Zac: It’s very exciting for me to continue my chat with Jolie Hodson, CEO of Spark (see the first part HERE ). She’s the CEO of one of the biggest companies in New Zealand, so we’re very lucky to have her with us today. We are going to chat through Jolie’s thoughts on leadership, culture and teamwork.
Zac: What traits and attributes are really important for people to be really good at leadership?
Jolie: I think it’s being clear about the purpose and what you stand for as a leader and a business. What do you want to stand for? Within that, the ability to take and receive feedback. I call it ‘looking in the mirror’. Throughout my career I’ve had that — I’ve had people who I’ve had trusted: coaches, confidants, I’ve done 360-degree reviews, I’ve done a lot of LSIs, which look at your leadership skills. Now you might not have access to all those tools, but you do have access to the people who work with you or your customers — use that opportunity to have a conversation with them. Because I think you should be constantly looking at feedback, thinking about how you might make that next step change. What’s the change you want to make over the next year? It’s not about having 50 things on that list, it’s probably two or three
I think the ability to listen and connect with people is important because at the end of the day, you work through people and through relationships. Sometimes you can see when things aren’t going as well for leaders it’s that lack of courage to be unpopular. We’re the ones that do have to make the hard call. It does stop with you. So that’s about being really clear on the ‘why’ — why do we have to do this, and the communication that goes with that. And that’s experience; I don’t think you’re born with all these things. One of the things that I talk a lot to people about is to lean in and get as many experiences as you can, as early as you can in your career, so that when you are in the hot seat and you’ve got to make that choice, you’ve had a chance to do it in a lower stakes environment. So if people talk to you about doing different things, your answer should always be yes, even if you don’t have all the skills — be prepared to take some risks. It’s only when you feel really uncomfortable and on the edge, that you’re probably learning the most.
Zac: As you say, leadership is bravery, isn’t it? You’re not always going to be popular. You’ve got to actually do those things you don’t want to do.
Jolie: Yes. And having a great team around you is critical. Who is the team you want to put in place and how do you empower them? What’s your leadership style within that, what will get the best out of them and how do you adapt? Because not everyone’s the same in terms of what they want from a leader or how they want to work. That evolves over experience and time as well, but again, if you’ve got that feedback and you’re looking in the mirror to ask, ‘What am I good at? And what do I need to work on?’ then you start to naturally build up some of those skills. And it also shows that you’re prepared to be vulnerable. You don’t have all the answers. I probably had one of my best learning experiences, maybe a decade ago, when I was seconded into a business exec team, initially for three months, then six months and then 12 months. During that time, I felt like I was on show, being judged the whole time as to whether I would shape up for the role permanently. And some of the behaviours that came out during that time was me wanting everything to be under control – not wanting any problems on my watch. This also meant I didn’t give the person seconded back into my role much opportunity to own the experience and step up. I completed a 360 review right after that secondment and it showed me that while I achieved a lot, I’d also impacted others by becoming too controlling — at the heart of it was a fear of failure. It was a very good learning, because three months later I got the role permanently, and I went into it knowing how I wanted to behave. So having those types of experiences earlier in your career set you up much better for the future.
Zac: You’re the leader of Spark, 5,000 people, big responsibility. What are the most important decisions that you make as the leader of Spark?
Jolie: I could have 50 things put in front of me on any day that we could choose to invest in or be part of, but it’s about being really clear about why should we go this way? What is in it for our customers? What’s in it for our people? And how do we get a return from that? And then I think really understanding the key levers of value in your business, which then helps you to make the right choices about where you allocate resources. Capability and culture’s really critical because ultimately it’s your people who actually represent your brand, who represent what you do in market, who have the great ideas within the organisation, so investing in that is a big part of it. And then alongside that — certainly in my role —I think a lot about the community and what we’re doing to engage with all of our stakeholders.
