing the digital disruption that's taking place.

And what I've observed is the response from the market and from the brands that we've talked to, is that some look at the challenge and really embrace it and take it as an opportunity to move faster, do the things they know they need to do, to bite the bullet... And others don't, others really feel paralysed by it and retreat and really try and defend and it's... I come from the spirit of attack being the best form of defence and there's one brand that we'd be working with, a brand called Aussie Strength, they're an online gym equipment manufacturer.

And as your listeners may be aware, COVID has been a boom time for the home gym and Aussie Strength literally can't get equipment fast enough. They're virtually sold out almost immediately and things have gone pretty nuts, which is great for them. But they could have taken that very much as an opportunity to slow down other development works, certainly not to embrace a thing like Limepay, a new payment solution and a new payment platform. And they actually did the opposite and actually put their arms around it and really took it as an opportunity to change faster because they could see that this is going to represent an amazing opportunity going forward. And now is actually at the time to double down, now is the time to really... If not now, then when? And if not you then who?

Emma Lo Russo:
Where do you see this going? What's the opportunities right now and moving forward?

Dan Peters:
From a Limepay perspective, what I would say is that we operate in the payment space, right? So for those who haven't come across this yet, we're an innovation in Australia and globally in that we're the first buy now pay later and payment processing platform combined, and we're a white label solution.We give big brands, a white label opportunity to own that solution. And where this originates from is, in terms of the opportunity, is that there's still a lot of disruption at play in the payment space and payments itself is suddenly becoming a transformational consumer experience.

The one I love to cite is Uber in this space. One of the most transformational parts of the Uber experience is just getting out of the car and walking away. And there is no payment, it's a completely frictionless payment experience. And that's a magical moment. When you do that, you go, "Huh, that's different." And all of a sudden your whole experience of the idea of payments is transformed in that moment. When we talk to merchants and retailers, that's the consumer value proposition that we start to talk about. You can actually truly make a transformational experience out of payments and it can be for a consumer completely... It can completely transform the way in which you do business with the brand. And so, I think a lot of brands are starting to think about that.

How could this work for my fashion brand? How could this work for my in store experience? How could this work online in a completely frictionless way? What additional value might we give in that experience? Could we roll loyalty into this, in some new and innovative way? And all these kinds of things can be innovated on. There's so much opportunity there. And we've really only scratched the surface, I think. Payments has been a pretty commoditized space for a long time. And then we're now starting to really knock the top off of that and discover what's underneath.

Emma Lo Russo:
You hold the title of Chief Revenue Officer.

First of all, describe what that role means. And then, what does leadership in this time of change also need to look at?

Dan Peters:
To me, it just encapsulates in my head, sales and marketing combined. Top line growth, oversight over the top line revenue, is how I generally think about it. But given we're a relatively small startup and I'm partnering with the founder, CEO and COO we're all knee deep in everything right now. I can't absolve myself at the bottom line either.

I suppose it means all of those things, but I think over time it will evolve to a greater focus on just deals, partnerships, sales, marketing, revenue, anything that's driving top line growth is how I see it. And then what does it mean to leadership? I don't think it means anything different to what leadership means anywhere else. I firmly believe that the leadership is not a thing, it's a practise, it's a behaviour. And it's taking responsibility for the way which you show up every day. And it's a deep understanding that your attitude, behaviours, process impacts others in both the positive and negative way and really being super mindful and aware of that.

There are many different styles of leadership everyone knows. But I think for me, it's much more a mindfulness thing. It's much more about the awareness that every time you get out of the lift and walk through the doors, into your office in the morning, that's leadership. People look at you and decide whether or not you're pumped today or you're flat today or you're stressed today or you're relaxed. All of those things and you can feel that in others and you feel that in yourself and that to me is leadership.

Emma Lo Russo:
What do you think you're taking from a larger organisation into the environment you're in today? Into startup, into this need to operate quickly without that big team and structure behind you?

Dan Peters:
If you've been inside the organisation for a very long time, that's how you think business is done. And so you just get exposed to that and it's incredibly normalising. And then you get outside it for the first time and you get into another business and you go, "Wow, I actually know a few things. I know stuff that other people don't know," that's the best news, "And I've operated at a pretty reasonable level." That's quite valuable. We can put this to work, whether it be legal negotiation, whether it be awareness of commercial environment, whether it be understanding of how product development's done.

The watch out for me, which everyone calls out as, can you still operate without a big team under you and all that stuff. And so that you wake up every day and go... Metaphorically roll the sleeves up and just think, okay, there isn't anyone else to do those edits to that document? No one's cooking me lunch in the canteen, but let's just park all that, it doesn't matter. And it's time to do it for yourself. And that's actually been great fun. I think within a couple of weeks here, we were moving into an office and I was building this cubicle a soundproof cubicle. I was busy putting the pieces together and you know what? I loved it. It was great. That sense of getting back to being on the tools and actually really being useful, it can be...

One of the downsides of being in big corporate, I know a lot of people I think would identify with this. You get further and further away from the manufacture of things. From the tools, whatever it is you're doing, from the product itself, from the decisions themselves. And it's incredibly empowering to suddenly be in a place where, if you want to go and build the cubicle, you build the cubicle. If you want to edit the legal document before you send it to the lawyers, you edit the document and all of a sudden you're empowered to do all this stuff. I found it incredibly energising, reinvigorating, all the things I wanted from my move.

Emma Lo Russo:
I think the other thing which you commented on is, as Chief Revenue Officer typically plays at the top line, but in the startup, you're considering every dollar because, part of strategy is staying in the game to win.

Dan Peters:
Correct, yeah.

Emma Lo Russo:
What else have you seen? What are you doing that you think is different now that you're seven months in, to maybe what you would have done before? Because the smarts you're bringing, that experience? How are you operating differently?

Dan Peters:
We are all owners of this business. Both literally, we're all shareholders, but very much in terms of attitude and so on. And so to your point, while I may be a Revenue Officer looking after revenue, I'm just as bothered by whether or not we buy the expensive coffee beans or the cheaper coffee beans for the machine and everything in between.

And everyone else should be too for now, because that's the only way we're going to make it. And I think that's a really powerful thought.

I genuinely feel like this is my business and that's a really powerful thing. If you can turn up every day and feel like I don't just have a share in this business, but actually, I'm an owner in this business. It's quite a different mental attitude. And I think, with all the hyper awareness of mental health and other things, I think is a really important part of the way in which people can actually show up well to work and feel passionate and an energy and excitement in connection to what they're doing. And I think a lot of the challenges people feel at work... I know I certainly did, is when you start to feel that divorce from the purpose. Divorce from the organisation, and it's really feeling a sense of ownership over it. It's very hard to stop, but if you can hold onto it, it's incredibly valuable.

Emma Lo Russo:
I'm sure you're going to be very successful and I wish you all the success. Thank you for taking the time to share with us.

Dan Peters:
No problem. It's been great. Thank you for having us.

Emma Lo Russo:
Those insights shared by Dan Peters are a timely reminder about how the speed and agility of decision making in a startup can provide a mandate for a nimble, action-oriented approach to growth, and create a resilient culture in the future.

It’s clear Financial Services Investment firms are learning valuable lessons in adaptive leadership from leading through successive crises. The capacity to lead with trust, humanity, and humility came to light in each of my conversations with today’s guests, and it's an approach we can all apply to our own endeavours.

I’m Emma Lo Russo, I’ll talk to you next time on, The Business Of.