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Leadership Matters

Welcome to the 2nd issue of ‘Leadership Matters’.  We are pleased to have Phil O'Reilly who leads Business New Zealand reflect on searching for talented leaders. 

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The secrets of big pond fishing

by Phil O'Reilly, Chief Executive, Business New Zealand

Most New Zealand businesses would acknowledge that we face an uphill battle to be globally competitive.

Our population is tiny. We have less than a handful of truly big companies. And geographically, we’re about as isolated as you can be.

These are serious challenges, and some argue the solution lies in clever cost-cutting, or in infrastructure investment.

In reality, it is our people that will make us competitive.

The Global Federation of Competitiveness Councils’ annual survey of what makes manufacturers competitive dispels the myth that cost and infrastructure are the greatest barrier to being competitive.

It is, they assert, talent-led innovation that drives competition – both at the highest levels and across all strata of an organisation.

Talent-led innovation is not just about good management – although it can’t happen without strong leadership.

It is about using the collective brains of those in an organisation, and the brains of outsiders you can call on. It is what separates a good business from a great one, and it recognises the critical human dimension of success.

A few New Zealand companies already do this, with astonishing results.

A good example is Christchurch-based manufacturing company, SKOPE Industries. A family owned business which designs and manufactures commercial refrigeration systems for global export, SKOPE employs more than 350 people and attributes its competitive advantage, and international success, to talent-led innovation.

Not only is SKOPE’s research, design and production plant the largest design and innovation centre of its kind in Australasia, it also came runner up in the innovation category at the inaugural Coca Cola Amatil Australia Supplier of the Year Awards.

There are others, and more waiting in the wings.

But because we are such a small country, we need to be clever about how we enable talent-led innovation.

We have to look within our own organisations – ensuring we, as leaders, create pipelines for talented people from all backgrounds to rise into leadership positions.

We have to look externally too, of course. But it won’t rattle too many readers to acknowledge that New Zealand has limited management capabilities. We don’t always have the right collection of expertise for certain jobs, particularly in leadership roles. This is mainly a market size issue.

So, we look off-shore, at New Zealanders living overseas, as well as non-New Zealanders keen to make the move Down Under. There’s no question that when we open our searches internationally, we tap into huge networks of talent.

But there’s a secret to doing this well.

It’s about finding someone who has the skills for the job, but who’s also able to operate effectively in a New Zealand context. They need the right combination of skills, both hard and soft, to adjust to our particular modus operandi.

Without an understanding of the New Zealand cultural setting, of how business interacts with bureaucracy, with politicians, with iwi and with its stakeholders, the most highly skilled will struggle.

The question is: how do you get the right talent to make sure you’re competitive and innovative, but at the same time make sure you get the right person for the New Zealand context.

This is salient for ex-pat Kiwis too.

Sure, we have extremely clever and accomplished New Zealanders living and working overseas and, in an ideal world, we would like to see them back in the fold of local enterprise.

But we’ve got to attract them for the right reasons – not because they have a rose-tinted perception of life in New Zealand, or because they want to wind up a successful international career with a straight home-run.

We need Kiwis who are returning to New Zealand at pace, New Zealanders who see a job here as another important step on their career path – as a means to an end, not an end in itself.

We need to think carefully about how we create pathways so that these people – and their peers – feel they can succeed and progress in New Zealand. In part, this is about tapping into a sense of collective national pride – finding technically talented people who are driven to contribute to a highly successful New Zealand.

The good news is that many of the ex-pats I speak with on my travels already share this. These are top level leaders (talent-led innovators in their own right) who are fully invested in New Zealand’s business success, even though they don’t live here or work for New Zealand companies.

They understand what it is that makes this country tick. Like our greatest industry leaders, they are fully soaked in the New Zealand conversation. These are the people we should be talking to.

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