As published in Stuff on October 18, 2021
Every day we hear opinions on how the Government is handling this pandemic and it got me thinking — if the Government approached this like a successful business would (I’m thinking Mainfreight, Spark or Xero here), how might that look?
A great business shares their vision and goals with the team.
This gets the team excited about where the company is heading and gives them their “why” – why they get out of bed in the morning, why they do what they do, and why they’re happy to be a part of the team. Great businesses have clarity on their vision with a timeframe and metrics around implementation of it. The government did well in sharing their vision in the very first lockdown last year, which was for us to live as close to an everyday life as we knew it pre Covid. This longer term goal gave them huge buy-in from the team (us New Zealanders) and therefore buy-in around the initial lockdowns. The saying goes, “Share your fight plan with your team so your team don’t fight your plan” and that worked well for the government last year. An innate human need is to have something to look forward to and in this current instance it might be sharing goals around the expected facts needed for the borders to re-open, what needs to happen for the Auckland border to disappear, what the plans are for retail, hospitality, tourism, and other hugely impacted industries and others. Even if these goals change due to the nature of Covid, business owners and senior leaders I speak to would really appreciate more clarity to help them plan their short to medium term futures – and whether they hold on or read the writing on the wall and fold now or hunker down and soldier on.
Once you know your longer term goals, you need to have a plan to get there.
Every business worth its salt has a business plan with strategies and tactics. This covers what to do, when, to get to where they need to be. Given Covid and its variants are ever-changing, a plan would identify relevant short-term goals to ensure we are on track for our longer term goals, whatever change of circumstance arises. Think of it as plans A, B and C.
For a team to be greatly engaged, they need clarity.
In a successful business, each specific team will be very aware of what their KPIs are and what the consequences of hitting them or missing them will be. With Covid, a successful business would be transparent around what each result means for Kiwis – for example, what does life truly look like if we hit 87% vaccination or only 78%? Our team of 5 million is made up of many departments and right now the departments of tourism, events, hospitality, retail, health and beauty, education and others feel really in the dark about how their future is looking and they’d love some clarity.
Teams like to know the full plan, rather than being spoon-fed meal by meal.
A slow-drip of information often makes teams feel on the outer and not trusted, versus seeing the full roadmap of what is to come. A successful business would share more around the full plan with more concrete, more medium-term plans and covering off “what-ifs”. Allowing people to know the full roadmap allows them to work their lives around it – especially those business owners who are suffering from serious sleepless nights because they don’t have any idea of what the overall plan or timeline is and how to plan their business around that. If your team has more knowledge around how the what-ifs might play out, it gives them an overview of what might happen next and a better insight into how that applies to them. This knowledge can go some way to reducing the feelings of helplessness, allowing people to be proactive and put their own plan into place ie hold on for dear life, positively pivot or retreat completely.
The best businesses pre-plan around risk management so when something happens, they already know what to do.
Risk management is a standing agenda item at the board meetings of our successful companies. I’d assume the government would have had Covid on their regular meeting list since it first emerged in Wuhan in January last year, discussing what it might mean for NZ and how to react. They have had the huge benefit of hindsight given we were amongst the last countries in the world to have a Delta outbreak. A successful business is always looking internationally for trends and best practice and learning from those, incorporating them into their strategy – I’d assume if a business was in charge right now, they’d have been more proactive around a response plan to Delta before it hit us. This plan would have been shared so the team knew what to expect when it inevitably arrived. Teams find solace in knowing their business is ahead of the curve and prepared for battle with a response plan, whatever the risk might be. It might have been sobering knowing what Delta was going to mean for us but knowledge is power.
In business, you want to aim really high with your goals — but not at an impossible level.
90% vaccination is being thrown around as being a short-term goal — this isn’t necessarily driven by the government but it’s become the goal. United Arab Emirates is leading the world here and they sit at almost 86%. It’s true that Kiwis can achieve the near impossible — women getting the right to vote, Sir Edmund Hillary, Jean Batten, probably Richard Pearse — but is 90% achievable? Has the vaccine rollout been strategised and planned for to support this 90% now assumed goal? Does the government need to be more upfront on what their actual goal is? If this was a business, they would have set an aim of say 86% as being A grade (since that’s currently world-leading) and have a super target of 88% to 90% as their A plus BHAG (big hairy audacious goal). The issue with letting the publicly accepted goal be known at 90% is that it might be near impossible (based on overseas countries’ experiences) and the team of 5m might end up feeling defeated and thinking “what’s the point — we’ll never get there”, especially if that’s the number the government want us to meet before we can get on with life as best we can. Do we know what this % actually is? In business, when you set goals you want them to be really hard but not impossible. When you set a goal too high, your team get down, lose trust and point fingers, becoming less engaged. When they are less engaged, the team cut corners and don’t put in the effort they might have otherwise if the goal was simply an achievable A-grade. Please note, I really hope we can hit 90%.
