I was excited to have Peter Chrisp join me and some of our Business Changing clients for a Zoom call to share his knowledge and advice. In my opinion, Peter is one of NZ’s top business leaders.
He’s the current CEO of NZTE and has been for the past 8.5 years. Prior to that, Pete was general manager of the Fletcher Challenge pulp and paper mills in Kawerau before moving to the headquarters of Norske Skog Paper International in Oslo to take up a global role as Senior Vice President. In this role he was responsible for South America, Asia, Middle East, and Europe.
Here’s some of the questions we put to him in our chat:
Q. No doubt you speak to many savvy business leaders — what is the collective view on how this Covid crisis will play out for NZ businesses over the next couple of years?
A. Interestingly, the Chinese character for “crisis” is made up of two characters: Danger + opportunity.
The dangers are evident:
- The health crisis may be largely behind us but the economic crisis is ahead of us.
- How exposed you are depends a lot on your sector. For example, tourism/retail/hospitality vs food and beverage/some parts of tech.
- There will be a lot of debt that we will have to pay for for some time.
- Either way I think we’re in for long term systemic unemployment which is really tough for a country to deal with. It took a couple of decades for us to understand how the high unemployment of the 1980s and 1990s (20% or 30% in some places) made their way into our educational performance and incarceration…
Also there’s opportunity:
- We could become the most sustainable food producer in the world
- Our exceptional Covid management will become part of our country story… like how we reacted to the Christchurch terrorist attack, like treaty settlements, like first ACC, like first welfare state, like being the first to give woman the vote. Not only one of the best countries in the world but one of the best countries for the world as far as being progressive.
Q. What are the most important decisions you make as the leader of NZTE?
A. An organisation’s power comes from the purpose and the culture, and the alignment of those with the operations. So, for me, anything I can touch which defines the purpose and upholds it, and anything that speaks to the culture, those are the things I’m the custodian of and make decisions around.
Q. How does your working week look, generally speaking?
A. Pre Covid vs post Covid the time allocation is very different. Before, I used to get on a plane 4 days a week! I’d say my time is spent 20% connecting with customers, 20% connecting with employees to look under the hood, 20% connecting to stakeholders (e.g our Board, ministers, other parts of NZ), 40% working on building my own team, and ensuring the right people are working on the right things in the right way, using my customer and people insights, and 20% on emails, which seems to take up my weekends — this is the area I most struggle with!
Q. As an organization gets larger there can be a tendency for the ‘institution’ to dampen the inspiration and creative thinking. How do you keep this from happening?
A. Firstly, the question is real and it’s good to recognise that. Start off by asking yourself that very question every day to encourage that thinking.
The bigger you grow, the more moving parts you have to align and the iron cage of bureaucracy steps in. At some point you have to get the right infrastructure at the right time — it’s one of the biggest arts of business. You need to fall in love with the problem of how to re-create yourself and how to eliminate the unnecessary systems and processes. Unless the leader is on that re-creation journey, it’s hard for the organisation to be on that journey.
For me personally, it’s about bringing the outside view in, through reading or visiting customers and employees or feedback or benchmarks. And then it’s about baking it in and setting that need for radical thinking into the routine. Our board has a “Freewheeling Session” for an hour at each meeting where people can pitch any ideas or dialogue. A lot of organisations have Red Teams who are charged with reinvention, breaking eggs to make an omelette.
Q. How do you personally keep your team and employees keen and motivated and show them that you care for them?
A. To motivate them, it’s all about the cause, your why. This is what will drive and motivate and to get them to connect so hold that dear and close. For us at NZTE, we are growing companies for the good of NZ. How cool is that!!
To show them that you care: you can’t make this one up. Either you do or you don’t. We do, and our people know it. Most leaders do care and have a sense of guardianship for the people in their care. As a leader, what we do is like a pebble dropping in a pond and sending out ripples — we need to show acts of care, which comes from a basic point of compassion and empathy for others.
Q. What gems do you have to share on how to get your teams to be an ‘A team’?
A. I’m a big fan of the book The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team and the lessons in that.
Of course, to have an ‘A team’ you need that shared cause — then you’ll gather a team around you that believe in that shared cause and all want to work towards it.
It goes without saying that having great individuals on the team is important. It’s a lot tougher to achieve with average performers or bad eggs, so the recruitment and growth of them is very important.
I believe in accountability: having a clear programme of work, great clarity of roles and responsibilities. We follow RASCI here.
Look at how your teams dig into and deal with conflict. If you have conflict, you’re better to go through it rather than around it — “honesty frees us”. Seek to understand before being understood.
And then once you can get your team to have success, they’ll feel that success, they’ll then feel the confidence to have another success, and it keeps building. Once you get that dynamic in a team, you’re onto a good thing.
Q. What are your favourite questions to ask those that you lead?
A. Make sure you spend that 1-on-1 time with people — it’s easy not to, but make it happen. It’s an important discipline.