One of the biggest issues I see — Covid really shone a light on it — is digital inequity. So those who through income poverty cannot afford to have broadband. You think about how you learn, how you connect, how many of you will have your business running online — if you don’t have access to that and know how to use it safely and securely, that is quite a big gap. And then within that, there’s also the geographical or rural divide as well. So a lot of our focus as an industry is on how we close some of that up. To me, one of the biggest missed opportunities will be if we go through this time with Covid-19 and put some temporary bridges across that divide but don’t put a permanent bridge there to help people ongoing. And it’s a long term change, it’s a generational change, but I can’t see a world where any digital services are going to go backwards – they are only going to go forwards – so equipping people in the right way is pretty critical. So decision-wise, I think a lot about what is our role in the community, engaging with that, where do we want our Foundation to give, which places, and things like that. So it’s a mixture of strategy, purpose, where do our resources go, have we got the right people and skills and how are we creating a culture that allows that to flourish. And then obviously within that, there’s business performance.
Zac: If we think about leaders who never fulfil their true potential, what are your views on what they’re not doing right?
Jolie: I’d wonder, how much are they actually seeking out advice, support, vulnerability to get a really clear insight into what they’re really good at and what they need to improve? At the end of the day, we all have the choice to decide the organisation we want to work for and are we being supported there, but I think it starts by first looking at yourself, then looking at the broader context. If you’re not reaching that potential, my view is it’s always in your hands to be able to influence and change — you either change the context or the situation that you’re working in, or you change the focus personally. Ask yourself, ‘What am I not either delivering or generating that people don’t see the potential in me?’. And mostly that’s behavioural, in terms of the way I interact with people and the way I lead, the way I make decisions, what’s happening within that environment that means that I’m not moving forward and instead I’m missing that opportunity. Having that conversation with your leader or the organization you’re in is a great start to go ‘I’m owning this, I’m owning what’s happening here. And I really want to understand why I’m not performing like I think I should be’.
And there will be times and roles where it’s just not the right time. So for example, in a leadership team, you may be prepared to take a chance of someone who’s on the development curve because you have a lot of experience across the rest of your team. And other times it might not be the right time, because you have a far greater mix of developing leaders. So maybe it’s less about you and more about context, but I think starting with yourself is always a good place to really assess where you are and then move back to the broader picture.
Zac: I’m keen to understand your views on female leadership. Obviously, the number of female leaders are still not where it needs to be. What do you think the biggest barriers to female leadership in our part of the world?
Jolie: I’m going to say there’s a combination of things. From a government perspective, you think Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, the Governor General, Chief Justice — they’re all women in the highest public leadership roles. Government entities, I think we’re seeing almost 50/50 as CEOs of some of the very big agencies. So when you look at business, you ask, what are we doing to change that. It’s about bringing very capable people and different thinking to the leadership table. And it’s beyond just gender diversity, from my perspective. So there are some things like Champions for Change, which is very much focused on that, but the reality is I’m still the only NZX50 female CEO, after the A2 CEO stepped back. In saying that, the three largest banks are run by extremely capable female leaders. So then it becomes a question for business leaders – how are you thinking about that in your organization? How are you thinking about those different perspectives? What do you choose to do? Because it’s the moments of truth when leaders make choices about individuals and roles that matter. Our board’s intent is 40/40/20, which means 40% male, 40% female and 20% any gender. My leadership squad is the same.
For individuals I think it’s about taking control of your career — and that’s gender neutral — being really purposeful about what you want to achieve and owning it. Again, trying to build as much experience early. I took more sideways steps — which others might have looked at curiously. When I went to Lion, for example, I was offered partnership at Deloitte at the time, but I chose to take a business role to actually build up my capability, during my time there I had six different roles. In joining Spark I changed industries again and I’ve moved around different parts of the business to build direct operational and customer experience. So I think it’s about how do you put those pieces of the puzzle together? And then finally ask yourself the question: Am I in an organisation that supports inclusive leadership?
So I think it’s a combination of business leaders, chairs, owners, having these conversations and making sure talent review is happening within your team. It’s putting in place programs that give people the chance to build the capability. So tech is an industry heavily weighted to men, so how do we start to bring more talent through? Starting from people leaving tertiary or universities or even high school.
Zac: What are your approaches to teamwork of your core team?