A leader of a business needs their team to trust them.
They need their team to respect what the business is trying to achieve, be on board with the plan, and be enthusiastic about helping the leader achieve their goals. When people don’t believe in a leader’s goals, the leader loses followers, team engagement goes down and effort and excellence levels go down. The team can start to moan and gossip which is a bad thing for a business’ culture. Little cliques start and silos build up between teams. Communication in the business suffers as divisions are created and the team start to make assumptions that might be wildly wrong but which spread because they no longer trust or believe their leader, or they’ve been left in the dark with the plans so they start to fill the gaps with assumptions. This is dangerous stuff for any business and can start to spiral quickly once it gains momentum. When this happens, a successful business will put focus into how they can change perception and what they need to do to build up more trust again.
If the strategy needs to change, do it and be upfront about it.
In business, things don’t always go to plan. Sometimes you give things a go and sometimes they don’t work and you need to change tack and try a new market or product. If the government as a business was operating at the top of its game, I would assume they’d be upfront about when they choose to change strategy, from elimination to acceptance and minimization of Covid. In fact, it would be clear to all that a strategy change was coming because we would know from the earlier plan and metrics when plan A wasn’t working. Again, proactive communication is key.
The best businesses have accountability to deliver what they have promised.
There is transparency around what they’re trying to achieve and what the timeline for that is so they can be held accountable by others in the team if they don’t deliver on this. It would be encouraging for the team (NZ) to see this in action from the government. The consensus among my Business Changing clients who are amongst some of NZ’s best SME businesses is that they just want to know what the plan is to help give them more clarity so they can make relevant decisions. A bit of a roadmap that covers plan A, B or even C… My clients personally thrive on the accountability they have around delivery – it keeps them motivated and on track and stops them from getting caught up in the weeds.
I wonder what Mainfreight, Spark or Xero would do at the helm of the government right now and how their reaction to the crisis would differ from what we’re seeing now…
Angela Bogaart says
You hit the nail on the head!
They have absolutely no business sense.
Communication being the major key factor here. A lack of it.
They have little communication amongst themselves, keep cards close to their chest, do not share, do not accept or welcome ideas or knowledge, contribution from within their team or outsiders with greater expertise than themselves- border line arrogance and ignorance.
This in itself means no trust further outside their “ circle”.
Trouble is they have no mentor to be inspired by so they literally “ wing it”.
Great leadership also accepts and owns up to faults and mistakes and takes it on the chin no matter if it bruises ones ego.
To naively thing that everyone automatically will accept or be open to an ideology.
That’s literally living in a bubble.
Marco Creemers says
Great read , well summed up !
Lynda Harris says
An absolutely brilliant article Zac!
James Clague says
Very true Zac. If only the politicians had the desire to improve themselves – to show humility. To say hay, this is a big ship we are sailing, we had better the hell get some training and skills.
Alas, when power precedes ability, its game-over. Human nature sees to that.
Also, imagine if a business exec team had an opposition exec team sitting on the sidelines watching and criticising their every move with the end-goal of gaining greater favour by staff – staff who could vote to replace the existing floundering exec team with a new (potentially floundering) exec team. The focus would naturally turn from managing the business to managing the opinions of staff.
Imagine how destructive that would be for the business! A flawed approach for effective governance and management…period.
Hi Zac. Great article. It’s worth sending a copy to Jacinda.
If they were a business I would have resigned long ago.
As a Director and in charge of HR for our company I discuss KPIs regularly with staff. I’d say our government has not met their KPIs nor have they really engaged with their KPIs in fact I’m not sure they understand what their KPIs are. Basically they were elected first and foremost to deliver on one critical KPI – deal with Covid and get us back on track as a country. On that one they would get a resounding “has not met expectations” rating. Had they met that one we’d forgive them for not meeting any other KPIs. The most transparent government ever and the “kindest” has failed to meet a single KPI. Lets just say no-one in charge would even make it to one of my shortlists as they do not display any of the values we said were important to our business: Proactive, Expert, Pragmatic, Fair, Agile, Collaborative, Engaged.
David Muir says
Excellent article! But sadly, the number one priority of every government is getting themselves re-elected. That is what ultimately drives their decision-making – not good business practices. Watch all the restrictions magically disappear in election year (unless of course their polling tells them that the majority of people want them to remain).
Mike Noone says
Sadly, everything in this article is true.