Recently I spoke to Peter Kean – one of NZ’s most successful leaders and all-round awesome bloke. As former MD of National Foods Ltd. for Australasia, Director on a number of boards – including NZ Rugby Union, The Lion Foundation and Sanford Fisheries Ltd – Chairman of the Bank of NZ partners’ Programme for Otago/Southland and previously MD of Lion Nathan New Zealand, to say this guy knows a thing or two about leadership is kinda an understatement. Here’s what he had to say…
Suzi: I have spoken to many people over the years who have worked with you (and for you) and one of the consistent messages is that you knew how to build a strong ‘team’ culture, with exceptional loyalty. How did you go about doing that?
Peter: Great teams need to trust each other immensely. If you have trust in each other, you can then concentrate on your own roles – and by doing that, you will find great results follow.
Team culture is something that takes time, but it is definitely worth working hard at. I would like to think the loyalty we built was to our people and our brands. You can actually have some fun keeping each other honest!
Suzi: Leadership is a journey involving good times as well as navigating stormy waters. When you look back over your career, from a leadership perspective, what were some of the best times?
Peter: Achieving sustainable results is a great legacy for a leader. It is relatively easy to achieve the target one year and miss the next, so hitting the plan consistently whilst maintaining engagement with my customers and people has certainly been one of the highlights!
Suzi: Tell us about some of the toughest moments – and what you learned from them.
The toughest times for me were the ones that involved people. Changing strategy will result in changing structures to support that strategy. Restructuring is always a tough time as it results in good people having their roles made redundant. Those sorts of decisions change peoples lives. You always hope for the better, but when you care for your people, it is never an easy time. Treating people with respect and treating people how you would like to be treated yourself certainly helps and means a lot.
Suzi: How does a small town boy come to lead one of Australasia’s largest companies?
Peter: I was born in Dunedin, but moved to Bannockburn in Central Otago as a young fella. In small country towns and attending smaller schools (initially), you mix with all sorts of people – and people of different ages. That certainly helped me to deal with people from all walks of life, which I very much enjoyed, so that is a big help as well.
Suzi: Who have been some of the biggest role models in your life and what have they taught you?
Peter: Role models for me came mostly from my family; both my Mum and Dad taught me the importance of values and authenticity. All my five siblings were high achievers so that gave me the confidence to know you can achieve anything in life, if you are prepared to work hard and don’t let go of your values.
From a work perspective it would be Sir Douglas Myers. We would meet for lunch every month when I moved to Auckland, either one-on-one or with customers. He was always straight to the point, but also very supportive. If you had new ideas or could see opportunities you didn’t feel were getting a fair hearing, he made things happen.
I also have a philosophy that you learn from all leaders – even if you don’t like them. It can help you identify what you shouldn’t do when you lead people.
Suzi: What did you once believe in strongly but don’t anymore?
Peter: I used to believe as a young fella that knowledge was power, but in hindsight I was definitely wrong! You should share your knowledge, you will achieve much more.
Suzi: I recently wrote a blog on how gaining distance (even metaphorically) can create perspective. I know you are now on a number of Boards. What are you learning from assuming this different leadership role and new ‘perspective’?
Peter: I am on four Boards now and yes, it is quite different being on the other side of the Board table. However it is also very helpful to have walked several miles in the CEO’s shoes. It really does help put things in perspective. It is very unusual for anyone to front up at a Board meeting with a bad plan, the key however is the execution of that plan and that is where I try to focus my attention.
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