Zac: It’s very exciting for me to have a chat to Jolie Hodson, CEO of Spark. Jolie and I used to work together many moons ago in our first job back at Deloitte’s, back in 1992. She left Deloitte’s at the end of 2000 and she’s now the CEO of Spark, which is worth $8.5b with revenues of about $3.6 billion and roughly over 5,000 employees. 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 views on how to be successful and innovative in business.
Zac: Covid is obviously on everyone’s mind. Big picture wise, what is Spark doing in light of Covid?
Jolie: I think there are elements within your control and there are elements out of your control during these times. We’re looking at the things within our strategy that we want to accelerate through this time and the things we’re just going to pull back on until we get greater certainty.We’re seeing a number of our customers also thinking ‘what do I need to do with my business? Are parts of it no longer viable or are there parts that actually I should put the foot down and really accelerate while the cost of borrowing is lower? What do I need to do to help me operate a bit more effectively?’ Some are thinking that they haven’t really gone into the digital transformation space but maybe that’s something that they need to do, either to better meet customer needs or to be more effective from an operational perspective. We’re seeing a lot more people standing back and thinking about that.And that’s no different to a bigger business. We’ve got to make sure we’re actually focusing on the right choices and we’re setting ourselves up for success in that regard.
SUCCEEDING IN BUSINESS
Zac: What do you think are some of the common reasons as to why businesses fail to actually reach their maximum potential?
Jolie: I think sometimes it’s being really clear on the problem that you’re actually trying to solve for that business. Or is the market there? Or you might have a great idea, but are you ahead of your time and that the customer need isn’t there right now? Ruthlessly prioritise those things.Also, a founder can be absolutely the right visionary for starting the business and getting it to a certain stage, but are they the person to take it further when it gets to a certain level? Sometimes you see that, in terms of that next stage of evolution or the business growing into something larger — they need different sets of skills to come in.
And then I think access to funding, but that’s quite linked to commercialization capability. Do we really understand what it takes to make this business successful? Have we got the skills within the group to do that? Is there really a market for this?
BEST CAREER LEARNINGS
Zac: If you had to name a few of your best learnings from your career, what would they be?
Jolie: Taking risks — stepping to the edge where you’re uncomfortable, but not out of control. That is when I feel you do your best work and you learn the most.
Make the call, even if you’re not a hundred percent sure. Indecision is the fastest killer of any kind of business momentum and innovation.
Be really clear on the why. Why are you doing something? Could you write a press release about a particular innovation or the core of your business — what would it say? If you can’t say that clearly enough, what does it tell you about how hard it is to communicate to your customers or to suppliers?
Make sure you give yourself as much opportunity to experience different things, different thoughts, different perspectives — finding the person you most disagree with is sometimes really good for challenging you and actually rounding out a solution or a problem.
Always have great people around you, building teams, creating the opportunity for others. I think you will always outplay individual excellence if you can get a great team.
JOLIE’S ADVICE FOR SME OWNERS
Zac: Let’s say you owned your own SME business and we’ve come out of COVID lockdown, we’ve got an uncertain 12, 18 months ahead. What would you be focusing on?
Jolie: I’d be really focusing on the market — is it the same as what I thought it was pre COVID? If there’s a shift you need to address that. Maybe there’s a different part of the market — it could be smaller. It could be that I might need to shut it down. And while that’s not palatable, that’s part of it. Shifts from physical to digital: I’d be looking really hard and saying, do I have the footprint that allows customers to engage with me, to make me as efficient as possible without needing to have an IT degree to drive all of that? So what are the applications I’d use?As I noted earlier, there’s the opportunity to accelerate some things. I’d ask myself, what’s the one thing I can do now to accelerate? The cost of funding is extremely low, so there will be opportunities out there. Take the time to actually step away. And I know it’s extremely hard when you’re in your business — you’re pretty much working to just survive at times — but take that time to stand back and maybe bring a couple of people in with you who can be objective and look at your business with you and help coach you. To answer, what’s the one thing I’m going to stop, where is the opportunity, what shall I start, and is there a capability I need most now?
Slowing something down is probably the worst thing, actually, because you don’t actually make a decision to exit. Being clear about what you won’t be is just as important about being clear about what you will.