I ask them “How are you feeling?” Emotions drive performance so figure out how they’re feeling and then unpack the content of why that’s the case. The other question is “What are the options here?” So for me, it’s been about going from being the expert to being someone who asks the best question, to liberate performance in others, to help guide them.
Q. When would you make the decision to let a difficult employee go?
A. Earlier than I feel like. I’ve often given people the benefit of the doubt too long. My learnings are to bring those hard discussions forward once I realise that nothing can elevate their performance. More times than not I think I have been too slow than too fast. It’s the bias optimism with me.
Q. When faced with two equally qualified candidates, how do you determine whom to hire?
A. Recruitment is on the of the most difficult arts of being a leader — it’s hard to recruit well. If you get 2/3 of your recruits right, you’re above average. This is the part of the business where you can take your time. As they say, it’s “better to have a hole than an arsehole.” If in doubt, keep digging — do another round of interviews, get your best friend to meet them, build up the touchpoints until you have confidence in your decision either way.
Q. How do you help a new employee understand the culture of NZTE?
A. It’s not by chance. The induction is one of the most crucial parts. We have an induction for our employees called Ignite — we run them over 2 days every quarter and I go to every one of them to connect with the new employees. A proper induction for new employees is like affirmation that they’ve done the right thing — they’ve taken the right job in the right place. When they walk in the door on day one, are they happy and excited? Give them a good experience so they don’t have post-purchase dissonance. We have a powhiri on day 1 for all new hires; very powerful emotionally, it builds up their mana. We put a lot of time into that first 6 months of our new hires, to show them our culture.
Q. What are the handful of characteristics that you believe every leader should possess?
A. An oldie but a goodie that I keep coming back to is Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Also, Kotter’s difference between leadership and management. I like having theory in my head to help inform how I act.
Leadership is about people; management is about things. Empathy is fundamental for leaders. Listen more than you talk — “two ears and one mouth”. Very powerful.
And understand the power of your own behaviour. Remember: people can’t hear what you say because you shout so loudly with what you do. Model the behaviour you want. People watch leaders like a hawk so live what you say… you get the standards you walk past.
Q. What are some mistakes you witness leaders making more frequently than others?
A. An early leadership dilemma I had, which is a common one, was a fear of failure. Many leaders are successful because they’re driven by not failing, but the shadow side of that is micromanagement – the greatest leadership curse. Micromanagement undermines people, which is demoralizing and demotivating. As leaders, our job is to grow the people to get the job done, not do the job. What you’re like at home is probably what you’re like at work so listen to the feedback you get at home — they’re often very honest!
Q. Is there one behaviour or trait that you have seen derail leaders’ careers so they never reach the heights they were destined for?
I think people need to know who they are and where they’re from. Be self aware and know your own imperfections. “Live in terror of your own strengths” — what is the flipside to your strengths? Ie you might be very wise and reflective but it could come across as arrogance. Energy could come across as dominance. Be self aware.
Q. When you were at Fletchers, it was a time with decreasing demand and the need to cut costs. What lessons did you learn from that experience?
For commodity businesses there’s always a way to do things more cost effectively — the only barriers are history and entrenched interests. Get close to the business and really understand where value is created and cost is incurred. Be very suspicious of fixed costs— it can almost always be done better and at lower cost… you just need to find the way. Cut the fat and then the muscle — you’ll be surprised how much more costs you can cut out. Try and keep people engaged, as they hold the key.
Q. What are you doing to ensure you continue to grow and develop as a leader?
A. First of all, you should always keep that question alive, to hold yourself accountable. I try to do piece of formal learning a year, to “sharpen the saw”. It doesn’t sound like much but if you look at that over a lifetime… I read widely. I agree with Mark Twain who says there is very little difference between those who don’t read and those who can’t. I visit other markets and individuals for external input, trying to engage with people who have different ideas from me.
Another think I do is ask myself, ‘Am I the problem here?’ For example, if you build it and then you find yourself defending it — are you the problem there and is it time to leave?
Q. How do you handle stress and challenging time?
A. “Stay fit and get enough sleep” is what I remember to this day from an expert speaker who was given a 45-minute slot at a global conference and that’s all he had to say! I’ve never lost my exercise regime — “healthy body, healthy mind”. Pilates as I’ve got older. Outdoor adventures. I am only stressed when I feel like I am not contributing.
Q. What questions are you asking yourself lately?
A. How do we turn Covid into an opportunity? Are we fast enough? Adaptable enough? Reacting the right way, as an individual and as a team? Do we have a mindset of opportunity? Are we part of the solution? How radical does the change need to be, keeping in mind the baby and the bathwater…
We’re seeing a massive digital pivot — for communication, for trading, for sourcing customers, for sales, for retail. It’s an opportunity for all of us.
This is NZ’s time… We’re not only one of the best countries in the world, but one of the best countries for the world. How do we make the most of this opportunity?