Jolie: Something that’s really important to me is what do we want to stand for as a team? Actually spending some time on us, versus on the business, and standing back and saying, ‘what does great look like for us? What are our standards? What’s the accountability for doing what we say? How approachable are we as a leadership squad? What’s the change we want to take?’
Great teams are made up of people who want to be in that team, who demonstrate the skills we talked about, and who unite as one. I talk about an enterprise-wide leadership view. So it’s not just about my patch, my space and what’s happening — instead, I can lift up and think about what’s the right thing for our whole organisation. It’s about actively working on that and getting that we don’t get everything right. There are always going to be niggles in a team and niggles get bigger if you don’t do something about them so it’s important to actually spend the time to call it out. I have one on ones with my people each month so they’ve got a chance to feed back to me and me to them. And it’s a lot about how we’re doing things, not just the what.
Zac: So just on the trust side, did you guys start with trust in your team from day one?
Jolie: I think we had had a good level of trust, but those things are enhanced by going through experiences and working closely — experiences like Covid that create bonding and wider trust because you need to rely on your colleagues and move quickly with the decisions that you’re making.
Zac: Do you have any tips on how to create a high-performing team?
Jolie: Think about the mix of skills and capabilities you want within that team, because having everyone the same or with the same experiences or the same types of personalities doesn’t create diverse thinking or the performance you aspire to. A high performing team will be able to have a robust debate in the room and then commit to an answer that you all share when you leave the room. Look for people who will add something different to your own perspectives. I think finding those people with the conviction to hold their own point of view is also really important in a high performing team.
And figure out who you need around you to support that team. That might be coaches, HR partners, business mentors, people like that. It’s actually taking the time to actively think about the one or two things that will make your team go faster and do it in the right way — not 20 things because you lose the room and the will to live.
Zac: What can SME business owners learn from Spark’s culture?
Jolie: From an overall culture point of view we’re quite adaptive. We’re constantly learning and changing — and we have to be because our industry moves so fast! If you think about where we were seven years ago, big chunks of our revenue don’t exist anymore. So if we’re not learning and changing and innovating and working out what the new customer problems are that we should solve, we will just become a smaller and smaller entity. We really focus on innovating in experiences and that is powered by technology (because that’s obviously at the heart of what we do). Thinking about our purpose, it’s about how all of New Zealand can win big in a digital world. That applies to communities, schools, small business, large business.
The other thing I’d say about our culture is that it’s a real shift towards inclusiveness and belonging. So you can have diversity, you can have other things, but when you’re really operating at your best, it’s when you belong and you feel you can bring your whole self to work within that. We also have a real can-do attitude, and high performance. It’s about setting goals and achieving those and doing what we say we will — that’s always been a core part of what we’ve stood for as a business. That doesn’t mean we get everything right but that’s the adaptive learning bit: “So what did we learn from not doing that right?” And I’m a big believer in making a decision and moving forward; it’s much more impactful, even if you don’t get it all right. Having courage would be the other thing within the culture — that boldness.
Zac: How do you guys bring your company values alive?
Jolie: Within the building, you can see them around — they’re in Te Reo as well as in English — so when I talk about maia or boldness (that’s one of our values), we’re very focused on succeeding together. It isn’t about individual performance, it’s about team performance and the role you play within that. When we moved to agile it was around, how do we bring the best skills from across different parts of our organisation and bring them together in a squad that’s really purposeful? Say it’s a new product innovation. If you have all the skills in that same place, working on it, rather than going from team to team to team, you get a much faster to-market proposition. You’re able to test it quicker. And you have skin in the game for the people around you. So you care, you know, and you understand more, versus ‘well that’s X, Y, Z marketing department, I don’t really work with them that much’.Within that sits empowerment as well. We’ve got very clear objectives/goals, what they look like and what they come down to. So within my squad or my tribe, what’s our purpose? What are the goals we’re accountable for and how does that ladder-up to what we do every day? In a smaller business, you can probably grab your people around in a room very quickly to get very clear on that. One of the challenges in our bigger business is, how do you get that direct line of sight to how do I contribute every day to what we’re trying to achieve?
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