Zac: Let’s talk about accountability — how do you keep 5000 people accountable?
Jolie: We have what we call the quarterly business review. So we have an annual plan and we have a strategy that sits outside of that, and then we break objectives and priorities down into 90-day windows. Then we work out what everyone’s role in contributing to that is through a framework we call Contribution Models which is a combination of both the outcomes of what we need to deliver and what we expect from our contribution. That gives people clear understanding of what great looks like in their role and where they are on that curve and what they need to focus on to best contribute to that. That’s one of the ways we try and use the frameworks to actually help guide where people spend their time. 90-day timeframes picks up the pace. It makes sure that we’re not lost in a 12 year waterfall into an IT project, for example. Particularly in an environment like now it’s even more important, because the world is changing quickly, so you need to be able to re-iterate and change with that.
Zac: Can you give us a bit more of an understanding of being agile in a business context?
Jolie: About two years ago, we changed pretty much completely the way we work. We collapsed the old hierarchical structures of different business units. With agile you’re flattening structures and removing levels. So if you think about our organisation, I’m CEO and there is my leadership squad and then we have our Tribe Leaders with 75-150 people per tribe, and then everyone else is in the Squad. So the distance from me to the customer has hugely collapsed. It actually brings it back to, ‘what are the problems you’re trying to solve for customers?’ How do you organise yourself in a way that brings that to the centre of what you’re doing?
When you think about design thinking where you bring together desirability, feasibility and viability, what you’re trying to do is create that: small groups of teams who are working on solving those problems within a very finite time. Working agile means you avoid the “I’ve got 20 things I’m working on and this project is one of those 20” and instead it focuses very much on two-week sprints with a clear objective. You’re working at pace, you’re talking to your teammates about what you have or haven’t achieved from the day before, and you test it quickly. So it’s a lot more iterative than it would have been in our past. You could talk about agile for days and weeks, but what it really does is link purpose to what you do, collapses the structures around you and empowers people to work out how they will deliver that within that framework.
Zac: What tips and hints do you have for people who want to bring more innovation into their business?
Jolie: Check the culture and the mindset that you bring to an organisation. We weren’t that innovative seven or eight years ago — we had a desire to be, but we weren’t actually doing it. So we shifted the culture, where we put our focus and time, and how we valued it. Spark Ventures was part of that in terms of learning to work in that way, before we went at scale and put resources there. Digital identity is something that we’re very focused on at the moment — we think it solves a lot of problems across not only New Zealand, but globally — so we are investing in this, putting the right skills and capabilities there.One of the other things about being innovative is making sure you’ve got the skills for the next evolution of what might be happening in your industry or your market. Have your “eyes up and out” — get perspective beyond your own organisation. We look offshore, not because you can only get good ideas from offshore, but because there’s other people experiencing similar things to our market that we can learn from. And we also look to adjacencies to the market we’re in, because something might be happening across there that could apply if you just thought a little bit harder about how you’d make that work in your business. And then you’ve got to apply it to the size and scale of our market.
I think it’s also always bringing yourself back to ‘what are the biggest customer problems you are actually trying to solve in your industry?’ And how would you reimagine that if you were a new entrant to your industry — what would you do if you were unencumbered by either the assets you already have, or the way you do things? Uber is used a lot as an example of that in terms of shifting the service proposition but there’s many other examples like that. That’s how we’ve tried to do it. And we built some capability. So we brought design thinking into our organisation five years ago, with specialist training so we’d have a number of people who know how to operate in that way. Having that thinking time is one of the most important things — and actually it’s the one thing we have the least of. But I think if you’re not allocating enough time for the thinking about where you need to go as a founder or owner of a business, then you are likely to be more reactive and might miss opportunities because of it.
Zac: Do you switch off?
Jolie: When I’m at home, I try to be present — you know, pick the moments and be present with my family. Like being there for the kids’ sports. Spending time with friends or family. Enjoying a glass of wine. And I always like to have a little project — we’re renovating at the moment and we’re about to start building — so that gives me something quite different to work. It’s important to find the line between home and work and make sure that you have that time, because unless you can find space to refocus, build your own resilience back up again, you can’t be the best person for your team or the organisation.
We carried on our chat with Jolie, covering leadership — see the second part HERE